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University Choir Director Helps Give a Voice to Dallas’ Homeless

Dr. Jonathan Palant, director of the University Choir at UT Dallas, also leads the Dallas Street Choir, which is composed of the city's homeless. The group gives concerts in the community and has performed in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. If you don't see the video, watch it on Vimeo.

UT Dallas choir director Dr. Jonathan Palant is on a mission to help people through music. But his work doesn’t stop at the UT Dallas campus. The musician also leads a choir made up of the homeless who live on the streets of Dallas. 

Palant said music is an ideal way to provide respite to both students and the homeless. 

“The UT Dallas student comes to choir looking for a creative outlet — to escape chemistry or mathematics for just a short while. The Street Choir member comes to escape the cold, looking to escape what lies ahead for their day — or perhaps, what doesn’t. In that regard, they are very similar,” he said. 

Palant singing with the Dallas Street Choir in rehearsal

Palant said every ensemble he conducts has a different attitude about it, because each person comes to the experience with a different journey in life.

Palant, who began working at UT Dallas in 2016, conducts the University Choir, teaches a music appreciation class and soon will lead the University’s Chamber Singers. He also leads music at Kessler United Methodist Church in Oak Cliff, the Temple Shalom Jewish congregation in Dallas and the Credo Community Choir, and serves as a consultant for the Dallas Independent School District. He previously was the artistic director of the Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas. 

Every Wednesday morning, however, Palant can be found at the Stewpot, a downtown Dallas social services and meal organization, greeting dozens of homeless people as they prepare to sing in the Dallas Street Choir, which Palant founded more than three years ago. 

“When you’re on the street, your obligations are to find shelter and to find food. There often isn’t anything else on your calendar. What we offer is a standing appointment. And singers honor that appointment week in and week out,” Palant said. “When Wednesday mornings come, members are ready to sing. We take it very seriously.” 

One of the singers, Carmelo Cabrera, lives in various shelters in downtown Dallas. He said the group is like a family and helps build members’ self-esteem. 

“It’s an outlet. Not only to get away from the cold, but to sing and let people know that we are somebody. Our motto is, ‘homeless, not voiceless.’ And it does that for each individual,” Cabrera said. 

A choir member follows along during rehearsal

“These are the people that you might ignore when they ask you for a dollar at the gas station. What you don’t see is the community, the brotherhood, the support system. You don’t see the talents and the love that they have in their hearts,” Palant said of the Dallas Street Choir members.

With support from Dallas businesses, concert presenters and individual donors, the Dallas Street Choir regularly performs throughout the city and recently toured the northeastern United States, with a stop at Carnegie Hall in New York City

Most of the choir members stay in shelters at night, a quarter of them live on the street, and a few have found housing through public funding or with a relative. The rehearsal room is packed each week, with between 80 and 100 attendees, a majority of whom attend two to three times a month. 

While the Dallas Street Choir has an incentive program that provides a $2 bill to each attendee at the end of rehearsals and special inducements for concerts, Palant believes most attend because they get a lot out of being in the ensemble. 

“We put our heart and soul into this. I love what they do and they love what they do. And that’s contagious. Overall, it’s a passion project for us all,” he said. 

Palant acknowledges there are some participants with mental illness and addictions to drugs and alcohol, but said such individuals are always welcome to attend rehearsals, as long as they are sober. 

“Everyone is welcome with or without mental illness. Quite frankly, this rule applies to every choir I direct. One of the wonderful things about singing is the inclusive nature of that act. Everybody is needed and everybody is equal,” Palant said.

Palant said the University Choir reflects the same values of inclusion, camaraderie and enjoyment. He hopes to see growth in the University’s choir program, which is open to all students, no matter their ability or their level in school.

“University Choir is a 1-credit class that offers a musical outlet, no homework and the opportunity to sing some of the greatest music in the world, while experiencing cultural enrichment,” he said.

Palant expects the University Choir to visit the Dallas Street Choir sometime this semester, so members of both groups get to know one another and share their passion for singing.

Palant conducting the Dallas Sreet Choir in rehearsal

Approximately 80 to 100 singers show up each Wednesday morning to participate in the Dallas Street Choir rehearsals. There are rules and incentives, but many members say they come for the camaraderie and enjoyment.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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