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Graduate student Maria Ellis breaks down barriers for high school musicians

The ballroom at the Sheldon Concert Hall is silent. But only until 5 p.m., when family dinner starts for the All-Star Chorus. Laughter and excitement fills the room as students take their seats. Dinner is in full swing when someone starts singing and everyone, no matter what they’re doing, stands up and joins in, “High School Musical” style. The hall is far from quiet as students sing and dance, all before rehearsals even begin. 

Webster University graduate student and conductor Maria Ellis formed the All-Star Chorus in 2018, giving students an opportunity to have access to a professional music education without traditional roadblocks. 

Under-funded high schools and communities in St. Louis often lack the resources for a music program, especially one that prepares students to enter a music major in college. Ellis knows this because she lived it.

For as long as she can remember, Ellis was around music. Her father and his eight siblings had a singing group and her mother was – and still is – the church choir president. Ellis herself was a gospel director by the time she was 12. She dreamed of becoming a professional conductor.                

Her dreams were brought to a screeching halt when she was rejected from the University of Missouri-Saint Louis (UMSL) music program. 

Ellis was a talented musician, but she lacked the education in music literacy. The schools she grew up in simply didn’t teach it. 

“It was heartbreaking because this was what I’ve wanted to do my whole life and I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have access to literacy,” she said. 

Contributed by Maria Ellis

Ellis refused to let that stop her. 

She worked all summer long with a friend who had just graduated. She was accepted into UMSL the following fall.

During her undergraduate experience at UMSL, Ellis worked in schools around her college. While observing music classes, she began to see a common thread. 

“I started noticing all these gaps in music literacy, and sometimes the gaps would come from the lower-income schools,” Ellis said. “Sometimes it happens because you have a music teacher in the classroom, and not a music educator.”

According to Ellis, a music teacher is someone who can sing well and enjoys music; but a music educator is someone who has a degree in music education – someone equipped to teach students the ins and outs of music. 

Fueled by her own experiences and what she noticed in schools in her own community, Ellis created the All-Star Chorus, a high school choir with access to opportunities to prepare students to enter whatever music-related career they choose.

Students who live in low-income areas might not be able to afford tuition for a professional choir experience, the transportation or the supplies necessary to be successful. Ellis ensured this wouldn’t stop them from achieving their dreams. 

“We wanted to try to remove as many barriers as we could require so those students don’t pay tuition. We cover the uniforms. We make sure that they have dinner every week and we transport them from school or from their home,” Ellis said. 

Ellis directs the choir, along with the help of two additional music professionals, Jermaine Manor and Jermaine Smith. 

Manor, who is one of Ellis’ professors of voice at Webster University, joined the chorus in 2021. 

Vocal lessons can be a pricey necessity for music students. Manor offers them for free for chorus students, who have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a vocal coach to learn music theory, how to breathe, sing and project.

“They (the students) come with so much raw talent and love,” Manor said. “This program is saying whether you read music or not, whether you’ve taken in a musical sense or not, our goal is when you walk out of those doors, you can get a music scholarship, you can be at All-state choir competition, you can go to Webster Conservatory, you can go to that and feel that you have tools.”

Abigail Seitter is a three-year veteran in the chorus and a high school senior. She is attending Kansas State University in the fall to study music.

“The choir turned out to be something that was completely life-changing. The trip to New York, the environment that I get to be in and just all the opportunities that I get to work with so many professionals and just learn the industry before I step into it is amazing,” Seitter said.  

Maria Ellis conducts the All Star Chrous at the Arts in Faith Concert in 2023. Photo contributed by Maria Ellis

Seitter remembers the first time she spoke with Ellis was over Zoom during her audition. She remembers Ellis telling her immediately after her audition was over that she was accepted into the chorus. 

“She is a one-of-a-kind teacher and she gives you opportunities like no other,” Seitter said. “She’ll check up on you, she will make sure that you’re doing okay with your life and she will make sure that you are doing what you need to do for you.”

Seitter’s mother passed away about a year after she began working with the chorus. Instead of forcing her to talk about it, Ellis helped her in the way she knew would speak to Seitter the best: through music.

“She helped me further go into music and just dedicate myself to what I love to do the most,” Seitter said. 

On the one-year anniversary of her mother’s passing, Seitter missed rehearsal and Ellis reached out to simply check in on her. 

Ellis considers herself an “auntie” to her students. Her passion for music and teaching shows through in her dedication to her choir. She will take students shopping if they need certain items for the chorus, check up on their grades, and make sure tutors are available. She even raised scholarships for students during COVID. 

“At the end of the year, I always cry because it’s really like just watching how they blossom throughout the year. You see kids who were scared to death to open their mouths and now they’re singing,” Ellis said. 

In June 2023, Ellis was invited to direct an orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York. She accepted, but she didn’t come alone. She worked to fundraise approximately $30,000 for her students and others from the area to travel to New York. They saw shows on Broadway, worked with professionals and – the icing on the cake – performed at Carnegie Hall. 

Another one of Ellis’ professors, Trent Patterson, helped her along the way for her huge debut. Patterson is the director of Choral Studies and Music Education at Webster and worked with Ellis last spring to prepare to conduct the orchestra. Even after the semester was over, he would continue to meet with her. Patterson flew to New York to watch her conduct, and even helped her backstage before the performance. 

“When she came to Webster and began working with me, she was already accomplishing so much, but to see her continue to grow and to share her passion with younger generations of students, share that energy in that passion is wonderful,” Patterson said.

Ellis is pursuing her master’s in Music. Her professors noticed her eagerness to learn and absorb as much in the classroom as possible. 

“She’s really hungry for the knowledge and for the skills because she really wants to grow,” Patterson said. 

“I’m constantly going places just so I can learn to be better,” Ellis said. “I want to better my craft because I want to be the best musician I can be and I want to be able to teach my students.”

Alongside her time with the choir, Ellis founded her own company, Girl Conductor, which showcases women in conducting and provides tools for people to learn music literacy. She hosts two radio shows and travels across the country to teach and speak about music education. 

“When I leave the earth in 80 years, I want to die when I’m 121, I want to be a person who’s made huge strides in music literacy and made it accessible to all people. No matter what your ZIP code is,” Ellis said.

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Gabrielle Lindemann