The Gift of Music: The Uel Wade Music Scholarship

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Uel Wade and Marion Hunter
Uel Wade and Marion Hunter

You could drive through the center of Spencertown, New York in about the time it takes to hiccup. There’s the general store, a couple of real estate offices, a post office, and an 18th century church – charming, yet not surprising. But hidden on a hillside at the edge of town is a busy arts center called the Spencertown Academy, and for the past fifteen years this former, little 1847 schoolhouse in this tiny village has hosted arguably the richest high school music competition in the Northeast – the Uel Wade Music Scholarship.

On May 23, 2010, the Scholarship competition awarded a $3,000 top prize and a total of $6,000 in scholarships to five of the most talented high-school music students from nearby counties. To put this amount of prize money in perspective, even the Van Cliburn amateur competition awards only $2,000 to its first-prize winner.

The size of the prize fund, which sends the money directly to the winners’ schools or music teachers to apply to future studies, is a testament not only to the passion, leadership, and fund-raising abilities of one man, Uel Wade, for whom the scholarship is named, but also to the generosity and deep love for music of the competition’s over four-dozen supporters within this Eastern New York village, population 122, and the surrounding community.

“The attempt to create art makes us more fully human,” says Spencertown resident and competition supporter Roberta Reynes, a retired financial writer who can sometimes be found singing folk or jazz at a local open mike. “To encourage a young person into that spirit is to offer a gift that will be with them always – just as learning how to read will be with them always.”

“Uel never strong-arms people to give,” says Rhonda Henneberry, a former clarinetist whose daughter studies piano with Wade. “We give because we admire him and the cause. My son no longer takes piano lessons, but he still has Mozart’s Requiem on his iPod.”

“The world needs beauty,” says Scholarship supporter John Winkler, who spent Saturday afternoons as a child listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts in his father’s Albany bakery. “Uel is a realist. He knows that if someone is going to be a music major and make a living that person needs money in his or her pocket.”

To meet Wade is to understand why people want to support him. He loves music with the intensity of a teenager – classical, jazz, the Beatles, Broadway show tunes – and his enthusiasm is both inspiring and contagious. Although it hasn’t always been easy, this tall, lanky 72-year old has devoted his life to studying, teaching, performing, and conducting music and enabling others to share his passion.

Seated by the bay window in a big, sunny room that serves as his music studio in his post-Victorian home in Chatham, New York, Wade explained a personal reason for establishing scholarships for young people. “I know from experience how tough it is to make your way in the music world. I had to pay my own way. I had no scholarships. I deserved ‘em, probably, but I never got ‘em. Didn’t even know how to get ‘em. So my sympathies are with any serious student in music.”

Uel (a variation of the name Ulysses) Wade was born in Los Angeles in 1938, the son of a strong-willed, Orthodox Presbyterian minister. His father became a Navy chaplain during WWII, and Wade lived in twenty different places all over the world before graduating from high school. Wade began playing the piano when he was four. He would go to the instrument and pick out whatever his older sister was playing. He studied music at Calvin College and went to the University of Michigan for his Masters in music. His father did not approve of his career choice, and their relationship became forever estranged.

To put himself through school, Wade worked as a milkman in Chicago and even tried a stint as an IBM systems engineer. “I ran up against the corporate mind set that was so rigid you had to wear white shirts. You couldn’t have facial hair. One Christmas on vacation I let my red side burns grow out. I bought pink shirts, blue, green and had a what-are-you- going-to-do-about-this attitude. Finally they called me in to tell me their policy.” And also to let him know that they no longer needed his services.

In 1972 Wade left graduate school just shy of earning a master’s degree and accepted a job as the music director for a bus and truck tour of Carousel with John Raitt. It was a series of one-night stands, but Wade loved it. “I’m not only leading the orchestra but I’m running the show.”

That musical gig led to another in New York City as associate music director of, Oh, Coward, which became a big hit. It was the start of a sixteen year career on Broadway. He worked as an associate music director and conductor with Andrew Lloyd Weber on the original production of Evita, and in the same capacity with Richard Rodgers on I Remember Mama. He was an occasional accompanist for Barbara Cook. Wade can entertain for hours with Broadway stories. For example, this one about working with Jerome Robbins on a revival of West Side Story: “Robbins comes into a dance rehearsal. I counted off for the dancers: 5,6,7,8 to get everyone started … it’s like I’m taking over for Jerry Robbins, but I’m not thinking that. Robbins is leaning against the wall. He’s a powerful presence even though he’s short. Jerry puts up his hand. People stop. He goes ‘Uel, just take my ‘and’ please.’ ” Wade further explained that although “and” is just a one-syllable word, it can be said in many different ways to indicate the tempo for the dancers.

At his apartment in New York City in 1976 Wade married petite, blond, Marion Hunter, whom he had met many years earlier in Detroit; she was a librarian and a former Broadway singer and dancer. They have two daughters and a son from previous marriages. They both loved New York City, but Hunter’s love of nature eventually led to a move to Columbia County. Wade worked with theatres from Albany to Springfield and gave piano lessons. Hunter gave voice lessons. Students flocked to them almost immediately. (There’s “lots of traffic” in the music studio, says John Winkler.) Wade became the choir director of St. James Church in Chatham and joined the board of the Spencertown Academy’s arts program. When he retired from the board in 1995, the Academy wanted to honor him, and, at the suggestion of Hunter, they established the annual Uel Wade Music Scholarship. Its first $1,000 in seed money came from Wade and Hunter, and they still donate that amount every year.

