WOOSTER, Ohio – James May ’16, who graduated summa cum laude from The College of Wooster as a double major in music theory and composition and English, has been selected as a George J. Mitchell scholar, the US-Ireland Alliance announced.
Just 12 Americans are annually awarded a Mitchell Scholarship for a year of postgraduate study in Ireland. It is named in honor of the distinguished U.S. Senator from Maine’s contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process.
May, the first Wooster graduate to be a Mitchell Scholar in the 19-year history of the program and currently pursuing a master’s degree in music composition at the University of Louisville School of Music, will use the award, which includes tuition, accommodations, travel expenses, and a stipend, to further his studies in new music production and performance at University College Cork starting in September 2018.
“I’m incredibly excited … and very humbled in a way. It’s the highest compliment to be selected for this scholarship,” said May. “The fascinating thing about UCC’s music department is that it pushes the parameters of the classical tradition of collegiate music study. I’m really, really excited to get over there.”
May, whose musical interest began in the punk and alternative genres, then broadened to include everything from rap to traditional Irish, has created more than a dozen original compositions that have been performed by students and ensembles across the country, including “The Garden,” which received a prize from the San Francisco Choral Artists 2017 New Voices project. His music often addresses socio-political topics, such as Native American rights and violence, and he volunteers extensively, currently as a contemporary music teacher at Louisville’s Youth Performing Arts School.
“As a composer, I’m very, very invested in the performance and creation of contemporary music. One of the things I’ve found is that I really enjoy the process of directing and rehearsing … I enjoy the writing side as well, but want to make things happen,” May explained. “It’s sort of a trend in contemporary music to not be beholden to the large symphony orchestras because it’s so hard to get a foot in the door with new music … and now it’s more a do-it-yourself approach to classical music. This is a really exciting development.”
A native of Pittsburgh, May came to Wooster, where he found “a really strong music program … (and) there was still space and time to explore other disciplines.” He excelled academically, earning induction into Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Kappa Lambda (music honor society), and Sigma Tau Delta (English honor society) and receiving a Fulbright Undergraduate Summer Institute Grant to study in Belfast, Northern Ireland, all while exploring his musical talent as a student manager for the Wooster Chorus, as a pianist in the Wooster Jazz Trio, and as organizer of the first Wooster New Music Showcase.
Two of May’s mentors at Wooster were Jack Gallagher, the Olive Williams Kettering Professor of Music, and Lisa Wong, an associate professor of music and the director of the Wooster Chorus. They’re ecstatic, but not surprised, at this news.
“James is a vitally enriching presence as an uncommonly gifted scholar, composer, conductor, and catalyst for new music-making and organizational initiatives. He possesses in abundance the vision, initiative, drive, and capacity to make the most of this remarkable Mitchell opportunity. We look forward to continued impressive achievements from James and congratulate him for this distinctive honor,” stated Gallagher.
“While an undergraduate student, James was passionate not only about composing his own works, but also about performing and conducting them. Postgraduate work in Cork’s vibrant music environment seems to be an ideal fit. James is a natural leader, and I can’t imagine an award more ideally tailored to his passions and strengths,” Wong added.
May additionally credits Gallagher, Wong, the department of music, and the College as a whole, for his early career achievements. “Wooster is a rigorous school and it gave me so many tools, both from a technical musical standpoint and from a social and emotional environment standpoint. It set me up for success in grad school and beyond.”
According to the US-Ireland Alliance, Mitchell Scholars are chosen on the basis of academic distinction, leadership, and a commitment to service, and the award is designed to connect future American leaders to the island of Ireland. This year’s honorees cover a wide range of interests such as Alzheimer’s research, climate change, education rights, philanthropy, refugee resettlement, and rural healthcare.