Member Spotlight: Justin Raffa and Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, Washington State

Artistic director of the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers since 2008, Justin Raffa has spearheaded a series of outreach programs within the Tri-Cities’ Latino community.

Chorus America’s Kelsey Menehan talked to Raffa about his recent projects.

KM: Your first teaching job out of Westminster Choir College was leading a high school choir in a small Arizona town along the Mexican border. How did that experience form you?

JR: Bisbee, Arizona was 2,500 miles away from everything and everyone I had ever known. It was a 10-minute drive across the border, so when I told people I was having Mexican for lunch, I was really having Mexican for lunch! I came to know and love the Latino community there. They were my colleagues and in many ways they became my family. There is an incredible heritage and tradition there that I, growing up in an Italian family in South Jersey, could really relate to.

Justin Raffa
Justin Raffa, artistic director of the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers

When I came to Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, I was surprised to discover that there is a sizeable Latino community here. The Tri-Cities are made up of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco—and driving into downtown Pasco is like driving into Mexico. There is a large agricultural community here and Pasco is where the largest group of the Latino community has settled.

You were pretty bold in your programming choices in your first year with Mid-Columbia Mastersingers. What prompted you?

Prior to my coming here, the Mastersingers had never in its 22 years performed in the city of Pasco. So the first project I proposed in 2008 was an all-Spanish language program to be performed both in Kennewick and Pasco. I knew we couldn’t just say, “We’re going to do something in Pasco. You need to come see it.” We discovered that many members of the Latin community are congregants of Catholic churches. So we chose those as our venues. It was all in Spanish and as I look back I think I was crazy! It was a very bold decision for the very first program right out of the chute.

For the choir, it was a big step on many levels—the language barrier and going into communities where we didn’t already have a relationship and trying to draw an audience that we didn’t know. There were at least one or two board members at the time who were not thrilled about it. I asked them to trust my vision because I have lived among this community and I think it’s going to work.

In the Tri-Cities, we have a symphony, a ballet, a light opera company, a theater company and other wonderful performing arts groups. But when you go to their performances, you don’t see the Latino community represented on stage in the performance or in the audience. To me, that’s a problem. I wanted to bridge this gap and try to build a relationship through music with the Latino community.

What has been the response to your programs?

The response has been very humbling to me. At our first concert, people stood and cheered for an extended period of time. People came up afterwards and shared stories about hearing the song when growing up in their country and what those songs meant to them. There was a different kind of connection than what we have with our traditional audiences.

After that first set of concerts, we decided to do a focused Latino program for one of our subscription concerts every year. Either the program is all in Spanish or mostly in Spanish or stylistically representative of Hispanic culture. We also have grown the relationship with the two Catholic churches where we started. We have done a free concert—our final dress rehearsal—at the Kennewick Catholic church after Thursday night Spanish Mass four years in a row. We are slowly trying to develop something like this at the Catholic church in Pasco.

The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers perform "Harmonia"

Have there been bumps along the way?

This has been slow to gain momentum. The Latino community is not accustomed to the predominantly Western choral music model that we present—the idea of sitting down and watching a whole concert. When we do these programs, children come with their families and they are just running up and down the aisles. Initially, some of my choristers were concerned about that. But I said, “Wait a minute. That is part of their culture. The family ties they have are really strong.” I think we all learned a lot from these experiences.

Having lived in Arizona it is frustrating to me that much of the country sort of pooh-poohs the Latino community. There is a lot of politics and stigma around border issues and the immigration issue. There is a lot of fear and ignorance that is unfortunate.

And yet the Latino community is the largest and fastest growing group in this country. It is certainly the right thing to do and the human thing to do to build a relationship with them and choral music is a great way to do that.

How has Chorus America been helpful to you?

I really love the community chorus model, and Chorus America is my favorite professional organization. I did not learn a lot about running a non-profit organization in my classes in school. I was delighted to find an organization that focused on the administrative side. I was at the Chorus America Conference in San Francisco and my operations manager and I went through the Chorus Management Institute. It was an amazing program. We walked away with so much information and a lot of it was validation that we are one the right path.

How has this focus on building bridges with the Latino community impacted your chorus as an organization?

We did not go into this with the idea of making money or of building our traditional audience members. The Latino-focused programs are not a money-making arm of our operation. Our mission is to transform lives through the power of choral music. This is something we want to give back to our community, so our return is not something you can document on paper, or with dollars.

It takes courage to do something like this when you’re a small nonprofit chorus. You have to be willing to take a chance and then be consistent about it. If we had done it once and that’s it, I don’t think we would have seen the results that are slowly developing now. Like any good relationship, it takes time and attention.

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