The world of music at George Mason University
By Colleen Sheehy Orme
Whether a music enthusiast or not, Dr. Linda Apple Monson of George Mason University will ignite one’s interest in music by her sincere and infectious wonder for the art form.
Dr. Monson is driven to teach, perform and lead Mason’s esteemed school of music because she believes so strongly in it. “With music you have emotion, sensitivity, these skills that really make you be able to appreciate beauty. It provides such a sensitive and compassionate way of looking at the world,” she says.
Dr. Monson joined George Mason University in 1999. She is a professor of music and associate director for academic affairs at Mason’s School of Music as well as director of keyboard studies. Monson is also president of The College Music Society’s Mid-Atlantic region, and she is on the Fulbright Senior Specialist Roster, in collaboration with the U.S. State Department and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars.
A pianist and International Steinway Artist, Monson earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in music from the Peabody Conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University and a diploma in piano from Musica en Compostela, Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Accomplished, well respected and cherished in her field today, Monson’s musical passion lay hidden in her heart even as a little girl from a dairy farm in central Pennsylvania.
Monson relished going to church each Sunday just so she could hear the music. Then, after church, while her parents visited with parishioners in the little country chapel, she would make her way to the organ and play by ear.
Monson vividly remembers bugging her parents for two years and then finally, on her sixth birthday, she received an upright piano. In her voice you can still hear the thrill and excitement of that 6-year-old who looked forward to sitting at the piano and being able to play. “For me the piano was a way of expressing myself.”
At the age of 18, Monson was off to Peabody where she double majored in bassoon and piano. Thanks to her middle grade teacher, she received a full scholarship on the bassoon. At the time, Monson didn’t know what a bassoon was, but it ended up being “my ticket for a wonderful education,” she says. “I loved every minute of it. It was an incredibly busy life, but I loved it. Everything about music was tremendously exciting to me. I think it’s that sense of being passionate about the art form. It was an amazing place to be with wonderful students and terrific faculty. I kept thinking this was a dream that I was here.”
Monson spreads that same positive educational experience to her students at George Mason. “What really makes me happy is to see how the music affects the students. Music trains one how to think in so many different ways because music involves so much. It’s a complex way of being able to train one to think short-term, long-term, goals, plan the pieces, basically how to analyze,” says Monson. “The skills that one learns in becoming a musician are skills that are transferrable into many different arenas.”
The more Monson speaks, the more it becomes obvious that teaching is not a profession to Monson. It is the lens through which she sees life. And for Monson, music is all about sharing. “If God has given us this gift, then it is up to us. We need to seek out opportunities to be able to develop the gift. To develop that gift, and then as that gift is developed, it is our responsibility to share it with others. It’s not about us as individuals.”
Monson’s journey follows closely with that of the university at which she teaches. In 1957, George Mason College was originally sited on 150 acres in Fairfax, established as a branch campus of the University of Virginia. It became a four-year college in March of 1966 and began issuing its own degrees upon graduation.
The Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia asked that the two academic institutions part company in 1972. Since then, George Mason University established itself as an independent university in Virginia.
“There is a vision of pronounced excellence [at GMU],” says Monson. “Belief in the students, belief in the faculty and then an infrastructure to make that happen.”
George Mason University has 360 music major students, including undergraduate and graduate students. The school’s very own George Mason University Orchestra is outstanding.
Four years ago, Mason became an all Steinway school—an incredible distinction, which now ranks Mason in the company of The Yale School of Music, The Juilliard School and Oberlin College Conservatory.
“When you look at George Mason University, we have a world-class faculty and facility,” says Monson. She is equally enthusiastic about the students of the university. “You may be the teacher that turns them on to life through music. I see this every day of my life. I see this with the freshmen … with the doctoral students. All different stages of the journey, and each stage is fantastic.”
It is not difficult to find those singing, pun intended, Monson’s praises.
“Dr. Monson has been my wonderful teacher and mentor for the past nine years. I think I have been very privileged to have Dr. Monson in my life. She has expertly guided me through my undergraduate and graduate studies, and now during my doctoral studies, here at Mason,” says Yoonji Kim, one of Monson’s students. “Whenever I think of Dr. Monson, the words that come to my mind are, ‘energetic,’ ‘zealous’ and ‘passionate.’ Dr. Monson gives 200 percent on everything.”
“I just believe firmly that we can be tremendous advocates for the arts,” says Monson. “If one has an attitude of gratitude for this gift of music, it imparts itself in many ways because we see through music. We can connect in many ways. It is intellectual, and it can be simple. It is also physical, and it is deeply emotional. Music is deeply spiritual.”
“[The students] are clearly equipped with the tools to make their dreams come true. What they are missing is this deep caring that they experienced when they were here,” opines Monson of past alumni who have stayed in touch and now out on their own.
“I think at Mason what we are able to do is provide an outstanding comprehensive music program,” says Monson. “It’s musically intense and academically rigorous, but it is within a very nurturing and supporting environment. Our students know that our world-class performance and research faculty deeply care about them as individuals. I think that makes Mason School of Music special.”
“One of the great things about George Mason University is its ability to attract and support some of the brightest and most talented individuals in the country,” says Mason President Alan G. Merten. “Dr. Monson is a shining example of the dedicated and passionate faculty we have here at Mason. She is not only beloved among her students but is a gifted pianist in her own right.”
Before joining Mason, Dr. Monson taught at Peabody and The College of Notre Dame of Maryland and Baltimore School for the Arts. When Dr. Monson, her husband and two children moved to NoVA she also taught at Northern Virginia Community College, and she is currently the music director at Springfield United Methodist.
Monson is a specialist in new music. “I have had quite a few composers write original compositions for me to play as a solo pianist. I may premiere a work here at Mason, in England or in Ireland. I will almost always make sure that I am performing a work by a living composer at my recitals. It’s much more typical for piano recitals to include Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and a contemporary work. I specialize in premiering works that have been written within the last 10 years. I have two specializations of music at this point in my life. One is Spanish music. My other specialization is 20th-century American composers.”
The Dr. Linda Apple Monson Music Endowment Fund was established with a $100,000 donation by an anonymous donor. “I get choked up even thinking about it. I am deeply touched and honored,” says Monson. “When I think back to myself and how if it hadn’t been for a scholarship, that little 18-year-old kid from Pennsylvania … it would not have happened. I feel so incredibly lucky and blessed to do music 24/7.”
“We have so many great things happening here at Mason,” says Monson. “There is also a vision for all kinds of new things to build on the legacy we have now. I like to say, as President Merten says, ‘The best is yet to come.’”