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An interview with Marilyn Mason

April 12, 2003
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Part 1 of this interview appeared in the October issue of The Diapason, pp. 16-21.

Q: I just wonder how you get all your energy.

A: Well, maybe it's because I'm from Oklahoma. I do exercise a lot. I walk quite a bit and I used to bike a lot, too.

Q: Does everybody in Oklahoma have energy like that?

A: It depends on the genes. They're always friendly, I know that.

Q: What suggestions do you have for young organists?

A: There might be some suggestions which are based on my own experience. One of them is the Boy Scout motto: "Be prepared," because as I look back the break that I had was in 1950 when the Boston AGO called me to say "Robert Ellis was to play and he cannot play. Will you play the Schoenberg 'Variations' for us?" I had less than two weeks to prepare this piece. But fortunately I had been prepared. I'd had my lessons with Schoenberg. I'd been preparing the piece and playing it for some time. I had it memorized.

The second thing is to be flexible. That is, if someone asks you to play, don't say, "I won't play because we don't have four manuals." Don't say, "I can't play because there's only two manuals."  Roll with the punches, be willing to fit into the situation. It's better to be playing a recital and have to make a few compromises than not be playing at all.

The third thing, very important, is be dependable. If you say you will be there, if you say you will do such and such, be there, do it. Be known for your dependability and your accountability.

Don't procrastinate. That comes along with being dependable. Don't put things off. I have a very fine colleague in the organ department--James Kibbie. He is the splendid example of this. He never procrastinates. If I suggest something or if I ask him to do something, he does it immediately. I think that's an important aspect of our work. If for any reason I might have to put off something, it's because my inner sense of the whole situation says "wait." We all know of situations where if you had waited a little bit things would have worked out a little better than if you had gone ahead immediately. So I say procrastination with a grain of salt--using your own judgment.

These four things matter: to be prepared, to be flexible, to be dependable, and not to procrastinate.

Q: Please tell about the Fisk organ here which is named "The Marilyn Mason Organ."

A: The organ which stands in the Blanche Anderson Moore Hall in the School of Music is a result of a lot of thinking and consulting and wondering what was going to happen next with our department. Robert Clark was teaching with us at the time we were thinking and trying to decide. He had just made his first trip to what was formerly East Germany. We knew that we were going to have this fund started by Judith Barnett Metz. She told me, "I would like to do something in your honor. Would you like a Marilyn Mason scholarship?" I said, "Well, we need an organ more than anything." So she gave Michigan the initial funds. Bob Clark said, "We should have a copy of one of those beautiful Silbermanns because we don't have anything like that." At that time, about 1979-80, there was nothing like that in the States. So he was the one who gave us that marvelous idea, and the whole faculty--Robert Glasgow, James Kibbie & Michele Johns--thought it was the right thing to do. So, that's what we did. The interesting thing is how it came about. I went to our Dean, Paul Boylan (and he had just become the Dean in 1979). I said, "We're going to have this money for an organ, but we can't have an organ without a place to house it." He said, "I want to have a rehearsal/concert hall for musical theater, because we're expanding that wonderfully." Then he said, "Can't we think about combining the two?" which is of course what we did. So we arranged to visit President Shapiro (this was during his very early days in office) and called on him together with this proposal. He said, "I'll be glad to help you and I think it a good idea." So he was very helpful in getting us funds from the legislature. Then there was other money which helped us get the Palmer Christian Lobby. People donated for that. The Earl V. Moore people donated for that. Bill Doty, Mildred Andrews and Franklin Mitchell also donated to the lobby. The hall is named for Blanche Anderson Moore (wife of Earl V. Moore) who was a very devoted patron of the arts. She came to many organ recitals. I remember seeing her at Hill Auditorium when some of us were playing. And so we named this hall in her honor. The organ contract was signed in 1980 with Charlie Fisk, who said, "I won't have the organ for you until 1985." We said, "Oh, it will never come." He said, "It will be here quicker than you can realize." That was really the truth--it was here very quickly. We dedicated the organ on October 4, 1985, and it was a special occasion.

