When news broke late last month that Pat Terry-Ross won the prestigious Kresge Foundation Eminent Artist Award, word spread like wildfire through the harp community. Pat is a familiar figure in both the harp world and the Detroit arts community, having spent her career performing with the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra and teaching the famed harp program at Cass Technical High School. The Kresge Eminent Artist Award is an annual unrestricted gift of $50,000 given to an artist who lives and works in the Detroit Metropolitan area, who has a distinguished record of high quality work and professional achievement in the arts, who has made a significant impact on their chosen art form and shares their talents with the broader arts community in Detroit. In January, the selection committee chose harpist Pat Terry-Ross to receive the award. Those who know Pat can think of no more deserving recipient, and I was honored to have the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the award.
Q: How did you find out that you were this year’s award recipient? Did you know that you being considered?
No, No, No! We were in New York celebrating my 70th birthday, and I saw that I had a message from the Kresge Foundation to call because they had a favor to ask of me—I thought they wanted me to play for an event! When I called them back, they asked if I were stationary, and I said, “I am at the moment.” When they told me that I was the 2017 Eminent Artist Awardee, I couldn’t speak. I knew three of the past awardees, and all I could think was that I’m just a teacher and performer. I’ve never thought of myself as being like those past awardees that I’ve always admired. Then they told me that it carried an unrestricted award of $50,000, and I couldn’t speak again. My eyes filled with tears—they’re filling with tears now, just speaking about it—and all I can do is to think back to my wonderful family who nurtured me and grounded me.
Q: How did your family ground you?
My life as an artist has been shaped by my grandmother’s words which were, “You have been given a gift, and it’s not a gift unless you give it away, so always do honor to your gift.” That has guided my life from age 6.
My dad really taught me to be a performer. I started on piano at the age of 5. When it was time to practice, he’d ask me what I wanted to do, and I would tell him that I would like to play a particular piece on the piano, and he would say, “When you can play that piece without stopping, come and get me. And if you stop—I’m going to throw a tomato at you!” I would sit there and I would work on the stops, until I could go from the beginning and play the whole piece without stopping. Then my Dad would sit in the chair with the tomato, and I would think, “Okay, Pat. Focus. “
Then I would start at the beginning and play my little John Thompson piece and get to the end and never stop. The interesting thing was that he said, “Call me when you can play without stopping,” not “Call me when you are perfect,” which sends a different kind of message. He taught me to be a performer. To this day, I may play an occasional wrong note, but I will keep going. The point is, whenever I wanted to perform something, I would have someone come and listen to me, so that I would know that I could play it without stopping when someone was looking at or listening to me.
Q: Did you ever get a tomato thrown at you?
Never got a tomato! [Laughs]
Q: Who submitted the Kresge Foundation application?
I have no idea—but what I have learned since receiving the award is that the Kresge Advisory Council as well as past recipients give and receive suggestions, and then together they determine the annual recipient. So moving forward, I will be part of the group that decides on future awardees.
Q: You began your harp studies when you were a student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, studying with the legendary Velma Froude. What can you tell us about the Harp and Vocal Ensemble at Cass Tech?
Clarence Byrn founded the harp department in 1925. Velma Froude was a harp student in the program at the time. In 1926, the Harp and Vocal Ensemble was formed under Lorietta Kenk, who was the harp program director. When she became ill, Clarence Byrn had Velma Froude, the most advanced student, lead the program. During vacations, he would send Velma and her mother on the train to go study with Carlos Salzedo, so that she could bring back the knowledge she learned. Eventually Lorietta Kenk passed, and Velma took over the program and really developed the harp program as well as the Harp and Vocal Ensemble.
In November 2016, we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Cass Tech Harp and Vocal Ensemble. This was also the 91st anniversary of harp instruction at the school. A wonderful book listing the notable harpist graduates was written as part of the celebration. Among them are Velma Froude, Clara Walker, Dorothy Ashby, Lydia Cleaver, Alice Coltrane, Maurice Draughn, Ellen Grafius, Harvi Griffin, Nadia Marks, Onita Sanders, Calvin Stokes, Susan Mazer, John Wickey, Ann Brege Owens, and myself.
Dorothy Ashby was especially important to me. When I was a student at the University of Michigan, I did not own a harp. During high school at Cass Tech, there were harps that were available to me for practice from Monday through Friday. But when I came home during the summers from college, I didn’t own a harp yet. Dorothy told me that during the summer when I came home from U of M, I could practice at her house every day. She only lived about five blocks from me. So every summer, Ruth Dean Clark would send me home with music to learn, and I would walk over to Dorothy Ashby’s house and practice on her harp.
Q: Are there any notable Michigan Opera Theatre stories that you would like to share?
