Today I had the pleasure of speaking with Mary McDonald, a multi-talented musician from Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to her work as a composer, arranger, producer, pianist, and organist, she was a sacred choral editor for The Lorenz Corporation for nearly twenty years and currently serves as the organist for Central Baptist Church in Knoxville. Her music and talents have blessed choirs and congregations across the country for more than twenty-five years.
Mary is the composer of more than 700 published choral anthems, several Christmas and Easter cantatas, and numerous keyboard collections, and still serves as an editorial consultant for Lorenz. She is also active as a choral clinician, traveling throughout the United States conducting workshops and concertizing. Her unique blend of heart, hands, and humor, combined with a wide range of writing and performing styles, keeps her in constant demand. One of Mary’s greatest joys has been serving as accompanist for the Tennessee Men’s Chorale since 1985. In 2000, Mary served as the first woman President of the Southern Baptist Church Music Conference. She is a member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Mary was recently awarded second place by the John Ness Beck Foundation for her composition Yes, My Jesus Loves Me.
Thank you so much, Mary, for taking time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us!
When did you begin in music?
I have been playing piano by ear since I was five years of age. I have a sister who would work the pedals for me since my feet wouldn’t reach the floor. At first, our mother thought it was one of my older sisters who had been taking lessons but soon realized it was her youngest, playing with both hands the hymns from the church services earlier that day. I have never had piano lessons.
Did you have an “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
When I was in high school, I walked to Central Baptist Church many afternoons while waiting on my mom to get off work. In 1970, our church installed a lovely Shantz pipe organ and our organist was practicing most days when I was there. When she left, I asked our interim music minister for a key, telling him I was “studying” organ (just watching, actually). The first time I rolled back the lid, I put my Algebra book on the rack and began playing music. I tried to make it sound like church music but was playing Elton John, movie themes, and improvised classical literature. I loved the power of the pipe organ and the freedom to express myself through music.
What kind of things inspire you?
I am inspired most often by the text. Once I read a scripture or hymn text, I begin forming music around the words and finding a style that best shapes the message through music. At that point, either the text or rhythmic hook becomes the seed from which the notes spring forth into a song. It’s an art form in that the creation of one part leads to the next until it feels complete.
What inspired you to become a composer?
After graduating from Carson-Newman College in East Tennessee, I took my first organ position at Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Knoxville. Since I could not read music very well, I would improvise the service music. My music minister gave me a cassette of several offertories and encouraged me to write them down. With my husband’s help and theory knowledge, we literally drew lines on paper and transcribed five organ arrangements and submitted them to the Baptist Sunday School Board. They were accepted for publication in Pedalpoint magazine. A couple of years later, John Purifoy moved to Knoxville to begin a publishing company and was introduced to me by my music minister at Central Baptist. He asked me if I had composed choral music and I told him of my inability to write texts. He suggested scripture or hymn texts and, taking his advice, I penned my first choral anthem, Seek First the Kingdom in 1983.
What would you say defines your style?
I don’t limit my creativity to one particular style of music. I love to write big, traditional hymn settings for piano or organ (or both), and feel equally at home with contemporary choral settings of praise and worship choruses. The gospel arrangements are always fun to score and play but I enjoy venturing out beyond those styles on occasion and just letting the music guide the way. Regardless of musical style, my accompaniments will always be full, supportive and sometimes challenging!
Tell me one thing that people might not know about you.
I am married to my high-school sweetheart. Prior to dating my husband, Brian, I actually went out with his brother for nearly a year. Poor Brian had to sit in the back seat when his dad would drive me and his brother to school dances! What can I say, it’s Tennessee.
What are you working on now?
I am collaborating with Pamela Martin and Larry Shackley on a new Christmas cantata for Fall 2011. After this is completed, I plan to go back to my roots and write some organ music. I haven’t written any organ solos since the late 1970s.
What is your favorite choral piece (by another composer)?
Then Will the Very Rocks Cry Out (Hayes)
Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing?
Follow your passion and gifts. God has been my personal GPS in putting the right people in my path at the right time. It takes dedication and perseverance and an open mind. There is a difference between composing and publishing, and it’s easy to lose focus. If you write your heart and gain pleasure and satisfaction from doing it, publishing doesn’t matter; it’s the icing on the cake. Too many people write to get published and are missing the greater purpose.
Would you say that music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning or by sudden inspiration?
Both… I have worked weeks trying to craft an anthem and others have come in ten minutes. I wish I knew the secret… but there’s usually a reason one takes longer than another. In the end, each anthem is like a page in my diary; a story for that moment and a part of the journey.
What are your favorite texts to set to music?
What is your favorite thing about composing?
When I finish a song that I’m excited about and only me and the Lord know about it! I thank Him and ask His blessings on it… then send to the commissioning church or a publisher.
Inside the Actors Studio-Type Questions:
- What is your favorite word? Peace
- What is your least favorite word? Hurry
- What sound or noise do you love? Laughter
- What sound or noise to you hate? Scottish bagpipes (not Irish)
- What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Politician
- What is your favorite composition? Be Still (new with Beckenhorst)
- What is on your i-Pod? I need to get one! Anybody feeling generous?
- Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with, living or dead? John Ness Beck
- If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would it be? John Williams
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
I am so grateful for Geoff Lorenz, Larry Pugh, and my extended family at Lorenz Corporation, who gave me an incredible opportunity to serve as Editor of Sacred Choral Music from 1991-2010. Their patience, trust, support, and encouragement carried me through almost twenty years of music composition, editing, and publishing, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their influence. We are all grateful to the incredible work of J.W. Pepper for giving wings to our products and for all you do for the cause of sacred and educational music. May God continue to bless our collective efforts.
Thank you, Mary, for your time and for letting all of us get to know you a little better. If you want to get to know Mary even better, the best thing would be to check out some of her many compositions. You can find them here .