The Harmony Project

There’s harmony in the air this time of year -- what better reason to introduce you to the man behind the Harmony Project? Jane Pauley reports: 

You might say David Brown has harmony in his heart.  It’s usually on his calendar, too, such as at his weekly choir practice at the Ohio Reformatory for Women near Columbus.

Across town, Brown’s 225-member community choir, the Harmony Project, is rehearsing, too.  Founded seven years ago, nobody has ever had to audition. But practice makes perfect.

“Tenors, you’re still not there. I’m not going to lie to you -- still not there,” Brown said.

Pauley asked, “It’s one thing to sing and carry the tune -- and then to sing like I saw them singing. How do you get them to do that?”

“It’s the combination of folks with a church background -- when I say ‘church,’ I don’t mean church. I mean Church!” Brown laughed. “You know, folks that come in from Church background, they come in knowin’ how to sing. They come in not afraid.”

“Even the Presbyterians?”

“Well, that’s not this kinda Church,” he laughed. “And just for the record, both are fine, okay?”

As music director Reggie Jackson and others figured out, the Harmony Project is partly about music -- but all about harmony. “David told me you didn’t have to audition to participate. I just thought, ‘Okay, he must be crazy!’” Jackson laughed.

“Music may have gotten us in the door, but music is not necessarily what keeps us here,” said Roni Burkes. “And it has really opened up opportunities for us to get to know each other. I think we’re a lot more alike than we realize. You know, you got a warden sitting next to a CEO.”

“It’s like a joke,” laughed Tom Krouse: “It’s, ‘A rabbi, a warden, and a CEO…’”

It’s no joke. Burkes is the warden at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.  Tom Krouse is the CEO of Donato’s Pizza.  And Sharon Mars is a rabbi.

Choir members Jen Robinson and Janae Miller have a special relationship.

“It instantly became a family for me,” Miller said. “Being blind, I’ve been in choirs all my life, and I’ve always looked for someone to help me. ‘Cause I’m not only blind, I’m hearing impaired in both ears.”

Which is where Robinson comes in. For six years she’s stood by Miller’s side with a helping hand.

“My hand is constantly on Janae’s leg,” Robinson said. “So a tap is just to keep the beat. I’ll do kind of a long, drawn-out line on her thigh for holding a note out. But I’m incredibly grateful to her for having this opportunity to kind of hear music differently.”

Pauley asked, “How much do the two of you have in common?”

“Probably not a whole lot,” Miller replied. “We both love music!”

And that’s the whole point of the Harmony Project. In its diversity, a community can find harmony. The only requirement to be part of the group is a commitment to community service. 

There is a waiting list of 400.

“They must serve a certain number of hours in the community,” said David Brown. “I learned by being engaged with people who were different from me. All I want is the world to just keep moving in the direction.”

Brown’s vision of inclusiveness might date back to his youth in Louisiana, where he was, in many ways, an outsider.

“In my senior year, we moved to a school where I was the only, at that time, white boy in my class,” he said. “And then in college, that’s when I started to come to terms with my sexuality. And so that made me feel isolated and separated, and like I didn’t fit in.”

But he says that in Columbus, he found the community he was looking for -- and a perfect home for the Harmony Project.  

“To me,” he said, “this choir is a snapshot of the greater Columbus community.  This isn’t us trying to show the world how it should be; this is us showing the world how we are.”

And who we are, which includes everyone. 

“It really has been a spiritual experience for me,” said Mars. “Every single time we’re in this room and we’re rehearsing with David, I call him ‘my Rabbi.’  He’s just masterful, I think, at pulling these sparks out of us that are really holy. I think the humanity at its best is what harmony is.”

And that brings us to their one-night-only, sold-out performance last month at Columbus’ landmark Ohio Theater, where some surprise guests joined the choir on stage: 16 inmates released for the evening from the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

“It takes chutzpah, courage, whatever you wanna call it, to stand on that stage in a prison uniform and T-shirt, where you normally feel very judged by people,” Brown said. “They didn’t feel judged. And when that audience responded to those women, and they began to stand, and I could feel what was happening in them -- Oh, wow!” he said, tearing up.

“So could I,” Pauley said.

“That’s great. Then we did our job.”

    
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