Q: Was the organ named for you at that time?

A: No, that was a few years later. Dean Boylan said that it should be named for me because the initial funds had been given by Judith Barnett Metz in my honor. This was a very nice gesture, and I appreciate it very much.

The organ is modeled after a Silbermann, but there is no specific organ which it copies. We would not want, and  we could not make a perfect copy simply because the hall is different and the time is different. We're no longer in the 18th century. In most of the churches where the Silbermanns stand the organ is in the west gallery, while this one is in the front. We have a very nice situation the way the hall is built. There are tiers of steps that go up to the organ. Last night, as part of our Institute, there was a choral concert with James Abbington, conductor. The singers were standing on these different steps, and it was nice for the 20 singers to be heard that way in  acoustics quite sympathetic for the voices.

Q: The Fisk organ has provided the students there with an opportunity to encounter historic organ building principles that they wouldn't have in other places.

A: Exactly. It's been a big impetus for us. I am especially glad that we could provide the original type winding: the bellows may be hand pumped and a recital could go on despite an electrical storm, and Michigan has them. With this organ, our teaching organs and the organ at Hill Auditorium, we feel very blessed. We have 16 practice organs plus 3 teaching organs and 2 performance organs. We have the magic number of Bach--21.

Q: Would you talk about your family?

A: My first husband was Professor Richard K. Brown. Many of my students knew him. He was a true gentleman, a wonderful engineer and teacher, a man whom I had first met in 1945. We were married in 1949 (long enough time for him to see me in action, so to speak, and he knew what he was getting). He continued teaching at the University of Michigan until he retired in 1987.

We have two sons. The first is Merritt Christian Brown (named after my father and Palmer Christian), born in 1955. He's a scientist who earned his Ph.D. here at Michigan. He took classes with his father in engineering. He would come home and tell his father, "You could make that course even more strict. You have some very gifted students in there." Richard would say, "But I'm aiming for the middle students as well as the gifted ones." Then he would say to his son, "Please, don't go into engineering." Our son played the violin just wonderfully, studying with Gustave Rosseels at Michigan. When he would finish practicing, I would say, "Oh, Chris, you play so beautifully, but please don't go into music." So, here was this young man with opposing directives, so he chose acoustics. After earning the Ph.D., he continued research in the Kresge Hearing Laboratory. Later, he read a paper at an acoustical conference in Los Angeles. An engineer who heard him there said, "We would be very interested in having you join our research at Massachusetts General Hospital." Chris was intrigued with the work they were doing, so he joined that research group. His mentor there was Nelson Kiang. Dr. Kiang later invited him to teach at Harvard. He is Associate Professor at the Harvard Medical School where he teaches physiology. His specialty has been the inner ear. His music and his engineering led him into this.

To me, that's a lesson that young people must know. You must explore the options, and how better to explore the options than to go to school. If you're a freshman or sophomore in school and not happy with what you're doing, it may be that the Lord in telling you to go in a different direction.

I had a wonderful student, Weston Brown. After his sophomore year, he said, "You may be mad at me, but I think I want to change my major." I said, "No, I want you to do what you want to do." He said, "I am making straight A's in German and I am making a B in music history." I said, "The Lord is trying to tell you something." He said, "I love German." He earned the Bachelor's and Master's and later a Ph.D. from Columbia in German and musicology. That's a fine example of how you can find options if you keep watching. The best advice is to watch for the options and hope to find something that you enjoy doing. Try not to think about money. If you think only about the money you will make, you may end up doing something that you don't enjoy .

Our second son is Edward Brown, a wonderful young man who's a free-lance photographer. He lives in California. He likes California because the light is always wonderful there. But I think he loves it because there's no snow, fog or ice.

Q: Did either son have an urge to play the organ?

A: Not really, probably because they heard so much playing. It didn't turn them off, but they probably thought one organist was enough. I practice the piano a lot a home. Once one of our neighbors, Mary Sinnott, said to our son Edward, aged 10, "What's your mother doing?" He said, "She's playing the piano." The next day, Mrs Sinnott said, "What's she doing now?" He said, "She's still playing the piano." They got used to that.

