Frequently Asked Questions
One of the bright lights in American choral composition, Rosephanye Powell’s distinctive works bring head and heart together in a way that demonstrates careful craft, sincerity of creative impulse, deep human and spiritual sensitivity, accessible expression, and an impressive range of sensibilities. My choirs and I are always excited to prepare and perform her music!
–James Kinchen, Director of Choral Activities
The University of Wisconsin-Parkside
How do you pronounce your name?My name is pronounced “ro-SEH-fuh-nee”. If one thinks of the name “Stephanie”, adds “ro” and removes the t, one should pronounce Rosephanye correctly.
What is the origin of your name?
There are two stories. The first has it that my mother was encouraged, by her mother, to name me after my great grandmother whose name was “Josephine.” My mother, a school teacher, was not pleased at all with that idea. So she considered combining her name, “Rosa,” with “Josephine” to name me “Rosephine.” I am grateful that she did not like the sound of that name either. The name “Stephanie” was popular at the time. So, my mother combined “Rosa” with “Stephanie,” removed the [t] and changed the to [y] (because she thought it complimented the look of the name while functioning like to make the [e] vowel long rather than short). Everyone was happy…including me!
What was your first published composition?
My first compositions were published at the same time: The Word Was God, an original sacred motet, and I Wanna Be Ready, an accompanied spiritual arrangement (both SATB). While a doctoral student at Florida State University, I arranged the spiritual “I Wanna Be Ready” for the FSU Gospel Choir. At the concert performance Professor Rodney Eichenberger expressed interest in having the song published. He was kind enough to submit it to a publisher with whom he was associated. Unfortunately, it sat in that publisher’s files for a couple of years. When I began teaching at Philander Smith College, I composed “The Word Was God” for the school’s concert choir and was encouraged by several choral directors to submit it to a publisher. This time, I submitted both works to not one, but ten publishers—all accepted both works for publication. Needless to say, I learned from that experience that it is not a good idea to submit a song to more than one publisher at a time.
What is your goal as a composer/arranger?
My goal as a composer is to compose or arrange music that touches the heart and souls of the listeners and singers.
Why did you decide to become a music educator?
I became a music educator because I feel that I was created for such a purpose. Both my parents were educators so I got it naturally. Finally, I find meaning impacting the lives of others for good.
What are your first memories of singing?
I found my love for singing in high school when I started singing with three of my girlfriends. We annoyed many of the other kids in school because we sang in the school choir, restroom, gym, cafeteria and anywhere we found ourselves together. After a while, we formed a female gospel quartet.
Who and what are your biggest influences as a composer?
My first major influences were gospel, jazz, and R&B, since these are the styles of music that I listened to most as a kid. Next would be classical music, especially the music of Handel, Bach (counterpoint), Verdi and Puccini (romanticism and lyricism). William Grant Still, the dean of African-American composers, has influenced my style of composition. Most of the pioneers of classical spiritual arrangements have influenced me, including Undine Smith Moore, Hall Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, and others.
Which are your most popular works?
Since its release, The Word Was God has been my most popular. Others include I Dream A World (SATB), Non Nobis, Domine, (SATB), SORIDA (SATB), Sicut Cervus (SSAA), Still I Rise (SSAA), Ascribe to the Lord (SATB), Pete, Pete (children’s voices), E Oru O (SATB), I Wanna Be Ready (SATB), Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child (SATB).
Can you name a special moment when your compositions have been performed?
Yes. And they are too numerous. But one that comes to mind is “Sing for the Cure”. I was asked to write one of the movements for this multimovement work that celebrates and honors the journeys of those who lost their battle with cancer, fought the battle and were victorious, as well as those loved ones who have traveled the journey with them. To be a part of the evening of the performance with poet-laureate Dr. Maya Angelou as narrator, the Turtle Creek Choral, The Women’s Chorus of Dallas, and the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra was nothing short of exhilarating. But to hear from Tim (Dr. Timothy Seelig, director of the TCC) that at the rehearsal, Dr. Angelou, after hearing my song “The Promise Lives On” (lyrics by wonderful lyricist, Pamela Martin) performed by the chorus and orchestra, was so overcome with emotion and tears, had to gather herself before continuing on. As one of my favorite contemporary poets, it was most gratifying and humbling. “Sing for the Cure” has allowed me to play a small part in telling the life stories of so many cancer survivors and fighters. I am so grateful to have had such an opportunity.
There are so many more special moments, most of which are about the singers who sing my music. They bring it to life and make moments special even when the performances are not the strongest.
