Lynnette Carr-Hicks never wanted to be a teacher.
As a young woman growing up in Westbury, Carr-Hicks, now 54, had her sights set on a career in music. She studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and worked with the likes of Phil Collins, Al Jarreau and Lalah Hathaway, and she appeared in Broadway and off-Broadway musicals.
But after starting a children’s choir in Westbury, she was inspired to switch careers, ultimately earning her master’s degree in music education from LIU Post in Brookville. And 14 years ago, Carr-Hicks started the acclaimed Uniondale High School Show Choir, Rhythm of the Knight (a nod to the school’s mascot.) She turned it into a nationally recognized powerhouse that has performed on the “Today” show, CNN and Steve Harvey’s talk show, as well as at Brooklyn Nets, New York Mets and New York Giants games. Last year, members performed at Carnegie Hall as part of the 15 Days of Light program.
However, the choir is much more than just its accolades, say students and school officials. Thanks to Carr-Hicks, over the years it has become a safe haven for hundreds of kids, where they are pushed to be the best version of themselves.
She has “transformed lives and opened so many new doors through her work with the choir,” said Uniondale schools Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil. “Her medium is music, but the lessons she teaches extend far beyond any notes on a page. She teaches pride, confidence, community, selflessness and a commitment to excellence. We treasure her.”
SINGING, DANCING AND RAISING MONEY
Carr-Hicks’ teaching career started in 2000 at Westbury High School, where she said she ran the show choir and taught choir and Music in Our Lives, a music appreciation course. In 2007, she moved to Uniondale High School, teaching choir, drama, Music in Our Lives and piano. In 2010, all those experiences came together, setting the stage for her to create Uniondale’s show choir.
That first year, as Carr-Hicks started entering the group into competitions, was eye-opening.
“The competitive show choir world is its own world,” she said. “I saw the other groups’ sets and professional costumes, whereas me and parents had sewn costumes and we didn’t have a band or elaborate sets.”
Carr-Hicks said she slowly began building the choir, working with the 60 students to perfect their singing and dancing routines and raising money to buy everything they needed to be competitive, from costumes to sets.
“I had to get the kids and parents to understand what a show choir was and how it works. When we first entered competition, I entered us on a lower division and some parents were upset, but I wanted us to get our feet wet,” Carr-Hicks said.
The choir is all about themes, be it The Cotton Club, “Back to the Future” or the music of artists like Michael Jackson, Demi Lovato or gospel’s Hezekiah Walker. Dance styles range from hip-hop to jazz and tap.
“We have our own style. I like to wow with everything — the singing, the dancing, the sets,” Carr-Hicks said.
She has set the bar high for getting and staying in the choir. Students must audition, maintain good grades and consistently attend practice.
“I try to teach professionalism and how to tough it out so they have survival skills that will carry them on any path they choose,” she said.
The hard work has paid off: Carr-Hicks estimates the choir has won about 50 trophies in the past 14 years. In 2018, it was grand champion at Fame’s National Show Choir Championship Series in Chicago — the first Black and Latino show choir to win the top prize, according to Carr-Hicks.
“The show choir stands as an undeniable emblem of excellence within our community — showcasing perfect pitch, impeccably timed dance moves and the unmistakable Uniondale Show Choir swag! The show choir is a gift,” said Hempstead Deputy Supervisor Dorothy Goosby, who represents Uniondale.
For senior Cody Dumpson, 17, the choir — and Carr-Hicks — have become like family since he joined in 2021.
“Ms. Carr is a second mom to me,” he said. “She pushes me to go beyond. She’s taught me to be a leader and a follower, to think on my feet. I love show choir.”
That’s not to say it isn’t hard: Members practice for hours every day after school, with time set aside for homework. During winter break and when a competition is coming up, they will sometimes practice from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“I have three AP classes,” Dumpson said. “I find a way to balance them with long practices. We learn time management because if we don’t do well in school we can’t participate.”
Carr-Hicks said she asks teachers to let her know if a choir member is struggling academically, and she holds students accountable. “I will go and sit in their classroom and see if they are doing the work,” she said.
