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From Motown to MOT

By Claudia Capos, ’73


Read time: 4 minutes

Vintage photos cover the walls of a cozy nook off the kitchen in the historic home that doubles as a music studio for Patricia Terry-Ross, ’68, MMUS’69, and her husband, Frank Ross. The collage of images chronicles the highlights of her remarkable 70 years of life and six decades as a pianist, harpist, vocalist, choral conductor, and music educator. Each picture tells its own story.

President Bill Clinton’s autograph is scrawled across a photo of him shaking Terry-Ross’s hand as she is seated at her harp. “That was taken at a private reception for President Clinton and his Cabinet members,” Terry-Ross says of the 1994 G-7 summit in Detroit. “While everyone was talking to one another, the president stood by me, listening to the whole piece I was playing, and then talked to me.” Another photo shows the Three Tenors (Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti) in concert at Tiger Stadium. In still another, Sammy Davis Jr. displays his million-dollar smile. “I am very proud I was chosen to play for musicians of that caliber,” says Terry-Ross.

View a video of Patricia Terry-Ross as she reflects on her dedication to her craft.

The principal harpist for the Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT) orchestra for 41 years, she also has soloed, toured, and recorded with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and shared the stage with top stars in the music world. Dame Joan Sutherland, Leona Mitchell, Andrea Bocelli, and Denyce Graves are just a few. In the meantime, Terry-Ross has received numerous accolades for her outstanding contributions to performance and music education, most recently, the Kresge Foundation’s 2017 Eminent Artist honor.

MOT founder David DiChiera met Terry-Ross in 1976 when the Michigan Chamber Orchestra, for whom she was playing harp, became the “house” orchestra to accompany the opera productions. Several years later, when DiChiera decided to contract the official MOT orchestra, Terry-Ross successfully auditioned and became principal harpist. “Besides being a talented performer, Pat is one of the loveliest people I’ve had the pleasure of working with and knowing,” he says. “She has a wonderful quality about her.”

Missing from the wall of music memories in Terry-Ross’ home, however, are photos of the many Motown stars, like Marvin Gaye, she recorded with during the 1960s and 1970s. She played in Hitsville’s famous Studio A—as well as the label’s other studios—adding her harp to such famous songs as “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” (The Temptations), “My Cheri Amour” (Stevie Wonder), and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” by Gladys Knight & The Pips.

“We didn’t take pictures at Motown because everyone was there to work a serious two- or three-hour session,” Terry-Ross explains. She owes her start at Motown, when she was 23, to Paul Riser, a Grammy-winning arranger/composer, whom she met during their student days at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School. “I still get calls to play recording sessions for music he arranges for various artists,” she says.

Cass Tech is where Terry-Ross picked up her first harp, at 14, and performed with the school’s celebrated Harp and Vocal Ensemble, which she later directed for 31 years, taking over from the woman who had once directed her as a student. (Later, one of Terry-Ross’ students took over for her.) By high school, vocal and instrumental music already had sculpted Terry-Ross’ life: beginning with piano at age 5, a solo performance on television at age 7, violin in the third grade, and timpani in the eighth grade. “Although the harp was the last instrument I learned to play, something about its sound was so special that I wanted to work hard to become a proficient player,” she says.

That desire prompted Terry-Ross to enroll at the University of Michigan, where she earned an undergraduate degree in choral music education and was awarded a fellowship to pursue her master’s degree in choral music education and harp performance. “I received an exceptional education at Michigan,” Terry-Ross says. “My professors inspired and challenged me to be my best.”

Since taking her first job as a vocal music teacher at Detroit’s Pattengill Elementary School in 1969, Terry-Ross has inspired and challenged her own students—both at Cass Tech and Wayne State University, where she is adjunct associate professor of harp, choral conducting, and vocal music education—to be their best, musically and personally. “I became an educator because I wanted to give back to students that which was given to me,” she says.

Many of her protégés have become notable vocalists and musicians.

Internationally renowned soprano Janet Williams-Berndt, who performed with the world’s top opera companies for 30 years, characterizes Terry-Ross as a “master teacher” who “expected musical and personal excellence,” instilled self-confidence and integrity, and inspired her students. “My life was blessed by Pat,” Williams-Berndt says. “I was but one of many. Her legacy is grand and immense!”

“I tried to be prepared for anything and everything, and opportunities have always come my way,” Terry-Ross says. “My maternal grandmother told me I was given a musical gift, but it wasn’t a gift unless I could give it away. And that’s what I continue to strive to do.”

Claudia Capos, ’73, is an award-winning journalist whose assignments have taken her around the world. Her company, Capos & Associates, provides communications services to universities, organizations, and businesses.

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