Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects.
Today, meet clarinetist and Renaissance woman Mersadie Wells! Mersadie has been with MMI since 2016, and works with students at Westwood High School and Craigmont Middle School. In addition to working with MMI youth, Mersadie teaches private lessons, manages a music nonprofit of her own, runs a hair business, and is currently working on her chef license. She recently chatted with MMI about her journey as an educator, why music is liberating, and how she has learned to push through life's challenges.
I've been a musician for about 26 years now. I first discovered my love of music in elementary school—fourth grade. I didn’t watch a ton of TV growing up. I played music instead.
I was born and raised in Chicago. When I was in elementary school, I was part of the Chicago City Youth Orchestra, sitting second chair at the time. And then when I went on to the elementary band at school, I was first chair. They wound up placing me in the high school band!
I left Chicago at 18 and went off to college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. I loved it! Actually, I missed my audition at Juilliard, which was how I ended up there. I received my Bachelor of Science degree in music and a minor in business. Later on, I got my master’s in business from Walden University.
But as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a professional musician.
I started teaching music at the age of 15 when I was hired as a tutor at the University of Chicago. They brought me in to teach while I was still in high school because they knew me from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
That's when I knew that I wanted to be a music educator. I didn’t just want to be a band member, you know? I wanted to be an instructor. I wanted to do things one-on-one. I wanted to be able to get in and get personal with students, instead of just being in the classroom teaching. It's harder to really get to know who a student is in a classroom setting.
I joined MMI in 2016, working mainly with bands. Clarinet is my main instrument, but I also play saxophone and trumpet. Outside of MMI, I also teach at Green Dot on Willoughby Street, and through my own non-profit organization, The Musical Care Center.
One of my main goals is to keep music alive through our youth, and in schools.
My advice to Memphis' young people is that, even with everything going on in the world right now, there’s such a benefit to focusing and engaging through constructive activities. Obviously, music is my passion, and it’s a great way to focus and create something new.
At the end of the day it’s all about teamwork, focus and community. The reason I give my students those three words of advice is because we need teamwork to strive. We need for our focus to be right so we can help our team and be supportive. And we have to build up our youth and encourage them to become the people that we need them to be, for the sake of our community.
They are our next generation.
What I love most about music is the peace that comes with it.
It's almost like therapy. I recently did a video on Facebook of me just worshipping in music—I love gospel music. That's one of my joys. I play for the church too, and that helps me a lot. It’s such a relief.
When I’m working with young musicians, my goal is to inspire them, through music, to be better. To help empower and transform them, and give them the same sense of peace. Because music transforms us all. Music can be sad, or happy—different emotions. When you’re feeling some type of way, music can turn that completely around. When you have negative thoughts come up, especially during this pandemic, find a song that you like to hear, and return to that song whenever you’re feeling down. It’s liberating! You break those shackles. You break those bonds and you dive into that music and see yourself soaring.
Every student that I teach learns something from me. If they don't learn anything else, they learn life goals and how to stick to what they need to do and keep pushing on, no matter how hard it gets. Keep pushing because you’ve got to make it to that destination.
This new school year has been a little uncomfortable, [because of COVID-19 and virtual learning]. Not only am I teaching virtual learning, but I have five virtual learners in my house.
So I'm teaching and running around from computer to computer. It can be frustrating, but I have found ways to tackle the tasks I still need to accomplish, especially with some of the resources from MMI—the professional development seminars, for example. I’m always trying to see what I can do to become better for my students, and how I can let my students' voices be heard.
I’ve been trying to get my high school students out of their comfort zone. I open lessons by asking students how they feel. Yesterday they really opened up because I let them know that I felt like I wanted to run away that day. So that kind of helped everybody get comfortable, to start talking and participating. We watched a few educational social justice videos, and discussed them afterward. I had them write one paragraph on how they felt and I told them, "Your voice is important. I need to hear how you feel, what's going on." And they're not used to people doing this. They’re not used to people making them think about things that are going on in the world.
I'm pushing them to accomplish whatever goals they need to accomplish. I open the door for them to ask me any question, as long as it's not too personal. I’m here for them. I want to set an example and I want to set that bar very high.
I’m busy—I teach, I have my music nonprofit, a hair business, and I’m working on my chef license now. And I have a family.
I just grind with the flow, you know what I mean?
But this pandemic has been hard for us. I have lost income. When the schools shut down, it shut down my organization as well. I also lost my mother-in-law in April, and of course we’re still dealing with that. But music got me through. We’re making it every day. The income is starting to pick back up, and now I'm able to continue my private lessons and things like that. But when the pandemic hit, I knew I had to start focusing more on my chef business, and on my hair business.
I will say that being at home during the pandemic is a good time for people to hone their craft out. It's the time to present your gift, to get creative, show what you know. Even if you’ve got one person in the audience, that one person came because they believed in you. That's how I live life. I strive for greatness, even if I get turned down, or things are delayed. Denial and delay are not bad at all. They’re just signs that it's not for you at that time.
I do have moments where I feel depressed and want to run away. Sometimes I want to throw in the towel, but I think, “How can I throw in the towel when so many people are depending on me?” There's always someone watching. So I try to be that strong person and take out the time that I need to be the best person that I can be for my family and my students.
At the end of the day, [Memphis] is a brotherhood, a sisterhood. It's a community, and we need to bring each other together and stay strong.