By Felicity Turner
See behind the scenes into the daily lives of the living composers featured in The Stay At Home Choir Album Project.
Continuing our series giving you exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the lives and practices of our Album Project composers, we ask – can you compose alongside a full-time job? Can you still get your work published, and gain a large international following? What if you also have a family?
Well, you’ll be glad to hear the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘Yes’.
In this article we meet the brilliant American choral composer Rosephanye Powell, composer of ‘Arise, Beloved’ which features in our Album Project, running this month. We bring you an insider view of the daily routines, habits, and practices that have allowed her to build a successful career as a composer – among other things.
About Rosephanye Powell
Rosephanye began her musical training as a lyric soprano with her heart set on a recital career. But thanks to declining recital opportunities and the reality that sopranos were “a dime a dozen”, she was advised to diversify her skills. Harsh advice, you might think, but Rosephanye was grateful, as it led her to her other passion – teaching.
Composing came later, and through necessity at first – creating music that would inspire her students to connect with their heritage. Although her love of creating new music didn’t come as a surprise. She recalls constantly adding new lines to songs in her head when she was very young, and later, joining with three friends to improvise songs which they would sing everywhere around their high school campus – much to everyone else’s annoyance!
Rosephanye now serves as the Coordinator of Voice Studies at Auburn University, in Alabama, USA. A role she adores, and which keeps her extremely busy. But despite fitting composing around her other work as a singer, voice coordinator, voice teacher, and choral director, her international reputation continues to grow as choirs everywhere fall in love with her approachable style. And when you meet her it’s clear why. Rosephanye takes the knowledge gained from all areas of her work and feeds them into her composition, allowing her to know what will work best for the conductor, singer, and listener alike.
Find out for yourself how she juggles her different roles, feeding them seamlessly into one another to the benefit of everyone who comes into contact with her music.
A Day in the Life of Rosephanye Powell
6:30am – Wake up
Normally I’m up around 6.30. I get up and have some little personal quiet time. When my daughters were younger I would make sure they were up and off to school, but my youngest daughter just graduated from high school and my oldest daughter’s in nursing school so we’re doing the empty nest thing right now. I have mixed emotions about having an empty nest. Waking up a little later each day and with fewer responsibilities is liberating. However, the quiet house takes a bit of getting used to!
My husband, he’s the breakfast person. So he will get up and do oatmeal with blueberries or strawberries for us. He will make a protein shake, and I might do a boiled egg. Then he sends me out the door with that. I’ll eat as I’m driving to the office, and by the time I get there I have a sunny face on!
8am – Office Hour
I serve as the coordinator of voice studies at Auburn University. So, my day begins with checking my emails, then meeting with students who are having personal or educational issues. Quite a bit of my day is spent doing this actually – I’ll try to help them to chart life, and to sit and cry with them. Although these moments can be stressful, they can be the most precious to me during the day. It feels good to have the sense that I am making a difference – contributing positively into the lives of my students. Often, they refer to me as their “mom away from home”. I consider that an honor and am humbled by such regard.
9am – Voice lessons
After a couple of these meetings I generally start my voice lessons. When I teach I’m always wanting my students to delve into the poetry and figure out what the poet is saying – his or her story. And if it’s a good composer how the composer is telling that story through music. I think that’s different from just focusing on singing – it becomes storytelling. As a composer I’m always thinking about how to do this too.
My life as a composer impacts how I teach voice, and even how I sing. And although I have a busy day ahead and won’t have time to compose until later tonight, my school work feeds back into my composition. I think that being a voice teacher helps me to compose vocal lines that are healthy and don’t keep the voices in the extreme part of the range. I try to compose lines that are singable and interesting, rather than just artistic. But that’s because I know what I want to sing.
I try to compose lines that are singable and interesting, rather than just artistic. But that’s because I know what I want to sing.
12pm – Lunch/Office hour
12 til 1 is supposed to be my lunch hour, but somebody is normally stopping at my office for something so I often have to work through it. I try to eat a good breakfast instead!
My wonderful husband serves as Director of Choral Activities at Auburn, and he will sometimes go and pick up lunch from one of the Middle Eastern restaurants and bring me something that I’ve told him I love. Today he brings me Pad Thai, which I eat real quick while addressing whatever needs to be addressed with students or other faculty. Then I head to conduct my Women’s Chorus.
1pm – Women’s Chorus
The Women’s Chorus started meeting back on campus in March. We started with masks which were a bit of a boundary between us, but the last couple of weeks we’ve been able to take the masks off. It’s been so special. There were no complaints in choir – everybody was so happy to be there.
