Elmhurst College: Finding a Musical Family 9,000 Miles From Home

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Finding a Musical Family 9,000 Miles From Home

When Shelley Bishop was a saxophone-playing high school student in Brisbane, Australia, she looked forward to the annual visits of Elmhurst College music professor Judy Grimes and her students.

Grimes’ Australian trips were part of a series of overseas initiatives in which Elmhurst students become international musical ambassadors, mentoring younger students in Jamaica, Australia and other far-flung locales.

The Elmhurst ambassadors made such an impact on Bishop that, not long after her high school graduation, Bishop decided to return the favor. She made her own 9,000-mile journey, from Brisbane to Chicago’s western suburbs, to visit and eventually enroll at Elmhurst.

Now a senior at the College, Bishop has spent the past four years making the most of her American adventure. She has played with just about all of Elmhurst’s top ensembles, including its acclaimed Jazz Band, where she became first tenor saxophonist in her first year at the College—a rare, if not unheard-of, feat. As a member of the band, she has toured in South America and central Europe, and teamed with celebrated professionals at the College’s annual jazz festival. And accompanying Elmhurst’s Late Night Blues vocal jazz ensemble, she played at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s prestigious Next Generation competition in March.

“She has become part of our musical family,” Grimes said of Bishop. “I thought it was natural and wonderful for her to come visit us, but I never dreamed that she would stay for four years. She is the hardest worker I’ve ever known.”

Bishop says that it didn’t take long for her to feel like she belonged at the small college halfway around the world from her hometown.

“I found another home here,” she said recently. “After I’d spent some time here, I knew there was nowhere else for me.”

Bishop had only recently taken up saxophone, after a childhood of piano lessons, when Grimes and her Elmhurst group began traveling to Brisbane to work with the bands at Bishop’s school. Bishop’s choice of instrument, she admits, was inspired by Lisa Simpson, the hyper-intelligent, saxophone-wielding free thinker of TV’s The Simpsons.

“A chick sax player!” Bishop explains, laughing. “What could be cooler?”

For Bishop and her high school bandmates, working with Grimes became a highly anticipated occasion.

“It made a big impression on me, and I remember the buildup before their arrival. It was a little terrifying,” she said. “You wanted to do so well for Judy because she’s so brilliant at getting the best sound out of any group.”

One of Grimes’ admonitions in particular stuck with Bishop.

“She told us to keep practicing, because music can make so many things happen for us,” Bishop recalled. “She said we could travel all over the world. That gave me a big push.”

For Bishop, who has since performed on five continents, Grimes’ words proved prophetic. While still in high school, she was selected to perform in a 2,000-piece marching orchestra at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a gig that she calls “one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

Bishop stayed in contact with Grimes, who extended a standing invitation to the young saxophonist to visit Elmhurst. Bishop accepted that invitation, arriving at Elmhurst in the heart of a Chicago-area winter, just in time to experience her first snowfall. But the frigid welcome did little to chill her enthusiasm for the College. She joined Grimes’ January Term trip to Jamaica, where she and a group of Elmhurst students worked with children in the impoverished schools around Montego Bay.

During the several weeks of her visit, she got to know Doug Beach, the director of Elmhurst’s Jazz Band, whom Bishop now calls “my American father.”

“It was working with Doug that really sold me on Elmhurst. He’s the best teacher and he loves his students,” she said.

Later that year, Bishop returned to Elmhurst—this time to enroll in the College as a full-time student. She had taken care of all the arrangements, including the application for a student visa, before telling her parents. Bishop said they endorsed her plan without hesitation.

But making a new home on a new continent was not without its complications—including the challenge of making herself and her Aussie syntax understandable to Midwesterners.

“My accent continues to be a problem,” she laughs. “But the bigger issue was being in a new place and having to rely on myself a lot more. I went from living with my parents to being on my own in a completely different hemisphere. I had to figure out how to do taxes, find a dentist, get a car repaired. I grew up a lot in a short time.”

But from the start, her spirited musicianship made her a standout at Elmhurst.
“Crowds really connect with her,” Beach said. “She brings such a positive vibe, and that just comes out of her horn. Crowds can feel her personality coming through.”

Beach appreciates Bishop’s dedication as much as her virtuosity.

“Shelley gets a lot of solos, but the thing is that she works just as hard when she doesn’t have a solo. She’s a real team player.”

When she’s not performing, Bishop can be found working as an intern at Chicago’s independent Drag City record label. Her job description there encompasses everything from merchandising to tour planning to moving boxes. Bishop hopes the job will prove to be good preparation for a career managing artists and repertoire at a major record label. After she graduates this spring, she plans to work in Chicago before applying to MBA programs in New York or Los Angeles. 

What will Bishop remember most about her Elmhurst years?

“The jazz festivals,” she answers. At Elmhurst’s annual three-day jazz events, she and her bandmates performed with professionals like Bobby Shew, Dennis Mackrel and Ryan Truesdell. “It’s amazing to get to play with your idols.”

Like so much else about her time at the College, she says, it turned out to be well worth the very long trip.

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