Nevilla Eloise Ottley-Adjahoe
Nevilla Ottley-Adjahoe, a pianist, organist, music school owner and administrator, and author, has taught for over fifty years. In that time she has helped countless students not only realize their full musical potential but also develop habits that have helped them lead successful careers in many areas.
Nevilla was born in Trinidad, the oldest of four children of Neville Ethelbert and Myra Eloise Grosvenor Ottley, and spent most of her childhood in Michigan and California. The recipient of a rich musical inheritance from both sides of her extended family, she grew up hearing her parents sing; attending lyceums in her pre-school years at Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, with her parents; and being present during her mother’s piano lessons under Perry Beach. At age four she sang as a soloist on the pilot program for Your Story Hour and also started piano lessons.
Nevilla was coached by her parents as part of the Ottley Trio, which included her sister Geraldine (Gerri), and brother, Myron, and sang frequently with them at home and publicly. In later years when Myron’s voice changed, their youngest sister, Ruby, took his place. In her pre-teen years and later as a teenager Nevilla sang in the youth and women’s choir of the Emmanuel, now Kansas Avenue, Seventh-day Adventist Church in Riverside, California. After the family moved to Trinidad when she was fourteen, she formed the Valley Echoes, a vocal sextet of young women, students, and faculty, which sang all over Trinidad.
When the family moved to California when she was seven, she started piano lessons with a Mrs. Downs and then took lessons from Professor H. Allen Craw, at La Sierra College, now La Sierra University, before finally studying at age ten with June Simms, her father’s accompanist and a pivotal person in her development as a pianist.
A memorable experience in those elementary school years included her parents and Nevilla attending concerts by famed contralto Marian Anderson and noted duo pianists Ferrante and Teicher, with Simms and her daughter, Karen, Nevilla’s classmate at La Sierra SDA Demonstration (elementary) School. During this time Nevilla would often stop on her way home from grade school to sit quietly in the college church and listen to Harold Hannum, LSC music department chair and organist, practice.
During her childhood and teenage years she studied and successfully took examinations annually within the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music London (RSML) program. By the time she had completed an associate degree in music and Spanish at Caribbean Union College, now the University of Southern Caribbean, studying piano with Frances Burke-Archibold, Vernon Andrews, and Melville Robbins, she had completed all eight grades in piano performance and music theory in the RSML. She had also studied organ for three years under Professor Allan Carr, organist at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.
Nevilla then enrolled at Andrews University where she studied piano under Hans-Jørgen Holman and completed a B.Mus. degree in music education in 1971, and an M.A. in music history and organ performance under C. Warren Becker in 1972. While at AU she also gave music lessons in piano and organ as part of the work-study program, something she had started doing in the Caribbean at age sixteen.
She later completed an M.Mus. in conducting at The Catholic University of America. Her teachers and mentors in conducting have included Bruce Olson; Lloyd Geisler, associate conductor of the National Symphony; Herbert Blomstedt (a four-week conducting institute at Loma Linda University in 1980); Lorin Maazel, in a brief cameo lesson; and Laura Jeanette Wells and Evelyn Davidson White, both in choral conducting. Her post-graduate conducting teacher was Robert Page of the Cleveland Orchestra and Conductor Emeritus of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (the Pittsburgh Symphony choir).
Ottley-Adjahoe has conducted the University Park Symphony, now the Hyattsville Symphony, and the Montgomery County and Takoma Park Symphony orchestras. She has been extensively involved in conducting choral groups, including the Nevilla Ottley Singers (1981- 1998) and the World Bank/lMF Choral Society and Orchestra (1983-1987), the Ottley Music School Singers (2007 to present), and has guest conducted several choral groups, including co-conducting The Paul Hill Chorale in Washington, D.C., the Arlington Metropolitan Chorus in Virginia, and the Cleveland Singers (formerly the Robert Page Singers), in a concert of music of Black composers.
Ottley has produced numerous programs, including Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha annually for twelve seasons; Mendelssohn’s Elijah for several seasons; Handel’s Messiah annually for over three decades, including the 1995 annual Messiah sing –along at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C.; Antonio Carlos Gomes’ oratorio Colombo; Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors paired with Mark Fax’s A Christmas Miracle, like the traditional performance pairing of Cav and Pag (
Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci).
She spearheaded the Washington, D.C. area’s two-week William Grant Still Centennial Celebration in 1995 which involved seventeen organizations including the National Symphony Orchestra, the Nevilla Ottley Singers, soloists Janice Chandler and Jon Gilbertson, students of the Ottley Music School, and the George E. Peters SDA Elementary School Choir. It was held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the historic Lincoln Theater, and two churches.
