You can literally feel Michelle Edgar’s energy pulsing through the phone. Since it’s taken multiple attempts to catch up with her, it’s clear she is someone who is constantly on the go. Michelle is the founder of Music Unites, a non-profit that empowers youth through music by supporting music programming in under-funded schools in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. She also works full time as a branding and music agent for ICM Partners.
“Music is just in my DNA,” Michelle says. “I was born in London and raised in New Jersey outside New York. I’m a concert pianist, and music has been part of my life since I was 5. I went to the Manhattan School of Music and to Northwestern University with the goal of being a concert pianist.”
Giving Back through Music
Music-Versity at Kelly Elementary in Compton
“My family gave everything to my education, and arts and culture were important to them. They gave me the opportunity to study music on a professional level. I fell in love with the music business, and I realized that giving back was really important. I wanted to teach kids about the music business and the careers out there.”
She started her own career as a journalist in New York City, then went to L.A. to work in music management. During that time, she began researching nonprofits to get involved with, and, finding none that resonated, she started Music Unites in 2007.
“I really wanted to establish Music-versity,” she says. And so she did. Programs that provide field trips, workshops, master classes and other opportunities that give students an insider’s taste of the music industry, along with interactions with young professionals in the field are now an integral part of what Music Unites does.
Jamming with the Pros
To have a sense of the impact of Music Unites, watch the Chicago Tribune video of a jam session, arranged through the Chicago Music Unites program. In it, a Pilsen high school guitar club joins the band, OK Go in performing its single, “The One Moment.” It’s an intimate moment of musical connection, from the engagement and earnestness of the students to the joyful expressions of lead singer and guitarist Damian Kulash and the rest of the band as they lead students through the chords of the song.
The first students to go through the Music Unites flagship program, the after-school Youth Choir in New York City, are now 21. “Our kids ended up performing at Carnegie Hall in a special tribute. In the first choir, there were three ambassador students I’d met when they were super young, so watching them graduate is really special. I watched their leadership evolve, and it’s amazing to watch them go on their own journey and still pursue their music passion and share their gifts with others.”
Anson Li is one of those students. “Music Unites gave me the tools to develop my art and inspired me to start my band, ANSON,” he says. “They provided me with invaluable opportunities to grow as a performer and learn about the music industry. I deeply valued our choir performances and my mentorship with Rome Thomas at A&M Octone Records.”
Sharing the Limelight
Music Unites Youth Choir at the Annie premiere
Music Unites has given many students envious opportunities to be in the limelight. To name just a few: the Youth Choir performed at the premiere of the Broadway show, Annie. Students participated in a summer orchestra program with composer and director Maestro Dino Zonic at Centennial High School in Compton, California (long before the film “Straight Outta Compton” was released). Two Music Unites choirs performed at New York’s famed Apollo Theater.
If it seems magical, it is. Part of the magic of music is the connection it inspires. “Music is the common thread that brings people together and connects them,” says Michelle. “Classical. Hip-hop. Rock. It’s one of the most effective tools to evoke energy and mood. It’s the one language you can connect with. It’s amazing when you introduce these students to unfamiliar music – like jazz – how it opens up their eyes.”
Making Lasting Impressions
Still, the future concerns her. Funding and having a steady revenue stream for her organization is an ongoing challenge. Furthermore, she says, “The arts are always the first thing that gets cut from schools. In fact, many schools don’t even offer music education.”
Michelle acknowledges that she has been fortunate. “My parents were very supportive to me in pursuing my dreams. They said there wasn’t anything I couldn’t accomplish through hard work, passion, focus and discipline. I’m really grateful for their encouragement.”
As a result, she is determined to communicate that same message to today’s kids through Music Unites. “It’s important for the kids to see musicians work at their craft and watch other talented people master an instrument and have opportunities to understand that to get that success doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a certain ethic and dedication. They internalize all that through exposure.”
Music Unites Music-Versity with Swedish songwriter, record producer, and singer Max Martin’s MXM Studio producers and engineers at Kelly Elementary in Compton
What inspires her, she says, is “connecting people through music. It’s always been part of my life. I love working with talent. It’s who I am. We are very dedicated, passionate, hardworking people. We’re spread out across the country, and we’re all dedicated and passionate about the Music Unites community.”
Her passion for helping others and love for all things business is also why she decided to create The XX Project, a network and platform that provides women in business with resources and tools for empowering them in both their professional and personal lives. The philosophy is that women are “stronger together” when they think of each other as allies, not competitors.
What keeps her going? “My passion keeps me going,” she says. “It’s part of my mission and legacy. If you want to build something and do it differently, you just have to keep going. Do it day in and day out. That’s what it takes to do something like this.”
All photos courtesy of Music Unites