Traverse City News and Events

Meet Traverse City's Behind-The-Scenes Patrons Of Youth Music

By Craig Manning | March 24, 2024

It’s been around for 92 years, doled out tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships, and helped nearly 500 local students pursue musical aspirations. Yet many locals aren’t even aware the nonprofit Grand Traverse Musicale exists. Under the radar or not, Musicale president Marilyn Tilley says the organization is only growing, with hopes of moving the needle even more for local music education in the years to come.

Grand Traverse Musicale, founded in 1932 as Traverse City Musicale, was formed by a group of local women “who wanted to have a music club where they could perform,” Tilley says. It wasn’t until 1934 that Grand Traverse Musicale started shifting its focus from recitals to scholarships. Interlochen Center for the Arts had opened in 1928, and as more Traverse City students started showing interest in attending, Musicale made it a mission to help those families afford tuition.

Eventually, scholarships became Grand Traverse Musicale’s raison d’etre: Today, the organization’s website defines its mission as “to support and encourage young musicians through scholarships, and to present quality musical and outreach programs.”

Tilley herself benefitted from that shift.

“Back in 1968, I auditioned [for a Musicale scholarship],” she shares. “My parents drove me out to First Congregational Church, and I sang something from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. There was a winner and a runner-up that year; I was the runner-up. And it was such a big deal, because my name was in the paper and my parents suddenly thought, ‘Oh, maybe we should get Marilyn music lessons.’ I had been asking for years, but my family just didn't have the money and mostly thought music was frivolous.”

Tilley went on to study voice at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music before finding her way back to Traverse City. Here, she built the choral and theater programs at Woodland School, directed several musical theater productions at Central High School, and established a private voice studio. She took the helm at Musicale after retiring from Woodland in 2020.

The organization, Tilley says, has grown over the past decade thanks mostly to a substantial donation made by Dr. Richard Schilling in the early 2010s. “That money really changed things,” she notes. “It was one of the reasons Musicale became a nonprofit, and we’ve been able to invest the money and have it grow year after year. As a result, we can give bigger scholarships and more scholarships than we ever could before.”

Between 2015 and 2023 alone, the organization has given out 243 scholarships. For comparison, Musicale only awarded 240 scholarships total between 1934 and 2014. Last year alone, the scholarship tally was 35, totaling nearly $26,000.

Auditions for scholarships are open to students in grades 7-12, with Grand Traverse Musicale giving out awards in four performance categories: strings, winds and percussion, keyboard, and voice. Over the years, Tilley says students have used the money for everything from buying their first instruments to taking private lessons to attending music-focused summer camps. These days, the organization even offers a pair of scholarships for local students looking to study music in college.

For Tilley, the Musicale mission is important work that has only become more vital in recent years. 

“I don’t think any of our local music programs have completely recovered since the pandemic,” Tilley tells The Ticker, citing recent conversations with Central High School faculty about declining audition numbers for choral ensembles and musical theater productions. “Partially, I think that’s because parents saw what happened during COVID, when even the major symphony orchestras just closed down for months and months, and said ‘Gee, I want my kid to be able to make a living!’ So, I just don’t think there’s as much support for kids in music right now. Everybody’s all about STEM. And that’s a wonderful thing! But music education needs to be supported, too, and I think that’s an investment worth making.”

Tilley vows that Grand Traverse Musicale – whose 60-person membership includes more than a few retired music educators – will continue making those investments.

“If you watched the Academy Awards, one winner gave this wonderful speech about how music education ‘isn’t just about creating incredible musicians, it’s about creating incredible humans,’” Tilley concludes. “And that’s the most important thing. Our club isn't about just creating all these great, aspiring performers that we have in Traverse City; it's really more about enhancing life, because that's what music does.”

Pictured: A group of 2023 scholarship recipients at Grand Traverse Musicale’s annual scholarship showcase, held each spring at First Congregational Church. This year’s scholarship concerts are scheduled for Thursday, June 13.

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