By Richard Byrne
Peabody alumni are planting seeds of excellence and building new audiences for classical music. Meet five who are leading the way right here in Maryland.
ON a chilly December afternoon at the Baltimore School for the Arts (BSA), Mellasenah Edwards (DMA ’99, Violin) works with the school’s string orchestra in a rehearsal room. Edwards’ job as head of the BSA’s music department involves significant administrative responsibilities, but she says that “the most important time for me is my face-to-face
time with students.”
Today, Edwards uses her experience as an accomplished violinist to help students navigate tricky passages in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major.
“I see too many eyeballs glued to the music,” quips Edwards. “That’s not going to work.”
As the young musicians grapple with the conclusion of the piece’s famous “Waltz” movement, Edwards pushes them further to sharpen their technique. “That last note should be the softest note ever,” says Edwards. “It can be just a touch.”
The conservatory education offered at Peabody emphasizes the individualized study that creates top-notch soloists, ensemble players, composers, and studio teachers. But for alumni such as Edwards and many others, it has also become a foundation for influential careers as educators and advocates for classical music in Maryland and beyond.
“Educators are, typically, performers,” says Terry Eberhardt (BM ’99, Voice; BM ’99, Music Education), the music coordinator in the Howard County Public School System. “You’re performing in the classroom all the time. Being taught how to perform really helped me get a jump start.”
Peabody alumni who have chosen this path are planting seeds of future excellence in the students who pursue music in classrooms, choruses, and ensembles for young people. They are also creating wider ripples in Baltimore and the region, building new audiences for the arts and, specifically, for the classical repertoire.
“As an educator, you’re sharing your knowledge with others,” observes Eric Conway (BM ’85, MM ’87, DMA ’95, Piano; JHU Bus MA ’93, Management), who leads the renowned Morgan State University Choir. “One way to really make a difference in this world is through contact with students in the next generation.”
Mining the Talents
As the music coordinator for Howard County public schools, Terry Eberhardt is a rising national star in music education. Howard County tapped Eberhardt to lead music instruction across its 76 schools in 2014 — including 19 gifted-and-talented and honors ensembles at elementary, middle, and high school levels.
The vibrancy of Howard County’s music programs demonstrates the power of music education to touch the lives of all 57,000 students in the district. “My role is to provide a place for every student to experience music in a positive way,” says Eberhardt.
Eberhardt’s pathway to his music education leadership role began at Marriotts Ridge High School, where he was tapped to create a choir at the newly opened school in 2005. “There’s nothing like being in a place where you can dream anything up and actually achieve it,” he recalls. “It’s what I refer to as utopia. I came in very young, and I was part time, and I had a principal who said: ‘Build what you want it to be.’”
Eberhardt nurtured the new ensemble into a powerhouse, which went on to perform at venues including the White House and the Kennedy Center. His success at Marriotts Ridge also made Eberhardt one of the hottest young music educators in the region and the nation. He was named Howard County Teacher of the Year in 2008 and made it to the semifinals of the prestigious nationwide Grammy Music Educator of the Year Award in 2015.
“I knew we could always work to improve,” recalls Eberhardt. “And that was a mentality I instilled in my kids. We were never perfect. We were always working to get better. And people recognized that I was challenging [my students] and demanding a high level of excellence.”
Bill Myers (BM ’62, MM ’68, Music Education) is another Peabody alumnus who has created pathways for young music students in the region — and helped build audiences along the way.
Myers played and arranged music as a service member in the U.S. Army in postwar Europe before attending Peabody. And though he has used his gifts to forge a career spanning six decades as a teacher and performer traveling the globe, Myers was determined to make his biggest mark in his hometown.
“I’ve climbed the ladder of success without leaving Baltimore,” says Myers. “I needed to be here on home ground to watch over the young folk, and teach them, and stimulate them.”’
Myers’ enduring achievement in the region is Maryland Sings — a nonprofit organization he founded in 1990 to provide young singers with a structured learning experience from childhood through adolescence.
Maryland Sings is based at the Reisterstown United Methodist Church, where Myers is also director of musical ministries. It comprises four ensembles that progress from “Maryland Singers” (starting at 9 years old) to the “Escape” ensemble of high-school level performers. The group accepts 20 members each year.
The Maryland Sings ensembles perform American standards and Broadway show tunes at an annual concert held each year, but the group also maintains a steady stream of public appearances in venues including Maryland Public Television, Fort McHenry, the Baltimore National Aquarium, and even the White House. The group was also a favorite of late Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer.
“I raise the goal [for Maryland Sings] each year,” says Myers. “It gets higher and higher. And they go to that level. I just have them remember: Love each other and enjoy each other’s gifts, as you are trying very hard to make your gifts become a reality.”
Shaping the Gift
As musical talents are identified and begin to develop, specialized training can help push young people even further.
At Baltimore School for the Arts, for instance, 400 students drawn from all over the city pursue a curriculum focused on shaping their talents. The BSA also identifies and nurtures young artists who may not have had opportunities for the organized instruction or personal lessons that many others find to be a path to conservatories or music schools.
Mellasenah Edwards was a student in the BSA’s first four-year class, graduating in 1985. She pursued studies in violin at the Eastman School of Music and at Yale University, but developed a passion for teaching along the way.
