Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón

Music has always been a part of Annie Ray's ('17) life.

She took up the piano at age 3 and the harp at age 5. She learned how to play string instruments as she took classes in middle and high school and served as orchestra manager.

But it was more about making music; it was a way to create relationships and see her friends' personalities come out.

"Music was the reason I got through high school," she says. "Music is a way of equalizing everyone and bringing everyone together."

Now as a teacher, she's making sure others get the same experience. She began an orchestra for students with intellectual disabilities at the suburban Virginian school district where she works, which won attention from The Washington Post, and she gave the TEDx talk "The Sounds of Success" earlier this year. She also created an orchestra that attracts over 150 parents who play with their children each year.

She's not only brought joy to the students, but it's changed her perspective on how she sees music.

"The end result is we were successful and making music together," she says. "It's really freeing because there's no expectations."

Universal Language
Annie Ray in music classroom
Annie Ray (’17) leads her students in the Crescendo Orchestra. (Photo courtesy Donnie Biggs/FCPS)

Ray can't live without music. Her middle and high school teachers inspired her to pursue a career as a music teacher. She met her husband -- Irving Ray ('12 M.M., '17 D.M.A.), a euphonium player for the prestigious U.S. Army Band Pershing's Own -- at one of her performances.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ray felt lost. She struggled with online learning as a teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools near the Washington, D.C. area, where she moved about six years ago for her husband's job.

"It's really hard to be the one-woman show on screen, but I was just craving making music with others," she says.

When they returned to the schools, she says it was cathartic to play music again. One day, while walking down the hallway, she saw the classroom with students with intellectual disabilities.

And she came up with the idea. They should have their own orchestra.

The principal eagerly approved it. The students meet for 80 minutes every other day in Crescendo Orchestra for a dedicated class period.

"I knew it was successful because the kids were happy, smiling and engaged, and weren't trying to leave the room," she says. "There were lots of little moments. 'Oh my gosh, we're connecting.'"

She says it reinvented how she teaches. When she gives a test, she doesn't score a student if they missed a note and other mistakes, but on their own personal progress -- such as improving the positioning of their wrist.

"We always say music is the universal language and it is in a way, but musiking -- or the act of making music -- is the true unifier," she says. "It's easy to get caught up in perfection versus the music side of it. It taught me the essence of music. It gave me freedom."

She also created an orchestra in which the parents of students -- whether they have never touched an instrument or have experience playing -- meet twice a month to perform with their children.

"It's very, very fun," she says. "It's awesome because the kid gets to teach the parent."

Pushing Boundaries
Annie Ray talking with double bass musician
Ray talks to one of her students. (Photo courtesy Donnie Biggs/FCPS)

Ray credits her creativity to her parents and her education at UNT.

Ray, who grew up in Plano, says her mother, Stacy King Lehman ('85), a pianist, guided her through her journey. Her aunt, Tracy King Davis ('85), and her cousin are also alums from the College of Music.

A major in both music performance and music education, Ray played the harp for the Wind Symphony, and studied under Jaymee Haefner, associate professor of harp and director of graduate studies, and Eugene Corporon, conductor of the Wind Symphony and Regents Professor of Music.

She especially appreciated the String Project and working with Elizabeth Chappell, assistant professor of string music education, in which UNT students instructed K-12 students on string instruments, giving future teachers hands-on training. She's now helping other students discover their own path by inviting them to come teach in Parent Orchestra. She can also regularly be heard at music conferences speaking about Crescendo Orchestra, including this year's Midwest Clinic International Band, Orchestra and Music Conference and the American String Teachers Association conference.

"UNT gave me an opportunity to push the boundaries in these musical spaces and that is a memory I treasure," she says.