More than two hundred singers – nearly all of them amateurs – will crowd the stage at the historic Ohio Theatre in downtown Columbus tonight, for a sold out performance that they’ll do only once. But there’s more to this group than just the music.
Simply put, the Harmony Project is a choir. The 223 members have gathered for a technical rehearsal for their upcoming show, in which they’ll sing choral versions of pop songs as well as classic gospel and show tunes. For this performance, they’re also joined by other performers – the student dance group Momentum, Opera Columbus soprano Laura Portune, and a brass trio.
But the Harmony Project is also more than a choir. Founder and creative director David Brown says it’s a group of hundreds of people from different backgrounds, with different skills, ages, and beliefs. But Brown said they have one thing in common – a love of music. “The idea is, I’m going to turn you, in 10 weeks, into a choir. And you might never have been on a stage before, you might not have ever sung before, but you’re going to be in front of a packed house in an amazing theatre like the Ohio Theatre. But in return for that experience, you’re going to work with people who are very different than you are," Brown said. "You’re going to be out in the community planting trees, serving meals, learning about needs in the community. So the idea is for Republicans and Democrats to not talk politics, but to talk community need.”
The Harmony Project has been doing that for seven years, since Brown came back to Columbus after working in New York and LA. The Harmony Project started with a concert that raised money for an after-school program and a toy drive for needy kids. For the last four years, they’ve been at Columbus’ South High School, where Brown says nearly a quarter of the students stay after school to help Harmony Project members clean up around the neighborhood. The group works in two low income housing developments, working with people transitioning from homelessness – but Brown said it’s still with that same mission, of asking everyone to work toward a bigger goal. “What we do is go in and say, you too can serve. You too can give back, even if you don’t feel like you don’t have anything to give, you can give," said Brown. "And putting them into service and getting them engaged and involved, we see this change in this personality. Their social workers tell us they’re more outgoing, that they’re more communicative.”
The group includes some well-known names and voices, such as Franklin County Board of Elections Director Ed Leonard and Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Kimberly Cocroft, who has a solo in this show.
And the group has branched out into more public service – working with the inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. Brown says around a hundred women are now singing with the Tapestry program, and the Inside Out Choir, which has performed with the Harmony Project. And they don’t just sing for themselves. Brown said once a month, they Skype with children in a hospice in South Africa. “These women are women who are torn apart from their families – and we don’t ask why they’re there. That’s just not what the point is. The point is, they’re there. And so, while they’re there, serving a sentence, can we also find a way to have them feel like they’re serving a purpose, so that it’s not just time that they’re serving, but that it’s something that they’re giving back,” said Brown.
And the Harmony Project is growing. Students with South High Harmony also perform, and each year take a long-distance trip backed by the choir. A member started Kids in Harmony, an after school group for 4th through 7th graders that also sings and does service projects. And its work hasn’t gone unnoticed – the Harmony Project won one of nine Governor’s Awards for the Arts this year. The group will perform a brand new show in May.