What contributed to you being a successful composer?
That is difficult to answer. I think that the singers and music directors could answer it more effectively. But, as a singer, my main endeavor is to write music that touches the heart and sings well in the voices. I believe that God has given me a talent for writing music (especially since I was not a strong student in music theory and don’t always think theoretically when composing). Compositionally, I flow from a lyrical vocal line, rhythmic energy and colorful harmonies that support and paint the lyrics. For me, everything flows from a desire to express the meaning of a text.
What was the impetus for your CD Motherless Child?
I travel the country working with young and older singers who don’t always get the connection between the African-American spiritual and their lives. Because the songs are a part of academic musical studies, many don’t appreciate the depth of heart, soul and life that is in these songs. When working with singers, it has always been my objective to bring out the meaning of these songs which allows the singers to perform the songs with more meaning and emotion. Motherless Child allowed me to take the spiritual out of academia and express these beautiful songs in a more contemporary fashion. I have heard numerous reports from parents, college students, and high school students about how the CD has assisted them in making a connection. As a singer and lover of the poetic voice, Motherless Child gave me an opportunity to share how I relate to and have come to identify with the spiritual. Finally, it allows me to pass the legacy to my two daughters. As a root of ALL African-American music, the spiritual must be preserved.
Have you been influenced at all by the lives, music, or history of any other black woman composer? And if so, how?
Undine Smith Moore, Florence Price, and Lena McLin are the first that come to mind. As a student at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama,an HBCU, we performed songs and heard different works by these women composers. I was not influenced so much by their styles of composition at that time; rather, I was impressed by the fact that they were “black women” composers and arrangers of concert music. At that time, I was focused on becoming a singer-educator. I had no idea that I would become a choral composer.
From your biography, it seems you were influenced by your experience with the black church. How has this influenced your compositions?
I have definitely been influenced strongly by my experiences in the black church! I grew up hearing gospel songs and spirituals sung during devotional services, as well as gospelized spirituals sung by church choirs. As the back-up pianist for the small Christian Methodist Church to which my family belonged and served, I began to appreciate and experience spirituals at a young age. So the harmonies, rhythms, and feelings associated with these songs are a part of my musical and compositional vocabulary. When I arrange spirituals or compose original works in the style of the spiritual (i.e., Have You Seen the Baby Jesus, Glory Hallelujah to duh Newbo’n King), I do so from having experienced them.
When you arrange spirituals, can you describe your artistic process: Do you choose the text first, is it emotionally driven, how do you decide what forces to use?
When I arrange spirituals, I seek to use the original spiritual melody and text as the foundation. Because of the respect that I have for these powerful and beautiful songs, I try not to venture too far from the original work. I do this also because many who hear or sing my arrangements may never have heard the traditional spiritual so my work may be an introduction to the spiritual. My feeling is that if I venture too far away from the original spiritual, it could possibly detract from the heart of the work and I would not want to do that. Often I arrange spirituals for which I have an emotional attachment, either from singing arrangements of earlier composers or from having sung them as a child. Also, I may select a spiritual to arrange because I connect with the role it played in the lives of the slaves (as inspiration, encouragement, deep expression of emotions, etc). I want a new generation to experience the power of music to impact our lives today. I decide the forces based on how I am compelled by the music as it develops. As well, when it is a commission, the forces are often dictated by the commissioning group or organization.
What made you feel that the anthology “Spirituals for High Voices” (which you edited) was an important venture?
I was invited to serve as co-editor, along with my husband Dr. William C. Powell, for this collection because Oxford University Press feels that the spiritual is a worthwhile and important contribution to choral music. Specifically, Oxford felt that there needed to be a collection dedicated to treble voices rather than SATB. Because the African-American spiritual is considered by many anthropologists and sociologists as the first true American folk song, it behooves us to preserve this important part of our American heritage. So I consider a worthwhile endeavor any informed and respectful effort to share, preserve and pass on this rich music to contemporary and future generations.
Have you experienced any gender discrimination as a composer?
To my knowledge, I have not experienced any overt gender discrimination as a composer.
Did you have any female composition teachers?
No. I did not have any female composition teachers. Actually, I did not study composition with any professor. I truly believe that for me composition is a gift from God. This does not mean that I do not and have not had to work to develop the gift but I have had no formal study in composition. And, to be honest, I was not a great student of theory. I just believe that I was given a strong sense of the flow and structure for the development of song. As well, I have a love for the written word, poetry. My desire to express the meaning and depth of words musically is the impetus for me in composition. I try to musically express the meaning, colors, and impressions within the text.
