A choir's success is determined by a number of aspects. A solid director, a knowledgable accompanist, and enthusiastic singers generally yield very positive results. Fortunately, here at Philadelphia Voices of Pride, we have all three of these things. And our accompanist, Robert Blackwell, is most certainly a crucial aspect to our success.
Standing at about 6'5”, Blackwell is PVOP's gentle giant. You wouldn't know it at first glance as he is frequently seen sitting behind the piano. However, he is always armed with a good joke or comedic commentary that always concludes in laughter.
Blackwell has been a member of PVOP since its inception 10 years ago.
“I had a friend, Shannon, who told me about PVOP and invited me. I mostly came because I felt isolated and wanted to be more involved with the gay community,” Blackwell said. “It wasn't as much about professional or music reasons – I just wanted to branch out.”
Blackwell has been playing piano since he was a kid. Hailing from Ohio, he wound up attending Ohio State University on a music scholarship. From there, he moved to New York City to pursue a career conducting musical theatre.
“I lived in New York for 12 years, and now I've lived in Philly for 12 years. I wanted to start a career as a theatre conductor. I just got there and started calling people,” Blackwell said. “I got a lot of work working with dance companies...they generally need piano players for dance classes. I worked for the Dancers of Harlem – that was my first job.”
“I did that for a few months and then I started getting work with shows. I wound up traveling a lot for work. These companies would just call me and say, 'We need you on a plane tomorrow.' They'd just FedEx me a ticket and I'd be gone for six to 10 weeks. I did that for years,” he said.
The traveling Blackwell had to endure was pretty intense. The shows he worked were located anywhere from New York to Oregon to Germany. After growing tired of traveling and dealing with New York City's bustling environment, Blackwell thought a change of pace and scenery might work in his favor.
“I also had a crush on a boy who lived here and I wanted to be closer to him. I wanted to get out of New York, it was getting too crazy,” Blackwell said.
Despite having a heavy music background, Blackwell didn't immediately try to jump into music-based work.
“I also came here to study rebirthing. Rebirthing is about breathing modality...it's also about looking at people's birth experiences as way to understand how people form their strategies for living in the world,” Blackwell said. “When you're born, you undergo your first experience of being in the world and your first experience of change... people make certain decisions about others and they'll carry those strategies out into the world.”
“We look at all the different things that can come up during pregnacy. From there, we sort of know what steps to take in helping people,” he said. “The person breathes for a whole hour and we help guide them through it. It's very condensed, circular breathing, you almost get a high from it, but all this creative energy comes to the surface so if there any changes they are experiencing at the time or if there are any goals they are trying to achieve, rebirthing helps people tackle those things with more energy and creativity.”
If you already think Blackwell is a busy guy, think again. He also has a day job as a coordinator for the Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the world's leading medical journals, and he is in the process of writing a young adult fantasy novel based in Philadelphia.
“Getting into writing is kind of a new thing for me. I took a writing course in college that I did really well in, and with my day job I'm constantly writing e-mails all day, all the time...so I just started thinking this is something I'd want to pursue,” Blackwell said. “I read all of the Twilight series, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games...that genre is just appealing to me – it's a huge market right now.”
In his (very) spare time, he is known to frequent restaurants (Wedge and Fig, Tallula's Daily, and the Tarte Shop being some of his favorites), the Sporting Club in Center City, and Dollar Stores.
“I am obsessed with Dollar Stores...I think it's so interesting that you can get one thing that's $4 at Whole Foods but at the Dollar Store it's only a $1. I don't know why, but I think they're so weird and interesting,” Blackwell said.
Overall, Blackwell definitely stays on his toes with his daily work and activities. One thing that is for certain, though, his love and dedication to PVOP is unwavering.
“PVOP has just improved so much throughout the years – it's really great to see that,” Blackwell said. “We have a lot of younger women coming in, too, and that has been good to see. That really helps with balancing out the sound. I'm really happy to see where PVOP is going. We're in a really good place right now.”