Jasmine McKay, who graduated from Uniondale High School in 2019, was in the choir her sophomore through senior years. The experience was transformative, she said.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m doing what I’m doing well, we all have to be on point. You’re only as good as the weakest link,” she said.
And as a leader in the choir, McKay said, “I had to be the example. If I tell them to do something, I had to do it, too. I had to run up six flights of stairs to train, too. By senior year they knew I didn’t play. You have to earn respect and show people you have their best interests at heart.”
2018 TRIUMPH AT THE NATIONALS
McKay, 22, said she was impressed by Carr-Hicks. “She heard a lot of nos — there’s no money for the choir, you all can’t make it. She proved a lot of people wrong,” said McKay, of Hempstead.
When the choir was invited to the nationals in 2018, for example, it was a surprise and not in the budget. They needed to raise $25,000, quickly.
“We had about a week to figure out where to get the money,” McKay recalled. “She [Carr-Hicks] pulled stuff out of the hat, we raised money. I couldn’t believe within days we were on the bus to Chicago.”
That they would win the nationals was storybook perfect. “We went ballistic, screaming, running around. We didn’t expect to be there. I’ll never forget that day,” said McKay, who plans to do graduate studies in biology and chemistry at Howard University to prepare for a career in medicine.
Francesca Zamor, who was in the choir from 2018 to 2020, said when the show choir came to her middle school to perform, she knew she wanted to join. She was a theater kid and had dance experience but, even so, joining the choir was tough.
“I thought I knew what full-out meant,” Zamor, now 21, said. “But she took me to another level, learning breathing techniques, to push notes, to be disciplined, to carry ourselves a certain way. We couldn’t wear regular clothes on the airplane, but dresses and slacks. There was no fooling around, we had to represent.”
Zamor recalled how some boys that were “troublesome” changed due to the positive environment of the choir. She said she plans to pursue performance arts professionally and is headed to Florida for the Disney College Program, an internship in which she will work for Disney and be permitted to audition for a role at one of its resorts or theme parks.
“I’m dreaming of being on television or Broadway, acting, singing, dancing,” she said.
And she knows her dream could come true. After all, it’s happened before: Cary Lamb Jr., a former choreographer and student leader with the choir who calls Carr-Hicks one of his mentors, joined the North American tour of the percussive theatrical show “Stomp” in 2017.
According to state figures, 68% of the students at Uniondale High School are economically disadvantaged and 3% are homeless. Assistant Principal Janine Bradley, whose daughters have performed with the choir, said she has seen students in the choir turn their lives around.
“I have witnessed young people with no experience, with low self-esteem and low academic performance, be motivated to perform in huge crowds, bring their grades up and graduate on time,” she said.
She credits much of that change to Carr-Hicks’ influence.
“There is something magical that happens when a child steps into Ms. Carr-Hicks’ energy force. She becomes an extension of their mothers. She feeds them all that she has, not just for the choir, but so that each child feels seen, heard, loved and appreciated,” Bradley said. “It is rare to hear teachers openly say to students, ‘I love you,’ but she does so without hesitation. Her only expectation of reciprocity is that they love themselves enough to see their own greatness.”
Carr-Hicks’ devotion to her students was on full display during the past school year, when she underwent brain surgery.
“They didn’t know what was wrong with me. . . . I was bleeding from the brain,” she said.
Carr-Hicks, who has since returned to work, was out of school for three months, in addition to many doctor appointments that kept her busy. But she remained committed to her kids.
During auditions, Carr-Hicks said she watched over Zoom.
“When I was in the hospital, I had a class with the show choir from my bed on my computer,” she said. “I just wanted to see them. We’re like family.”
REBUILDING AFTER SETBACKS
As she recovers, the choir, too, is rebuilding. During the pandemic, when performances were on hold for two years, membership dipped from around 50 students to about 20 now. Carr-Hicks believes as the choir continues to perform, the buzz will again stir student interest.
And later this year, Carr-Hicks said she expects to move forward with plans to make a movie about the choir with Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Partners. It was put on hold during the writer’s strike but, she said, “This is still very much happening.”
Carr-Hicks is excited for the future — the movie, as well as the national show choir competition in Orlando in March. But most of all, she’s looking forward to singing, dancing and celebrating life with her students.
“These kids make me smile every single day,” she said.