When you arrange spirituals, how does the history of the slaves affect your process? Do you think about the relationship the slaves had with God? Do you think about the relationship the slaves had with their bondage?
When I compose an original work in the style of the spiritual, I begin with a selection of words or phrases that are indicative of slave times. Then, I try to step back in time to imagine how these words would be sung based on my understanding of original slave songs and slave culture. When I arrange spirituals, the story of the African-American slave is the impetus for the arrangement. I have read about and researched the life and culture of the African-American slave for many years. So I cannot separate the spiritual from the life of the slave. I try to picture that time and the people as I arrange a spiritual. I believe that those who arrange spirituals without understanding the story or relating to the lives of the slaves often arrange spirituals in a way that defies the true heart and meaning of the spiritual. And they often do a disservice to those who would sing and hear them because they mislead others as to what the spiritual is and its role in slave society.
Why do you choose to arrange spirituals?
I arrange spirituals because I love these songs, am connected to them, am a product of them, and am here because of the people who composed and sang the songs. Spirituals are an important part of my heritage. They explain, in part, who I am and the strong people from whom I was birthed. I arrange spirituals because these songs emotionally move me and I want others to be moved by them. I arrange spirituals because they remind me that regardless of how difficult life is at any time, I will overcome just as my ancestors did against all obstacles. The spiritual tells me that I come from a people of great intellect, courage and determination—a people that used songs to express themselves, develop culture, develop a secret language and set themselves free from their oppressors.
Why do you think there are not more black women composers in general and arrangements by living black female composers performed on more concerts, or available to choirs. Is it just that black women are not composing as much? If so, why?
The answer to this question is much more complex and perplexing than I can address for it has been asked since before I was born. Early African-American male composers such as Harry T. Burleigh, Hall Johnson, William Dawson sought to find a place in the world of concert music. Although they composed art songs and symphonies, among other works, they were received mainly as arrangers of the spiritual and used these as a vehicle to express themselves musically and intellectually in this arena. Undine Smith Moore and Florence Price had works published but they were not performed much in the mainstream. I believe that black women are composing; but it is difficult to get published, in part, because a number of publishers do not accept unsolicited works. When publishers don’t accept unsolicited works, composers don’t have access to those publishers which limits their opportunity to heard by a broad audience.
Do you think it is significant that you are a black woman composer? Why?
I think that someone other than I could better answer the question of my significance. I am humbled to be able to represent an aspect of the African-American voice in American concert choral music. And mine is just one voice. However, I do believe that because of the opportunity that has been afforded to me, I am able to share some of the African-American experience with others nationally and internationally. As much as I enjoy composing and hearing my works performed by others, I enjoy equally the opportunities that being a composer provides for sharing my heritage—culturally and musically.
Have you been influenced by any European composers?
Indeed. I have been influenced by the contrapuntal compositions of Handel and Bach, as well as the musical structure/form found in the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. As well, the setting of texts found in the art songs of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms have had a major impact on how I set texts. And the Romantic style of vocal writing found in Verdi and other Romantic composers influences. Additionally, my spanish works reflect my love for the works of Fernando Obradors and other spanish composers. Finally, William Grant Still’s “Songs of Separation” and other art songs have influenced my choice of harmonic colors.
Have you encountered prejudice as a composer or singer?
I have experienced prejudice as an African American, not necessarily as a composer or singer. Generally, if people don’t desire my services as a composer or singer, they don’t invite me to do so (and it ends without a reason given).
What advice can you give to young, developing musicians, performers, or composers?
The advice I offer is to strive to develop one’s craft and a distinct voice. Some expect to receive accolades for average or mediocre work. As an educator, it is an exception to meet a young musician, singer, or composer who wants to work hard, invest time, face challenges and overcome failure to become a better musician, performer, conductor or composer. In the past, young people have asked me to critique or offer suggestions for their work or performance and when I do, they are quick to take offense (since what they really wanted to hear was how wonderful they are). Also, I would offer that one must be patient and persistent in developing one’s craft. This includes experiencing setbacks, failures, and criticism. It also means enjoying moments of success without becoming imbalanced in one’s thinking. As great a talent and gift one may possess, there is always someone who is equally talented, better, or more experiened. And regardless of how wonderful or lacking one or others may perceive one’s last performance or composition, it is just a moment in time that will soon pass. Regardless, life goes on…if it doesn’t end.