ROSE HILL — When Melodee Wynne retired from being “a church musician” a few weeks before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, her timing seemed impeccable.

While most people would call her “a church pianist,” that label is lacking.

Wynne also plays the organ, is the chorus director and handbell director — and missing a rehearsal or service with music is a note-less sonnet to a musical director’s primary focus.

Wynne said goodbye to it after 50 years, but she is not ready to leave the first love of her life, piano, or her second love, teaching.

“I wish I could take credit for the timing,” said Wynne in regard to how the pandemic closed church buildings.

“I’m down to 25 students after having as many as 60 once. Back then, I got two done at school before 8 a.m. and was there until 8 or 9 at night until my husband (Jim) built the studio.”

The “studio” is Rose Hill’s Duplin Music Academy, a music box of a house on U.S. Highway 117 that was converted into a rehearsal facility where students could be taught piano, organ, strings, horns and voice. She brought in instructors for those disciplines when it opened in 2008.

Stepping back from the music scene helped Wynne reflect, regroup, refocus and reconnect to her students and teaching.

Wynne is a self-taught piano teacher who has guided and inspired musicians from Duplin and adjoining counties.

“It’s a passion and still is, perhaps even more so now,” Wynne said. “I want to pass it along. For me, it’s never been a job. Yes, I earn money.

“To me, music is a gift from one heart to the next.”

Teaching, inspiring

Wynne’s love of teaching radiated upon many students, including Vera Simpson, who started when she was 5 years old. Simpson competed regionally, earned a music degree from ECU and has played piano at Wallace’s Presbyterian Church for the past 21 years. Simpson also teaches privately.

“Wynne was very nurturing but also pushed us beyond where we thought we could go,” Simpson said.

Other students made waves in music and otherwise. They include:

  • Amanda Boney, who has taught music at Wallace Elementary for the past 12 years.
  • Michael Boney, who played completely by ear until Wynne started teaching him. Boney graduated from ECU and has had several top-level church positions, and is the director of music at St. John Episcopal Church in Denver, Colo.
  • Brother Chris and Kevin Brinkley. Chris is a music instructor at a community college. Kevin, who also played guitar and sax, did not pursue a music career.
  • Bryant and Hope Murphy. Both studied a number of years with Wynne.
  • Jackson and Natalie Gladden. Jackson was the pure pianist.
  • Avis Carr, who lived in Greenevers, took piano.
  • Adriana Mejio, took private lessons from Wynne for four years in high school. She is studying music at ECU.

“I’ve had a lot of really good students, some with natural talent and others who worked really hard,” Wynne said. “You know, music is a silent gift from your heart. I hope I passed on the passion and taught them well. This is something you have to feel and then work at hard, perhaps unlike many other callings.”

Beginning notes

Wynne was adopted by Wilmington’s Roy and Grace Hobbs when she was 4 months old.

By the time she was 2, she was banging out songs on a toy piano.

“Songs I heard on the radio I would recreate on what I got as a gift,” she said. “I remember, ‘tank-tank. tank-tank-tank-tank.”

A series of better concerts was in the works. She took lessons under Mary Eunice Troy for four years, and then studied classical piano under Dr. Bristow Hardin, a professor at The College of William and Mary, when the family moved to Virginia Beach for two years because of her father’s job as an airplane pilot.

By the time they moved back to Wilmington, Wynne was hooked on the feeling of a career in music.

“Oh, yeah. I knew it early on,” she said. “I found it or it found me.”

By age 14 she was the accompanist for Wilmington’s Winter Park Presbyterian Church junior choir.

She was Hoggard High School’s accompanist for four years. She also dabbled with the oboe and clarinet in the band.

While loving music, she was also a swimmer for four years, a school bus driver when she got her license at age 16, and had a summer job at Newells, a tourist shop at Wrightsville Beach.

Wynne graduated from ECU with a performance degree.

Finding roots in Duplin

She came to Rose Hill because of her husband, and worked in the office of the House of Raeford.

It wasn’t long until Rose Hill-Magnolia Elementary Principal Chuck Slemenda called to recruit Wynne.

At the time you could go into the public schools and teach privately, a perfect setup for Wynne, who did not have education credentials.

She put out fliers to attract students and the response was “overwhelming.

“I really had to think about it because I had always been on the performance side and already had a job at a church,” Wynne said. “

Wynne said she had to learn to teach.

“What I found out about teaching is that it’s similar to performing in that it’s all about you.

“At the time I was the youngest chicken in the coop as a church pianist and had no mentor beyond music friends and teachers at the school. So I had to learn a lot about teaching on my own.”

She learned when and how to push students, and infused practice habits that planted musical seeds in them.

Music Academy has quality instructors

Wynne brought several teachers to the Duplin Music Academy to teach other disciplines.

Cary Williams Jackson taught violin for four years.

Jim Candido, a retired bass player for the New York Philharmonic was a teacher for two years after he moved to River Landing.

Guitar instructor Jonnie Castelano gave lessons there for eight years before opening up his own studio in Beulaville.

Carla Casteen taught voice lessons.

Wallace-Rose Hill High’s band director Dave Phillips helped out with the saxophone students. Amanda Boney came back for a couple of years to teach, too.

The academy pushes on after the pandemic. Wynne said David Robertson was hired to teach classical guitar — and there is already a waiting list.

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com