Juilliard mourns its Nadia Boulanger

Tributes have been pouring in for the influential ear-training teacher and unofficial life coach, Mary Anthony Cox.

This, from the composer Daron Hagen:

Mary Anthony Cox, the famous—and rightly-revered—Boulanger-trained ear-training teacher at Juilliard, has died.

Back in ’84, with what I imagined to be sangfroid, when Mary Anthony informed me that I’d be required to take her ear-training class, I replied, “Ma’am, I don’t foresee having time to practice for your class.” “Fine,” she replied, “as long as you attend for as long as you are at Juilliard.” Our deal. Oh, it was exquisite torment. “Honey,” Mary Anthony would purr, “sing me a half diminished seventh chord in third position starting on la.” My mind would go utterly blank. Then she would make it worse by trying to help clear the air with a simple question. “Daron, dear, you’re at 66th and Broadway and you want to get to 92nd Street. Which train do you get on?” We all sat in a circle. The tension was incredible. Cruel snickers. “Uptown or downtown?” she would sweetly needle. “Ah … um,” I’d begin, having lost the ability to speak, let alone sing, let alone find the pitch la. Worse, out of the corner of my eye I could see my composer pal Martin, bright red, eyes squeezed tightly shut, writhing with the effort required to not lose it on the spot. When Mary Anthony called on Martin, his discomfort, which was every bit as acute as mine, had the exact same effect on me. Never defy an ear-training instructor; never play a trick on a psychiatrist; and never attempt to force potty-training on a toddler—you will lose, and they will win. Wise Mary Anthony laughed last and long: I ended up having to continue practicing ear training for another nine years to teach it properly as one of my duties on the faculty of Bard College.

The day I had my “terminal degree” meeting I had just met with the composition faculty; I ran into Mary Anthony in the school’s lobby. She noted my distress and indicated that I should join her. She asked what was wrong. I put my hands out before me, palms down, and watched them gradually cease trembling. “Honey,” she sighed, “you are a round peg. Graduate school is a square hole. Of course, you can make yourself fit in here, but you don’t belong. You’re a composer. You write music. So, do it. Mozart didn’t need a doctorate to write his operas. You don’t need one to write yours.” The next morning, a few credits shy of the degree, I called the registrar and dropped out of Juilliard. I’ve never regretted the decision and shall always be grateful to Mary Anthony for her wise counsel. She was both terrifying and excellent, formidable and compassionate. She was one of the good ones. I loved her, and I shall miss her.

 

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  • Yes, I remember Madame Cox’s friendly smile as you sat at the classroom piano with an open score of Bach chorales in front of you, and she would invite you play three voices and sing (in solfege) the remaining voice of a selection which was written in soprano, alto, tenor and baritone clefs : “Take your time; just concentrate on the notes.” Exquisite mental and musical torture, but one felt great accomplishment at having survived another class…I used many of her techniques in later years when I was teaching ear-training.

  • Studying and then teaching as a Graduate assistant for Mary Anthony Cox was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I know that I will always look back on her rigourous and disciplined but warm approach to teaching and ‘classroom management’ with fondness and gratitude. Her voice, with that gentle Alabama accent which was so often full of humor and conveying timeless wisdom, will ring in my mind’s ear for as long as I live.

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