Director, Harmony Project
By Kate LiebersPublished January 1, 2013
David Brown has cultivated a legion of musical philanthropists.
He is founder and creative director of the Harmony Project. His mission: to unite voices as well as people in the community who might not otherwise ever meet. Anyone, regardless of musical talent, is welcomed, as long as they can devote their time to volunteer service as well as choir practice.
The result has been music to an altruist’s ears. In the first year, Brown said its 100 members contributed a total of 400 hours of community service. The first December concert at the Lincoln Theater was sold out, with supporters donating 1,500 toys and 100 bicycles in the span of four weeks. When the group wanted to raise enough money for a piano, they collected the necessary $16,000 within two weeks.
To listen in on a Monday choir session is to hear hundreds of voices come together for a mission that is larger than the sum of its parts.
Could you explain, in you own words, what the Harmony Project is?
If it’s in my own words and I don’t have to do the corporate speak, I would say it’s what I wish the community looked like all the time. … When you really pay attention to it, it’s a cultural shift in the way that people relate to each other. And it’s providing an opportunity for people whose paths would have never crossed to intersect. In order for those paths to cross, you have to build an intersection. Whether or not we are educated or undereducated, employed or unemployed, homeless or housed, CEOs or people living under a bridge – we’re all going to hang out and sing and do something cool together.
How did you come up with the idea of combining music with community service?
I knew that I could take a group of singers and mold them into something. But what I didn’t want to have happen is for people to take for granted that opportunity of being on a stage, because not everyone gets to sing on a stage. But for me, putting in this idea that there has to be something attached to it, something everyone can do and is of no cost to anyone, because I don’t want anyone to spend a dime to be a part of Harmony Project; I want to treat everyone equally. So if you put the service component in, you say, this is what you have to do to earn that place standing on that historic stage, in front of a packed house, where everyone is just going to be cheering on your every note. Not everyone gets to have those life experiences so, in return, I think the least we can do is to help build a house, serve some food, serve some shifts here and there, and do it with people we would have never met before. It is a win-win!
How do you see the choir impacting the members’ own lives?
I don’t have to see it; I hear it. … The human experience is what I hear about: people saying that they have been afraid to get up in front of people and exposing themselves, but they’re standing up there and everyone’s staring at them and they have to move in rhythm and they’ve never been in a choir before – I’ve heard people say it’s a dream come true. [Others say] they used to sing years ago but they had to give it up because they had to take corporate jobs, and then they got unemployed, and then they got depressed and yada, yada, yada. Then, suddenly they hear about this group, and they didn’t have to audition, and they get in and they’re singing on stages that they’ve never sung on before, even when they were singers. They’re having this second kind of childhood where they have the opportunity to live out a dream. You cannot put price tags on those things. You are getting people an experience that helps them feel more connected to their community. And help feeling more connected to each other.
What type of people do you see participating in this program?
If you went to downtown Columbus, and went about 40 or 50 feet off the ground at the busiest intersection and you said, “Hey, everybody. Look up,” and you snapped a photo, that’s kind of what the Harmony Project looks like. You’re going to see everything from CEOs to those who are desperately clinging on to unemployment and thinking, “What am I going to do?” You have people living in shelters. It’s the diversity. When most people think diversity, they think skin tones. In this organization, the skin tones are the least diverse part of the people who participate. And that’s what so fascinating about it: there are just so many different experiences all in that one place.
What inspired you to start this project in the first place, and why in Columbus?
Growing up, my family was middle- to lower-middle class. I didn’t really have a lot of options like a lot of other kids. But then there were always kids who had even fewer options than I did – and some who seemed to have none. I remember I always felt like, not that I could solve the problem, but wanted to make sure that everyone was included. That was because of my own experience of hiding for so many years as a gay man. And not being able to be open about who I was. That affected what I became, because I wanted everyone to be included who wanted to be included. Then I started doing this work, it was in those first few years in New York, belonging to other groups like this, that I started to go, ‘Wow, this is just so much not about me.’ I thought it was about me wanting to be able to be me, and no, it’s just about inclusion itself. It’s a state of mind. And it was great to kind of see that happen.
Well years later, I’m back in Columbus on a three-month gig, I was living in Los Angeles, and I was talking to some friends about a Harmony Project that I had been kind of developing in Los Angeles and they said I should try it there. I said Columbus isn’t diverse enough, and they said, yes it is – when you consider that my Columbus experience had been Bexley and Capital University, you would not blame me in thinking that Columbus was not diverse – So, I made a couple calls. [I] decided that every cent would go to helping [Afterschool] All-Stars, a non-profit. We would not make a dime off of it. We put up the money to rent the Lincoln Theater, for the band and the salaries – every dollar was able to help another non-profit to help them that season. In addition, we announced that we were doing a toy drive.
In ten weeks, we went from the meeting Oct. 1 in Columbus to ten weeks later, standing on the stage of the Lincoln Theater, and sold out both nights with 1,500 toys donated and 100 bicycles donated in four weeks and four hours of community service times 100 people. All put into projects in a matter of 10 weeks and we went, wow, people have a craving to use this instant-gratification mindset of our society and they are craving to use that in a positive way.
Your choir has a reputation for selling out shows; what is the key to generating that kind of awareness?
You create awareness by making sure that the people who are performing are really proud about what they are about to present. If they really have a vested interest in it, they are going to make sure that their friends and their neighbors and people they know who would really get something out of it, are there. It starts as their experience. So when they stand on that stage, it’s not about them. It’s about the people sitting in front of them.
And Columbus … what is it about this Midwestern city that led you to doing this project here?
I would just say that I have such an affection for this city. It was the first place I came to when I was running away from myself and trying to come to terms with who I was – in my earlier years, my youth. And it just kind of unknowingly embraced me. I was only here for about five years, but I felt like I grew up here.
We’re starting to see Columbus start to have it’s own identity. My personal goal is to stop everyone from adding the word Ohio after they say Columbus. I just say Columbus. I don’t think Columbus, Ohio. So when I’m traveling and I say I’m from Columbus and people say, “Ohio?” I say, “Mm Hmm,” like, “You should have known that.”