Cathy Roma is the founder and director of the World House Choir. CONTRIBUTED

Creating harmony: Yellow Springs woman leads World House Choir

Catherine Roma believes something special happens when words are set to music and people gather to sing.

“Singers change the air we breathe,” says the Yellow Springs woman who has been birthing community choirs since 1974. “Whether in religious spaces, on the picket line, on the front porch, or in prisons, singing together opens avenues to the heart and the soul. Singers use their whole bodies to sing, they become the instrument.”

Roma, a retired Wilmington College teacher , says it’s all about being vulnerable. For more than 40 years, she has used music to bring diverse people together to sing about issues of justice, peace and equality.

Upcoming concerts focus on civil rights leader

At the moment, Roma — founder and director of the 100-member World House Choir — is excited about the upcoming series of concerts entitled “Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream,” which will be performed in Yellow Springs, Dayton and Cincinnati Sept. 6-9. Members of her 100-member Yellow Springs-based choir, which draws members from Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Springfield, Xenia, Urbana and Cedarville, will be joined by singers from the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus, Cincinnati Men’s Chorus, the Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir and the Martin Luther King Coalition Chorale.

The concerts, which will include a seven-person band and soloists, will be accompanied by a Bayard Symposium throughout the tri-state. Rustin, an out black gay man who attended Wilberforce University for two years in the early 1930s, was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He not only introduced King to Ghandian non-violent methods of protest, but also was largely responsible for organizing the massive and historic March on Washington in 1963. He spoke at Antioch College in the mid 1940s and met Coretta Scott King there, before either of them met Dr. King.

Rustin was arrested for sitting in the front of the bus 13 years before Rosa Parks did and served his time on a chain gang.

The 57-minute oratorio, written by Cincinnati composer Steve Milloy, is being conducted by Jeremy Winston, head of Choral Activities at Central State University and director of the Jeremy Winston Chorale. The final Cincinnati concert will be directed by Christian Miller.

“Milloy’s work contains a rich variety of musical genres from African-American spirituals to reggae to folk music to rap and dramatic spoken word,” says Roma. “Rustin had a beautiful tenor voice and one movement opens with a recording of his singing the spiritual, ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.’”

We chatted with Roma about her life and work.

Q. How did your Quaker education impact your life? What first attracted you to choral work? 

The biggest gift my parents gave me was to send me to a Quaker school. I was born and raised Catholic, but the Quaker education I got has been the most impactful thing in my life. I am a convinced Friend, meaning I converted from Catholicism to Quakerism when I was 17. The environment at Germantown Friends School, in Philadelphia, had everything to do with teaching the whole child. Not only did I have remarkable music teachers, I was exposed to a wide range of experiences inside and outside the classroom that awakened my curiosity and encouraged my creativity. It was a gift that has kept on giving.

I started out as a pianist. I love the piano and music for the piano. But as I finished my first year in a masters program in piano performance, I realized I was not cut out to practice alone in a practice room for eight to 10 hours a day. I am a people person and I love all kinds of music.

As choristers work toward performance together, singing the truth of our lives, we viscerally feel the truth of a phrase once used often in our country: “E pluribus unum, from the many one.”

What caused you to start a women’s choir?

As I entered the field of conducting, I wondered where the women composers were. I wondered where the lyrics were that told of my experience. The top 10 hits — or 100 — did not speak to the life I was living or the life I wanted to live. I wanted to empower women’s voices, including my own.

Women’s choirs have been at the bottom of the choral hierarchy. They have not had the status of mixed choirs, of men’s choirs, of boy choirs, or children’s choirs.

The first women’s choir I started in Philadelphia just celebrated a 43rd anniversary. The second women’s choir I founded — Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir — just completed their 35th season. These choirs have longevity because they are singing music that is relevant. Organizations thrive if they have a purpose. Women empowering themselves through singing songs that express their hopes, fears, and loves — music about raising healthy children, or addressing the violence in our lives, or women’s health concerns, or getting equal pay for equal work, or singing about structural inequalities — these choirs still exist because audiences support what they hear.

It has been important to me to commission works for women’s voices and I have commissioned 150-plus original compositions and arrangements by a diverse array of women composers.

How did you happen to start a choir in a prison?

When I was hired to teach at Wilmington College, the dean of Correctional Education knew of my choral work in Cincinnati and asked me to start a choir as part of the Fine Arts requirement in music for degree programs then in existence in prison. UMOJA Men’s Chorus was born in 1993. UMOJA means unity and it is the first principle of Kwanzaa.

Since 1993, I have been conducting choirs in prison across southwest Ohio. It is important to me because since the start, I have seen people hungry to learn, to transform their lives, change repeated patterns to positive learning outcomes. We have recorded four CDs, with proceeds going to charities across southwest Ohio.

UMOJA competed in the World Choir Games in Cincinnati in 2012 when judges from the Netherlands, Germany and Cincinnati came to the prison to hear the men sing in two categories — gospel and spirituals — and they won gold! They recently — along with the women’s choir I conduct and three other prison choirs in Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota — performed in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in NYC produced by Heartbeat Opera. Their recorded voices were stitched together as the six prison choirs sang their assigned segments of the “Prisoner’s Chorus,” a riveting part of Beethoven’s only opera. Stories appeared in “The New York Times,” “The New Yorker,” (and) “The Wall Street Journal.”

I am excited that my newest prison choir, KUJI Men’s Chorus at Marion Correctional, is working very hard to prepare the concert version of “Les Mis.” KUJI is short for Kujichagalia, which is the second principle of Kwanzaa and mean self determination, we will determine who we are. UBUNTU Men’s Choir performed “Les Mis” in June; they are the more experienced choir because many of the men have sung with me from five to 25 years.

What’s next for you?

HOPE Thru Harmony Women’s Choir at Dayton Correctional includes insiders and outsiders. We are busy envisioning our next project that will include music and spoken word.

The World House Choir looks ahead to our project for next year in collaboration with the Gem City Market in Dayton and Agraria in Yellow Springs. Our focus will be on singing about our environment, food, soil, water, air, and environmental justice, all to honor the magnificent planet we share by coming together to sing “Missa Gaia,” Paul Winter’s brilliant Earth Mass.

National acclaim

An autobiographical essay by Roma will appear in the October issue of the “Choral Journal,” the official publication of the American Choral Directors Association. In the introduction Roma is labeled a “choral pioneer” of both the feminist choral movement and the prison-choir movement.

“As Catherine Roma spends her retirement conducting four social-justice choirs,” the magazine states, “she challenges us to use our practice to heal a broken world.”

HOW TO GO:

What: The Ohio premiere of Bayard Rustin’s “The Man Behind the Dream,” presented by the World House Choir.

When/Where: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, and Saturday, Sept. 8, at Antioch College’s Foundry Theater, 920 Corry St., Yellow Springs. At 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 7, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 125 N. Wilkinson St., Dayton. At 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9, at House Of Joy Christian Ministries, 5912 Hamilton Ave., Cincinnati.

Tickets: Free with donations appreciated.

Those interested in joining the World House Choir should check out www.worldhoursechoir.org

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