Donor Story

Music that Lasts a Lifetime

Endowed Scholarship, Music School Bring UNM Students and Children Together

Michelle G. McRuiz

brabson-mcculloughFor Ellen McCullough-Brabson and John Brabson, the thought of a life without music is like a life without beauty. Ellen is professor emerita of music education at UNM; John is a retired Sandia National Laboratories engineer who has sung in the chorus of Opera Southwest for more than 35 years. They don’t stop at simply being patrons of the arts. They are helping to positively change the worlds of children by bringing music to those who might not otherwise hear it, and helping UNM music education students to do the same.

The Wee Ones

Besides being husband and wife, John and Ellen are a powerful partnership whose efforts have benefited the UNM Music Department, its students, and the Albuquerque community greatly. In 1990, Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) cut funding for its elementary school music programs to save money. In response, Ellen and several UNM Music Department faculty and community music educators decided to create a school to provide “a music education program of exciting and enriching musical experiences for students and members of the New Mexico community,” said Ellen. The goal was to get children involved with music from “day one” on. Classes are offered to children from birth through middle-school age.

That program, the UNM Music Prep School, started out occupying several rooms in the UNM Center for the Arts (Popejoy Hall) on Saturday mornings. Eventually it became so popular that more than 500 children flooded Popejoy and the teachers ran out of rooms. The teachers were experienced music educators from the community; the focus was “on the wee ones,” said Ellen, “teaching them singing, moving, playing instruments, listening, reading music and creating.”

Ellen was chair of the steering committee that spent an entire academic year planning the program. Once it started, Diane Bonnell became the administrator. Eighteen years later, she still is. “Diane is the world’s greatest administrator,” said Ellen. “She’s really been involved with the UNM Music Prep School since the very first day, when we were praying and hoping that children and their families would enroll in and support the program.”

Honorary Scholarship

When Ellen announced her retirement from the music faculty in 2003, Diane wanted to do something special to honor her. She approached Ellen about establishing the Ellen McCullough-Brabson Music Education Scholarship. Diane put together a proposal for John’s family’s foundation, the Brabson Library and Educational Foundation (BLEF). The BLEF and members of the Albuquerque community funded the scholarship, and in 2007 the first recipients were named.

“I felt it would be a wonderful way to honor her, and for her husband’s family to honor her through its foundation,” said Diane. “We’ve given five to eight scholarships per semester. It helps [the students] and us; they appreciate the extra income and they love working in the program.”

John said he receives letters from the scholarship recipients describing how the funds made a difference in their lives. “It makes me glow inside” to read those letters, he said.

Undergraduate music education students who teach in the UNM Music Prep School are eligible for the scholarship. It not only helps give student teachers invaluable experience; it also strengthens the Music Prep School’s community outreach. According to Diane, the children in the Music Prep School come from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds and represent every zip code in the city. It has the potential to change their worlds.  “We provide scholarships for kids who can’t afford it, and we never turn anyone away,” she said.

The BLEF also provides support for teacher training and sponsoring nationally acclaimed workshop clinicians to give the Music Prep School teachers and community music teachers classes in early childhood music. “We’re thrilled we can support the UNM Music Prep School because it enriches the community,” said John. “Anything we can do to support the arts is a good thing.”

A Community Effort

Another music project the BLEF supports is a children’s opera, “Shoes for the Santo Niño,” based on the children’s book by New Mexico author Peggy Pond Church. The opera tells the story of Julianita, a little girl in northern New Mexico, who makes a special pair of shoes to bring to the shrine of the Santo Niño. The night she brings the shoes to the church, she finds Him awake, and together they go on a journey of faith, wonder and reverence.

The opera is the first major collaborative effort between UNM and the Santa Fe Opera. Members of the UNM’s Children’s Chorus, which is part of the Music Prep School, will perform in it. Stephen Paulus, who has composed more than 350 works, is the opera’s composer, and UNM alumna Andrea Walters, director of education for the Santa Fe Opera, wrote the libretto. “Shoes for the Santo Niño” will make its world debut December 16 and 17 in Albuquerque and January 6 and 7, 2012, in Santa Fe. “It’s going to be fantastic,” Ellen said.

Eight years into their retirement, Ellen and John are grateful for this new era in their lives that gives them the means and the opportunity to create more beauty through support of the arts in the local community. “That’s what gives life meaning,” John said. “Beauty.”