When they were younger, I put them to bed with organ music on the house organ which my husband and I assembled in 1955. I gave that organ to two doctoral students, Howard & Marie Mehler. We purchased a small Walker tracker for practicing. My family has always been very supportive but also understanding with my schedule. The dishes may not get done or the beds made if I have to practice.

In 1991 my husband had enjoyed four years of retirement. Gardening was one of his interests and his beautiful rhododendrons still bloom. He suffered a stroke on May 7, 1991. We had to take him to the hospital. We thought he would recover from this, but on July 23 he slipped away. Both of our sons were extremely supportive of me at that time. Even though I had this great loss, I still had my teaching which was a comfort to me. I had become organist of the First Congregational Church in 1984. There, Tom Marshall had been my trusty assistant. I had the inspiration of the Wilhelm organ at the church and we had the Fisk here.

In the autumn of 1991, I felt more settled. Music was a great support to me. One of our good friends, Jim O'Neill, formerly chairman of the French department, called. "We have a dear friend and he would like for you to play a memorial service for his wife who died some time ago." Other friends, Mary and Bill Palmer, arranged dinner where I met William Steinhoff. Later, he came to the house to discuss music he wanted--mostly Bach and Mozart. I played for that service in January of 1992. After that, we had lunches and dinners. It was satisfying to spend time with someone who was not in music and yet who was very supportive. It's important to have a sympathetic person near you, someone who understands you. He is an emeritus Professor of English Literature at Michigan. Although he had taught here for 30 years, I had never met him. We were married on May 8, 1993. Someone said, "What did you do about music?" I said, "I played for my wedding!" We were to be at the church Saturday morning at 11:00. My sons were there along with Bill's nephew and niece. No one else was present. I said, "Well, I'm just going to play the prelude." So I played the Guilmant March on a Theme of Handel. Bill came in, saying, "Am I late?" So, Terry Smith performed the service for us. Then I moved to the organ and played the Widor "Toccata." That was a fine ending for our wedding service.

Q: Do you have brothers and sisters who are musical?

A: My brother James Clark Mason was musical. He was a wonderful family man, and loved his four children and wife. He died two years ago. My sister, Carolyn Mason Weinmeister, is active in computers and computer programming.   She enjoys music and sports. She lives in Oklahoma City and has one daughter and son.

Q: How do you keep your positive attitude?

A: A lot of this is based on the loving care that we had as children. Both our mother and father were supportive of us. My mother always did the cooking and dishes so that I could practice the piano or go to the church and practice the organ. A loving home, to be surrounded by such love, and a religious home, to be surrounded by Presbyterian Protestantism--these things are what you cannot take away but also what you can't buy. Parents must be aware of this when raising children. That religious upbringing that I was given is something that no one can ever take away and I hope I never forget.

Q: You continue to be a church organist, and you've been a church organist for a long time along with your teaching. Have you been an organist at several churches in Ann Arbor?

A: I was a substitute organist at the Presbyterian Church where we belonged for many years. When Zion Lutheran needed an organist, the music committee invited me to play there. I was the organist for many years in the early sixties. John Merrill was the choral conductor. I enjoyed the liturgical service and the Lutherans. I enjoy being a church organist and I like to play hymns.  I sometimes remind the students that if they are church musicians the title "church" comes first, with the flexibility and dependability that I mentioned earlier. And, after all, that is usually where the best organs are!

We were out at our lake cottage one Labor Day weekend, and I had to return for church on Sunday at Zion Lutheran. I went to the Schantz organ, saw the bulletin and #15 for the processional hymn. I opened the hymnal and found "Joy to the World." This was on Labor Day weekend! I thought--these Lutherans, if they want "Joy to the World" they're going to have it! I really gave it the full treatment. The choir came down the aisle with their books under their arms. Not a person was singing. When they arrived in the chancel the minister announced, "And now we'll have the opening hymn, number such-and-such." I had misread it and the "15" was the page number for the order of service. Regardless, I enjoyed the Lutheran service very much.

