Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mary Alice Stollak retiring soon

One of my favorite people, Mary Alice Stollak, will be retiring soon, after a farewell concert May 14th in East Lansing, MI.
I'm happy for her and her garden is happily awaiting, yet it's a bit of a sad time as all of us who have been touched by her generosity, kindness, musical savvy and impeccable standards will be a bit lost without her. I have to say that I know of no one else (in any choral sphere from youth choirs to the professional ranks) with such a magical sense of interpretation and magical rubato phrasing . I will always remember a little piece she commissioned from me (and she commissioned a number, for which I will always be thankful, currently published by SBMP) called Thanskgiving. To me, it was just a gentle little piece with a very light but sweet text. When I went to hear her premiere it at a Michigan ACDA convention I was floored. She had taken my "little piece" and made substantial music out of it just because of her amazing gift for shaping phrases. How she does this kind of thing I don't really know!

Mary Alice will be a bit embarrassed that I have blogged about her, she's that humble. But I feel that she deserves the attention. One thing she has told me a few times recently is this- that people just assume she was always a children's choir director, but that really wasn't rue. Becoming part of the SA or SSA children's/youth choir movement was a recent thing for her.
I was also so happy for her when she won two Grammies for her work in the recording of William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Congratulations to Mary Alice for all her hard work and amazing achievements over the years- she set incredibly high standards for herself and expected others around her to reach for the sky as well. She is a great person, friend, educator, and conductor.

The following newspaper article is from 2007:

Choral director uses love of music to inspire students, audiences

By Samantha Meinke

Her husband, MSU professor Gary Stollak, was the first to know they'd won [ the two Grammys].

"I got the call and I knew but didn't tell anyone right away," he says. "I got up at the dinner and said, 'Well, I have an announcement.' Then I said in a really sad voice, 'I heard about the results,' and I dragged it out as long as I could and finally said, 'We won! And the other great news is Mariah Carey called and wants you all as back-up singers.' "

The Mariah Carey bit wasn't true.

Stollak says sharing the moment of victory with her singers, ages 10 to 17, was the best way to celebrate.

"It's all about the students - to watch how excited they were, it was wonderful."

The art of teaching

Stollak has come a long way from the blue-collar Milwaukee neighborhood where she was raised. Her father sold day-old bread to farmers, and her mother was a homemaker with an eighth grade education.

Her parents encouraged Stollak and her two brothers to pursue the arts.

"My mother did not drive until the mid-'50s, and so she and I would get on a city bus and we'd have to transfer a number of times to get to Milwaukee Art Institute, where there was 'Music for Youths,' a program like a community music school," Stollak says. "She was always finding things in the paper and saying, 'Come on, we're going to go to that art class.' "

Stollak also received inspiration from another, somewhat unlikely, source: the Eastern European nuns who taught at her elementary school.

"Every single day we had music," she says. "We got all of the subjects that were required by state law ... but I think the big difference was the environment. There was art on the walls. I remember vividly the big, tall, old-fashioned windows, and the windowsills were just covered in begonias and geraniums. I look back and think, 'man, was I lucky.' Those nuns gave their lives to make a lower-middle class neighborhood lovely."

She learned the importance of collaboration during large gatherings of Catholic schools, where she performed in a red choir robe and watched Russian dancers and girls in Polish costumes.

"There was never competition," she says. "There were simply concerts."

Stollak took the lessons of her childhood into her adult life as a teacher.

"Working with Mrs. Stollak was intense and rewarding," Karyn Heavenrich, a former children's choir member and current Barnard College junior says. "I learned the importance of making mistakes ... I learned about group cohesion - when one person was missing from a choir of 70, the sound seemed off-kilter."

The home team

Collaboration is also something Stollak has found with her husband.

"Gary has always been such a supportive person," she says. "He loves the arts. He comes to almost every rehearsal and sits in the back and grades papers while he's listening."

The two were an equal match from the start, when each pursued the other at Indiana University.

"Josef Gingold was having a violin recital and whenever that would happen, there would be standing room only, and - this is horrible - I saved a seat, hoping he might come to the concert," Stollak says. "He had met me once backstage and he knew who I was and so he came down the aisle and asked if someone was sitting in that seat. I said, 'Well, I'm saving this for someone, but they haven't arrived, so you might as well sit there.' "

"Instead of dropping a handkerchief, that was her way," Gary says. "It's still amazing to me how assertive she was."

They were married a year and a half later - on June, 11, 1966. She graduated June 12 and they moved to East Lansing June 13, where Gary worked as a psychology professor at MSU. They soon had a son, Matthew, and two daughters, Clare and Sarah. Mary Alice stayed home with the children while rehearsing as a singer. She occasionally gave oratorical concerts and recitals.

In 1981, Stollak began teaching at Haslett High, and in 1985 she was invited to be the choral director for the National High School Summer Music Institute Choir at Northwestern University in Evanston, near Chicago.