“When I was at Yale, I had the opportunity to start a string program — an afternoon program in a church,” Edwards recalls. “I absolutely enjoyed that. I think the little kiddies did it for me. I started making up songs and my own curriculum. That was me doing my own thing, and that was fun.”
Edwards taught in upstate New York before earning her doctorate at Peabody, and
then worked as an educator at Converse College and the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities before returning to her high school alma mater in 2009. Two years later, she became the BSA’s Music Department head.
“One of the most important things I can give is high expectations for every student,”
says Edwards. “Some of these students are coming from places where no one has had any expectations for them at all. And the other important thing is a love for what we do.”
Edwards says that she and other BSA graduates who teach at their high school alma mater are committed to helping Baltimore produce the next new generation of talented musicians. “There are quite a few alumni in the building,” she observes, “and I think we all want to keep the specialness of this school.”
Many of those students will find paths to musical excellence in higher education at places including the Eastman School of Music, the Juilliard School, Berklee College of Music, Yale University, and Oberlin College and Conservatory. As they do, many of them will be shaped by teachers such as Eric Conway.
Conway’s extensive training at Peabody was the foundation for a superlative career as a concert pianist, distinguished accompanist, and chorus master. But today, as leader of Morgan State University’s world-acclaimed choir, and chair of its Department of Fine and Performing Arts, Conway has found equal renown in his role as a music educator.
Morgan State’s choir is made up entirely of current university students, including music majors and those Conway calls “enthusiasts.” His initial involvement with Morgan State’s 140-voice choir came as an accompanist during the tenure of its legendary director and Peabody alumnus, the late Nathan M. Carter (DMA ’84, Choral Conducting).
“It was a great ride for me,” Conway says. “We traveled all over the world together. In many ways, I am trying to carry on what he started at Morgan.”
Conway became the choir’s director in 2004 and has extended its tradition of excellence into the new century. In 2017 alone, Morgan State’s choir sang at the inauguration of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, the funeral of Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory, and at a performance of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts with the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra at the Museum of Natural History. Over the years, the choir has also traveled to perform at destinations in Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, and Africa. “We’ve hit every continent but Antarctica,” says Conway.
Conway observes that the pursuit of excellence as a performer also has helped him achieve a high standard as an educator. “I tell my students all the time: You want to be the best musician you can, so you can then share that musicianship with others,” he says. “If the level of musicianship is not very high, then what you will be able to impart will not be as significant.”
Enlarging the Circle
Music education stretches beyond nurturing students. It is work that also creates more knowledgeable communities to appreciate the music future performers will make.
Since 1990, Jonathan Palevsky (MM ’86, Guitar) has been the program director of WBJC-FM, the classical station affiliated with Baltimore City Community College. He hosts a number of the station’s most prominent programs, including Music in Maryland, Face the Music, and the WBJC Opera Preview.
But WBJC is also a springboard for Palevsky’s numerous efforts to promote classical music in Baltimore — a city he has called home since he arrived at Peabody from Canada in 1982. He also makes numerous appearances introducing concerts and teaching adult courses at Johns Hopkins University and Towson University.
Palevsky says that as powerful as radio can be, the medium has its limitations as an educational tool. “Radio is like a hop on, hop off bus,” he observes. “How people use the radio is up to them.” His lectures and classes in the community attract “a focused audience that really wants to tune in.”
WBJC has successfully navigated the immense technological revolutions of the past three decades — from vinyl albums to streaming audio. These days, anyone in the world can listen at any hour of the day. “Radio’s challenges are substantial,” says Palevsky.
“There are huge changes in the classical music world right now. You can feel it.”
Preparing today’s students for sweeping changes in audience is a key element of music pedagogy at any level. Yet, say these Peabody alumni, building character in young people is as important as developing musicianship.
Myers says his time working with conductor Robert Shaw and his famous chorale taught him the importance of “how you carry yourself” as a musician. Maryland Sings emphasizes not only vocal performance, but an attention to presentation and detail that transforms its participants into “young professional warriors” ready to perform at nontraditional venues, including television studios, government buildings, and outdoor stages.
“We are all here for a reason,” says Myers. “And think beyond the poverty, or whatever else is bothering you, or preventing you from growing. Teachers must get kids beyond all that, and to know they can grow to become someone else or something else.”
Conway says extending the legacy of excellence that he inherited from Nathan Carter requires identifying Morgan State students who possess character as well as vocal chops.
“One thing I resolve is that no matter how great your talent may be, you must also be a good citizen,” says Conway. “You must be a person with integrity. Singing is a key to the soul, and one of the hallmarks of my groups over the years has been a genuine sincerity of sound. A purpose when we sing, so that you can’t help but listen.”
The ripples created by these Peabody alumni who have chosen careers as educators reverberate throughout the region, the nation, and even the world.
“Music education — and music — can change your life,” says Eberhardt. “There are moments in life that transcend the rest of your life. Music has given those moments to me. That’s what I want to do for kids. I want them to have amazing experiences as well.”
Edwards recalls that she didn’t foresee a career in education as she studied to become a performer. Now, however, her work at Baltimore School for the Arts is an essential element in her professional life.
“I opened up that door,” says Edwards, “and found another way to love music.”