I hope that as we all get back together we remember the beauty of being a community of singers – that there’s nothing else like it. It should be our goal – not to make it about us. As a community, what we bring can uplift and encourage each other. If I’ve had a bad day and I’m standing next to you, and your joy is infectious, I’m forgetting what I experienced at work, you know?
I was always singing with choirs. I was brought up to believe that we are put on this earth to serve others, rather than to live lives that are self-consumed. So, choral singing was always a part of my experience, although as a soloist many people questioned it early on. The thing is, I like the community of choir. You’re joining together with one purpose – to bring some joy to the world or to share a story of a given poet and composer.
Being a choral director also impacts my composition in that, again, I’m working with singers all the time. In some ways, they get to be my test choir. My Women’s Chorus will be the first ones to learn a lot of my songs. There have been songs that I’ve dedicated to my choirs, but a lot of times it’s the commissions that I’m trying out on them and if they like them, I feel pretty confident. I’m observing their behaviour to know, “Okay, I need to scrap this”, or, “They like this, this is good!”.
I like the community of choir. You’re joining together with one purpose – to bring some joy to the world or to share a story of a given poet and composer.
2pm – Faculty Meeting
The faculty meetings can be the longest part of the day. We discuss policy matters, administrative changes, announcements, student concerns, upcoming performances, promotion and tenure, and on and on. Much of it can be a bit boring, and at other times can lead to disagreements. But it’s all part of making the student experience run more smoothly.
3pm – Gospel Choir & Band
From 3 to 5 my husband and I work with the Gospel Choir and Band. We co-conduct the choir and I play piano and lead the band.
When I first graduated with my Masters in Voice from Westminster Choir College, I taught at Georgia Southern University where I was asked to lead the Gospel Choir. Gospel is only one type of sacred music in the African American experience and so I wanted the students to sing the music that gave birth to gospel, the African American spiritual. But they felt like it was old, dead music from slavery that was sad. They wanted to rock with upbeat gospel music. And so I went in, arranged a spiritual and put a gospel piano accompaniment under it. The kids loved it!
That’s really how I got started – groups kept calling on me to arrange and compose songs for their concerts, or Black History Month. At Florida State University, where my husband and I worked with the gospel choir, we taught them the spiritual that I arranged with the gospel piano accompaniment. One of the faculty conductors, Rodney Eichenberger, heard the song at a concert and said, “Hey, have you put that on paper and thought about getting it published?” and so I wrote it down, he submitted it to a publisher, and it all went on from there.
Jump forward to today, and the Gospel Choir at Auburn performs my pieces too. I also compose songs in the African experience based on the composed arrangements of African songs and original works based on African folk songs. So, you know, in my composition I try to cover the diaspora. I also compose works based on poetry by African American poets such as Langston Hughes, that talk about the African American experience.
Today we’re working on my octavo ‘To Sit and Dream’, setting a poem by Langston Hughes entitled ‘To You’. The students really connect to this song because the message addresses the times in which we find ourselves. In the poem, Hughes expressed that he dreams of a world “outside our problem world”. He dreamed of “vast horizons of the soul, of dreams made whole, unfettered, free. All you who are dreamers too, help me make our world anew”. Some students become emotional as we sing the words, “I reach out my hand to you”. We stop and discuss this because many of them feel overwhelmed by the problems in our world – from Covid to race relations, depression, loneliness – you name it. As we discuss what it means to reach out our hands to one another, the students become hopeful that they can make a difference through love, kindness and caring for others.
I try to be diverse in sharing the experiences of African Americans. Just being a voice, not the voice, but a voice for African Americans, and African American poets – especially women poets. I also compose works on poems by non-Black poets because the poems are just beautiful, and it doesn’t matter the race or culture or nationality of the poet. I’ve set Spanish poems in the style of Fernando Obradors for choral singers. I think the students value that my music runs the gamut.
I try to be diverse in sharing the experiences of African Americans. Just being a voice, not the voice, but a voice for African Americans, and African American poets – especially women poets.
5pm – Home and Dinner
After packing up, and addressing anything the Chair’s asking me to address, I’m headed home to cook.
Tonight we’re making grilled salmon. I’m a fish and seafood lover, and I love to grill – so do my daughters and my husband. When we’re being healthy we’ll do the fish with either couscous or quinoa, and a broccoli or something like that. But tonight we’ll do fried corn. My daughters love when I make some fried corn with lots of butter, fried okra, and collard greens.