"They had heard the Haslett choir perform and asked if I'd be interested in teaching in the summer," she says. "Gary and I talked about it and ... he said, 'You, know, I think you should do this. I'll take care of the kids.' "

He wouldn't have it any other way. "There can't be a greater pleasure in life than to see one's spouse and children live out their dreams and become as confident as possible and earn the respect of others," he says. "I have never had a moment of jealousy. I bask in the respect she gets."

The high notes

Stollak taught in Haslett until 1991, when she became an assistant professor at University of Michigan-Flint.

In 1993, she was asked to form MSU's Children's Choir for 10-17 year olds in Michigan who audition and commit to six monthly practices. She left U-M in 1998 to devote herself wholly to it, and eventually added the CMS Singers for 9-14 year-olds and the Preparatory Choir for 7-9 year-olds.

Since starting the children's choir, she has reached the top of her career and the top of her profession. She and the choir have performed at Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. She reached what she considers her highest honor when the choir represented the United States at the 2002 World Symposium of Music, which is equivalent to the Olympics of choral music.

"Singing is about finding a balance between the intellectual technique - thinking about your body as an apparatus to produce music - and the emotional components that transform a simple song into beautiful music," Heavenrich says. "Mrs. Stollak teaches her students to find that balance - to be alert and intent without overthinking; to concentrate and to feel simultaneously."

Stollak's preparatory techniques won her Grammys. But she says the greatest reward is the beauty that children in the choir produce and experience.

"We need more beauty in this cacophonous world," she says. "Look at the headlines. Look at the news. Our children are being bombarded by things which do not touch them in a way that uplifts them. Our music should not be the Harlequin romances of music. It's meeting Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti and William Blake, and then a great composer is able to take their works and make them come alive, and children are able to experience that beauty.

"If you get any awards or accolades, it's because you were true to your heart and to the beautiful material."

Teach and learn

Stollak has stayed true to her heart.

"So much is gained from the study of the arts, and music in particular - discipline, making and keeping commitments, logic and decision-making," says Rhonda Buckley, director of MSU's Community Music School. "Most importantly, the study of music helps a child, and each of us, know more fully who we are. Mary Alice is a master teacher, consummate musician and great friend and mentor to young musicians."

Stollak also teaches responsibility.

"I tell kids that you're not a professional just because you get paid," she says. "Being a professional is being consistently good, no matter what the circumstances. ...When we were hired (to sing 'Songs of Innoncence and of Experience'), our reputation preceded us. They said, 'We know we can trust you, that you will be well prepared and get the job done.' "

And Stollak teaches social awareness.

"I still remember the most beautiful lyrics to songs I sang years ago," Heavenrich says. "'I Dream of Peace' is ... an account of the war in Yugoslavia told through children's first-hand accounts. ... As an 11-year-old, singing 'I Dream of Peace' exposed me to current events. I began to think about war, and its causes in a way that was accessible. ...When I wrote my application to Barnard College, my personal statement was about 'I Dream of Peace' and how it influenced my world view and academic aspirations."

Stollak has given a lot to students; she says she's learned a valuable lesson, too.

"I've learned from them how important it is for children to have something in life to contribute that's greater than themselves," she says. "My fear is our society is teaching children to either win a medal or focus on performance only, rather than teaching children to love what they do. It's my hope that in the Community Music School we will be able to instill something in children that they not only will never forget, but that they will actively involve themselves and their children in for the rest of their lives."


  1. I've been fortunate enough to hear the MSU Children's Choir and see Mary Alice Stollak conduct on a few occasions -- each one was an amazing musical experience. She is one of those rare people in music who transcends the written note and takes music to new heights. Having also had the privilege to know her and her wonderfully witty (understatement) husband, Gary, I would also add that these are two of the most warm and gracious people I've ever met.

    If there was a Hall of Fame for choral conductors, she would certainly be among the best. Thank you, Mary Alice for the incredible gift of music you've shared. And a personal thank you for your performance of Paul's "Cradle Song" at Symphony Center... one of the most beautiful musical moments of my life.

  2. What a touching tribute, Paul. Saying things better than I ever would be able, English writer, Jane Grigson, wrote the following before her untimely death. She is remembering the words of her father, who loved to sing...
    “Looking back now, I see that the greatest gift he gave me was not the rules for a good life so sweetly and earnestly instilled, but the unconscious acceptance that music and poetry, especially in combination, are the greatest of man’s achievements. At every season, in every event that marks my life, that feeling is there. Words and music well up, comfort, companionship, pain, and delight.”
    And so it is with the music that we have performed that was composed or arranged by you. Your pieces, all works of art, made beautiful phrasing and beautiful singing, accessible. Your accompaniments sing...helping each chorister to interpret your fine phrasing from their hearts.
    Thank you, Paul, for your kind words. Most of all, thank you for the delightfully beautiful music that you have shared with us.
    Mary Alice Stollak