Madison Conservatory deliberately deemphasizes classical music’s largely white history

Music educator Melanie de Jesus, founder and director of Madison Conservatory, is challenging the traditional paradigm to make music education more inclusive for all students.
group of people playing strings information
Photo by Hillary Schave
Madison Conservatory founder Melanie de Jesus (left and second from right below) directs students (clockwise from far right) Talon Edseth-Griffin, Mariah Justice and Nazira Atalla.

For any profession, paving the way for up-and-coming practitioners who will one day carry the discipline forward is paramount. Professional musicians — at least those of a classical bent — are no different, and most are willing to help young performers master the art form.

But there’s one catch. Centuries of classical music have been defined, practiced and viewed primarily through the work of white, male European composers. The myopic lens has led to limited points of entry for many young musicians of color, who rarely are presented with classical concert compositions by Asian, Black, Latino or non-male composers. Music educator Melanie de Jesus, founder and director of Madison Conservatory, is challenging the traditional paradigm to make music education more inclusive for all students.

“The guiding principle behind the Madison Conservatory is that all children — and all people, really — deserve music,” de Jesus says, adding that one of the organization’s primary goals is to eliminate finances as a barrier for students. “We’re dedicated to bringing those opportunities to any child who wants them.”

De Jesus, who grew up in Madison, studied viola at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, which also counts violinist Joshua Bell, trumpeter Chris Botti and opera soprano Sylvia McNair among its distinguished alumni. After 10 years as a freelance orchestra performer, de Jesus returned to Madison to be near family.

“I’m Southeast Asian and, while there are plenty of us in Wisconsin, there weren’t plenty of us in local classical music,” de Jesus says. “Classical music is culturally embedded in the white, male European tradition, and as an accidental byproduct we tend to value their music to the exclusion of others’.”

De Jesus admits she loves Beethoven, but when you only hear music from him and his contemporaries, the focus skews away from composers of color. This often means the needs of students — and audiences — are not adequately served, she says.

Melanie de Jesus playing the violin

Melanie de Jesus (Photo by Hillary Schave)

The violist has kept those thoughts in mind as she enters her 11th season as an instructor with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, or WYSO, and Music Makers, a private school founded by Bonnie Greene that has since been absorbed by WYSO. Greene now serves as a Madison Conservatory instructor.

De Jesus launched Madison Conservatory in January 2020 and was almost immediately disrupted by COVID-19 pandemic closures. She pivoted to an active online presence, which helped attract and serve more than 50 private lesson students, 22 of whom are part of her personal “studio” through which she specializes in college-bound classical players with eyes on professional careers but has students as young as 5. The online-only presence also allowed de Jesus to attract top-notch musicians and instructors from among her personal contacts outside the area. Master classes with members of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and the San Antonio Symphony, as well as Oxford University’s Artist-in-Residence, violist Clifton Harrison, were among the highlights of this past school year, de Jesus says.

“Students of color comprise 75% of our total student body,” she says. “Every parent in the world wants a place where they know their children will shine. Whatever we’re doing, we must be doing it right.”

Fellow professional violist and Indiana University graduate Marika Fischer Hoyt agrees with de Jesus’ assessment.

“The Madison Conservatory is known for reaching underserved populations and people who otherwise couldn’t afford lessons,” says Fischer Hoyt, who also helms Bach Around the Clock, the annual local celebration of the 17th century Baroque composer’s music. “The conservatory helped us reach out to Black and brown musicians and encourage them to participate.”

De Jesus sits on the Bach board and will serve as its interim artistic director until July 2022 while Fischer Hoyt takes a sabbatical. De Jesus understands the value of her students’ participation in the event as part of both their classical education and, through participation, their ability to broaden the local classical music canvas. Instructors of color, many of whom she’s been able to attract for online sessions, also play a role in making music more accessible to all.

“Our overarching goal is to create a community of musicians and a feeling of belonging,” she says. “We’re happy to be the place where all students can try without being afraid of failure.”

Michael Muckian writes this arts and entertainment column monthly. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.