In 1963, I had a fine student, Donald Williams, who was just graduating. I recommended that he take over and he was invited. Dr. Williams was the organist/choirmaster at Zion Lutheran for over 30 years.

We need not frown on church and service music. As I said, that's where the good organs will be. We have at First Congregational a wonderful conductor, Willis Patterson, who inspires us all. My assistant, James Nissen, is Associate Director of Music. He is so versatile that he can play if I am gone or conduct if Willis is gone. That is good.

Q: The fact that you keep active in church music is a testimony to your own students and a good way that you can tell your students what they are going to experience when they go out to church jobs as well, because you know just what they will encounter. I think a lot of organ teachers in colleges are detached from that.

A: I don't want to ask my students to go into church music without experiencing it myself. We must not be detached from church music. We must be right in the swing.

One thing I do tell my students who move into church positions: You're a new organist and choir director in a church. If you don't hear anything, you're terrific. Keep telling yourself that. You'll always hear when somebody doesn't like it. When they don't like it, you must smile and try to agree. Don't be defensive. They may have a reason for saying so.

Q: I'd like to know when the cooking requirement came into the DMA program.

A: All my students, even Master's degree students, are invited to cook a meal for us. That idea came in the '50s. One of the nice meals that was prepared was by John McCreary and Phil Steinhaus. They knew that Jean Langlais was coming. They said, "We'll prepare a Master's dinner." So they prepared a wonderful dinner for us. It's referred to on page 15 of the book, Hommage à Langlais, in Langlais' diary, where he says, "We've had a dinner with the students and Marilyn Mason and her husband." That dinner was memorable because there was a pot roast which was luscious. The flavoring on the meat, the carrots and onions were delicious, but the potatoes had been added too late and they were hard. Langlais was trying to eat them with his knife and fork and said, "Is this some new vegetable in the United States that we don't know about?" Poor John was so chagrined. Those potatoes will always be remembered as the ones that didn't make it. That was the beginning of that requirement. And I am now so proud of Phil, his wonderful career as organist/choirmaster and his work with Aeolian-Skinner, and with John, too, 30 years in the Cathedral in Honolulu as Organist/ Choirmaster! I do feel we had that cooking requirement especially for the men, but we must all learn to cook.

Q: You're certainly well known for your jokes. For many years you had a joke book that you lost along the way.

A: No--it was stolen at Riverside Church. I was playing a recital there. The organ console had two large mirrors so the audience could see while you play. I thought I would put my purse right behind me. That purse had my joke book and some jewelry. Someone reached in behind and took the whole thing. Someone said, "What nicer way to lose it than to have it stolen from Riverside Church." But I've kept a lot of stories in my head. Along with flexibility comes a sense of humor--mostly to be willing to laugh at yourself. If we can have the light touch as we go along, I think that helps.

Q: Along with that, can you think of some humorous incidents in your travels that would be interesting?

A: I can think of some humorous things that happened here in Ann Arbor. I was playing for freshman convocation in the first week in September for about 4,000 new students. I had played the prelude, but they asked me to play a special piece. I chose the Haines "Toccata," which is something that I enjoy playing and can play without too much extra practice. The Dean of the Faculty, Charles Odegaard, looked over at me and said, "And now our organist will play --Miss Marilyn Monroe." All of these students just howled, and he was so embarrassed. He said, "Oh, I'm sure Miss Mason will do just as well." Then I did play and it was fun.

Another thing that happened at Hill Auditorium occurred in 1985. I had scheduled a series of 16 recitals of the music of Bach (1985 was 300th anniversary of Bach's birth). So I was doing that series here at the Fisk organ every Sunday afternoon at 4:00. But I was also supposed to play for a graduation ceremony at Hill Auditorium at 2:30. So I said to my colleague Sam Koontz (our organ technician at Hill Auditorium who knew the organ like the back of his hand and who had been one of my Master's students), "Will you please play the final hymn, which is the Michigan hymn, and then a postlude?" Sam said, "I'll be glad to." I played the opening prelude, the processional and "The Star-Spangled Banner." The console was in the corner on the far stage left. By this time it was about 3:00 and I needed to leave. So I left, and Sam was on the bench. I got to the Fisk on time and played the Bach recital in the afternoon. But I heard afterwards, the Vice President of the University, Richard Kennedy, had said at Hill (which he had never done before) "We're so happy to have our organist today--please thank Marilyn Mason." He looked back at the console. Sam threw up his hands in dismay, because I wasn't there. After that, when I was thanked for these occasions, Mr. Kennedy always looked back to see me.

