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Hi, I’m Susan Lewis, host of TIME IN, an online series of conversations with leading lights in the arts, from composers and conductors to soloists and thought leaders in the worlds of classical music and jazz, opera, choral music, and dance. Speaking from homes, gardens, and hotel rooms as tours resume, they reflect on their experiences and discoveries about life today.

TIME IN with Composer and Choral Director Rollo Dilworth: Bringing People Together Through Song

Rollo Dilworth is a beloved composer, known worldwide, and a professor of choral music at Temple University.

Rollo Dilworth pours his heart into teaching, conducting, and writing music for choral singers—and the choral music world loves him back. Typically logging over 100,000 miles a year, he travels the world to conduct and work with choirs of all ages. In this TIME IN interview, he talks about how the shutdown has reinforced his purpose in life, to use music to bring people together and promote social justice.

Listen to works by Rollo Dilworth on WRTI's Friday Choral Connection, Feb. 5th, 12th, and 19th at 1:30 PM. Details here.

It's easy to see why choirs want to work with Rollo. Soft-spoken with a gentle smile, this lifelong musician exudes warmth. His belief that music is part of being human and can better the life of everyone is contagious. His over 150 compositions and arrangements are created to uplift both performers and audiences and create joy.

Credit Lois Mauro
Rollo Dilworth conducting a choral workshop at Temple University in 2014.

When he's not on the road, he comes home to Philadelphia where he serves as professor of choral music at Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance, vice dean of Temple's Center for Performing and Cinematic Arts, and 2020/2021 artist-in-residence with the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia.

When the pandemic hit in March, 2020, Rollo had just returned from an American Choral Directors Eastern Division Conference—an event, he says, that is usually like a family homecoming. But word was already spreading about a contagious virus moving around the country. When, a week later, Temple's campus shut down, Rollo began working at home, continuing to teach, write, and compose and work remotely with choirs.

(Here he is in 2015 conducting the Massachusetts All-State Choir performance of Kevin Memley's O Magnum Mysterium in Boston's Symphony Hall)

He met with me on Zoom in January 2021 to reflect on his lifelong love of music and the direction his work has taken over the last year.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

You were born and raised in St. Louis Missouri and fell in love with singing at a very early age.

I had amazing elementary, middle school and high school musical experiences, both vocal and piano. I was being trained as a classical musician, but also to play gospel and jazz styles. I had the best of both worlds. And I think it's because of the wonderful impact that these teachers had on me that I wanted to be a music educator, myself.

Are there musicians in your family?

No, interestingly enough, I'm the only one who moved down this path, but certainly got lots of support from my family.

So, is it right that, even as young as age 11 you started playing around with arranging?

I did. I was a nerdy little music kid, so I would take my music home from choir rehearsal and sit at the piano and practice my part. I would practice everybody else's vocal part as well, out of curiosity. I would start changing pitches, rhythms, chords, sometimes even changing the text.

Nine-year-old Rollo Dilworth seated with his music teacher, Dr. Brown, at Samuel Brown AME Zion Church in St. Louis, MO, 1980.

And I would scribble down my ideas and take them back to choir rehearsal to the teacher and ask her, "Can we try it this way?" She said to me, "One day, you know, you could really move forward as an arranger and composer."

"I tell young people all the time... you came into this world a musician."

Things began taking off when I started teaching middle school, because I had to create arrangements that helped my singers be successful [as their voices were changing.] I've been really fortunate to be able to continue this work; it gives me lots of joy. 

Are there any particular pieces of music that you remember really turning you onto music to choral music?

Certainly Handel's Messiah; "The Hallelujah Chorus" was a big deal, you know, when you're a young kid being able to sing a piece like that. Also the Beethoven "Hallelujah" from Christ on the Mount of Olives. Also well-arranged pieces, like "Lift Every Voice and Sing," arranged by Roland Carter. And I was looking at the arrangements of African-American spirituals by others, including Jester Hairston and Wendell Whalum, and really wanting to do this kind of work myself.

You taught middle school after undergrad at Case Western University. You then went back to graduate school at University of Missouri, at St. Louis, for composition and arrangement, and then Northwestern for conducting. What brought you to Temple?

It was Alan Harler [longtime artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, now rebranded as Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia] who actually recruited me and encouraged me to apply for this choral music education position. That was back in early 2009. So it's been a number of years now for me here in the Philadelphia area at Temple.

So you've been juggling teaching, conducting, composing and arranging. How did things change for you last March?

Instead of traveling, and instead of being on campus every day, I've been working from home. This is my home studio.

You have some interesting objects on the shelves behind you. 

Yes. The object that looks like a bowl is just a little piece of artwork that I got from somewhere in my travels. I also have a little hand drum from Uganda. And there's also a shekere here actually, I think two shekeres—one little smaller gourd, and a larger one from Africa.

I really enjoy those instruments because I often will incorporate them here and there, particularly a drum, into some of my music.

Any piece in particular?

I have a piece titled "The Dream Keeper" that involves a little hand drum, and it's a Langston Hughes poem. And so the piece begins with a little groove on the piano and then the drum taps.

I've got a few pieces with those little drum taps in them. And so that comes in handy.

How has the pandemic affected your daily routine?

It's been really interesting just doing everything on Zoom and because I live alone, most of my contacts with people are on a screen. It's given me the opportunity—now that I'm not traveling at all—to really focus more on my teaching, on my scholarly writing, but also on my composing. And I think I've been fairly productive.

My campus community choir, The Singing Owls at Temple University, meets every Tuesday night. Last semester, we completed three virtual projects. And this semester, we hope to complete three more. It's been a different experience teaching choir online but I'm optimistic and hopeful that we'll be able to move out of the virtual space and back into an actual physical space. 

