IN UNISON scholarship makes a sweet tune for Maria Ellis

by | May 17, 2015

The UMSL student spent 12 years in sales for AT&T but always knew music was where her heart was.
UMSL student Maria Ellis rehearses for a performance with the University Singers. (Photo by August Jennewein.)

UMSL student Maria Ellis rehearses for a performance with the University Singers. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Maria Ellis spent 12 years in sales for AT&T but always knew music was where her heart was.

She worked in a cubicle all week, but spent much of her free time as the director of the children’s choir at Lively Stone Church of God in St. Louis. Then, with a layoff notice from AT&T came a silver lining. She would no longer have a job, but the company would pay for her to return to school. She chose the University of Missouri–St. Louis and made the easy decision to major in music.

“That’s how I became a music major, to study the thing I’m most passionate about,” Ellis said. “My ambition is to eventually become a conductor and teach voice lessons.”

She grew up around music. Her mother was president of her former church choir. Her father and his siblings toured with their own family gospel group, the Chapman Singers. Ellis graduated from Riverview Gardens High School in St. Louis and originally studied business before working for the phone company.

Ellis is thriving as a student at UMSL. She is one of four recipients of the IN UNISON Performance Scholarship. The St. Louis Symphony administers IN UNISON as a diversity outreach program. The scholarship provides funding, mentorship and performance opportunities for music students and was recently transformed into a scholarship solely for UMSL students.

Brian Owens, a UMSL alumnus, directs the IN UNISON Scholarship program and said reserving the program for UMSL students allows for stronger relationship building and talent development.

“It’s easy when everybody is in the same place,” Owens said. “I love the fact that it’s in north county. We want to see our students as resources for the community. We like having a partnership with UMSL where we develop students within the context of the community that they’re in.”

In addition to Ellis, percussionist Matthew Clark, bassoonist Joseph Hendricks and violinist Octavia Sydnor are returning recipients of the scholarship.

Ellis hopes that participating in the program will help her achieve her goal of being a conductor and building a strong music program at a school with a high minority population.

“IN UNISON is amazing,” she said. “It gives you lots of exposure and the ability to work one-on-one with people that you actually aspire to be. It gives you the opportunity to be surrounded by so many incredible musicians and learn from some of the best people in St Louis.”

Even though Ellis has been involved in music since childhood, she had little formal training. Gospel music is traditionally taught by ear, rather than sheet music. To further herself as a musician, and to help the members of her childrens’ choir, Ellis knew she would have to learn more formal techniques, such as reading sheet music.

As a UMSL student, Ellis also sings in the UMSL Opera Theatre, University Singers and Vocal Point.

In addition to working in her church, Ellis hopes to teach in a school with a lot of minority students who might not otherwise have access to a strong music program. She hopes to offer students the education they need to pursue music studies at the college level if they chose.

“My goal is to build a strong music program so that my students at school and church would have the ability to read music,” Ellis said. “Everything I learn, I teach it to my choir members so they’ll grow up to be strong musicians as well and have love for music. IN UNISON and UMSL are helping me to do that.”

The UMSL Experience

Rachel Webb

Rachel Webb