We all sit at the table together to eat, and each of us tells something that happened in our day. Generally we’ll tell something critical as well as something positive, because the good, the bad and the ugly, as they say, are all part of life. Those are special moments.
7pm – Gym
After dinner I’m headed to the gym to unwind before sitting down to do some writing. My husband and I go together, so even on the way we’re chatting and taking our heads out of music for a while. Together with dinner with my family it’s important to have this time in my day to step back, to breathe, and not think musically, so I’m fresh for when I go back to compose later.
Tonight I get on the treadmill for about 30 to 40 minutes. I love to read, so I have my iPad, and I go into the zone and get lost in the journey of the book I am reading right now – “Why Are They Following Me?” by Joyce Gillie Gossom. Then after that I go into the weights room. Sometimes I do classes, but after a long day it’s gruelling – so not today!
9pm – Composing
When we get home, I feel refreshed and ready for my work as a composer. It might seem late, but the gym rejuvenates me and gets the blood flowing – if I wanted to go to sleep now, I couldn’t! Sometimes I have online interviews with choirs, but tonight I will do some composing until 11 or 12 before going to bed.
Just like I tell my voice students and choir members when singing, I always start with the words when I’m composing. For me, my inspiration is always the poetry. When a singer or conductor picks up a song, it should be because of the poetry, and what the music says about the poetry – how it impacts them. Then the conductor conveys that message to the choir with their words and directions. Then it’s up to the singers to embrace the poetry, understand how the music enhances the storytelling, and engage the audience with it. The receiver is the audience. The rest of us are just conduits – there to tell the story, which all begins with the poet.
I always start with the words when I’m composing. For me, my inspiration is always the poetry.
So when it comes to starting a new piece, generally I will speak that poetry, over and over until I get a rhythm. I have memorised it at that point so it becomes a part of me, and I will find myself speaking the poetry throughout the day and night, even while driving, cooking or falling asleep.
During this time, I will look up the poet to learn as much about him or her as possible. I want to figure out – was that poet introverted or extroverted? Did they have some difficult things in their lives, and is this poem coming from heartache or from joy? That’s going to give me some insights to how I can come close to genuinely expressing their message. Their message – not my message – is what I want to share. I do not want to betray their message. Because really, my job is to enhance or unfold through music what may be limited in reading the poem in a book.
As I’m speaking that rhythm, after a while without thinking about it a melody will come to me. Sometimes it wakes me up in bed. Sometimes I’ll be watching TV and there it is, or as I’m driving down the road. I keep a recorder with me and will then record that melody, so that I have it when I find time to compose. Otherwise, I’ll forget it and have to start from scratch.
There are composers who compose based on the rules of composition and they don’t always focus on what they want people to experience or feel when they hear the song. I know the rules of composition but I don’t focus on the rules. I allow the poetry and the emotions that I want to be felt to dictate what I do compositionally. Yes, I’ve studied harmony and theory, but for me, the music has to make sense to me emotionally. And so, when I change keys, rhythms, harmonies or form, it’s not because I’m thinking theoretically, but because it makes sense to me to express the poetry that way. When I’m composing I invest both my mind and my heart.
When we perform music, the gift we give to the listener should be one that transforms them, even if it’s just for a moment. For me, when I go to a concert and hear a sad song I want to be moved to remember something sad in my life. If it’s a song full of joy, I want to experience joy. It’s the same for the audiences that hear my music. I want them to leave feeling like it made a difference in their lives. And I think that’s the power of music – especially music with words.
When I’m composing I invest both my mind and my heart.
Sing Rosephanye’s Music
Now you know the process behind the music, don’t miss your chance to sing the beautiful ‘Arise, Beloved’ by Rosephanye. Sign up to join The Album Project today, and meet her yourself during our introductory session on Friday 11th June.
Ask a question
If there’s something else you’d love to know, drop a question in the comments and we’ll be sure to ask her in the session!
About the author
Felicity Turner has sung in choirs since she was six years old, achieving her dream of becoming a professional choral singer before going on to enjoy a solo career. When the pandemic struck she retrained as a copywriter and now loves writing for the Stay At Home Choir and other wonderful people doing good things in the world. You can find out more about her work here.
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We know singing is good for us. We know that it makes us happy. But these are times like no other. Most of us are juggling more than we ever thought possible. Paddling hard just to stay afloat. “Surely”, you might be thinking, “attending choir practice should be the last thing on our minds?”. Well, you’d be surprised.