Ottley recently wrote about an unsettling experience she had while doing graduate study at CU that ignited a personal crusade that has continued now for over three decades:
I took a class at Catholic University of America in 1975 called “Choral Music by Black Composers” from Professor Evelyn Davidson White. I was so incensed when I was told by a former history professor at Andrews university that Black composers did not do much in classical music, that I proposed to WGTS FM at Columbia Union College [now Washington Adventist University] that I produce and host a one-hour radio show, “Classics of Ebony.” The show was on the air from May 1976 to July 1997, when the station changed its format. However, I was invited to produce December Christmas programs with Dr. Adrian T. Westney, Sr., the SDA Religious Liberty Leader, on his program, “Talking About Freedom.” I used music of Black composers and others which spoke to social and religious freedom. I was privileged to work with him until his passing in December 2009. The last December program from that year was rebroadcast in 2010.
Since what she refers to as her “enlightenment,” Ottley has presented a number of music seminars on “Black Composers of Classical Music from the Renaissance to the Present” at schools and churches. Her presentation was given at Columbia Union College; Oakwood College, now Oakwood University, (both in chapel and at a 1993 meeting of the North American Division Ministerial Black Caucus); SDA World Headquarters as a week of morning worships; in a number of Christian churches and schools in the U.S.; at the Conservatoire of Kenya; and in the Central Nairobi Church. In 1992, she and a group of colleagues in the U.S. started the Kwame Awards, which recognize persons of all races who have supported the arts and artists of color.
Beginning as a teenager in Trinidad, where Nevilla Ottley served as an organist for the chapel at Caribbean Union College, and continuing while a student at Andrews University as Sabbath School organist at the Pioneer Memorial Church and later as organist for weekly chapel services at Howard University, she has been active in music ministry. She has served as both an organist and choir director at Adventist and other Christian churches in Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Washington, D.C. region. Her work in New York included serving as one of the initial accompanists for the famous Boys Choir of Harlem, which was founded by an Adventist and rehearsed in the Ephesus SDA Church.
In 1973 Nevilla established the Ottley Music Studio, where she initially taught piano and theory. In 1998 the program was expanded and renamed the Ottley Music School (OMS). It now employs an extended faculty and offers lessons in keyboard (piano and organ, voice, brass, woodwinds, percussion, orchestral and folk string instruments, and conducting. Other areas of study include world music instruments such as Caribbean steel drums and African drums and several forms of dancing.
Programs of study from classical music to jazz are offered for students of all ages from pre-school to senior citizens, and summer camps and institutes are regularly scheduled. In the summer of 2014, Ottley Music School, Inc. will begin partnering with Washing ton Adventist University, in its debut year directing two two-week music camps for elementary and middle school children at risk.
Through the years Ottley’s piano students have consistently rated very highly in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and in the National Guild of Piano Teachers auditions and examinations. In the studio and school's over forty years of existence, numerous students in all areas of performance have studied, graduated, and then become famous for their successes in music. Many have now studied at or occupy positions at over a dozen well-known universities in the U.S. and the Caribbean.
Besides music, other OMS alumni serve as physicians, lawyers, inventors, architects, television producers, and news reporters for major networks. Others enjoy work as actors and actresses, fashion designers and one serves as the director of the Government Services Administration.
In 2008 she was the recipient of a Lifetime of Excellence in Music Award from the Guild of Adventist Musicians in Washington.
Ottley-Adjahoe has authored several books for students on Black composers and performers. She is presently writing about strong women of the Bible, and is researching her family’s genealogy, a quest that has taken her and her husband, Edgar E. K. Adjahoe, to England, the Caribbean and Ghana with what she refers to as “amazing results,” all of which she is preserving in a series of books. She has been featured in a genealogical documentary by the United Kingdom’s Sky One, “So You Think You Are Royal,” genealogical and historical research done by the noted Nick Barrett, genealogist and producer and David Saul, historian and author.
Nevilla’s husband, Edgar, is a bassoonist and native of Ghana, Africa (his father was Ghanian and his mother was from the U.S.). His family includes several musicians. Their son, Jonathan Christopher Kwame Adjahoe, who has played string bass and electric bass guitar since he was a teenager and now plays for two large churches, worked for the U.S. government State Department and the Pentagon as a computer networking technologist. In 2012, he decided to become a fulltime musician and photographer and attends Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he is majoring in film scoring.
Nevilla also has three stepchildren, Nigel Hutchinson, Alfred and Alis Adjahoe; and four grandchildren, Lauryn and Jonathyn Hutchinson, Jabril Hardinge Adjahoe, and Alexander Adjahoe.
Sources: Autobiographical sketch prepared by Nevilla E. Ottley, 2012-2014; Ottley School of Music website: history of the school; biographical information about members of the Neville E. Ottley family, his ancestors and descendants; and listing of faculty. Andrews University 2003 Alumni Directory; Belh Michaels, "Union Musicians Awarded at Guild Ceremony," Columbia Union Visitor, T May 2008; Hannah Bruchman, "School proves that music benefits people of all ages," The Hyattsville Life and Times,10 July 2010,6; Lael Cesar, "Songbirds and Pioneers, The Ottleys of Trinidad," Adventist World-NAD, May 2012, 38,39.