One day when John Ellis was a child, a piano was delivered to his suburban New York house.
It came from the Everett Piano Factory in South Haven, where his grandfather worked. His mother, a clarinetist with a music education degree from Western Michigan University, taught Ellis and his brother the basics of piano before turning things over to a local instructor.
After learning scales and other skills during his elementary school years, Ellis grew cold on the instrument as a pre-teen in the early 1970s, preferring instead rock ’n’ roll and jazz.
Eventually, his mother found a jazz teacher, but he soon left town. After more searching, his 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 mother hit the jackpot with him,” said Ellis, associate professor of piano and piano pedagogy in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “He was a mentor in so many ways. He’s the one who really got me thinking of a career in music because he was living it.
“He was like, ‘You can do everything. You can do whatever you want.’ So he was that kind of inspiring guy, always optimistic and saying yes. And for me at that age, that was really important to be hearing.”
Ellis hopes to carry on that same inspiration and encouragement to young people through two distinctly different but parallel community engagement efforts: the Piano Pedagogy Laboratory Program and the Our Own Thing piano program.
Launched in 1983, PPLP has two complementary goals: provide teacher-training for U-M music students, and provide piano lessons to pre-college-age students from the community.
Seventy students from elementary to high school enrolled in the tuition-based program for the 2021-22 year and were taught private lessons by lecturers, staff teachers and graduate student instructors in the Piano Pedagogy and Performance graduate program whom Ellis supervises. Exposing children to the beautiful grand pianos and daunting recital halls at U-M is a critical pillar of the program.
“They are feeling from the time they’re little children that they own that space and they’re able to be confident in these places that might seem forbidding and were for me for many years,” Ellis said.
PPLP students follow a curriculum that includes annual examinations and several recitals and master classes at U-M venues. Students in PPLP develop musicianship and performance skills through group and private lessons throughout the school year as well as during the summer.
Our Own Thing, an Ypsilanti-based community organization, has been around since 1968 and was founded by Willis Patterson, a professor emeritus of music at U-M. Several years ago, one of Ellis’ graduate students, Leah Claiborne, and Patterson connected about the possibility of partnering with SMTD to bring the Ann Arbor- and Ypsilanti-area students in Our Own Thing to U-M.
Our Own Thing is less formal than PPLP and is nested under the Michigan Artist Citizen program in SMTD’s Office of Engagement and Outreach. Thirteen students of varying ages and abilities took free lessons during the 2021-22 school year. Ellis meets with the students in groups and teaches them various skills on the piano before they take their private lessons with U-M student teachers under his supervision.
“Our Own Thing is a community organization that has a mission to increase young people’s access to music lessons, and we all work as a team to fulfill their mission with our involvement and collaboration with them,” Ellis said. “And that helps us fulfill our mission of creating the next generation of teaching artists at SMTD.
“Through this, the SMTD student teachers learn how to work together in community through honoring and lifting up diverse cultures and experiences. Robin Myrick, SMTD community engagement programs manager, plays an important role in training the SMTD student teachers in this regard.”
With the same can-do gusto that Cunningham used to inspire Ellis as a child, Ellis meets with the families of the students in Our Own Thing to determine their goals.
“We ask families, ‘What do you want your child to learn?’ It could be a song to be able to play in church or a school assembly or at home,” he said. “It’s really practical. These are things that drive our program, and my job as the faculty director of the program is to help all the teachers enact that week to week with each student.
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“It’s a curriculum that evolves with each student as we go through it. And I found myself very energized by 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 am really thrilled to be working with wonderful teachers from both the piano pedagogy and piano performance majors as well as voice and musical theatre students who have piano skills that they are excited 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 U-M in the 1920s, and Ellis called it a “moving experience” when he accepted his position at U-M in 2000 and saw his grandmother’s name in old music programs.
He considers himself a classical pianist but has set aside his performance schedule to focus on finishing several research publications. Two of them are related to Cunningham, who continues to inspire Ellis to open the world of music to as many youth as he can through the two programs.
“I feel like it’s important both in the PPLP and the Our Own Thing programs that children feel that they own the space, it’s theirs and that they can be artists here,” he said.
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
I will always remember the feeling of seeing all the students and families from the Our Own Thing piano program in person after being online during the previous year due to the pandemic. They came this past January to a lecture-recital on African American composers given by my former doctoral student, Leah Claiborne. It was like a great, joyous reunion after all the trials of the pandemic lockdown. There was the same feeling at the first in-person recital for PPLP this last year. It was moving to see our resilient students and teachers meet again in-person and celebrate live music making.
What can’t you live without?
Family, music, poetry (both reading and writing it), teaching, long walks, theater and film. And I love talking about all those things with friends … so I should add friends to the list!
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The pond by the Moore Building on North Campus. I love to see the herons and other birds that appear there from time to time. They bring little moments of surprise to the day.
What inspires you?
Poetry — lately, Mary Oliver, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marie Howe, Linda Gregerson, W.B. Yeats, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many others. Also theater. Our daughter, Adriana, is an actor in New York City. Watching her perform and talking with her about the art of acting is a constant inspiration. I am also inspired by French music, literature and film. My wife is French, and we enjoy trying to see every French film that plays at the Michigan Theatre or the State. … I am also inspired by my colleagues on the faculty who challenge me and provoke me to think anew.
What are you currently reading?
“The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act” by Isaac Butler. It is a fascinating history 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 theater.
Who 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 get his music heard. Yet, despite that, he had an optimistic, ebullient personality that was infectious. He taught me to be confident that I could make a life in music that encompassed all my seemingly divergent passions (piano, writing, acting, teaching).