60 years behind the keys

BY MAUREEN SULLIVAN
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 18, 2007

The first time University Organist Marilyn Mason stepped onto Hill Auditorium's stage was in 1944 as a transfer student. Back then, Mason likened the grandiose auditorium to her "private studio."

Clif Reeder
University Organist Marilyn Mason, who has been at the University since 1944, was the first female organist to play at Westminster Abbey. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

This year, as Mason celebrates her 60th year on the University's faculty - making her the longest-serving professor in University history - her performances at the auditorium really do make it seem like her own.

In her 60 years, Mason, or Madame, as she prefers her students call her, has used her experience and her self-described "critical but sympathetic, informative but understanding" teaching style to help elevate the University organ department to world-renowned status.

Mason has been chair of the Department of Organ since 1960 and the University organist - playing University functions - since 1976. She is the first female organist to be invited to play at Westminster Abbey, the first female organist to play in Latin America and the first American organist to perform in Egypt.

Mason has inspired countless in her travels with her passion and professionalism. Associate Organ Prof. Michele Johns recalled in an e-mail interview watching Mason play when Johns was a student at Northwestern.

"I thought, 'Wow! A woman can be an organist, not just men.' She's been my idol ever since," Johns said.

Earlier this month, six of Mason's former students, with graduation years ranging from 1971 to 2007, played organ compositions to pay tribute to their professor. Standing on that familiar Hill stage to deliver a short speech of thanks, Mason looked like she was at home.

Mason's anniversary coincided with the University's 47th annual Conference on Organ Music, which she founded. This year's conference was dedicated to her achievements.

Central to Mason's performance philosophy is that "a recital is not over until you get to the parking lot." For her, concentration is essential to the very last minute.

Mason's legacy is extensive and hard-earned. Her students have gone on to success as performers and professors.

Rackham student Andrew Meagher, a student of one of Mason's former students, is one of Mason's "grandstudents," as she calls them.

Meagher recalled meeting Mason at one of her conferences at the University. He came back six months later and was surprised she remembered him. Mason invited Meagher to come play the organs on campus and encouraged him to come to the University and get his doctorate.

"At this point, she hadn't even heard me play a note," Meagher said in an e-mail. "It all shows that she is a tireless advocate for her students and even her students' students."

Meagher described Mason as a grandmother-like figure within the department. Meagher said her experience and instincts are admired by her colleagues and students in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

Still, Mason isn't one to take herself too seriously. She joked that through teaching her students the synchronization and body-mind coordination required for organ players, she turns out excellent drivers.

Over the course of six decades, Mason has worked under seven University presidents. Mason considers former University President Harold Shapiro in particular a close friend. She recalled that he took an interest in her playing as he listened to her practice before his inauguration night in 1980, describing it as one of her nicest moments at the University.

An avid mile-a-day walker, Mason discovered that Shapiro shared that tradition. Her only qualm with the former president, she claimed, is that "He doesn't like desserts."

This semester, Mason teaches hour-long lessons to 16 students along with School of Music classes in French Baroque Literature and Contemporary Organ Literature. Nicknamed the "Energizer Bunny" by colleagues, Mason is considered to have an unmatched dedication to the University.

Refusing to discuss retirement, Mason said: "As long as I feel good and love my students, I will be here."