With the Spring Concert upon us, this seemed like the ideal time to profile The New Century School‘s talented and passionate music teacher Martellies Warren. Many of you know Mr. Warren as one of TNCS’s lead Montessori teachers in the primary classroom, and certainly all TNCS parents know him as the maestro behind those afterschool snatches of chorus, those sudden breaks into full-voiced song, and even those vibratto notes (held surprisingly long!) from the kids. But did you also know that Mr. Warren is a professional touring vocalist with gospel group Anthony Brown and Group Therapy?
This musician brings the chops! A native of Montgomery, AL, as a child Mr. Warren was always humming and singing jingles from commercials. “My mom noticed that I seemed to be musically inclined and so she bought me a little keyboard.” He immediately demonstrated an ability to pick out tunes on the keyboard, so the next step was piano lessons, beginning around age 10. By high school, he started formal singing lessons and won first place at his very first vocal competition. The late Dr. Nathan Carter who was Music Director and Chairman of the Music Board at Morgan State University here in Baltimore got wind of this rising star and traveled to Montgomery to recruit him for the music program. On a full vocal scholarship, Mr. Warren arrived in Baltimore in 1998 and began performing across the United States and in Europe with the Morgan State University Choir. He also began performing in musicals such as Porgy and Bess with the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company and others.
After graduating with a classical music degree in voice as well as a degree in education, he decided to make Baltimore his home. “My love for music really blossomed at college, where it started with classical music.” he said. “Now I do classical, gospel, and jazz, and I use my classical training to sing those different types of styles.” In addition to playing the piano, he also picked up trombone along the way, his other main instrument. “I also used to be a band teacher, so I can feel my way around most instruments,” he said. When asked why he took a detour from his music studies into education, he explained, “Being an artist, you never know if you’re going to get a gig. It’s kind of a glass ceiling—I could see more, but I couldn’t get there. I wanted to make sure I had financial stability even while touring or making an album, so I got that education degree under my belt. It started as something to fall back on, but then I fell in love with teaching. So now I teach and sing!”
As it turns out, his dual loves mesh perfectly at TNCS, where he both teaches and teaches music, but the path to TNCS wasn’t perfectly smooth. He started teaching in Baltimore City schools and almost wearied of education altogether. He despaired at what was happening to The Arts in public schools. “Going to work everyday and trying to do the best you can to give the kids a quality [music] education,” he says, “and realizing that your hands are tied and there’s only so much you can do because of the lack of resources and materials and the lack of support for The Arts is heartbreaking. I almost walked away from teaching.”
After a brief hiatus lasting a few months, he answered an ad to substitute teach at the very traditional Julia Brown Montessori School (credited with bringing Montessori teaching to Maryland). There, he ended up getting certified in the Montessori method, teaching for 7 years, and also serving as administrator before realizing that his heart is in the classroom with the kids. In 2012, he arrived at TNCS. He likes TNCS’s somewhat less traditional Montessori approach that allows him the room to bring in the music. In his own primary classroom, he incorporates a lot of it, whether singing songs together as a class or with classical music playing in the background, which he says helps keep the atmosphere calm and the kids focused. He appreciates that music is not “last on the totem pole, first to go” at TNCS. Instead, it’s considered essential, as all of “the specials” are fundamental to the TNCS approach to educating the “whole child.” “I’m passionate about being a music educator,” he says. “To have someone devalue that or not see it as essential is heartbreaking. Allowing children to have art and music alongside the academics brings back the sparkle in their eyes. It makes them happy.”
“The wonderful thing about coming to The New Century School is that I wasn’t held to a curriculum. They said, ‘We trust you. We trust your expertise. Let us know what you would like to bring to the school.’ So that’s what I did. I brought my love for performances, my love for the skillset—the educational portion. I try to give the kids a really good mix of everything.”
No performance-goer could deny that the bi-annual concerts at TNCS have scaled new heights under his tutelage. The Spring Concert underway currently was inspired by his love for the performing arts. “I have always had an affinity for the theater,” he said. In addition to playing the lead in Porgy and Bess, he has performed in The Wiz, Into the Woods, and others. “I decided to start the year by teaching about composers—Bach, Mozart—listening to music, and breaking down that aspect. So the first half of the school year was very structured. The children were interested, but they couldn’t wait to get back into the performance aspect! We saved the second half to let loose, have a little fun, and explore some different things.”
“I thought, why not try Broadway?” he said. “I want to do something different each year, to continue to evolve. The kids have really taken to showtunes, so even though Broadway is a huge undertaking, I think the children are doing a wonderful job.” They first delved into the history of Broadway and that particular area of New York City as well as the concept of what it would take for a school-aged child to perform on Broadway. “They were shocked to learn that children perform on Broadway. The number one question I got was, ‘How do they go to school?'” he said. “Everything you have to do, including homework, they have to do, too, plus rehearse and perform in daily shows.” This gave him the ideal opportunity to discuss the discipline required to pursue a career in the arts. Drawing on his own childhood, he explained that kids who want to be performers might have to trade playtime for practice and rehearsal. “They were really blown away by that.”
Making this connection to their own lives has only deepened their enthusiasm for putting on this show. The assortment of songs comes from several Broadway shows, including Mary Poppins; The Wiz; The Wizard of Oz; Annie, Get Your Gun; and Matilda. “Matilda is the standout this year; the kids really love that one so we’re doing three songs from that.” He has even included a top-hat number from On Broadway in the line-up. “I revised the lyrics to make it more kid-friendly,” he said, laughing.
What performers inspire him personally? “Classically, I’ve always been a huge fan of Luciano Pavarotti,” he says. Other favorites include the great jazz trumpeter Winton Marsalis, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, and the inimitable Frank Sinatra. His own voice is classified as tenor. Once a lyric tenor, he says all of his years teaching have deepened his voice and he now considers himself more of a “dramatic” tenor. As for his own music, although he compares the timbre of his voice to Pavarotti’s, his preferred genre is gospel, where he is something of a superstar.
In addition to performing with some of gospel’s biggest names, such as Dove Award–winning Maurette Brown-Clark, mega-producer Donald Lawrence, Tonex, the incomparable Lecresia Campbell, and many more, he is also a founding member of the Pi Eta chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia national music fraternity. And then there are his awards. Anthony Brown and Group Therapy took away three Stellar Awards this year, which Mr. Warren describes as “gospel’s equivalent to the Grammys.” They won Best Video of the Year (for “Testimony,” which you can view here), Best Male Contemporary Singer of the Year, and Best Group of the Year. Stellar indeed! Anthony Brown and Group Therapy also had the distinction of being the opening act on Season 7 of BET’s “Sunday Best,” which will air July 13th.
Television appearances, music videos, concerts, award ceremonies . . . how does he manage to do all that and still accomplish all that he does at TNCS? “It’s a juggling act,” he laughs, “to make sure my music career doesn’t conflict with my teaching. But my children get as much of me as possible.” He is also quick to point out that he keeps the two careers separate in other ways. “I try to be mindful of everyone’s religious beliefs. My music is Christian-based, but I like to share what I’m doing with TNCS parents just to keep them in the loop. I always try to make it clear that this is not a part of TNCS, this is me. We have so many different ethnicities and religions and beliefs at the school, and we come together and we make a huge melting pot community. That’s the awesome part of The New Century School.”
Certainly, the multicultural atmosphere TNCS strives for is something parents value tremendously. But TNCS’s incredible, amazing, loving, talented, dedicated staff might also be what makes the school so “awesome.” Thank you for all you do, Mr. Warren!