Grammy nominees Imani Winds empower audiences through education

Wind quintet Imani Winds is driven by a dynamic and inclusive approach to chamber music. The two-time Grammy nominees provide listeners with vital information about their unique programming, with the goal of breaking down cultural and social barriers in classical music.

From a childhood as a self-proclaimed “band kid” to a founding member of the group, Monica Ellis was a dedicated multi-instrumentalist by the time she picked up the bassoon in the eighth grade.

In this article, we’ll dig into Monica’s 25 years of experience as a leading member of Imani Winds, and how the quintet has curated a legacy of audience empowerment, diversity, and inclusion.

Choosing her path

Monica Ellis grew up in Pittsburgh, surrounded by a vibrant arts and music community. The city presented plenty of musical outlets and opportunities for Monica, who as a child had already mastered the clarinet, saxophone, and piano through her public school’s music program.

Her eighth grade band teacher saw Monica’s enthusiasm and suggested she try the bassoon. It wasn’t love at first sight—but Monica soon realized her piano skills weren’t setting her apart. Drawn to the camaraderie of playing in an orchestra, Monica quickly shifted gears to become a chamber musician.

The beginning of Imani Winds

After completing her bassoon performance major at Oberlin College, Monica attended Julliard for her masters and the Manhattan School of Music for her post-grad. It was there, at the Manhattan School of Music, that founding flutist and composer Valerie Coleman assembled Imani Winds. Monica credits Valerie for being a visionary who knew right away that the group’s chemistry was something special.

“It’s been the ride of a lifetime—I’ve enjoyed it all,” Monica says. “It’s certainly not been easy, but it’s been fun, and I’ve been able to travel the world, go to places I likely would not have been able to go, through Imani Winds, and through music, period.”

Sharing a few notes between Grammy nominees

Imani Winds first became Grammy nominees for their album, The Classical Underground, in 2006. While the group remembers the experience well, their 2022 nomination for Bruits was recognition for an album that reflects representation, diversity, and inclusion through powerful and relevant social justice themes.

“We’ve lived off a diversity platform our entire existence,” Monica says. “But every organization that’s presenting art has a duty to examine and re-examine what they’re doing to make sure they’re representing a whole population, not just one avenue of thought or of a preference.”

Thriving on the idea of casting off expectations of a light and fluffy wind quartet, Imani Winds uses strong playing to embody their overarching themes, such as their recent program, The Beauty of Strife. The group aims to present music the audience has never heard before, delighting even those well-versed in wind quartet or the band’s discography.

The quintet also strives to empower audience members by sharing the context of the music they perform. Every piece is introduced, providing information like what the composer was thinking or feeling at the time, and what the artists were thinking when they programmed it. Monica believes this helps a listener, whether new to chamber music or a long-time fan, to enjoy it more.

“Whenever there’s an engagement with an audience that is different from just sitting down, playing the music, and walking away—that’s outreach,” Monica says. “And we’ve been doing that since day one.”

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