Maria A. Ellis, founder of Girl Conductor LLC and host of Bach & Beyoncé, was tasked in January 2020 by The St. Louis Children’s Choirs to start a new inner city choir. In the very segregated St. Louis, Ms. Ellis explained, The St. Louis Children’s Choirs are located on one side of town. Black people were on the other side of town. After the first (successful) concert in March, the newly formed choir had one rehearsal and COVID shut everything down. It was devastating. After the ACDA Webinar which stated it was unsafe to sing, Ms. Ellis worked creatively to support a variety of choral professionals. When George Floyd was murdered, she was asked to provide training on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Asked if the DEI momentum was the same now as in Summer 2020, Ms. Ellis paused to reflect. This is being Black in America, she explained; something terrible happens, and everybody says “This is horrible! Let’s never do those things again.” Last summer, it was trendy to host diversity sessions and put black boxes on social media, but in 2021 there’s video of a math teacher in a headdress and resistance to teaching with a Critical Race Theory lens because people don’t want to make white kids uncomfortable. What about Black kids? Who wants to hear about how their ancestors were beaten, stolen, killed for the color of their skin? It’s not a good feeling. Concern for them slowly fades away.
Ms. Ellis wonders if the energy and emotional effort to facilitate trainings and conversations matter if nothing changes. Many continue to do what they have always done, not rising to the challenge of the work, often because they aren’t sure what to do. Her recommendation is “remixing,” changing how we do things. Teaching standards, vocal pedagogy, sight-singing, etc., but remixing it so everybody feels seen. Changing warm-ups or adding a new twist to a folk song so students feel they have access to and own the song. Program music by Black composers outside of Black History Month. Be intentional about programming, explore the diverse repertoire available, and don’t “other” any style of music.
Ms. Ellis teaches at Sumner High School, the oldest Black high school West of the Mississippi. She’s building a choral program at a school that hasn’t had one in over 20 years. She isn’t teaching in a conventional way; these are kids who feel like they’ve already been rejected by society. She builds relationships and wants students to be able to speak and communicate music no matter who they are talking to. In the Black church, she says, musicians will often use numbers to communicate chords, not necessarily solfege. So she teaches solfege and numbers. She remembers starting music classes in college– she felt so behind, because there was “basic stuff” she didn’t know. She was used to learning by rote. But people who learn, sing, and play by ear have a skill set that is important. Numbers, solfege, takadimi, counting, rote, Gordon… Which system is “the best”? Whichever system our students use to keep singing in their communities. So give students access to all of it.
When she first auditioned for the music program in college, she didn’t know how to read music, and she didn’t get accepted. She then studied with a friend and was accepted. As she reflects on that, she sees how heart-breaking that situation was: if she wouldn’t have had that friend, where would her path have gone? What about the people that don’t have access to the friend she had? Because of this, Ms. Ellis is committed to getting music skills to all people, including adults. If we want to keep people singing, we shouldn’t allow anyone to feel bad if they don’t have a certain skill. We, as choral professionals, need to create paths forward.
Ms. Ellis first created Girl Conductor to help create paths; she wanted to showcase women on the podium. When she was in high school, she saw women in the classroom, but not on the podium. Thinking her only way forward was in education, she decided to pursue business. She didn’t love that field, and went back to school for music (with three young children!). Her company now provides diverse music resource products, entrepreneurship classes for fellow educators who want to start businesses, professional development sessions and more. Recently in a conversation with conductor Chaowen Ting, the founder of Girls Who Conduct, Maria’s whole perspective of being a minority changed. She didn’t feel she was the only person being “the only one.”
“When you know better, you do better.” The choral profession has the opportunity to become more equitable, to do better. “We didn’t do 2020 for nothing,” she said, stating that people have to keep pushing their organizations. When we diversify who is in the room, everyone benefits through new perspectives, thoughts, and values. “I don’t want to sit in a room with people who know just as much as me. I can’t throw like that. I need to sit by someone else and get their perspective,” she said.