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I Love What I Do: Professional Pianist

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Woman at the Piano with Cockatoo by Gustave Léonard de Jonghe“I Love What I Do!” We interview women who find creative work that makes them feel fulfilled without sacrificing their personal or family lives. They’ll share what their jobs are really like and how other women can find something they love to do.

Judy Kerlin Mason, assistant director and accompanist for the nationally-renowned Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, describes finding balance in her life as a wife, mother, and professional pianist. Her career has been a way to share her love of music, not only with her family, but with hundreds of children in the Atlanta area–including me!

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you end up where you live today? What has your career path looked like?

I am from Atlanta and moved to Conyers, GA when I was eight. I attended college in Rome, GA at Shorter College, graduating with a piano degree and a major in music education and then taught high school choral music for three and a half years at Roswell High School. My master’s degree in choral conducting is from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where I studied with Don Neuen and had a teaching assistantship, working with the Chamber Singers and the University Chorus. I came back to Atlanta, teaching choral music at North Springs High School for a year, and then moving to Northside School of the Arts, Atlanta’s performing arts high school. I stayed there until Rob and I married in January of 1987, and then moved to Memphis.

I taught choral music one semester in a combined junior high/high school there, but the schedule didn’t mesh well with my husband’s rotating shifts/rotating days-off with the FAA, so I went into the airline business, working first with Northwest Airlines and then with Delta Air Lines. I sang in our church choir there and also with the Memphis Vocal Ensemble, but did not go back into music professionally until we returned to Conyers in 1993. I worked with a 75-voice senior adult choir and filled in for a year as a church music assistant, and also worked as a travel agent for 11 years. In July of 1996, I went to work for Spivey Hall Children’s Choir. My duties there have expanded as the program has grown, and I enjoy playing the choral workshops annually as well as the concert season with the children’s choir. I am also a church musician—a job I began at age 12.

Did you always want to be a pianist? What helped you decide?

I always loved playing piano. My next-door neighbor and cousin, Diane Kerlin Tippens, gave me my first lessons. She was an excellent pianist and a very patient teacher. Lola Downs continued lessons in piano and music theory in my early years. During high school, my piano teacher, Jackie Elder, suggested I was ready for collegiate work, so I began studying with Jay Fuller at Agnes Scott College. Once at Shorter College, I studied with Helen Ramsaur, whose patience and diligence in developing my skills was amazing. I accompanied several singers and the “Pop Group” that recruited in schools for the college. At graduation, I knew I was ready to direct choirs, because there was honestly no way I could earn a living playing piano. I enjoyed my high school students, and they worked very hard to be outstanding singers. I often played musicals and concerts for other choirs in the area, and played for churches most of my teaching years. After our daughter, Katie, was born, I knew the schedule of a successful high school choral program would not mix well with the demands of a young child and a husband with a still-unusual workweek. So, that made the shift from director to accompanist a logical progression for me.

How early does a young woman need to start playing piano to do it professionally? What kind of training is involved? How could a young woman who knows how to play follow your career path?

If a child is interested in piano and able to concentrate enough to practice, the child is ready to begin studying piano. Reading and math skills help, but younger players can study with Suzuki teachers until other skills catch up. I began at age five, but I have friends who started playing in high school and still became very successful pianists. There are always singers and instrumentalists who need pianists, so when the skills are up to the challenges of the music, it becomes fun. I accompanied my high school choir for a year, but also played in the high school band (flute and oboe). Church choirs are a good place to polish skills, too. The piano, when well-played, adds so much to choral pieces that it is a very gratifying experience to accompany them on piano.

What does a typical day look like for you? How does being a professional pianist fit into your daily routine?

