Busta’s Person of the Week: ‘The Maestra of Winston-Salem’

December 07
09:55 2018

By Busta Brown

Maestra D’Walla Simmons-Burke is Winston-Salem State University’s director of Choral and Vocal Studies for the Department of Music. Professionally, she has had leading roles as a soprano in operas such as “Lost in the Stars,” “LaTraviata,” “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” “The Telephone,” and “The Old Maid and the Thief.”

For the past 30 years, Simmons-Burke has been pouring her knowledge and talents into the five choral ensembles that she founded at Winston-Salem State University. “I enter the classroom every day and take what I have and have them to understand that they have to be the best they can be. We don’t set goals of winning awards or things such as that. Our goals are very practical; it takes patience, it takes a sense of humor, it takes not taking yourself so seriously, and to understand what they’re bringing to the table is valuable.”

The gifted Maestra also teaches her students some tough and very real-life lessons. They were invited to sing for one of the University’s corporate sponsors at an international affair, with people from many different countries in attendance, and just before they were to perform, “… when we got there, the person that invited us came out and said, ‘you should not sing Negro Spirituals.’ I was stunned, and as soon as she went back in, I turned around and instructed my students to get on the bus.” 

I immediately thought to myself: good for her; way to go! That was a bold move by a bold woman. The students followed their courageous leader without hesitation. She continued, “On the way back I really understood the gravity of what I had just done, because it was a corporation here that supports the University here.” Then the phone rang; it was their then Chancellor calling to ask what happened. Simmons-Burke said, “I told the Chancellor what transpired and the Chancellor at that time said I have no problem with that.”

That didn’t stop The Singing Rams from moving forward. Simmons-Burke is the mastermind behind the renowned Winston-Salem State Choir, aka The Singing Rams, who has performed for President George W. Bush; Kweisi Mfume; former President/CEO of the NAACP; a five-term Democratic Congressman; Susan Taylor, former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine from 1981 through 2000; former North Carolina Governor James Hunt; Maya Angelou; and Pope John Paul II, to name a few.

The Singing Rams has become one of the most sought-after performances in the country. They were invited to sing at the world-renowned Carnegie Hall eight times.  “We received a call saying we’ve been following your group and we really think it’s time for them to make an appearance on a national stage at Carnegie Hall,” said Simmons-Burke.  “I couldn’t believe it, and I said yes, of course, right away. I agreed with the organization, because it’s time for these students to be recognized on another level.” She said the students didn’t understand how big of a deal it was to perform at Carnegie Hall until afterward. “When they came back, they came [back] differently. So these exposures always offer our young people a different way about what it is that they’ve done, because other ears are hearing them that don’t get to hear every day.”

The renowned choir also performed with the Gateways Symphony Orchestra; Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; D’Vorak Symphony Orchestra; Colour of Music Festival Symphony Orchestra; and the New England Symphony Orchestra. Although Maestra Simmons-Burke and the Singing Rams don’t focus on winning awards, they have won a few and were nominated for a Grammy.

With all that Maestra Simmons-Burke has accomplished, she stays very humble. “I ask myself how many times you can say this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” 

Maestra Simmons-Burke has a very impressive resume. She’s conducted the 105 Voices of History Concert Choir as a National Conductor at The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center, and in Nassau, Bahamas. She is a recipient of the 105 Voices of History Kennedy Center Performing Arts Award. During her time with the 105 Voices of History, Simmons-Burke was the National Choral Coordinator and one of three conductors who led the 105 Voices of History Concert Choir in their inaugural performance at the Grand Ole Opry.

This past Sunday was Winston-Salem State University Choir’s Annual Holiday Concert. It’s one of the most talked about holiday events in the Twin City, so I asked the Maestra what is the magic of the concert. Simmons-Burke responded, “I asked some community friends and they said it’s always a family-oriented concert. You always try to emerge some community group within your concert, and you can’t get a concert like this for free.”

Go to our YouTube channel at Winstonsalem Chronicle to see the rest of my interview with “The Maestra of Winston-Salem,” D’Walla Simmons-Burke. You’ll feel her beautiful and warm spirit, hear her comments on performing for President George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II. She also shared how the community can help support her students, and the choir’s big plans for 2019.

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