The 2010 Uel Wade Music Scholarship competition was held on a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon in May. The five finalists, culled from twelve auditioners, was performed as a concert in front of an audience of about 75 people and four judges, professional musicians who donate their time: Bassoonist Steven Walt, Trumpeter Eric Latini, Williams artist-in-residence, Steven D. Bodner, and cellist Richard Mickey. (Full disclosure: Mickey is my partner.)

The five finalists, l to r, D'Ambro, Műller, Shank, Gasek, Smith (0171). Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz.
The five finalists, l to r, D'Ambro, Műller, Shank, Gasek, Smith (0171). Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz.

First up was Caitlin Smith, 16, a French horn player with long, brown hair from Castleton New York. As a member of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, Smith performed a concert at Carnegie Hall the night before the competition and didn’t get home until after one in the morning. Wearing a black dress with silver sandals and accompanied by Wade, she played the Fantasy for Solo Horn by Malcolm Arnold and a Beethoven Sonata. “I’ve always known I wanted to go into music. It’s fun for me,” said Smith. “It feels good when I can play something I’ve been practicing and it comes out perfectly.”

Tyler Gasek, 18, a tall, jazz saxophonist from Great Barrington, MA, next played three short pieces, two by Horace Silver and one by John Coltrane. His whole body got into the music, his shoulders, his knees, his head. Dressed entirely in black, he performed a pas de deux with his own shadow on the back wall. He is a self-confessed “world music fanatic.” “Music brings communities together,” says Gasek. “I feel spiritually bonded with the people I’m playing with.”

Curly haired cellist Julian Műller, 17, from Ghent, NY played a Franck Sonata and a Shostakovich concerto. “It’s a great feeling to make music,” Műller says. “When you can enter into what the composer was thinking about, that’s when the music becomes alive and special.” Műller has been playing the cello since he was five.

After intermission, Brian Shank, a 17 year old percussionist took the stage. He played a recital piece for solo snare drum by Gauthraux – even twirling a drumstick in a bit of relaxed showmanship – and three pieces for unaccompanied marimba. A student in the Juilliard Pre-College Division in New York City, Shank had his Juilliard final concert and commencement exercises the afternoon and evening before the Competition and also got home late. “I love the personal nature of music,” Shank said. “It’s my way of saying this is who I am. When I’m playing I feel a certain higher state of awareness. You focus on what you want to say to the audience about that piece. My biggest challenge is the nuances to make the music your own, distinct, to try to convey what the composer wanted from the piece.”

The final competitor was 17 year old French horn Player Caroline D’Ambro with long brown hair from Schaghticoke, New York, who played a Richard Strauss Concerto. Also a member of the Empire State Youth orchestra, D’Ambro will be a part of the American Music Abroad Empire Tour during the 2010 summer. “I don’t think when I’m playing; I’m just happy and having fun.” D’Ambro began playing when she was ten.

At the end of the competition, while the four judges deliberated, winners from past competitions performed for the audience. After nearly a half-hour, Uel Wade stepped onto the stage, to announce the judges’ decisions.

Shank and Wade with first prize "check." Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz. Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz.
Shank and Wade with first prize "check." Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz. Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz.

First prize – percussionist Brian Shank, who was awarded $3,000. The money will go toward his tuition at Juilliard, one of seven top colleges and conservatories that accepted him. The runner up was the cellist Julian Műller who won $1,500. Smith, Gasek and D’Ambro each were awarded $500 encouragement prizes.

One might think that the generous prize fund would attract dozens of contestants, but Wade says the opposite is true: the large amount of prize money is scaring them off. “I wish students would realize that there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by at least auditioning. They should take advantage of the opportunity and not select themselves out of the process.” What does Wade look for in Scholarship finalist? “Do they really love to play? They need more than being good; they need the connection with music.” The Scholarship is open to high school students in Columbia, Greene, and Renssalaer counties in New York and Berkshire County in Massachusetts.

It would be exciting to say all the winners have gone on to major solo careers worldwide or that they had joined the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra or other major orchestras – but that would be missing the point. Just as retired New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques D’Amboise established the National Dance Institute to encourage youngsters to love dance, so too Wade uses his Scholarship to not just to help the most talented students continue their studies but also to encourage all young people to love music. Like Brian Shank, winners have gone on to study at Juilliard, the Eastman School of Music, the New England Conservatory and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. And most important, they have music in their lives.

Wade says “My passion for music – I had it at four. And obviously I still have it, and I’ll have it ‘til the day I die. So that will keep me young. I want to encourage that very same passion, that dedication and discipline.”

The Spencertown Academy. Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz.
The Spencertown Academy. Photo © 2010 Nancy Salz.

Article © 2010, Nancy Salz

1 thought on “The Gift of Music: The Uel Wade Music Scholarship

  1. I was excited to read about this program that the Academy supports. Another hurrah for a beloved institution!

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