When St. Louis native Maria A. Ellis stepped onto the podium at Carnegie Hall in New York City on June 25, she did so in four-inch hot pink stilettos.
Ellis always conducts in heels, and her debut on the world-renowned stage was no exception. Wearing heels makes her feel powerful, she says, and shares her personal style with the world. It also proves one of her former instructors, who told her she couldn’t wear heels on the podium, wrong and serves as a reminder of who she is and how far she’s come.
That same empowering attitude and trailblazing spirit permeate Ellis’ work. As the founder of St. Louis-based Girl Conductor, Ellis teaches music in a way that feels more authentic to her, incorporating elements of gospel, R&B, and hip-hop to help kids understand different musical concepts.
While songs like “Here Comes the Bride” and “Auld Lang Syne” are often played in music classes to help students recognize intervals between notes, you won’t hear them during Ellis’ lessons. You might, however, hear Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl,” “Love on Top,” or “Irreplaceable.” (Yes, Ellis attended Beyoncé’s August show in St. Louis, complete with a sign that promoted her work teaching intervals using the superstar’s songs.)
“Do kids even know ‘Auld Lang Syne?’” Ellis says. “It doesn’t feel relevant today, so instead I use the Beyoncé intervals. I’ve taken lyrics from her songs where she’s singing these various intervals and that’s how I teach the kids their intervals. I use their music to teach the same concept.”
Ellis developed a passion for music at an early age, watching her father and his eight siblings perform together as The Chapman Singers and tagging along with her mom to church choir rehearsals. At just 12 years old, she started directing her church’s children’s choir and was hooked on conducting. She taught herself what to do by closely watching choir directors, whether in person at her church or on episodes of “Bobby Jones Gospel” on Sunday mornings, mimicking what they were doing and learning patterns in music.
“I always loved watching the choir directors,” she says. “I loved the power they had, that they could control what was happening musically. And I just knew that was something I wanted to do. The first time I was able to direct a choir, I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I take music very seriously because it runs in my veins — I know that may sound cliché, but it does. I feel every chord change, every key change. I feel it, and it just gives me so much joy and happiness, and I love sharing that with people.”
But while Ellis knew she loved conducting, she didn’t realize at the time that it could be a viable career path. As a student at Riverview Gardens High School in Bellefontaine Neighbors, she was told she could become a music teacher, but knew a life in a traditional classroom just wasn’t for her. Instead, she chose to study business at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., landing a job back in St. Louis at AT&T after graduation.
It wasn’t until her pastor at Lively Stone Church of God asked her to revamp the church’s children’s choir that she realized what she had been missing out on. She quickly fell in love with teaching music to a group of children between the ages of two to 12 on Wednesday nights. Eventually, she got to the point where she felt she had taught the kids everything she knew — except how to read music, as Ellis herself never formally learned how to do so.
With her eyes now set on a formal music education, Ellis auditioned for a music program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2013, but, because she didn’t know how to read music, she didn’t get in. Disappointed yet determined, she spent the summer months working closely with a friend on music literacy, including counting notes and sight reading. That August, she auditioned at UMSL again and was accepted, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in music education with an emphasis in voice.
As Ellis learned how to read music, she realized that she could understand the concepts if she translated them into styles of music that she knew, such as gospel, hip-hop, and R&B. Realizing other students could benefit from this approach, she began to carve out her niche in the world of music education.
“The way the majority of schools teach music is all via Western classical music,” she says. “I didn’t speak that language because I didn’t grow up hearing Bach or Beethoven or Mozart in my house. I was lost and I struggled. But then I realized that I knew the concepts, I just didn’t speak the language. Once I started putting it into language that I knew, like gospel music, everything started to make sense to me.
“After that, I decided that I wanted to teach music in a way that kids can understand, just using things that they already hear. I saw a need; I saw the kids who were like me who grew up loving music, but just never learned to read (music). They didn’t listen to classical music, so sometimes those concepts are hard to understand if you don’t even know what you’re listening to. So I found a way to make it easier. We always say that music is a universal language, but it needs to look universal. I want to remove that barrier that only kids from certain zip codes get to learn how to read music. It should be for everybody.”
Ellis founded Girl Conductor to make music literacy accessible to all students and to showcase women — particularly Black women — on the podium. The business offers music education resources that center diversity, such as a rap video that teaches beginning music readers how to identify different note types and a diagram of solfège hand signs featuring diverse skin tones. Ellis also travels the country to work directly with clients on individual voice lessons, creative coaching, and customized choral workshops; recently, she even worked with a choir in South Korea over Zoom. One day — in addition to conducting with Elmo on “Sesame Street” — she dreams of opening the Maria A. Ellis School of Music.
She’s constantly seeking out new ways to get young people interested in music, referencing viral videos on TikTok or Beyoncé’s “Everybody on Mute” challenge to get their attention. Her unconventional approach has proved successful, with past students going on to appear in stage productions across the country and even Burger King commercials.
In addition to her work with Girl Conductor, Ellis is the founding conductor of The Sheldon’s All-Star Chorus and also recently started a new community gospel choir, Voices of Jubilation, that meets at UMSL and is open to all ages. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree with an emphasis in choral conducting from Webster University and also hosts two local radio shows, “American Gospel” and “Bach & Beyoncé,” which air on Classic 107.3.
When Ellis made her debut at Carnegie Hall in June, she conducted singers from children’s choruses around the country, including 22 members of the All-Star Chorus. Ellis led the group in a performance of “Gospel Mass” by the late St. Louis composer Robert Ray, which Ellis chose as a way to represent St. Louis, Black composers, and her UMSL roots, as Ray had been an associate professor of music at UMSL.
She worked closely with Ray to prepare the work before he passed away in December, and while Ellis was disappointed not to be able to honor him while he was still alive, she was heartened that his sister was able to attend the performance in person this summer.
While the occasion marked a career milestone, she was most excited to be able to share it with her students and to represent St. Louis at such an iconic venue.
“It was important to me to highlight St. Louis because I am St. Louis-made,” Ellis says. “I really wanted to represent my city on one of the biggest stages in the world. I’m proud to be a St. Louis girl and I wear that title on my chest. That’s what I want St. Louis to know: I’m proud to be ya girl.”