Ellen Winters Reynolds' Second Act as Professional Vocalist and Teacher

A love of music leads to a life-changing career shift for Ellen Winters Reynolds, an adjunct faculty member at Columbia College Chicago.

No singular path guided Adjunct Faculty Member Ellen Winters Reynolds toward a career in teaching and performing music. But the roads of her life’s journey did neatly converge in such a way that she now enjoys the synergy of these professions and what could best be described as her second act.  

"I love teaching and performing because they keep me honest in both areas,” she says. “I have to be able to walk the walk, so I'm out performing, but I also have to be able to do the things that I'm teaching my students in class. It's a holistic way of living my craft. And I could never have imagined that it would fall into my lap the way it did.”  

While music always played a vital role in her life, Reynolds didn’t set out to teach music or perform it professionally. In fact, she had an entirely different career before coming to Columbia College Chicago in 2007.  

With her father’s favorite jazz music and her older siblings’ musical theatre and classic rock providing the soundtrack of her youth, Reynolds studied English at the University of Minnesota and enjoyed singing in a school vocal jazz ensemble and taking as many music classes as she could. But she heeded her mother’s advice to pursue what mom considered a more stable career and became a broadcast journalist and later a leader of a nonprofit.    

“And as my life moved on, I realized I needed to have music in my life. I needed to sing,” she says.  

Reynolds earned her associate degree in professional music at a community college and took music education classes at Western Michigan University. Throughout her early career, she kept her day jobs, eventually returning to her hometown of Milwaukee.  

“Music was a passion, and it was something I desperately wanted to do, but I didn't have the confidence. I didn't think I was good enough,” she says. “And as my life evolved and I kept finding opportunities to sing, I found that it really felt more like home than anything else I'd ever done.”  

Reynolds' offer to lend her extra bedroom as a restful haven to a Western Michigan graduate music student visiting Milwaukee led to a friendship that proved life-altering. That graduate student was Mimi Rohlfing, who later went on to teach music at Columbia College Chicago.  

When a temporary teaching position opened in the Music department Columbia years later, Rohlfing recommended Reynolds. Even though the position was initially short-term, Reynolds seized the opportunity to finally pursue her dreams and make music her professional priority.   

In 2006, I said, if I'm going to make a change, I have to make a change now,” she recalls. “So, I kind of jumped off the ship with my life jacket, and literally within six months I was working at Columbia College Chicago, and I had a studio in Milwaukee three days a week where I was teaching voice.”  

More than 15 years later, Reynolds still teaches voice at Columbia, making the trek from Milwaukee by train two times a week. She’s also now an established jazz vocalist, recording two albums and playing in venues across the country. She jumped into the cabaret scene more than ten years ago and has performed the show “Ella Meets Mel” with her friend Johnny Rodgers and wrote her own Rosemary Clooney tribute show. And today she serves as co-chair of the education committee and board member of Chicago Cabaret Professionals.  

Currently planning her third album, tentatively titled The Emerging American Songbook, Reynolds continues to love teaching at Columbia and being part of its faculty.   

“I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of a music faculty that is so diverse and so kind and so giving,” she says. And then she smiles: “I mean, I wouldn't be here taking the train two days a week if I didn't.