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Stern Somebody Presents: Madeline Grimes

The Oppy staff is proud to continue a new feature for the paper called “Stern Somebody,” telling the stories of remarkable classmates and how they became the exceptional people they are today.

Back in the before times, when classes actually met in person, I strolled into orientation thinking I had a pretty fun object for the grown-up Show and Tell all Sternies have to prepare for. Then Madeline Grimes, the second person to present in my block, stood up in front of the room.

“This is a program from the first time I played Carnegie Hall,” she said.

It was that moment when I realized the ticket stub from my first baseball game didn’t have quite the same pizzazz I thought it had. Much like my beloved Mets, you can’t win them all. 

You also don’t get to perform in one of the world’s great venues all that often. Madeline, a flutist, has done it multiple times, a remarkable achievement in the eyes of your typical 13th-chair trumpeter who hasn’t picked up his instrument in 18 years, just to pick a totally hypothetical example. Stern has no shortage of impressive students with remarkable accomplishments, but playing arguably the most prestigious theatre in America is a cut above.

Madeline spoke with The Oppy recently to discuss her career goals, Al Bundy, and how she got to Carnegie Hall. And no, it wasn’t just practice.

Some answers have been edited for clarity.

Most important question first: As an Ohio native – you’re from Ohio, right? – best buckeye: the tree, the college football player or the chocolate and peanut butter candy?

You got it. I grew up in a rural town about 25 miles from the post-industrial, down-to-earth, tech-incubator-with-a-Midwestern-twist city of Youngstown, Ohio. Peanut butter dipped in chocolate? Is there really any competition? Don’t even get me started on Youngstown Cookie Tables.

The correct answer was obviously the candy, Madeline. Anyway, now that we’ve got that settled, you’ve done something most Sternies will never achieve, and that’s performing on stage at Carnegie Hall — more than once. Tell us how that happened the first time around?

As a member of the Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra (YSYO), I rehearsed every Monday night with other high school musicians who would go on not only to win auditions with the United States Army Band, The U.S. Army Blues, and The U.S. Navy Fleet Band but also to become doctors, educators, economists, writers, arts administrators – it’s amazing to think of the talent I was surrounded by both then and, if we were to reconvene, now. 

One February evening, another flutist was absent from rehearsal because she was performing at Carnegie Hall; when I congratulated her the following week, she invited me to send a recorded audition to the American High School Honors Performance Series, a performance program for young musicians from around the world. With help and encouragement from my family and the YSYO director (and now lifelong friend), Dr. Stephen L. Gage, I applied and was accepted later that year.

How many people make jokes about you practicing to get there whenever this comes up?

I’ve lost count, but I don’t mind. Clichés are clichés for a reason!

How long did it take for that to get old?

Surprisingly, it hasn’t. The friends and memories I have from these experiences mean the world to me. I couldn’t imagine my life without what the many hours in the practice room have brought. 

Do I even want to know how many hours you really did practice?

When preparing for a concerto competition at Youngstown State University, a couple of friends and I would stay at the Dana School of Music late into the night rehearsing for and critiquing each other. Sometimes we dozed off in our practice rooms. From learning fingering charts on the floor of my childhood bedroom to skipping lunch to practicing scales in the high school band room library (a 10-square-foot closet), I have always appreciated alone time and what can be learned from reflecting on continuous improvement.

What was it like the first time? Overwhelming? Angst-inducing? Or were you totally cool?

I played the flute solo in Holst’s Suite in Eb, Movement I: “Chaconne” and there’s not much that compares to being 16 and standing up at the end of a piece when the conductor gestures for you at Carnegie Hall. Taking in the sold-out venue and my family whistling and waving, I was sure I was going to pass out onstage. Thankfully, this did not happen, and I was able to focus my energy on remembering the warm lights, bright red velvet seats, the support of my peers, and the glowing feeling of the moment. 