I also helped prepare students of Girard Academic Music Program, or GAMP, for this virtual concert: 

I've been able to have conference sessions and guest lectures with other institutions, via Zoom. And it's really helped me to focus, I think, a lot more on what my purpose is with the work that I'm trying to do.
What is your purpose? You seem very mission driven.

I think that my work has always been mission driven, and it could be the upbringing I had. I was born and raised through the Catholic education system that always taught us that the talents and the abilities that we have should serve a greater purpose beyond our ourselves and our own egos. I've always felt that my work, particularly as an educator and as a composer, has been to elevate the voices of the voiceless.

So much of my music points to issues related to social justice: African-American spirituals and setting the texts of great orators, such as W.E.B. Dubois in "Credo. "

Or the wonderful prose of Langston Hughes as in my "Rain Sequence." These voices certainly spoke to people of their day, but I believe that these words continue to have relevance and meaning in our society, in our world, in the present.

Rollo Dilworth talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about his approach to writing Credo and Rain Sequence.

And my goal is to amplify those voices and to help us to understand how we can not only learn from the past, but how much it really relates to our present and how it can ultimately affect how we move forward into the future.

I was struck by a comment you've made about using music to help people understand the world.

Yes. I really believe that. I believe that music, like other art forms, but music in particular, is a window into the world around us. It can teach us more about ourselves, but also teach us more about the people around us. And there is no culture in society to my knowledge, past or present that does not have music as part of of its core values, how it identifies itself, how it expresses itself. I think that music can tell us a lot about who we are and who others are.

And in the process, I think music can teach us how to engage others who may be different from us. That opportunity to expand one's worldview through studying and performing music, particularly music that doesn't represent our own culture is a wonderful tool and a wonderful gateway to build mutual understanding. And for us to not be so fearful of someone who doesn't look like us; who doesn't worship like us; who doesn't think like us.

Right. So why do you think music has that ability to reach people who are different from us? Is it because we all have an emotional response ?

I think so. I think music resonates with every human being. We all have different tastes in terms of what styles of music we like, and maybe even what instruments we prefer, but music resonates with every single one of us.

I tell young people all the time, "You came into this world a musician. You have a heartbeat, that's musical; that's rhythm. And when you walk down the street or when you walk to school, or when you walk up a flight of stairs, you don't do that in a very sort of haphazard way. There's a rhythmic purpose to your gate." And then they say, "Oh yeah. I am a musician."

And it's a wonderful way to empower anyone who wants to engage with this particular art, because you can be musical without even knowing that you are, and music is not just an art form that should be consumed by or participated in by people who are learned or who can read five lines and four spaces. Music is for all of us. And I think the way we are designed as human beings shows us that. 

Have you discovered anything during this period when everything's been shut down and we haven't been able to operate as usual? Have you discovered anything that you like to do that you'll continue to do after the pandemic is over?

There are a number of things I've been able to discover about myself.  On a professional level, I've discovered that Zoom maybe isn't so bad after all! It's afforded me the ability to connect with people that I otherwise would not have the chance or the time to do so. So that's actually been pretty good.

On a personal note, I've always wanted to explore cooking a little bit more, and because I'm at home now, I search my phone and I can call up just about any recipe. And I'm walking distance from two grocery stores in my neighborhood. So I've been experimenting and trying new recipes that I will continue to use here and there. And that's been lots of fun for me.

So what kind of things do you like to cook?

I just love pork chops. And so I've been doing various recipes with pork chops, bone in or boneless. And I love seafood. Shrimp is my go-to seafood.  I want to try some dishes with chicken, but that is actually one bird that I am afraid of cooking. I mean, I just don't ever think I can get it right! 

Do you listen to music while you cook? Music is so much a part of your professional life. Is there any music you go to just to relax?

I love all types of music.  When I'm not listening to classical music for score study purposes, or something like that, when I'm not writing music in my own classical style, or writing or arranging a spiritual, I like to listen to 1960s and seventies Motown. I love Marvin Gaye and Diane Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations.  I think it's because it takes me back to my childhood.  There's something very comforting that has certainly been helpful to me during this pandemic.

Joy is something that pops up a lot when I'm reading about you and your work. Does your music have a certain goal when you're either writing or arranging something?

There are multiple purposes. First and foremost, as an educator, I'm always trying to find ways to educate the performer as well as the audience through the music.

"I've always felt that my work, particularly as an educator and as a composer, has been to elevate the voices of the voiceless."

But I must admit that I am one of those people who wants to create a memorable experience for the listener and for the performer. So I do want people to feel uplifted and I want them to feel inspired. And in some ways I want them to feel better as a result of having experienced the music, perhaps feeling better than they did when they first arrived at rehearsal, or feeling better than they did when they first arrived at the concert hall.

I think that's just always been a part of my mantra, that I want people to experience joy through choral music and to be uplifted and inspired and feel as though they can persevere and move ahead with whatever's next for them.

Do you have any stories about how music has been able to keep people uplifted during this period in your work?

I feel like I've been inspired a lot by my own ensemble. Last semester we had a piece that was written for us by a Temple grad named Suzzette Ortiz, who is also a wonderful educator here in the city, and she's a member of the chorus.  She wrote us a piece in Spanish. It's "El Sol Brillara Otra Vez" which means "The sun will rise again."

We recorded that piece virtually. And instead of all of us in our little tiny squares singing, or sort of lip synching to the audio recording that we created, we have this wonderful collection of pictures and videos that all of the choir members submitted, and they really helped to amplify this message that the sun indeed will rise again.

And that message has stayed with me throughout this pandemic. It gives me hope that on the horizon, we will all be back together again, being able to sing and make music in the same room together.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.