Some people’s lives seem to transcend time and place: They see the world in its entirety — its sorrows, its joys, its inequities … and its possibilities. Ella Major was one of those people.
Ella’s family, teachers, classmates and friends remember her not only for her talent and compassion, but also for her keen intellect and ability to gently and thoughtfully question life’s deeper meanings, as well as one’s place in the world.
She balanced her concern for social-justice causes, climate change, racism and LGBTQ rights with her love of music, history and performance. Sadly, Ella’s heavy thoughts were further weighed down by depression, and last October she took her own life. She leaves behind many who admired and loved her — her parents and big sister most of all.
In the immediate aftermath of her death, Ella’s parents, Kris and Tom Major, knew that they wanted to acknowledge Ella’s affection for Roosevelt University. “Roosevelt was an important part of her journey … of figuring out who she was and what she wanted to do,” Kris said.
Created with gifts from family and friends, the Ella Major Award in Music and Social Justice will be given each year to a junior or senior in the Bachelor of Musical Arts program, with preference to those who show a commitment to the intersection of music and social-justice issues through their academic studies, research and service.
“We established this award in Ella’s name to let future BMA students carry on her passions that connected music and social justice,” Tom added.
Time may change things, but a person’s love is absolute.” –Ella Major
Ella studied piano as a child and sang and played guitar in a rock band in middle school. “She had great gifts in singing from an early age,” said Tom. “She was passionate about music and performance.”
In high school, Ella took up violin and conducting and “gave everything in every performance,” Tom said, “and could be quite intense.” He remembers watching her conduct her high school choir in the finale of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Op. 80. “She was so energetic that she practically fell off the podium!” he said.
Ella performed in musical theatre and choir throughout high school. She presented as male until summer 2020, so frequently was chosen for the male lead in school plays. Her mother recalls a time when the school’s men’s choir sang at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis (their hometown) with the acclaimed Morehouse College Glee Club. Ella told her mother afterward that while singing, she had thought, “I would love to work in a place like this every day.”
“That was when she realized she could make a career in music,” Kris said. When it came time to choose a college, Ella had a number of generous offers but picked Roosevelt because of its diversity, its urban location, and, most of all, its social-justice mission. Growing up in a fairly diverse urban environment, Ella knew Chicago would further expand her worldview.
After being accepted in spring 2018, she took a trip to campus and received a bit of vocal coaching from Allen Glassman, professor of voice. “It was a great experience for her,” her father said. “She came back from that trip and practiced vocal exercises daily. I loved hearing her sing around the house.”
Ella grew up in a musical household that highly valued education. Both parents are political scientists and work in public policy. Ella’s grandfather, Tom’s father, was a minister active in the Civil Rights Movement, so family dinners often led to deep discussions on human rights, history and faith.
“Even though Ella wasn’t sure where she was on her faith journey, she was passionate about social-justice issues, racism, climate change, poverty,” said Kris. “She carried a desire for righting wrongs and working toward change.”
With similar values and political leanings, older sister Marissa shared Ella’s passion for social justice. “Even though Ella was younger than me, she was so outgoing that she always seemed like the older one,” Marissa said. She remembers them going together last Fourth of July to a Black Lives Matter protest at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. Reflecting, she said, “I was hoping we’d have the opportunity as adults to bond more over justice work and politics. As I go through life, I want to show up for my community and be more vocal about the things we both believed in.”
Ella had many pursuits, going through growth spurts that combined her interests in arts with her social-justice calling. “She evolved,” added Tom.
At college, she first focused on becoming a conductor. Then she considered a career in vocal performance. But her passion for LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement came to the fore last summer during the protests near their home, which is just blocks from where George Floyd was killed.
“She was very aware of the strong inequalities in the U.S. and around the world,” said Kris. “And also recognized her privilege. She wanted to use her education and musical ability to change the world for the better.”
