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creative:impact - Marking 50 years, a chorale sings its praises

Our Own Town Christmas Chorale
Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale
Our Own Town Christmas Chorale

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Willis Patterson conducting his chorale.
Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale
Willis Patterson conducting his chorale.

(OOTC) is committed to the preservation and performance of traditional African American spirituals as well as contemporary choral compositions written and/or arranged by African American composers and musicians. The Chorale is named for its founder and director Willis C. Patterson, an Ann Arbor native and U-M Professor Emeritus. This diverse group of singers aims to perform the music of African American composers as well as traditional spirituals and provide educational background information about the music. The Chorale has performed extensively in the greater Ann Arbor area, and throughout Michigan and beyond. The Chorale also works to raise funds for the Our Own Thing Instructional Program.

This year the Chorale is celebrating 50 years of choral music making and have planned a series of events including podcasts that will highlight music from each of our decades of songs, virtual concerts and a performance by a choral ensemble from Africa.


Sharon Vaughters
Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale
Sharon Vaughters

Sharon D. Vaughters is the current President of the Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale. She brings to the role over 25 years of experience in Higher Education leadership and teaching roles including Career Development, Women's Studies and Intergroup Relations. She also has a music education background and brings to her presidency a love and appreciation of all music, especially African American spirituals -- both historical and contemporary. In her role as President of OOTC she strives for the optimal combination of music performance and community development, as well as the education and sharing of this music and African American composers with the larger SE Michigan community.


Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale

About the Our Own Thing Chorale

Our Own Thing Chorale Instructional Program


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thank you for tuning in every Tuesday as we welcome creative guests with roots in Washtenaw County and explore how their creative businesses, products, programs, and services impact and add to our quality of life, place, and economy We like to break myths here on creative:impact, including the one that nonprofits, especially arts and cultural nonprofits, are short lived. That fact is broken by the sense that most of the nonprofits in Washtenaw County are 24 years old. The average, I should say. So would the fact that the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale is celebrating its 50th anniversary year. Sharon Vaughters, president of the Chorale, is here to tell us about their long celebration. Sharon, welcome to creative:impact.

Sharon Vaughters: Thank you.

Deb Polich: So, you know, the founder of the chorale and its namesake is Dr. Willis Patterson. He was a guest on creative:impact a while ago, and we talked about him at his 90th birthday. And just to give us a reminder to listeners, Dr. Paterson was raised in Ann Arbor. He got his voice and music degrees from the University of Michigan. He's performed at opera houses around the world, and he became the University of Michigan's first African-American professor of music. So, as if that wasn't enough being who he is, Dr. Patterson also started the Our Own Thing Chorale. What do you think, Sharon, that he had in mind at that time? And how is that played out over these five decades?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, Dr. Patterson has a great vision and has a great commitment to the community. And I think what he had in mind at that time was that Ann Arbor and its kind of vibrant African-American community needed a place to gather and to share music together. It was something he had as a child, and he wanted it to continue.

Deb Polich: So, five decades. Much has changed since the beginning, and some of it has stayed the same. Now, how is the chorale remained respectful to its original mission and simultaneously changed with the times?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, we stay mission focused, which is to perform and preserve spirituals by African-American composers and arrangers, and the reality is that we're learning more and more about our history at all times that some of this music was hidden. It's not taught in schools on a regular basis, and we still feel that message today that this is a place we can come and hear about this music that is not in the American public eye, and it's an original form of music. So today, we both explore the history, the history of this music, some of which members remember their grandmothers or great grandmothers, and hope to pass along these original tunes, original arrangements, down to the next generation. So, we have stayed true to that. We've also been encouraging of new composers throughout our history, so that we are exposed to what the genre of spirituals has turned out to be in in this era. So, we try to keep our pulse on what's going on with music by African-Americans.

Deb Polich: You know, I'm like probably lots of other people who sang traditional African-American spirituals in elementary school or in church. And, you know, we've certainly learned the songs, but we weren't taught that history, and you touched on what the chorale does to educate about this music. You know, but it still strikes me as somewhat ironic that these songs were adopted into the choir books while oppression continued. I know you've been a leader in this education. Are you seeing that change much more information about where these songs come from and why?

Sharon Vaughters: It is growing. When I got my bachelor of music degree back in the 70s and studied music, we studied the European composers and their effect on music. But now, we are seeing a little bit more in the schools. There is so much more to uncover. We have realized that the Black Lives movement--Black Lives Matter movement--has given us even more of an opportunity to get this history out in the open, that sense of pride and sense of support from African-Americans has been sort of an open window for us to say, "This is our history. This is how we survive. This is the joy and hope and sorrow that is expressed through this music that's really accessible to everyone."

Deb Polich: That's great. It's great that it's growing. 891 WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Sharon Vaughters, president of the Willis Paterson Our Own Thing Chorale, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. So, this is a celebration. What are some of the events and programs planned?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, we've decided to do a broad swath of music by African-Americans and other Black Americans, and we're even taking that back to Africa. So, we're providing a festival of African and African American music, and the way we're doing this is through a series of concerts and a set of podcasts.

Deb Polich: Excellent. And where can people find out the most about everything that's planned?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, we can use our website, at our own thing dot org, to get most up to date information. Information is growing there right now, so, as you approach the website now, you can learn a lot about the background and history of the chorale and see some examples, some of our work. And one of the things that we're really trying to work on is different collaborations with different organizations that are also Ann Arbor features.

Deb Polich: So, folks check in often, right?

Sharon Vaughters: Mm hmm. Yup.

Deb Polich: Great. You know, choirs are much more than the sum of their musical parts, and that also goes for the community among choir members. Now you're a volunteer. This is not what you do for a living. So, tell me, besides the joy of singing together, what do the members of the chorale give to each other?

Sharon Vaughters: Oh, it's a lot to describe, but when I think about it--

Deb Polich: And you only have a minute to do it.

Sharon Vaughters: Yes. Okay. The spirit of music really is something that unites people. I think it's a universal thing. It draws together community. And within this community, we not only get a chance to learn about the specifics about the music that is our heritage, for me as an African American woman, it's a part of my heritage. But we get to have that effect that music and singing together have on a person within a community. And that is such a powerful feeling to sing together, being next to people from all different backgrounds, walks of life. We are intergenerational. And to be singing these songs that are so heartfelt and so reflective of the atrocities that were going on during enslavement, but also the hope and the power of community that have helped and is still helping us survive in the world today.

Deb Polich: So, a year from now, after the celebration concludes, what do you hope remains in the hearts and voices of the chorale?

Sharon Vaughters: I think that with this year, because we're trying to survey the vast contributions of African-Americans in our music literature today, I think there's going to be a big sense of pride--a sense of pride, a sense of excitement, hopefully a sense of wanting to sing with our crew. And we always have open doors for that. And I think that we'll feel on solid ground for our next 50 years.

Deb Polich: The Our Own Thing Chorale has and continues to offer so much. I'm going to be looking forward to some of your performances this year and some of the education that I certainly can use to. So, thank you for your leadership and the music you bring to the community. It's really been a pleasure to having you on as our guest, Sharon.

Sharon Vaughters: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Deb Polich: That's Sharon Vaughters, president of the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale. For more information about the Chorale and their yearlong anniversary and set of events, contact WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Please join me next week to meet another creative Washtenaw guest. This is your community NPR Radio Station. Eighty one WEMU and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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