Asked to describe her career, Marilyn McDonald, violin professor at the Oberlin Conservatory for the past 45 years, began by saying “I just wanted to play the violin.” A founding member of the Smithson Quartet and the Castle Trio, McDonald reflected on her versatility as a soloist, orchestral player, and a chamber musician, in situations ranging from membership in the Smithsonian Institution’s Axelrod Quartet and worldwide chamber music tours in repertoire from Baroque to contemporary, to solo engagements with the Milwaukee Symphony.
Although McDonald was able to break the glass ceiling by winning the violin professorship, she faced the challenge of being the only woman in the string department. (At the time only the voice department had female faculty). “There were two of us in the final round of auditions for this job. The other person was a man who I thought was better qualified than I was, but the fact that I played all the contemporary music here at that point, plus I played the Baroque violin worked in my favor.” Being a member of New Directions, a group of faculty members who specialized in contemporary music, McDonald stood out because of her diverse background and her teaching ability.
“The biggest challenge I faced was moving to Oberlin at the age of 25. I was married with three young children and so I had to give up all the violin playing I was doing.” At the time, McDonald was assistant concertmaster with the Toledo Symphony and a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University, it was difficult to move to Oberlin where positions were already secured with long standing tenures. McDonald’s then husband was already serving on the faculty. “It was definitely not a friendly musical or academic place for a woman. The nepotism clause had just changed a couple years before, but during that time, they didn’t allow married couples to work in the same school.”
“It was a different time for contemporary music,” she said. “Right now there are hundreds of composers under the age of 30, but there was nothing like that going on. We would only play pieces by established composers like George Crumb and Mario Davidovsky.” Her passion for contemporary music was highlighted when she played in the ensemble during Olivier Messiaen’s visit to Oberlin. “We looked up Messiaen’s name in the Paris Phone Book in the Con Library and we found, ‘Olivier Messiaen’s Organ Lessons.’ We called him on the phone just like that!” She spoke about the festival with excitement, describing the event as “enormous and spectacular.”
One of the most memorable moments at Oberlin was when she played Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Pluto’s Symposium) with the orchestra under the guest conductor, Denis Decoteau. “It was exciting because I always wanted to play this piece,” McDonald said. Another event was a long recital series project with then student pianist Robert Spano. “We were a dynamic duo,” she said. “When you walked out on the stage with him, you never knew what was going to happen.” The duo played works by Resphigi, Schumann, and Busoni, “Giant sonatas!” she said. “Both of the Bartoks, and all the Brahms — we really played a lot!” McDonald was reminded of Spano’s vibrant and determined attitude of taking chances on the stage. “I considered that a lot of fun, although the first time can be quite shocking. You can only do this if you rehearse a heck of a lot!”
Describing her value in teaching the violin, McDonald said, “The most important thing I can do is to put myself out of business, to make my students independent, meaning that they would know where to go to find what they need.” McDonald appreciates the support of the undergraduate-only institution, which allows students to receive focused and committed attention.
“I want the students to develop a vocabulary of tools that work for various things. In a lot of ways, it is not possible to teach the student the final interpretation of anything. It can be suggested by using a word, but it has to come from using those tools to make that connection.” McDonald said. Many teachers would be technique-heavy and skills-oriented with strict disciplining through scales, etudes, and big concertos. However, as one of her students, I appreciate Professor McDonald’s style of letting us discover our own sound, style of playing, and interpretation based on our tool box of lessons.
McDonald concluded the interview by saying, “No one is going to love practicing, but you can train yourself to recognize the interesting things in the practice session.” In an unlucky time like the COVID-19 pandemic when orchestra jobs and music festivals have disappeared, McDonald teaches us the value of staying resilient. “Keep practicing, and keep being interested in what you do. You must train yourself to like the enjoyment of figuring something out.”