My days are quite varied. From July, when music is selected, until the end of tour in mid-June, I spend anywhere from two to five hours daily on the piano bench. There is music for two choirs to prepare, plus music for two choral workshops to prepare and record in August, plus weekly service music for church, plus various singers’ and instrumentalists’ accompaniments for auditions and performances. I also accompany the local high school choir, just because I remember how hard it was to find an accompanist when I was teaching. My piano looks the part—there are stacks and stacks of music for various groups or individuals sitting all over the top. One special joy I have experienced is accompanying my daughter in her college voice lessons and studio classes at Mercer University. She is a mechanical engineering major, but has taken voice and has sung with choral groups nearly every semester in college.

All of this rehearsal is molded around being a caretaker for my 90-year-old father since my mother died in 2010. Some days go better than others, but thankfully Dad’s health is pretty good, and I can usually get it all done and still make it to the gym four days a week. I don’t cook a lot since Katie left for college!

What is the best part of being a pianist?

The best part of my job is sharing the beauty of music-making with others. There is great satisfaction in spending hours perfecting a piece, and combining it with an equally-prepared choir. It feeds the soul, and that is priceless.

The worst?

The worst part can be the solitude of the process of preparing the music. There are days I would much rather be out and about with friends, but there is music to prepare. I never want to be sitting on the bench in a concert and have any thought that I might not be prepared as well as I should be. There is great comfort in familiarity, so nerves aren’t a big problem during performances.

What advice would you give to other women interested in follow the same path you have?

Practice is not punishment. It is an exploration time, and watching and listening as something that begins as impossible to play becomes beautiful and perfected is a worthy expenditure of time. You really do have to learn scales and arpeggios—they turn up all the time in the most unexpected places. A good teacher who is challenging and wise is your best ally. I am a better accompanist because of my years as a conductor, so pursue those things that give you added value and great satisfaction. I wish I had skills playing the organ—I still hope to become a student and learn that craft. It makes one more employable, as organists are becoming a rare breed these days.

Do you have any great stories from a rehearsal or concert?

The great stages of the world do not necessarily make the great concerts of your life. One of the most memorable concerts was as a Chinese orphanage outside the city of Beijing. The Spivey Hall Children’s Choir spent the day there and saw how children of incarcerated parents live in a country with few social services. The kids grew their own food; the older children assisted in the care of the younger ones. Their possessions fit at the foot of their beds, and they felt lucky- because someone cared for them and gave them a place to live. These children cooked dinner for our choir and not a morsel of food was wasted. It opened our eyes and redefined our values in many ways. The Christmas following that tour, we asked the families who are so generous to Martha and me with gifts to consider giving that money to the orphanage, and we were able to buy many fruit trees for the orphanage. None of us will ever forget the concert we gave there.

You’ve been able to share your passion with your daughter, who sang in your choir for many years. What was it like to perform with your daughter? Did you learn anything new about each other?

Singing did not come easily to our daughter—which was odd, considering her father and mother both have sung their entire lives. Katie loved music—she used to line up her stuffed animals on the stairs and conduct them in song. But matching pitch did come along, and the voice has developed beautifully. It was hard for Katie to make the Children’s Choir, but she persevered and made it on the second try. Again, the more advanced Tour Choir did not come easily, but she kept working and made it on her second try. It helped her to know that no one received special privileges just because they knew someone on staff. She earned her place, just like every other singer, and she loved her seven years in the choir program. I could not watch her in concerts, as she sang alto and was behind me or off to the side. However, at our last concert, I did have opportunity to watch her sing, and it was wonderful to see her love of singing on her face. I am so grateful that I could share something I loved so much with her, and know it has made her life richer and fuller for all she experienced. I think it gave her a greater respect for her mom, knowing I had a role in life in addition to the role of mother.

Has being a pianist made you a better woman or wife? How?

My husband has degrees in music education and vocal performance and is an excellent baritone. It is always a pleasure when we get to work together on music, making each of us aware of the gifts and talents the other brings into our marriage. The shared love of music is a rich bond in our life. Being a pianist also gives an emotional outlet for the many times when words will not suffice.

Singing with the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir changed my life. Check out any of the choir’s four recorded CDs. (Look for me in the program notes for Homeland and Christmas with the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir.)

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