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Well On His Way

From a small town in Alabama, to Tampa Bay and now to the UK's third largest city, Eli Ponder is preparing for a leadership role in the world of music.


Photo by Bryce Womeldurf

By Barbara Melendez
     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (April 30, 2015) – In Eli Ponder-Twardy's hometown of Albertville in northern Alabama, “the entire community supported the arts through music as they attended high school football games, graduations and band concerts,” he said. This taught him that music “built community, contributed to culture, and connected with people on a personal level.”

Understanding this has shaped the direction of his life as music became his passion.

A very early childhood memory influenced Ponder-Twardy's choice of instrument. Seeing a trombone-playing street musician, while on a trip with his father, left him with an indelible image. There was something about “the romance of the moment,” he explained. Years later, when his junior high school band director offered a choice of instruments, he instantly chose the trombone.

Ponder-Twardy excelled and achieved All-State status as a high school senior. One of his teachers advised him to pursue his studies further at USF's School of Music in the College of The Arts. He couldn't be happier with his choice.

Attending USF expanded Ponder-Twardy's horizons and opened up possibilities he never imagined. Getting involved in the Tampa Bay arts scene and studying abroad were huge bonuses.

Becoming a Fulbright Scholar was another.

Music and community – as well as mastery of the trombone – are at the heart of his being awarded the Fulbright U.S. Student Program Study Grant to pursue a master's degree in music and management at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. He is one of only 46 students chosen from around the nation.

“In my research of master's degree programs, the Music and Management program at the University of Leeds resonated with me because of creative modules the program offers that combine theory of management with practical application in the Leeds music scene,” he said.

He was well-suited for this honor. As he explained in his grant application's personal statement, “I study with a faculty that is nationally and internationally renowned in the fields of jazz composition, conducting, music history, theory, and trombone performance. This education has not only given me the skills to play and participate in Tampa's vibrant music community, but also a holistic understanding of the art form.”

From his base at USF, Tampa provided Ponder-Twardy with opportunities to hear and perform many different styles of music including orchestral, rock and roll, Latin and jazz. USF is where he was introduced to jazz and he played with the USF Bone Band.

“The virtuosity and passion in the live performance of this music captured my imagination,” he said. “The summer of my junior year, I was selected to perform in a tour of jazz festivals in Italy and France, organized by Professors Jack Wilkins and Tom Brantley. The jazz festivals ranged in size from some of most prestigious in Europe to smaller festivals put on by local communities. I saw music uniting communities in similar ways to Alabama. I felt this experience was a culmination of everything I had experienced to that point, and it inspired me to begin pursuing a career that facilitated such community building through the arts.”

Ponder-Twardy leaves USF as outgoing president of the College of The Arts Council, and president and founder of the USF Trombone Club. He was principle trombonist for the USF Trombone Choir (2011-2012), USF Jazz Ensemble II (2014) and the USF Bone Band II (2014). He is currently co-writing a publication with USF Associate Professor of Music Theory Jill Brasky titled, “Beethoven's F-major Movements and the Major Mediant.”

In the meantime he maintained a 3.82 GPA while serving as a volunteer for the Hillsborough County Arts Council, Music Theory Southeast and The Crossing Church in Brandon.

“I was fortunate enough to discover a balance. It was an important thing I discovered in my time as a student involved with student organizations and big projects and honing organizational skills,” he said. There were “the stresses of high energy decision-making versus slow, methodical discipline involved with playing an instrument – joy of being in the moment as well as the tedium and isolation of practicing” versus “going out and seeing and meeting people and working at lifting up other artists and supporting them with what they do.”

Meanwhile, his love of the trombone has only grown – though he admits it's not the easiest instrument to play.

“There are so many physical things to coordinate in playing the trombone,” he explained. “First you have to have an excellent ear for pitch, much like a vocalist and you have to combine that with rhythmic coordination with the arm. It looks awkward – you have to have a wealth of skills and good timing.”

Until he leaves for Leeds with its flourishing music scene, Ponder-Twardy will be deep in researching and planning for his year abroad. He'll also continuing practicing and teaching and seeing friends.

He's happy to point out that, “Leeds is home to upwards of 10 annual music festivals, famed music venues, and award winning arts organizations such as Opera North, England's national opera company.”

When he returns to the United States, he plans on “bringing art and art infrastructure to individuals and places where there's a need for it. Maybe pursue work in an arts organization like the National Endowment for the Arts,” or maybe his own arts organization. Either way, the world will benefit.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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