An interview with Marilyn Mason

April 12, 2003

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 style="mso-spacerun: yes">  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 style="mso-spacerun: yes">  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 style="mso-spacerun: yes">  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!