2020 Graduates: URI music education senior celebrates music as a force for change

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 5, 2020 – From teaching music in Africa, to performing in a nonprofit choir in Boston, to starting a treble group that supports women in music, Elise Felker has explored her passion for music education in many ways.

Felker, who graduates in May with a degree in music education, was initially interested in musical theater, but took a different career path when she realized the impact of music education.

Last summer, Felker interned at Casterbridge Music Development Academy in South Africa, a nonprofit organization that helps underprivileged teens become entrepreneurs in the music industry. She earned money for the trip to Africa through singing competitions and several URI scholarships, including a Metcalf Fellowship.

“I was living with a host family outside of the slums in Nairobi, Kenya, and teaching the students music theory,” said Felker, of North Kingstown. “It was different and exciting because they treated me like I was one of them. That was an eye-opening experience because I saw how helpful music can be in nonprofit work.”

Felker also developed an interest in teaching music in prisons. She joined a social justice choir called Voices 21C in Boston, and participated in community outreach programs and collaborated with people who had been released from prison after being incarcerated for years.

“I think as music teachers, we preach that music is for all,” she said. “We have to uphold that motto, and that includes the forgotten people who are incarcerated. Music has such a healing power to it that these people who are forgotten by society and the government need more than anyone else. If they go into prison broken and if they get to leave, they have to leave from there less broken. I think art can truly help with that.”

Voices 21C recently performed at a convention in Rochester, New York, for the American Choral Directors Association, with a program called “We Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest.”  The performance included songs about feminine identity, the refugee crisis and mass incarceration that were emotionally charged and motivating, Felker said.

Felker has always loved treble repertoires and barbershop quartets. But when she found out that there weren’t many female barbershop quartets in the country, she started her own treble chorus at URI, Voices Excelsis.

“This is one of my proudest works because we created conversations around equality in the music industry and an environment of women supporting women and everyone else,” Felker said. “Right now, the group consists of female identifying people, but anyone is welcome.”

Voices Excelsis has conducted numerous concerts at URI and elsewhere, including performances at churches, private gatherings and at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Felker hopes that the group will continue growing at URI even after her graduation.

Felker attributes the success of her initiatives at URI to the support of faculty at the Department of Music and tireless commitment of other music enthusiasts like herself.

“They have supported me through thick and thin,” Felker said. “They make sure that no one graduates as a cookie-cutter version of what the faculty thinks a URI music student should look like. We all have different values and interests and the faculty seems to cherish that and tries to give us opportunities that match well with what we want.”

Felker believes that most music educators seek work in public education. However, she wants to take her love for teaching music beyond the classroom and into social rehabilitation, where she believes it is needed most.

“You’re not just teaching people the rhythms and notes, you have an opportunity to teach people how to become fully formed human beings,” Felker said. “When you experience music through any medium, you feel human emotions and connections which is not something you necessarily get in algebra. I think we as future music educators have a unique opportunity and social responsibility to teach music to students to become better humans, rather than technique. That’s why I’m strongly passionate about it.”

After graduation, Felker plans to combine her passion for music and working for nonprofit organizations. Her long-term goal is to open her own music camp that helps refugee children.

Edhaya Thennarasu, an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at URI and Communications major, wrote this press release.