Musical Biography

Mary Anne Schuman age 20

Mary Anne, Her Music and My Memories How can I best characterize Mary Anne and her music? It is fitting that I who shared so much of her life should talk about how music developed in her life. With only 16 months difference in age Mary Anne and I grew up side by side and shared much of life together.

Mary Anne was about six years old when she started piano lessons. By the time she was ten, she was already playing for the children's 9:00 A.M. Mass at our church. Her feet of course could not yet reach the pedal board, as she was still quite short. (Mary Anne always believed that she was tall because she was 2 inches taller than I. We tried not to disillusion her on this point!)

She had small hands and even as an adult could not stretch to a tenth (middle C to E above the octave) on the piano, but she could play that interval so swiftly that no one noticed the minute lapse of time. She also had a great capacity not only to read the music but to interpret it correctly. This only increased as she developed until she reached a high degree of interpretation.

Living with a musician is, at best, a very interesting experience. Our parents insisted that if they asked her to play, she was to do so without complaint. She always accommodated anyone who asked her to play in later years. By the time she was in high school she accompanied all the "events" at school that needed a piano. By this time it was evident that she knew tempo and rhythm instinctively.

One of the events that has stayed in my mind over the years was her junior year recital. Before an event that featured her, she could neither eat nor sleep, but once she began to play she relaxed into the music and played well. On this particular occasion, Mary Anne came on stage, made a wooden bow to the audience and sat down at the piano. She took a deep breath, placed her hands on the keyboard and played a magnificent minor chord. The piece actually began on a magnificent major chord. Mary Anne gave a little jump, continued to play, modulated into the correct key and played on. The rest of her recital went well. One of the music teachers turned to me later to say she had never heard such an unusual beginning to that piece. I heard myself say, "You don't know how unusual that really was." Her appetite returned with a vengeance once the recital was over.

For graduation from high school, she played Franz Lizst, Second Hungarian Rhapsody. By now, I just assumed if she wanted to play something, she could do it well. When she entered college, she was relating to her new teacher what she had been playing and when she got to the Lizst piece, the teacher shook her head and said, No, No! You, can't play that." But, of course, it was too late, as she had already done so.

To backtrack a bit. When Mary Anne and I were ten-eleven-twelve years old, we used to stop in the "Dime" stores on our way home from the grocery shopping for mother. These Five and Dime Stores as they were called had popular music counters complete with piano. We decided before we went in what piece we wanted to scan - I, the words and melody and she the accompaniment. Then we raced home, dropped the groceries on the kitchen table, and went to the piano to sing the new song. We did this until both stores decided that we were never going to buy any music and we were banned from the stores forever. It was the middle of Depression years and there was no money for "frivolous" music. This banning from the stores was no great punishment, as by now I could memorize a song by hearing it a couple of times and Mary Anne could add the accompaniment much better than anything on the sheet music. (What could happen to Mother's groceries will not be a matter for confession at this time.)

It was my childish assumption that if Mary Anne could sight-read any music placed in front of her, that anyone who took piano lessons could also do so. Well-sometimes that is true, as with our brother George, for instance, but certainly that was not always true.

I really understood how gifted Mary Anne was about a year and half before she entered the Carmelite Monastery in Bettendorf, Iowa. She was working at Marshall Field & Company in Chicago and in the evenings working at the Chicago Conservatory of Music helping vocalists and instrumentalists prepare for recitals and graduation. For this she was paid the impressive salary of 25 cents per hour! One afternoon, Mother received a phone call from the woman for whom Mary Anne played. One of her male vocalists was to give his final recital that evening and his accompanist called in sick. He needed Mary Anne for the 7:15pm recital. It was 3:00pm. Mother called Mary Anne and told her the predicament. Mary Anne got home by four, bathed while mother prepared her formal and got her other clothes ready, and Mary Anne arrived in the loop with about 15 or 20 minutes to spare. The dialogue at home was, "I can't do this" to Mother's calm "Yes, you can do this." When Mary Anne saw the state of the male singer who was having his own set of nerves, her own cahnness returned and after a run-through of one song, they were on. The recital went well as the student began to trust Mary Anne's instincts at the piano. Afterwards, the student told the audience of his predicament and expressed his thanks to Mary Anne. She received a standing ovation.

When Mary Anne entered Carmel, there was no piano, no organ and the community prayers were chanted on one note. A most distressing time for a musician. After a few years, on scraps of paper, she would hand music to me to "see if you ever heard this before." She began writing down new settings for hymns we had used at home. Three of us in the novitiate could sing and soon three-part harmonies were wafting from the novitiate room. Her Ave Maria that dates from this time is still a favorite of mine. This singing, by the way, is in the true spirit of St. Teresa who danced and played castanets at recreation.

Some twenty years passed before an organ and piano were introduced into the monastery. With access to an organ for our prayers and Mass times, we asked Mary Anne to work on some settings for the major feasts of the year. Her first work was for the Feast of Easter, a true resurrection for us.

All of us singers practiced our parts, and organ and voices were as prepared as could be. As you probably know, no composer is ever quite satisfied with his or her music. An embellishment or refinement is always in the wings. On Easter Sunday during Mass I got a sudden chill that a bit of creativity was about to overtake us singers. So I turned to the organ, caught Mary Anne's eye and shook my head a definite "No." Afterwards, she lamented that she had such a good idea and now could not remember it and besides, how did I know she was about to change the music? Elementary, my dear Watson!

.....Sr. Mary Anne, O.C.D. (1989)

When musical friends found out that we had a piano, boxes of music arrived with classics that were familiar and not so familiar. There were also art songs that Mary Anne and I tried together. We could now have sing-a-longs and music became part of our lives once more.

As Mary Anne's illnesses began in 1994, her health gradually deteriorated. A series of TIAs and several small strokes deprived her of her eyesight which was never very good, so she could no longer read or see her music. The last stroke left her slightly paralyzed on her left side, and we who so loved her music, no longer had access to it. She struggled hard to keep going, sometimes to the distress of her sisters.

But a bright light appeared. Sister Virginette, a good friend of many years, had been taping Mary Anne at the piano for a long time. These cassette tapes are in process of being put on a CD for the family by Joan Neidhardt, our niece. On that tape is Mozart's "Minute Minuet." At the time Mary Anne was learning it, I was timekeeper and when she was sure she had the proper tempo, I timed her and she missed it by one second, and she felt she was a failure. Some failure that was!

Many more musical stories could be related. One of her attributes was that she was really humble about her musical abilities. She would play for anyone who asked her and her willingness to help anyone who sought her advice was legendary. She was not a show off. She simply loved music and always tried to place her abilities at the service of others.

It is my prayer that when she gets to heaven she will find that heavenly organ or piano and play her heart out, no longer confined by time, space or health and play for the God for whom she always played and who endowed her with such talent and enthusiasm.
Sister Anita Schuman, OCD
In the year 2002.