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Committed to social justice through music, Marie A. Nelson (1937-2020) was Director of Music Education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD) for 27 years. Marie placed UMD music education students throughout eastern Massachusetts schools and worked to provide music education to the underserved. She traveled to West Africa with UMD students for research and to observe and support education there.

Unwaveringly dedicated to music education, both locally and globally, Marie A. Nelson (1937-2020) was Director of Music Education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD). Marie placed UMD music education students throughout eastern Massachusetts schools and traveled to West Africa with UMD students to observe and support education there.

Marie was born in Quincy, MA on April 16, 1937 to Louis and Olga Tozzi and attended The Woodward School, an all-girls private school in Quincy. She earned Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees from Boston University, where she met her husband Richard Nelson. A driving force as a faculty member in the Music Department at UMD, Marie directed the Music Education Program there for 27 years. A notable presence in the music education community of the SouthCoast, Marie successfully placed and mentored music education students in area schools, impacting the lives of countless music teachers and their students. Her record was unique, with a 90% successful placement rate for her first 22 years, followed by 100% successful placements over her last 5 years, an unsurpassed record for music educators anywhere.

Trained as a classical pianist, Marie had a deep understanding of Western European music but she celebrated musical diversity. Her presence in the UMD Music Department and contributions to a future vision for the department, college, and university were essential in the organization of a new curriculum in 2008. It includes for each music major diverse experiences in music technology, African American traditions, music education, western music, and world music, a course of study that is unique in the U.S. Her educational philosophy was based on inclusion and community and that legacy continues through the students she mentored. Her appreciation and exploration of jazz and world music demonstrated her commitment to lifelong learning.

Marie visited Mampong in Ghana’s Asante region in 2012 to study traditional music/dance and to observe classrooms with UMD music students and faculty members Weihua Zhang and royal hartigan. The trip was led by UMD faculty master artist Kwabena Boateng, who introduced Marie to local schools, students, faculty and administrators, including those in the village of Jamasi. After her return to the U.S., Marie organized a group of UMD engineering students to travel to Jamasi to build an eco-sustainable elementary school for local children. She led the trip and established strong relations with Jamasi and other local communities. Marcelle Gauvin, Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, commented, “The world is a far better place because Marie Nelson was born. She changed lives for the better and through her students, continues to do so. She understood the power of music and its ability to raise us up and heal.”

In addition to her teaching, performing, consulting, curriculum design, scholarly work, and mentoring students, Marie had a passion for nature, cooking, and exercise. A yoga practitioner who was known for creating unheard-of feasts for family, friends and colleagues, she loved the out-of-doors, gardening, boating, skating, among many other skills. She was so good at gardening that her yard was filled with beautiful flowers and tasty vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. The overflow stretched to pots surrounding her home, which was an extension of her artistic persona, with antiques, photos, rare music and art items, plants, and vines. When she gave Christmas parties or other festive dinners, she created banquets for the lucky attendees. Marie’s desserts bounded on sinful temptations, to which everyone succumbed. Her caring for students (and faculty who hung around for extras) extended to often bringing breakfast foods, cakes, or goodies to school for always hungry students.

Following her retirement from UMD, Marie contributed to the design of the Master of Music Program at Longy School of Music at Bard College in Cambridge, MA. A reflection of Marie’s commitment to social justice through music, the Longy program is inspired by El Sistema, a music education program founded in Venezuela in 1975 with a focus on “Music for Social Change.” Launched in the fall of 2020, the Longy program provides free classical music education to underserved children.

After Marie’s death, colleagues from UMD Music Department recorded cross-cultural pieces in her honor, “Bei Ge” (Elegy), with Jing Wang playing the Chinese erhu 2-stringed vertical violin (see link below), and “Ping Hu Qiu Yue” (Autumn Moon on the Lake), with Weihua Zhang on Chinese guzheng zither (see link below), each accompanied by percussionist royal hartigan. A statement on their YouTube post includes, “Her spirit will remain with all of us who knew her and we offer our music here and ongoing for Marie.”

Ann O’Leary, Emily Bourne Research Fellow, with Marcelle Gauvin, royal hartigan, and Weihua Zhang

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