From left to right: Madeline Grimes, flute; Kristen Thompson, oboe; Brendan Gage, French horn; Elliot Kwolek, bassoon; Cayla Conrad, clarinet. Stambaugh Auditorium, Youngstown, Ohio, November 2017.

Was it different the second or third time? Is there a number of performances when someone finally becomes comfortable playing on one of the world’s most famous stages?

I’m grateful to have performed twice with the Honors Performance Series, once with the Youngstown State University Wind Ensemble, and once (so far) with the Association for Classical Musicians and Artists. Each performance is incredibly different given the dynamics of the ensemble, the guidance and style of the conductor, and the context of the pieces performed. Comfortability in performance comes from trusting not only your individual work but also that of the group and in your colleagues themselves. In music or any team environment, this is where the real magic happens. 

How long were you playing the flute when you performed there the first time?

When I was accepted to perform with the Honors Performance Series, I had been playing for six years. Although I did not major in music as an undergraduate, I created a curriculum for Arts Administration, which included credits for small and large ensembles, music theory, and, of course, private lessons from the incredible Dr. Kathryn Umble.

Have you played in any other world-famous venues?

I have not, but my dream venue? The Sydney Opera House. 

At what point did you realize you could play at a high level?

Sometime in middle school, I began studying with my first private teacher, Heidi Keener. Through the challenging pieces and exercises she would assign and demonstrate, I learned the power of emulation and what it means to have a true mentor and role model. I realized the level at which I was currently playing when someone showed me how much more I could grow.

Was it something you had ever considered pursuing professionally?

Even at a young age, I knew I wanted to help other artists as much as, if not more than, I wanted to be an artist myself. I loved the idea of playing a part in the nonprofit management world. In undergraduate, I interned at places like Interlochen Center for the Arts and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. I wanted to make changes in funding, community engagement, and adopting digital marketing practices with firsthand experience of how artists communicate, spend their time, and having a sense of what is important to them.

Do you pick your flute up often these days or do life, work and school get in the way?

I remember sitting at a table for a networking exercise with you at our Stern orientation – has it already been a year? (Dave: Yes, somehow it has.) When I think about working full-time, studying part-time, and remaining present in other areas of life, I think of a masterclass I performed for Marianne Gedigian in which she discussed her own life and how balance is never truly attainable. Rather, you make a choice to remain present wherever you physically are whether it be at work, with family, or alone. This, to me, applies to creative pursuits as well in that, given the limited hours in the day, I make a conscious effort to find joy in music and the time I am able to dedicate to it. 

(To answer your question more directly, yes – my most recent mini-project was a four-part traditional piece for my mom, but I also play piano and am learning to record!)

Did you still perform much in pre-pandemic times? Is it something you hope to do in a post-pandemic environment?

My most recent concert was in November 2019 with the Association of Classical Musicians and Artists (ACMA), a nonprofit organization in NYC that extends performance opportunities to non-professional adult performers in venues such as OPERA America and Carnegie Hall. 

I would love to continue to perform with this group when it is safe to do so in person. In the meantime, I’ve become a member of the ACMA Board of Directors and have been helping to organize virtual programming and communications. (For those who are interested in becoming a member, you can learn more by joining our mailing list here or by getting in touch with me directly.) 

You currently work in digital marketing, but in college you were involved in work in the arts beyond just playing the flute. Are you considering using your Stern degree to work in the arts in the future?

A long-term career goal of mine, if not the goal, is to shape consumer behavior and develop sustainable funding mechanisms by enabling excellent digital presence and fluency among nonprofits in a technological world. With the influence and network from my time at Stern, as well as working for an agency like BlueWing Digital, I feel empowered to do my best work today and am excited for what the future holds.

Finally, most important Youngstown State football alum: Ron Jaworski, who started for the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV, or Ed O’Neill, whose Married with Children character, Al Bundy, once famously scored four touchdowns in a single game for Polk High?

Gotta love Ed O’Neill! 

Sound check at Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, November 2015.

Photo credits: Madeline Grimes

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