GOSHEN — A local woman who has helped transform church music and was a pioneer in the study of African music will be honored with a celebration at Goshen College next weekend.
Mary Oyer taught at Goshen College for 43 years, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart for 10 and for a time as a visiting professor at Kenyatta University in Kenya and Tainan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan.
“The impact of Mary’s work on this college and community is obvious every day to us and merits a celebration,” said Deb Kauffman, Goshen College Music Center associate director, who is helping plan the event. “Even at age 90, Mary remains an enthusiastic teacher and a storehouse of knowledge, and to plan these events that include her input is an additional gift to us, while we attempt to offer our appreciation for her significant life’s work.”
The Goshen College Music Center is hosting several events April 19 and 20 in celebration of Oyer’s 90th birthday earlier this month and in recognition of her work and influence on music.
Oyer began her teaching career at the college in 1945 after she graduated from the college in 1944. A few years later, she began teaching a fine arts course that explored art and music, which served as the final project for her work towards a master’s degree at the University of Michigan. Through Oyer’s decades at the college, thousands of students took the class, helping bring “recognition and acceptance” of the arts to a Mennonite liberal arts education, according to the college.
Through the 1960s, Oyer worked on a hymnal for the Mennonite church alongside her teaching. She was the first woman to serve on a Mennonite hymnal committee. That experience gave her a love of “hymnody,” learning the stories behind the hymns and how they all fit together in history.
After that work ended, Oyer wanted to continue to fill her time outside the classroom with learning. She was chosen to go to Africa for 10 weeks through a government grant and spent several summers and two sabbaticals there as well, becoming one of the first to academically study traditional African music.
At that time there had not been much research done on African music. Churches in the early 20th century had dismissed drums, for example, as sinful, Oyer explained.
That’s what Oyer was especially interested in, though — the music and instruments of the indigenous groups of Africa.
Overall, Oyer filled 150 tapes with recordings of traditional music from 22 different African countries.
The more she learned, the more she realized how complex and how old their music was.
“It reached back so far into history and in a different way than books,” she said.
She brought her interest in African music back to U.S. churches through her teaching and work with church hymnals.
Of course, when U.S. congregations sing the African tunes, it’s lacking some of the qualities of the traditional African churches, Oyer explained.
“Usually, the things that Africans do are so complicated rhythmically that we can’t sing them,” she said.
Mennonites have sung in parts for so long that it’s slow and tedious when Mennonites try those rhythms, she said.
The two groups also appreciate different sounds, Oyer explained Monday, April 8, as she thumbed the metal tines of an instrument that some in Uganda call the “lukemba,” but that has more than 150 names in Africa.
The instrument is a wood box, with flattened bicycle spokes extending over an opening, Oyer said. Small metal clasps around the spokes create a “buzzy” quality to its sound. Many people in the U.S. don’t like the buzz, Oyer said.
Oyer still sings and plays piano and other instruments as she can. Along with the piano, hymnal and songbooks in her living room, a collection of traditional instruments from Oyer’s travels have their own space too. She remembers the stories of how she came to own each of them —some she bought, while others were gifts.
During her celebration April 19 and 20th, though, she’ll be glad to enjoy the hymn sings and concerts from the audience, she said. She will be speaking and presenting some of her research during the weekend as well.
@Breakout heads 08:Mary Oyer’s 90th Birthday Celebration
FRIDAY, APRIL 19
7:30 p.m. — Goshen College Symphony Orchestra Concert at Sauder Concert Hall in the Goshen College Music Center
Birthday cake for all in the Music Center Lobby will follow the concert. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors and free for Goshen College students.
SATURDAY, April 20
1 p.m. — Hymn sing in Rieth Recital Hall, Goshen College Music Center
The hymn sing will be led by Goshen College Music Professor Debra Brubaker, Dean of Anabaptist Biblical Seminary Rebecca Slough and Goshen College organ instructor Kevin Vaughn. Admission is free.
2:30 p.m. — Music as a Window to African Culture
Mary Oyer and ethnomusicologist Roderic Knight’s presentation in the Rieth Recital Hall in the music center will include discussion and demonstrations.
4 p.m. — The Mary Oyer African Music Project
Oyer and Goshen College alumna Lisa Horst will discuss and explain the project in the Rieth Recital Hall in the music center, with accompanying displays in the Music Center lobby.
5:30 — African-themed meal
Reservations are required to this meal in the College Mennonite Church fellowship hall. The cost is $25 per person, which also covers the cost of a ticket to the following celebration program in Sauder Concert Hall. To reserve a place and pay by credit card, call the Music Center office at 535-7361 or mail a check to GC Music Center, 1700 S. Main St., Goshen, IN 46526. Please note “MKO dinner” on the subject line of your check.
7:30 p.m. — Celebration program in Sauder Concert Hall
The program will include an address from Oyer, singing by the college’s Women’s World Music Choir, hymn-singing led by Eastern Mennonite University professor of music Kenneth Nafziger and others, and a performance by the Goshen College String Quartet. Cost is $5 general admission and free for all students.