Meet the woman behind the voice: MCC’s Millie Edwards Nottingham

She is a familiar face to students on the Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley campus, but she is also known nationally for her lovely voice.

Millie Edwards Nottingham
Millie Edwards Nottingham

Now, a recent honor is spreading the word around town to anyone unfamiliar with Millie Edwards Nottingham’s talent. Nottingham, a comprehensive literacy instructor at MCC for 11 years, was recently named to Ingram’s magazine’s 50 Missourians You Should Know list.

“For most of the past 35 years, she’s filled her weekends — and no small number of weeknights — with mic in hand on stages across America, working with some of the best-known names in jazz and contemporary music,” the article noted.

Nottingham brings a wonderfully robust personality and style to her classroom.  Before she was a teacher, she worked at AT&T for 25 years, holding positions that ranged from corporate diversity to public affairs.

Music has been a part of her life throughout all of her professional working career. As a young woman, she minored in music and majored in education at Ottawa University.  It was there in Ottawa, Kan., she would meet the man who encouraged her to make the most of her voice:  She credits legendary composer Aaron Copland, who was visiting Ottawa, for influencing her to sing.

Nottingham (known by audiences as Millie Edwards) performs at MCC functions regularly, just last month at the Chancellor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship luncheon.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Nottingham to talk about the nod from Ingram’s, her background and her philosophy of life. Excerpts:

Her response to the Ingram’s article

Nottingham: When they talked to me I was (like), why? (laughs)  Because you think, I’m just living my life.  Yes, I do things and I’m just like everybody else. You do what you need to do and you do what’s right and you just live your life.  And it’s nice somebody recognized me. I’m just like everybody else. I’ve just been around this town a long time. And I think from my corporate career to my music career and now my educational career, it all supported the other and it just made me a richer person.

Her professional background

I had 25 years in corporate America at AT&T and I left a technical position.  I had a diversity position.  I had a community affairs position.  And when I left, I was managing voice Internet IP out of the Lee’s Summit office, and Southwestern Bell was going to buy them. And I could still be working, but they had a great buyout package. I said, “Stick a fork in me, I’m done,” and I left and I was going to do nonprofit work and perform. But then a friend (MCC’s Fran Padow) saw me performing at the now-defunct Jardine’s on the Plaza and said, “You need to come to work for Metropolitan Community College.”

The impact her corporate background and her music have on her teaching

Nottingham sang at the Chancellor's Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon in January at MCC-Penn Valley.
Nottingham sang at the Chancellor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon in January at MCC-Penn Valley.

It plays (a part), in that I have a lot of real-life experience. I’ve lived a while and I’ve traveled extensively. And I’ve always been one to embrace diversity and to embrace difference.  I was taught to find the best in people, to look for the good, that everybody is knowledgeable and intelligent about something. And because of my past experiences, it helps the students in the classroom.

Instead of automatically assuming certain things when you meet somebody, it’s helped me to get to know them and to get know their strengths and opportunities.  I work with students, helping them to be the best they can possibly be.  They help me learn.  They help me grow.  But because of my past life, I’m able to see the good and see that they just lack some of the basic skills needed to get over the hump.

Our students are very intelligent, they’re bright and very funny.  They make my job enjoyable. My position allows me to view people in a very realistic light.

Advice she finds herself giving students the most

Be prepared, be there and show up. So many times, people just naturally assume the most qualified person gets a job. Well, they don’t. The people who get the job are the people who show up, who are active, who are involved, prepared and ready. And they have an open mind when they see someone who is not like them.

Taking a cue from the MCC tagline “Be More” . . .

Be more inclusive. Be more open. Be more ready to face the challenges that are in front of us.

Her favorite performance on campus

I would have to say (the MCC employee) in-service. Because everybody’s together. You’ve got everybody together, you’ve got all the campuses together. All MCC employees are there for that moment in time. And that’s how I think of MCC. I work at Penn Valley. But I’m a part of MCC and when we come together, that’s when we’re the best. That’s why I like “in service.” Everybody makes this engine run. I don’t care if it’s the admin support team. I don’t care if it’s the maintenance team. I don’t care if it’s the police department. They’re all good people trying to do the right thing. In-service is where we all get together and we all hear the message.  We all get a chance to just interact with each other and be MCC family.

Her favorite performance of all time

When I worked with Aaron Copland.  I went to college in a time where there was money, and so the founder of the Suzuki program would come to Ottawa. We’d have Second City. We would have Jester Hairston.

Composer Aaron Copland in 1970
Composer Aaron Copland in 1970

What I remember is, I went to college on a music scholarship and a track scholarship and I played piano and viola. And I decided to join the choir as an afterthought. And we had Aaron Copland there before he died.

Mr. Copland asked me, “How long have you been singing?”  Aaron Copland, well, he was in a wheelchair when he came up to me, you know. And this is “the man.” We were doing “Appalachian Spring” and we were doing all of his compositions.

And he said, “How long you been singing?” and I said, “Not very long, just started.”

He says, “You know what? Do you play any instruments?” And I said, “Yes, I play in the orchestra.”

He says, “You might consider singing. You might consider honing that instrument.”

Aaron Copland said that. And I said, “Wow.”  Because I had never thought about singing. I had seen Van Cliburn and I wanted to be Van Cliburn and Andre Previn.  And I thought that’s what I wanted to do.  And then here’s Aaron Copland saying I should sing.

So I thought about it at that moment. I said thank you and I walked away.  I thought and then I thought, why not? Then I got a solo here and a solo there.  I started in coffeehouses. Elton John and James Taylor and Melissa Manchester and Carole King.  I got all their songbooks and there it is. And it came from Aaron Copland saying, “You really should consider singing.”

What she wants her legacy to be at MCC

That I made a difference in the lives of our students.  I helped them care not only about themselves, their friends and their family, but that they became good corporate citizens. That their successes mattered, but so did other people.  I want students to realize we as people are members of the human race.

I succeed because I do what I do, but I’m a member of the human race.  I want students to understand that as members of the human race they have a responsibility not only to themselves and their immediate circle but to the world they live in.

UPCOMING PERFORMANCES

+ On March 1, Nottingham will make her fourth appearance in a row at the annual Greater Kansas City Area Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast.

+ She’ll perform May 7 at the Bob James Jazz Festival in Marshall, Mo. She’s working with MCC-Penn Valley music director Clarence Smith for the performance.