The McLain, Miss., native is most recently known in Talladega for being the former director of the Talladega College Choir.
After spending nearly a decade directing the choir, McLeod said one of her proudest moments was seeing the choir and male quartet perform at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama’s 10th anniversary celebration last November.
But her introduction to music started much earlier, during the early integration days of the Civil Rights Movement; her teaching career has spanned three decades.
McLeod said her mother, Myrtle McLeod, was the driving force behind her music career, buying the family’s first piano and taking notice that as early as 3 years old her daughter was able to play by ear.
“She was the backbone of making sure we had a good education,” McLeod said.
“Music has been a part of my life since the age of 3, with private piano lessons and teachers. That was my vocation from that day on, that I pursue music.”
From then on, McLeod competed in numerous competitions after the family moved to Mobile.
From the time she was in seventh-grade to her senior year of high school at Trinity Garden High School in Mobile, McLeod stood out as a gifted pianist, playing for the high school chorus and serving as a student assistant to the chorus and band director.
She went on to play first chair clarinet for the band, but it wasn’t until she was in 10th-grade that the faculty integrated and she met a teacher who would change her life.
“I met Mr. McMullens who introduced me to the viola,” McLeod said. “And every Tuesday and Thursday my mother and me would travel back to Mississippi and he’d pick me up and take me to the University of Southern Mississippi to get lessons for the viola and to participate in their orchestra.”
At the end of her senior year of high school, McLeod got a full scholarship to participate in the music program at the University of Southern Mississippi.
She was one of the first African-Americans to integrate the university in 1969, an experience she said meant more to her mother, who had always wanted to attend the university but could not because of the color of her skin.
“That experience was great; it gave me a chance to explore my musical horizons,” McLeod said.
McLeod excelled in her studies, majoring in piano and playing the viola in the university’s orchestra.
She earned a graduate assistantship at William Carey College after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi.
“I had to teach students how to read and appreciate music,” McLeod said. “Those students were black students.”
McLeod took pride in teaching the music department’s African-American students, who had never really known music professionally let alone how to read it.
After graduating from William Carey, McLeod played piano professionally for opera singers in New York and Chicago.
She also served as choir director and chair of the music department at several schools, including Piney Woods School in her home of Mississippi after her mother’s death; she’s also traveled all over the country playing professionally in cities including Cleveland, New Orleans, Atlanta and Birmingham.
McLeod said she went back to teach at Piney Woods, staying there for a total of eight years, before she decided to pursue work on the collegiate level at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“I left there to pursue work in colleges, to pursue teaching my own in the HBCUs so that our students could get the quality education of knowing music and how to read published work,” she said.
McLeod has also published work such as “Building a Positive Choral Attitude: Methods of Successful Music Teaching in the Rural Area Schools,” which she said served as the backbone of her teaching practices at Talladega College, where she taught from 2004 until July 2012.
“I came to Talladega College as the chairperson of the music department,” McLeod said. “I taught choir, piano, voice, methods classes of music like strings and percussion, music survey, music theory and music history.”
In addition to her work with the choir, McLeod went above and beyond the call of duty to form quartets and sextets with her students.
“When I came, there were only about 12 students,” she said. “The largest choir I had at Talladega College had about 68 students. I have usually kept at least 52 students in the choir.”
From the first time she taught African-American students at William Carey College to her time at Talladega College, McLeod has always kept students first and drilled into them the importance of discipline and “singing by note, not by rote.”
“I was a caring type of teacher, but I was very firm on discipline and the proper protocol for them to be in the choir and music department,” McLeod said. “I did a lot of heavy recruiting for the music department.”
A lot of students who attended the college were recruited by McLeod from other schools for the choir and music department.
“I didn’t mind teaching the basic concepts; that’s why we had the special type of sound that we had,” she said.
While McLeod was at the college, the choir got to travel to different cities and states and participate in different festivals and competitions, including the prestigious biannual Festival of Spirituals for HBCU choirs from all over the state.
“A lot of students expressed to me that if they had not participated in the choir, they would not have gotten to see larger cities,” McLeod said.
The choir performed in cities including Mobile, Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Rochester, N.Y., Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I cared about the students and them learning,” McLeod said. “When they performed, I wanted them to be proud of the end result.
“Everyone hears the end result, but they don’t know of the hard work that goes with it.”
McLeod said that throughout her teaching experience it was an uphill battle trying to get others to understand the formality of choir.
“A lot of people don’t understand that singing in the choir is not like singing alone. In my choir, you sing by note not by rote. By note you’re reading the literature behind it; you know why they wrote it and that’s what I promoted in the students,” McLeod said.
“A lot of people didn’t understand what choir was about. They didn’t appreciate what it is to sing in choir and what’s so special about that kind of music.”
Currently, McLeod serves as a consultant for other HBCU choirs and holds workshops on reading and appreciating music.
McLeod is a member of the Music Educators National Conference, the Delta Omicron Honorary Music Society and Mississippi/Alabama Piano Guild, and is currently the director of choral activities for the state of Alabama for the Voices of Spirituals, which is held in Washington D.C.
She is also a member of Toulminville-Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile and is the founder and director of the Myrtle C. McLeod Chorale.
She is also set to perform as a guest conductor at this year’s Festival of Spirituals toward the end of this year, and gets requests to play as an accompaniment for solos.
McLeod still believes in the importance of teaching African-American musicians and vocalists as much as she did over 30 years ago at William Carey.
She still credits her mother for not only giving her a first introduction to the piano, but also for giving her a sense of purpose, structure and discipline that McLeod has ingrained in her students through her teaching practices over the years.
When asked if she still keeps a piano in the house, McLeod said, “Oh, yes ma’am. See, music has been a part of my life ever since I was arranging for the band in high school. There was always a piano in the house, and there’s that old saying that if you have a piano in the house, someone’s going to play it.”
Contact Aziza Jackson at email@example.com.