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2023 "40 Under 40" Educator Emily Williams Burch

Dr. Emily Williams Burch

Coordinator of Music Education,
Professor of Music
University of South Carolina, Aiken
Aiken, South Carolina

Dr. Emily Williams Burch has been described as a choral entrepreneur. “To me being a choral entrepreneur is embracing new technology as a way to deliver services, develop new content, create new formats and ultimately break the glass ceiling that is the definition of what a music educator can do,” she says. “As French educator Nadia Boulanger said, ‘To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.’ That’s the out-of-the-box thinking that I embrace as a choral entrepreneur.”

In addition to her position as Coordinator of Music Educator and Professor of Music at University of South Carolina Aiken, Burch is the Executive and Artistic Director of RISE Chorales, a community-based women’s choir, and RISE Outreach, the group’s nonprofit arm. The choral group, which was formed in 2016, shows the community that through singing, women can learn crucial work-readiness skills and other soft skills that will help them succeed throughout life. “It’s the flexibility and ability to innovate and create quickly that most excites me about the RISE Chorales,” Burch says.

The outreach arm started in 2021 and offers college scholarships for RISE singers, sponsors singers to explore RISE and other music opportunities, and provide programming throughout the city to communities that do not have musical opportunities. “We also have two active programs/collaborations,” Burch explains. “We bring music to a school with students who have learning difficulties as well as to a respite care center for adults with Parkinson’s or memory loss. The most rewarding moments are seeing students who struggle with reading or sequencing grasp concepts such as literacy, composing, arranging and performing on a variety of instruments including boomwhackers, recorders and ukuleles.”

Burch also reports seeing incredible progress at the care center when participants suddenly can move to the music, access a memory or story that was previously lost, or simply interact in new ways through music in order to provide stimulation and conversation.

Another hat that Burch proudly wears is podcast host. “Music (ed) Matters” started in April 2020, and each week, Burch meets up virtually with colleagues — known and unknown — and captures their stories and expertise. Every Tuesday morning, a new episode is released featuring educators, musicians, innovators, businesspeople — “basically anyone doing incredible things that can empower and enhance our world as music educators and lovers of music,” she says. 

As if all this isn’t enough, Burch co-authored the book, “The Business of Choir,” with Alex Gartner, and says the idea for the book “stemmed from a few podcast recordings and involved working  in collaboration — which is one of my extroverted self’s favorite things to do!”

The best advice from the book, according to Burch, is that every choir (or band, orchestra, music classroom or space) has a story worth sharing — a legacy of tradition, time, love and incredible music. “But a legacy is not built on these idyllic terms alone,” Burch says. “Some important, yet occasionally overlooked, concepts are missing, such as recruitment, volunteerism, evaluation, strategic planning, accounting and fundraising, to name a few. The book enables you to connect the minutia to the music and ultimately help you quantify your choir’s story and impact on your singers and within your community. The more people who know, the more lives we can impact through the power of music!”