Anyone who happens to step foot inside The Sheldon Concert Hall on a Monday night may just hear “Super Duper Double Bubble Gum” wafting through the halls. That would be conductor Maria A. Ellis leading the All-Star Chorus, the concert hall’s youth choir, through its warm-up for its rehearsal. As she snaps her fingers, claps and bounces to keep the beat, she also keeps the chorus on pitch and on point when singing selections such as Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” and “Silver and Gold” by Kirk Franklin. Ellis travels the country conducting and teaching choirs and providing voice lessons, helping singers tap into their potential and enhance their talent. She also provides professional development workshops for music teachers. With her students, she teaches that each song has a character and has them think about the intent of the composer and what the lyrics mean. When teaching spiritual selections, she encourages them to think about what the lyrics could mean today.
The St. Louis native grew up around music with two parents she refers to as amateur musicians. Her father and his siblings had a choir, The Chapman Singers, and as a kid, Ellis followed them around, mimicking their voices and learning how to sing the soprano, alto and tenor parts.
This informal introduction to music direction ignited her passion for conducting. At 12 years old, she became the conductor for her church’s youth chorus. Later, in high school, she sought support to continue her musical ambitions.
“I asked my high school teacher to put me on a path to conduct music full-time,” Ellis says. “And she told me, ‘Well, you can be a choir teacher.’ And that’s it. She said I could be a music teacher. And I said I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to teach music in a classroom. I never wanted to do that. I’m a free spirit and don’t want to be locked into one spot. So I pursued business and worked for AT&T. And then, in 2012, my pastor asked me to revamp our children’s choir.”
But in order to take her ambitions of conducting further, she needed to know music theory. So Ellis decided to go back to school and get a BM in music education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, with an emphasis in voice. Music theory wasn’t easy, but she found a way to understand.
“It is difficult, but we learn,” Ellis says. “I struggled really bad because it was like I was learning a new language. Everything was given to me via the lens of Western classical music. But when I was able to interpret that into music I knew, like gospel and hip-hop, then it wasn’t as hard. I just had to do it in my language.”
Ellis, who is pursuing her master’s in music at Webster University, continues to use music she feels is more relatable, like Beyoncé, as a music educator, traveling across the country conducting clinics with choirs and music groups via her company, Girl Conductor.
“One of the things I show is that you can teach music with a variety of genres,” she explains. “I can use the Farmers Insurance commercial,” she says, singing “We are Farmers, bum ba dum bum bum bum bum.” “I can teach music theory from that. I can teach you how to sight read that. I don’t use ‘Here Comes the Bride’ or ‘Auld Lang Syne’ because for my culture, I can’t tell you the first or the last time I’ve been to a wedding where the bride came down the aisle to that song. Those songs are not prevalent in my culture. So I want to use music kids listen to now and teach from that. That way we really can say we teach this universal language of music.”
Ellis created Girl Conductor not only to have her own music education business but also as a means to infuse the conducting arena with more diversity, particularly regarding women of color, whom Ellis didn’t see in that space until 2020.
Along with traveling the country offering music education, Ellis is also the founding director of the All-Star Youth Chorus at The Sheldon, currently conducting and teaching 23 students from 15 high schools across St. Louis. In June, she will be conducting 22 of the student performers along with 78 other singers from various choruses from around the country at Carnegie Hall.
“We will be doing a work called ‘Gospel Mass’ by Robert Ray,” she says. “I wanted to feature St. Louis in this performance. Ray was a professor at UMSL, and he composed the first gospel mass. I am nervous as this will be my first time conducting orchestra, but I am getting lots of help from my former UMSL professors and will be working with Dave Wacyk, UMSL’s director of instrumental ensembles, on some orchestral conducting techniques.”
Laurel Wacyk, who is director of education at The Sheldon and married to Dave, has observed Ellis’ enthusiasm for her work and helping her students reach their highest level of talent.
“Maria is highly motivated to offer student singers in St. Louis opportunities she never had,” Laurel says. “When you talk to her about her passion for this, you can feel it coming out of her bones. Because she wants to give them the best, she holds all her students to a high standard and celebrates when they rise to it. She is a team-builder and advocate.”
In addition to her knowledge, it is Ellis’ personal blend of energy, humility and gratitude that make her a standout leader as a music educator.
“Maria is a creative force,” Laurel says emphatically. “She generates vision for the program and is the momentum. What people who don’t know her personally may not realize is she is also gracious and humble. Even with the national name recognition she now holds in music education circles, Maria is eager to learn, quick to say ‘thank you’ and acknowledges the efforts of others in shared success.”
“I love working with young people,” Ellis adds.“They are so eager to learn and willing to try whatever method I give them. They trust me. I feel like a proud auntie watching her nieces and nephews grow.”
Coupled with her hard work, Ellis’ success can also be attributed to the support she’s received, from getting the opportunity to conduct her church choir as a kid to her time studying music at UMSL and receiving not only an education but a support system that’s made her feel included.
“I feel like UMSL is home,” she says. “I feel very welcomed. All of my teacher friends are at UMSL, and that’s home, so I love being connected to home.”