Music News & Reviews

Grammy-nominated educator got her start in music during Lexington childhood

Jo Wallace-Abbie, who grew up in Lexington as Jo Ellen Herron, is among 10 nominees for a Grammy this year in a new category, music educator. She is the orchestra director at Plano West Senior High in Texas.
Jo Wallace-Abbie, who grew up in Lexington as Jo Ellen Herron, is among 10 nominees for a Grammy this year in a new category, music educator. She is the orchestra director at Plano West Senior High in Texas. Staff Photographer

When Jo Wallace-Abbie became a music teacher, she saw that she could connect with her students and convey a passion that she had discovered as a student at Lafayette High School and in Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras. She never thought being a high school orchestra teacher in Plano, Texas, would make her a Grammy Award nominee.

But that is what she is today, along with such stars as Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

Wallace-Abbie, whom her Lexington friends might remember as Jo Ellen Herron, was one of 10 nominees for the Grammys' newly created music educator award.

Like the majority of hopefuls Sunday night, Wallace-Abbie will have to settle for the honor of being nominated. The Grammys announced last week that the winner of the inaugural music educator award is Kent Knappenberger, a choral director from upstate New York.

But the reaction to her nomination, including many congratulations from Kentucky, has been more than enough to make Wallace-Abbie feel like a winner.

"I think there were 30,000 nominees, so I am just thrilled to have made it that far," she said during an interview that had to be conducted on a Saturday because her weekdays are so packed with classes and lessons. "I've worked hard, and I know a lot of people have. As an educator, we don't always get recognition.

"It has been fun. The kids at school have really enjoyed it. There have been some TV crews from Dallas, and they've loved that. I feel appreciated all the time from my students and my principal, so I can't say that I'm not an appreciated teacher. But this has been something special, a little icing on the cake after all these years of teaching."

It all started when Wallace-Abbie was growing up in Lexington during the 1960s, attending Glendover Elementary, Tates Creek Junior High, Southern Middle and Lafayette High, from which she graduated in 1970.

"There was a violin at home that my aunt had played, and I was always drawn to it, so when we started orchestra at school, I joined," Wallace-Abbie recalls.

That soon led to Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, where "you're there with all your friends playing this beautiful music, and you kind of got hooked," she said.

But she wasn't solely focused on music. Meteorology, theater and English were also on her radar, among other things.

"It wasn't like from the beginning I knew I was going to be a musician or an orchestra director or anything like that," she said. "I really had a lot of interests, but I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, and it grew on me more and more.

"I loved playing in orchestras and I think that was the experience that grew on me at Lafayette and CKYO: the symphonic music and what we were able to make as a group of kids and produce."

At UK, she got a lot of encouragement from her string teacher, Joseph Ceo, and she eventually found her way to graduate school at the University of Illinois. There, music teachers routinely were scouted for the populous Dallas area. Considering Illinois' winter weather, and that Dallas was very nice when she visited, teaching in Texas looked like an attractive option.

"I saw a vibrant city and a lot of future and promise in Dallas," said Wallace-Abbie, who has played violin in the Richardson Symphony Orchestra for two decades.

One of the attractive parts of teaching in her district is that every student in Plano must take band, orchestra or chorus in sixth grade, "so that's the chance to hook them," she says.

That also starts a strong stream of students who arrive in her classes at Plano West Senior High School, where Wallace-Abbie directs the orchestra, a program she started. She says she has more than 200 orchestra students just among the seniors and juniors. (She also notes there is a UK banner displayed prominently in her classroom.)

The school has had another brush with the Grammy Awards, having been named a Grammy Gold Signature School in 2011. Last year, student Alex Tayoub approached Wallace-Abbie and told her he was going to nominate her for the Grammy educator award. She thought that was nice, but she didn't think much more of it, she says.

But the nomination subsequently took a lot of her time as she continued to make the cuts into higher and higher levels among the nominees. Pursuing the nomination included numerous written and video submissions.

It meant some late hours and tight deadlines, but she stuck with it, tapping some former students for help, particularly in video production.

"I was so glad that one of my students nominated me, I was going to take it as far as I could go," Wallace-Abbie said. "I wasn't going to let it drop."

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