Music and society
Ella’s honor’s program advisor, Thomas Kernan, PhD, wrote in a tribute to her after her death, “Over roughly two years, I got to know Ella as a student in class, degree advisee and research assistant. I saw her perform, think, write, critique and toss out ideas as others sat in awe. What consistently struck me was not merely her great instincts or strong intellect, but her unwavering commitment to questioning how any of us and all of us were living out the social-justice mission upon which another generation of faculty and students founded our University.”
According to Thomas Kernan, associate professor of music history, from the time that Ella arrived at the Music Conservatory, she had an eye toward how music related to society.
“It is so rare to see a student so young already looking at music not only through her own love of it, but also what it means and has meant to other people: Why we should think about music as a cultural artifact and communicative and discursive piece,” he said. “She was so far along in thinking about music as something more complex than an art form she loved.”
Ella was part of a BMA colloquium comprising about 20 students across all four years and disciplines — singers, instrumentalists, classical students, jazz students, etc. — who read challenging graduate-level literature. “Ella would pick passages and get the rest of the class to chew on them,” he recalls.
Thomas remembers Ella stopping by his office in winter 2020 with some really hardy questions about a history course she was taking on World War II memories. “It wasn’t even one of my classes!” he said. “But she wanted to talk through how nationalism from that time is playing out in musical culture today. She was thinking through some very large questions.”
Ella’s professor said that she was an incredibly supportive classmate who was open to hearing and engaging others’ ideas.
At the start of each new year, Thomas asks a recent graduate to record a short, reflective video message that he sends to the current class. The 2021 alumni message came from a friend of Ella, who recounted one of his experiences with her that he suspected many others had shared.
An important message
In the message, the BMA alum recalled how during a colloquium, he had thought he’d had a good argument — and shared it with everyone.
“Ella jumped right in and sort of picked one piece of it, and, in the most caring and affectionate way, showed him that he’d really misread something and needed to go back and take a second look,” said Ella’s professor. “That can happen in any seminar, but can often sound harsh or polemical or mean-spirited. But Ella, even when she understood a text so, so well and knew that a classmate wasn’t quite getting it, had this way of being so caring and supportive. She instinctually knew how to offer a corrective without rancor.”
Thomas believes that the new Ella Major Award is already helping current students by giving them one more way to remember her.
“In the long term, the award ensures that those applying for it ask themselves about the relationship of the performing arts to the social-justice causes that were so important to Ella,” he said. “We like to think that a social-justice mindset is already part of the culture at Roosevelt, but this award guarantees that, year in and year out, BMA students are encouraged to ask a very specific type of question, one that examines the most meaningful intersections of music and causes dear to Ella.” He continued, “The world is still a hard place for LGBTQ people, especially for trans individuals. But I believe that Ella’s largest concerns were ones that far exceeded her self-interest. The award is a tribute to Ella’s constant outreach during her life to make the world a better place, and now her family’s desire to carry on that mission.”
To read tributes to Ella, visit her site at CaringBridge.
First Ella Major Music and Social Justice Award
Through the generosity of the Major family, the BMA program awarded the Ella Major Music and Social Justice Award to two recipients in this inaugural year: An Phan and Rachel Wallis.
As an Honors BMA student, An Phan studies piano performance and psychology. This year, she completed an honors contract in a music history course, exploring how the teaching style of Frederic Chopin was informed by the trauma of his family and friends’ displacement by political upheaval. For her senior honors thesis, she proposes examining how trauma-informed teaching practices in other disciplines can be adapted to provide safer spaces to music students of diverse backgrounds who are currently underserved, under-acknowledged and historically excluded from traditional modes of education.
Scholarship recipient Rachel Wallis studies classical voice and women’s and gender studies. Rachel has been a Roosevelt University Office of Student Research Fellow, working on a project called “Outing Opera.” For Rachel’s senior honors thesis, she proposes a feminist musical analysis of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosch McKenna’s television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.