The Conservatory of Central Illinois is the only not-for-profit community music school serving downstate Illinois. In the time since its founding, The Conservatory has taken its place as a leading cultural institution contributing to the quality of life in Champaign-Urbana. We were able to sit down with Jo Ellen DeVilbiss as she shared how her deep musical roots and sheer love for music has evolved over time and placed her in a position where she is able to share her passion with her community.
Tell me about yourself and how you became involved with The Conservatory?
I began playing violin when I was about three and a half and then I moved on to piano and then on to clarinet and played all of them through college. My family were all musicians, so I grew up in a musical family and in a community in Vermillion, South Dakota where music was always extremely recognized and important. Where if you had an instrument, could make a sound, you could make music. After college I taught elementary music, we called it elementary because it was really everything music; general, choir, jazz, middle school, high school, in a community outside of De Moine but I really wanted to focus on piano. I decided to come here, to the U of I, where I got my masters in piano and ended up working with music education students and helped those who were going to be teaching piano. Then I met my husband here and we moved to Wisconsin where I ended up teaching at Laurence University and then he got a job here, so we ended up moving back. I have done a variety of different things since being back – teaching private piano and clarinet lessons, taught on campus, taught at music camps on campus and toured forty states performing four hand. I have always been involved with music. The combination of playing and teaching has always been what I have been interested in at some level which leads into how I got into the Conservatory.
I had been teaching here ever since we moved and there was an organization called The National Academy of the Arts which was a dance school and there was a group of people that wanted to start a community music school, as opposed to a residential school like the Academy and they were looking for people to get involved. My children were taking early childhood music and recorder lessons with someone who was involved at that time and so they were trying to get parents of children who were involved to put input into getting the school started so that is initially how I got involved. And then by the time they got started a little while later, their community-based interest was very interesting to me, so I ended up joining the piano faculty at that time.
What is your role, within The Conservatory, today?
I am the executive and artistic director which has me involved with the day-to-day operations at The Conservatory. It also allows me to be involved with the developing of the programs offered and to work as a liaison between the faculty and our board. This position puts me as the community contact, which also allows me to work on the fund raising and community aspect. The whole thing has evolved throughout the years. And then I am also teaching piano and occasionally clarinet as well as a variety of other lessons throughout the years.
Tell me about the type lessons and programs that are offered at The Conservatory?
The biggest part of the program, from the beginning, has been the individual lessons or group lessons depending on the instruments and the set ups. We have taught almost every type of band instrument, we have had voice teachers and we used to work closely with the Park District, offering early childhood music classes that had us teaching at different daycares and preschools. We have done quite a few different singular programs that have grown over the years, but the lesson program always been the focus as well as always having some level of an orchestra. Which currently is East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra. Within this orchestra there is an honors ensemble, so we usually have brass and string quintets that perform out of that.
How has the pandemic affected The Conservatory?
I think everyone is well aware that music is one thing that is hard to do over Zoom. There have been obvious issues there and it has affected us in the same way seeing live concerts, like at Krannert. In the beginning, of course, nothing was in person which had a number of people decide not to continue because it was not going to work for them. On the other hand, there are some people that liked Zoom, particularly the adult students who were able to deal with that, so now we have more adult students than I have ever had before. Unfortunately, it has made it virtually impossible to do any of the outreach things that we have done. That is probably the biggest way Covid has affected us because that is a big reason of why we are here. The lessons are great and are very important but the being able to get the students together to do things, to be able to share the music in the community is something we haven’t been able to do. The loss of community connection has been very challenging, but I can say that this pandemic has shown me how much the people of this community love music. I am so thankful to all the businesses and individuals that have shown us an overwhelming amount of support throughout these hard times.
What is the most rewarding aspect about being able to bring music to a community like Champaign?
That is a really hard thing to choose because there are so many wonderful things. I think what is really rewarding is when have been doing it for a little while and you start seeing, either by communicating with people or by the reactions of people, how music has affected someone’s life over the course of time and The Conservatory has been around long enough that it is not uncommon to cross paths with people that say they had this experience ( with music) and it really helped me do XYZ. It is also very rewarding, in a community like Champaign, to see people get together to do music that don’t already know each other really well and that it was the music that brought them together and creates a way of communicating that breaks down anything else in its way. There are not many other things that do that, and this community really has a lot of ways that can bring that to its people.
What would you like the community to about The Conservatory?
I think the community does not know how much we reach out to help people be able to learn and study music in whatever situation that they are in, with all the financial aid programs we have to offer. We are a non for profit and offer many programs that we do not charge for and that we are here to do events so that we can better connect with the community.
Learn about all of the wonderful programs offered at and how you can become involved with The Conservatory of Central Illinois by going to http://www.conservatorycentralil.org