Associate professor carries on mentor’s legacy
One day, when John Ellis was a child, a piano was delivered to his home in suburban New York.
He came from the Everett Piano Factory in South Haven, where his grandfather worked. His mother, a clarinetist with a degree in music education from Western Michigan University, taught Ellis and his brother the basics of piano before handing things over to a local instructor.
After learning scales and other skills during his elementary school years, Ellis cooled off on the instrument as a preteen in the early 1970s, preferring rock ‘n’ roll and jazz instead. .
Eventually his mother found a jazz teacher, but he soon left town. After more research, her mother hired Arthur Cunningham, an African-American composer who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Classical Composition, before Ellis entered his freshman year of high school. The connection was immediate.
“My mom hit the jackpot with him,” said Ellis, an associate professor of piano and piano pedagogy at the School of Music, Theater and Dance. “He was a mentor in many ways. He was the one who really made me think of a career in music because he was living it.
“He was like, ‘You can do anything. You can do whatever you want.’ So he was that kind of inspirational guy, always upbeat and saying yes. And for me at that age, that was really important to hear.
Ellis hopes to continue that same inspiration and encouragement with young people through two separate but parallel community engagement efforts: the Piano Pedagogy Lab Program and the Our Own Thing Piano Program.
Launched in 1983, the PPLP has two complementary goals: to provide teacher training for UM music students and to provide piano lessons to pre-college students in the community.
Seventy elementary through high school students enrolled in the tuition-based program for the 2021-22 year and received private lessons from guest lecturers, staff teachers and graduate student instructors in the program. graduate studies in piano pedagogy and performance which Ellis supervises. Exposing children to UM’s magnificent grand pianos and awe-inspiring recital halls is an essential pillar of the program.
“They’ve felt since they were little that they own this space and can be trusted in these places that may seem off limits to me for many years,” Ellis said.
PPLP students follow a program that includes annual exams and several recitals and master classes in UM halls. PPLP students develop musical and performance skills through group and private lessons throughout the school year as well as during the summer.
Our Own Thing, a grassroots organization based in Ypsilanti, has been around since 1968 and was founded by Willis Patterson, professor emeritus of music at UM. Several years ago, one of Ellis’ graduate students, Leah Claiborne, and Patterson brought up the possibility of a partnership with SMTD to bring students from the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area into Our Own Thing at M.
Our Own Thing is less formal than PPLP and is part of SMTD’s Office of Engagement and Outreach’s Michigan Artist Citizen program. Thirteen students of varying ages and abilities took free lessons during the 2021-22 school year. Ellis meets the students in groups and teaches them various piano skills before they take their private lessons with UM student teachers under his supervision.
“Our Own Thing is a community organization with a mission to increase access to music lessons for young people, and we all work as a team to fulfill their mission with our involvement and collaboration with them,” said Ellis. “And it helps us fulfill our mission to create the next generation of artist teachers at SMTD.
“Through this SMTD student teachers learn to work together in the community honoring and uplifting diverse cultures and experiences. Robin Myrick, Manager of SMTD Community Engagement Programs, plays an important role in training SMTD student teachers in this regard.
With the same enthusiasm that Cunningham used to inspire Ellis as a child, Ellis meets with the families of Our Own Thing students to determine their goals.
“We ask families, ‘What do you want your child to learn?’ It could be a song to play in church or in a school assembly or at home,” he said. ” It’s really practical. These are things that guide our program, and my job as program faculty director is to help all teachers implement this week with every student.
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“It’s a program that evolves with each student as we go through it. And I found myself very energized teaching that way because that’s what I had with my teacher in high school. I work with the teachers in the program to put this philosophy into practice. I’m so excited to work with wonderful teachers in piano pedagogy and piano performance majors, as well as voice and musical acting students who have piano skills they’re happy to share.
Ellis’ earliest memories of being exposed to music were sitting on his grandmother’s lap while she played ragtime. His grandmother earned a music degree from UM in the 1920s, and Ellis called it a “moving experience” when he accepted his position at UM in 2000 and saw the name his grandmother in old music programs.
He considers himself a classical pianist but has put aside his performance schedule to focus on finishing several research publications. Two of them are linked to Cunningham, who continues to inspire Ellis to open the world of music to as many young people as possible through the two programs.
“I think it’s important in both the PPLP and Our Own Thing programs that kids feel like they own the space, it’s theirs and they can be artists here,” he said. -he declares.
Questions and answers
What memorable workplace moment stands out?
I will always remember the feeling of seeing all of the Our Own Thing piano program students and families in person after being online the previous year due to the pandemic. They came last January to a conference-recital on African-American composers given by my former doctoral student, Leah Claiborne. It was like a big and joyful reunion after all the hardships of the pandemic lockdown. There was the same feeling at the first in-person recital for PPLP last year. It was moving to see our resilient students and teachers meet again in person and celebrate creating live music.
What can’t you live without?
Family, music, poetry (to read and write), education, long walks, theater and cinema. And I love talking about all these things with friends… so I should add friends to the list!
Name your favorite place on campus.
The pond near the Moore Building on North Campus. I love seeing the herons and other birds that appear there from time to time. They bring small moments of surprise to the day.
What inspires you?
Poetry — lately, Mary Oliver, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marie Howe, Linda Gregerson, WB Yeats, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many more. Theater too. Our daughter, Adriana, is an actress in New York. Watching her perform and talking with her about the art of acting is a constant source of inspiration. I am also inspired by French music, literature and cinema. My wife is French and we like to try to see all the French movies that are playing at the Michigan Theater or in the state. … I’m also inspired by my faculty colleagues who challenge me and push me to think anew.
What are you currently reading?
“The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act” by Isaac Butler. It’s a fascinating story of how an idea that was developed in 19th century Russia evolved into an approach that changed the course of how we look at film and theatre.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career path?
My piano teacher during my high school years, Arthur Cunningham. As an African-American composer, he had to struggle to have his music heard. Yet despite this, he had an upbeat, bubbly personality that was contagious. He taught me to be confident that I could make a living in music that encompassed all of my seemingly divergent passions (piano, writing, playing, teaching).