Well, they have informed me that I am the longest-serving musician in the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, but I would like to make it clear that I am not the oldest person—another orchestra member has me by two months. [Laughs]
But there have been several memorable Michigan Opera Theatre shows, including performances with Luciano Pavarotti, the Three Tenors, (Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Pavarotti) the opening of the Detroit Opera house in 1996, the world premiere of Richard Danielpour and Toni Morisson’s opera “Margaret Garner,” and the world premiere of David DiChiera’s opera “Cyrano.”
Q: For 30 years you taught at Cass Tech and played in the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, while also working as an adjunct professor at Wayne State University. Tell us how you managed to balance all of this. What did a day in your life look like?
Well, I didn’t have to do all three every day, but during opera season, there were days when I would wake up at 4:00 am to practice my opera part, then I would go to Cass between 7:00 and 7:30 am, begin teaching at 8:00 am, and would practice my opera part on my lunch hour. I left Cass Tech at 4:00 pm, drove to Wayne State and would teach from 4:30 pm until 5:30 or 6:00 pm. Then I would grab a bite to eat and start opera rehearsal at 7:00 or 7:30 pm and finally return home at 10:30 pm at night. This would happen maybe 2 or 3 times a week during the opera season. The gift to me was that I worked at Cass Tech where I could practice during the day on my lunch hour.
When I was teaching at the elementary school level, before I started teaching at Cass, I played sessions for Motown. Some sessions would begin at midnight, and go until 3:00 or 4:00 am, then I would go home and grab a couple of hours of sleep, then leave to go teach at the elementary school at 8:00 am. I was young! I could stay up like that!
Q: What lessons have your students taught you?
I’ve had two “aha moments” in my life.
The first occurred when Motown was leaving Detroit to go to L.A. The arrangers and producers told me that since I had a teaching degree, I could go to L.A., teach school and play the Motown sessions in L.A. I thought to myself, “Yes! I really could do that,” and I was considering moving to L.A.
I had just played in December 1975 with Velma at the Cass Harp and Vocal Ensemble winter concert as a guest alumnus. In January 1976, I got a phone call from William Koerper, the Director of Music Education at Detroit Public Schools. He told me that he wanted to move me to Cass Tech as the Harp and Vocal instructor at the end of the January semester. I couldn’t believe it, because I had just seen Velma two weeks earlier, and she didn’t say anything. Apparently, she told Mr. Koerper that she wanted me to be her replacement or else. She always spoke with authority, even though Mr. Koerper was her boss. I called Velma to talk about it, and she told me that if I didn’t take the job, she wouldn’t care what happened to the program. I was flabbergasted and when I got off the phone I asked my mother “How am I going to fill those shoes?” My mother replied, “You don’t fill those shoes, you build your own.”
That was a life-changing moment. Forget moving to L.A., I was going to direct the program that taught me.
The other aha moment came when my friend and colleague, Liz Ilku, Detroit Symphony Orchestra principal harpist, was retiring. Because I had played so often with the orchestra, I didn’t have to audition during the first round, and I could join the auditions at the second round. One of my Cass Tech students learned about the audition for the DSO, and came to me and asked, “What is going to happen to us when you’re gone?” That question made me realize that I really did not want to leave Cass Tech. I had no one to replace me. So my decision was made because the program was passed on to me by my teacher, Velma Froude.
Q: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you would like to share with Harp Column readers?
When I retired from Cass Tech in 2007, I chose Lydia Cleaver as my successor who has carried the program into its 91st year. Personally, I have always taken whatever has come my way—I work hard, stay prepared, and good opportunities have come to me. There are two works that my chamber group, The Eason Trio (with Velda Kelly, violin and Nadine DeLeury, cello) has commissioned, and I want to mention them. The first is Naiads, written by Erik Santos, professor at the University of Michigan. It was commissioned in 2006, and performed at the American Harp Society conference in 2008. The second, Water Music, by Sally Lamb McCune, was premiered in June 2016 on the Chamber Music at the Scarab Club series in Detroit. Sally was one of my harpists in the Cass Tech Harp and Vocal Ensemble, and is now a professor of composition at Ithaca College in New York. Needless to way, she knows how to write for the harp.
Also, I am proud that four of my former Cass Tech and/or Wayne State harp students, Lydia Cleaver, Maurice Draughn, Anne Brege Owens, and John Wickey, all accomplished soloists, have formed the Modern Harp Quartet. The ensemble was chosen to perform at the American Harp Society National Conference in New Orleans in 2014.
I am happy to know that part of my legacy has been to see my former students’ successes and add chamber works to the harp repertoire. I’m blown away that I have received the 2017 Kresge Eminent Artist Award, an honor that has been bestowed upon me for doing the things that I love to do: teach and perform.
Read more about Pat Terry-Ross’ 2017 Eminent Artist Award.
Christa Grix is a freelance harpist in metro-Detroit.