Q: You mentioned that there have been 111 doctoral students. Do you have any idea of the total number of students you have taught?

A: No, I don't. But in over 50 years there were a lot of students. I wish I'd kept track, but at the time that is not the most important thing. Actually, we have graduated 600 organists in the Bachelor's and Master's programs since the first ones in 1932.

Q: I remember seeing the sea of people at your recognition dinner in 1986. All those people had been touched by your life, and also by the blue pencils that were given to each one.

A: I got the idea of the blue pencil from Palmer Christian. It's such a good way to mark music and it's easy on the eyes. It's a very important thing to mark fingering and how you're going to do things--not to have a Monday way, a Wednesday way, and a Thursday way. I have a student, Robert Jones, in Houston, who's fanatic about that. The strategy in the hand helps us to play. There are many people who say they're far too "creative" to mark their fingering. These are very often the ones who don't play as well as the ones who know where they're going.

The next thing is making the goals in your study. If you have a piece you want to learn, divide it into sections rather than trying to learn the whole thing all at once. Young people should have goals to learn certain music. In the semester system, we have juries for the music the student has learned. I don't know but that all of us don't waste time by being rather aimless. We waste time by not having an objective. That's why I've enjoyed teaching, because the goal is to be there and to have a plan.

Another goal I've had over the last five years is recording all the works of Pachelbel. He's such an imaginative composer. He doesn't have the rhetoric of the North Germans. He has a sweetness, placidity and strength in his music, and it has been a great joy to learn and play his music. These are recorded in the Musical Heritage Series. I began the series with the freely composed works, but then there were enough chorale preludes for three disks. The chorale preludes were written for services or as interludes for hymns. So we decided that the chorale would be sung first. A gifted tenor in the doctoral program, Robert Breault, sang the melodies. After  recording the chorales, we came to the Magnificats. I asked a Benedictine monk, Irwin West, to sing the alternation. There are more Magnificats written for the first tone than for any other. Dr. Tom Strode and his Boychoir sang the alternation for Volumes 7 and 8.

Q: Have you done some additional teaching elsewhere in addition to your teaching at Michigan?

A: I did some  teaching at Columbia University during summers while I was in doctoral studies. I taught at St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia, where Searle Wright was the organist. I also taught at Pomona College in Claremont and at the school in Brazil. But I love Michigan a lot. What's wonderful about teaching is that the clientele changes. I have had students for as many as four or five years. I have recommended that some of my students study with my other colleagues in the department. Prof. Glasgow, Dr. Kibbie, and Dr. Johns each have their own special things to offer.

Robert Glasgow excels in the nineteenth-century interpretations, while Dr. Kibbie enjoys the baroque and contemporary. Michele Johns with her expertise and experience has brought  much to our curriculum in church music practices. Her position as organist/choirmaster at Our Lady of Good Counsel, Plymouth, has given "hands-on" experience to so many of our students.

Q: Was there ever a thought that you would go anywhere else to teach?

A: I had a wonderful offer from USC  and Raymond Kendall in the '50s. But I talked to my husband and to Dean Moore and decided to stay here.

Q: In a job interview, someone once asked me what I would like written on my tombstone. What would you like to be remembered for?

A: You would like to think that the things you have done have been a blessing to other people and that you were kind. We all have our own opportunity to serve. So, for the stone, I have two suggestions: "She served and enjoyed" or "S. D. G."

Q: Thank you, Marilyn, for your 50 years of teaching at the University of Michigan and for the positive influence you have had on so many lives!

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