Sing with Heartland

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He knew very well the life of a singer.

Nomadic. Living out of a suitcase. Sometimes barely enough money to live. Definitely not enough money to pay a mortgage, raise a family and maybe put down roots in one place. You had to hustle – go where the work was and someone would throw you a few bucks.

So when musician Robert Nance founded Heartland Sings here nearly two decades ago, the goal was simple:

Get singers paid.

“Nobody understood the need to pay singers,” said Nance, a singer and pianist from the East Coast who is now the president and artistic director of Heartland Sings. “A lot of singers gave it up to teach. The musicians I knew who happened to be singers went to the same music schools and learned the same fundamentals as other musicians.

“There is absolutely no reason a career shouldn’t be available to them,” he continued.

Now about to enter its 20th anniversary year, the nonprofit organization employs five full-time singers and 24 part-time singers who work alongside more than 80 volunteers as Heartland Sings entertains audiences while providing educational opportunities.

The organization creates programs ranging from opera and musical theater to outreach events and large-scale choral and orchestral productions.

We’re all invited to join the fun at one concert this month and maybe set a record. Heartland Sings is at the center of an Indiana Bicentennial celebration at the Fort Wayne Mad Ants home game Dec. 10, when the organization will lead the entire crowd at halftime in a rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

The hope is the singalong will set a Guinness World Record for most people singing during a live radio broadcast. After the game, the singers will perform music by native Hoosier composers. (See our calendar of events for ticket information.)

Two shows dubbed “The Spirit of Christmas” at the Allen County Courthouse are set for Dec. 17 and 18, followed in 2017 bya wide variety of programs. (Watch our calendar of events for ticket information.)

It’s a long way from the humble beginnings Nance faced in 1997.

He was director of music at First Presbyterian Church when he decided to form the organization. By Heartland’s second year, he knew he needed to focus all his efforts on it and left First Presbyterian. Nance described having a fire in his belly to make it work and make having a career as a singer in Fort Wayne a reality. Along with this new organization came different attempts to raise funds and tweaks of how to get those funds to those who needed them.

“We have failed many times over 20 years with the ideas we’ve tried,” Nance said. “It has not been an easy path. We’ve had to forge it.”

At year five the organization became more sustainable, and by year 10 there was some success. Nance said the organization has changed the way it’s run from a traditional nonprofit – in which it relies on big donations – to a more for-profit business model.

That means seeing results. It means earning money and increasing profits. According to Nance, the three-year projections for this model are promising, though the jury is still out. The marketplace, where Heartland will now compete, will decide whether this works or not. 

It’s another step in revolutionizing the way to get singers in the Fort Wayne area paid.

“The excitement is tinged with the fear of failure,” said Nance. “But then again, for 20 years we haven’t been afraid of failure, and we’ve picked ourselves up whenever we failed. If this doesn’t work, we’ll be able to pick ourselves up and move on.”

And the goal will always remain the same.

Get those singers paid.

First appeared in the December 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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