The University Record, October 15, 1997

University Organist Marilyn Mason 50 years and still going strong

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

University organist and Professor of Music Marilyn Mason celebrates her 50th year at the U-M. Remembering back to when Hill Auditorium had wooden seats, she shares some of Michigan's musical history with readers. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


She played at her own wedding; has been introduced as Marilyn Monroe; was the first American woman organist to play at Westminster Abbey; carries a union card; plays in concert halls, churches and cathedrals around the world; and suggests that her tomb stone read "She served and enjoyed" or "S.D.G."

Professor of music and University organist, Marilyn Mason began her performance and teaching career in Ann Arbor 50 years ago when the School of Music was located on Maynard Street near the Nickels Arcade and Hill Auditorium had wooden seats and no ca rpeting.

"The reason I came to Michigan was that my father had graduated from the Law School at U-M in 1911," she says. It was her father who recommended she study organ at U-M with Palmer Christian. Beginning her teaching career at the University in 1947, M ason has remained as a faculty member for five decades though other institutions have attempted to lure her to their campuses.

The young woman from Alva, Okla., who never wanted to be anything but an organist, began practicing at the Congregational Church on the corner of State and William, where she is the organist. "We had three practice organs on the third floor of the Ma ynard Street Music building plus the one at the Congregational Church," Mason says. "We had to make do, but at the beginning I received a key to Hill Auditorium, so that I could practice any time. I would often come over at 3:30 or 4:30 in the morning t o practice, and it was wonderful."

Patience and a lot of practice led to a leave from her $2,800-a-year instructor's position for doctoral study at Union Seminary and then a return to U-M.

Throughout her career, Mason has kept abreast of changes in her profession, not only in her own performances but also by bringing other artists to summer institutes and fall conferences. "It's very important to be relevant," Mason says. Part of that relevance is being attuned to the microwave generation, she says. It's a generation that wants everything yesterday or instantly. And, yes, Mason does consider herself a part of that generation through computers and e-mail that allow her to keep in tou ch with the hundreds of students who have passed through her tutelage.

It is those students who are most important to Mason. Keeping her own skills sharpened is important to her as are the continuing refinements being made to the instrument she chose as a little girl‹a little girl who dangled her feet from the bench at the organ her mother played at Alva's First Presbyterian Church. But it is her students who hold the place of honor in Mason's life and career. "I try to bring out the best of each individual," she says. "Therefore, my approach is a little different wi th each student and the problems are solved in a little different way. Every person is special."

Mason also takes an active role in finding positions for her students, both while they are students and after their graduation. "That's my responsibility," Mason says. "It is two-fold: teaching them and helping them to plan their future. If I'm no t responsible for them, what is my teaching worth?"

Recently, alumni returned to perform for their teacher during the 37th conference on Organ Music at Hill Auditorium. As part of the Conference, current and former organ department faculty honored Mason's 50 years of service with a concert titled "Ann Arbor Night." Ann Arbor organist Janice Beck performed the world premiere of Retablo III: Victimae Paschali by former Ann Arbor composer Pamela Decker. The piece was commissioned in Mason's honor.