Sunday, November 23, 2008

Musical Questions – Sister Rebecca Mary

This week’s Musical Questions interview come from a dear friend, a wonderful musician & composer, & someone who was a terrifically good sport to agree to the interview, since she lives a cloistered life & some of the questions, aimed as they are at “performers,” don’t necessarily apply to her.

Sister Rebecca Mary, who currently lives at Marymount Hermitage, entered the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon in 1964. During those years with the Sisters in Oregon Sister Rebecca Mary often played music for the liturgy and she says she also had a most enjoyable time teaching and singing music with the 4th graders she taught. They especially loved to learn rounds and "fun" songs like "I Know a Place." In 1981 Sister Mary Beverly and Sister Rebecca Mary came to Idaho to start the Hermitage where they are currently living. Sister Rebecca Mary has remained a practitioner of this same life of prayer & service to this day, while continuing to incorporate music as an important part of her spiritual life—of course, I suppose Sister Rebecca Mary would find the adjective “spiritual” redundant.

While Sister Rebecca Mary has never been a “performer” in the same sense as other musicians who will appear in this series, she has frequently played in public at religious services throughout her adult life. In addition, she has put out a cd called Hoshanah: Hosanna to the Son of David. This is a self-produced, professionally mastered cd that has sold in quantities that would make most of us DIY recording folks green with envy. The proceeds from the cd sale go to support the Sisters of Marymount Hermitage in their life of service & prayer. In addition to being a composer & guitar player, Sister Rebecca Mary is a fine singer, & also plays the Appalachian dulcimer, the baritone uke, the harmonica (both chromatic & garden variety) & recorder. She is a skilled improviser with a very fine ear, & can even be convinced to try her hand at unfamiliar instruments during a “jam session,” whether the instrument is the banjo, the bouzouki, the bowed psaltery or the thumb piano.

While I’m not a religious person, I must say that Sister Rebecca Mary is a great example to me of someone who is truly devoted to a spiritual life, & who has the humility & open-mindedness one would expect from such a person. Fortunately for us, she’s also a wonderful musician!

Thanks also to our good friend Sister Mary Beverly of Marymount Hermitage who transcribed Sister Rebecca Mary’s answers. You can learn more about Marymount Hermitage by visiting their website here.

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

Our family loved music. Mom played the piano and the three of us girls liked to sing and harmonize. Also, my music teacher in grade school introduced us to classical music, which I have always loved. Taking up guitar at age 16, gave me an even greater impetus to being involved in playing music, as well as singing and listening to music.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

Not having a very extensive background in music theory, there were, and are, times when I can’t find the chords for which I am looking. Also, when I began composing in Hebrew, there were difficulties with where the accents for the Hebrew words and syllables should fall relative to the music.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

No, it is contrary to my Christian/Catholic beliefs. I do feel inspiration is necessary for composing. My music comes from my personal prayer.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?

Usually, lyrics come first, next melody or chords, but at times, the title of the piece comes first.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

Certainly, I like it when the music speaks to me, but also the competence of the performer or performers is important.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

Generally, I am playing accompaniment for the congregation with a musical group. I do not consider this “performing,” as such. The goal of liturgical music is worship of God, which means lifting our hearts and minds to Him in prayer. So when the singers and musicians are in harmony, the prayer is more what it should be, a sign of unity.

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

I am always more focused on being in sync with my fellow musicians, because we are the support for lifting up the congregation in song and praise.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

My favorite instrument is the violin. More than any other instrument, it seems to speak the language of the heart. It has a very human quality of intensity and feeling. With arthritis and old age, I do not expect to actually learn to play the violin...but maybe in heaven!

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

At present, what is of special interest to me is Spanish Gypsy Flamenco, Greek folk music, Jewish liturgical and folk music, and classical music.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

Recently, I have begun learning the baritone ukulele. Due to arthritis in my left hand, the guitar is more difficult to play now. But I am really enjoying learning the uke.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

As a teenager, I started out playing country western music, and then I got into classical guitar playing. As a religious, I played liturgical music for Mass with a folk group of other Sisters in our community. One of the current musical influences for me has been the study of the Hebrew language. Always having a liking for Jewish music, I found a special love for composing music for the Hebrew psalms and texts. My prayer songs were recorded in our chapel by Eberle Umbach and John Hayes. You can hear a clip of my CD here.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

I just want to say, “Do it!” In the beginning, don’t be afraid of criticism, but also do not be afraid to ask for help.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?

This isn’t a question, but it upsets me that some children are told they can’t sing, and then go through life believing that. I have found that most singers have a voice quality that is especially suited for certain types of music. I’d like to encourage people who don’t think they can sing well to explore different types of music to find what suits them.

Thanks so much Sister Rebecca Mary! & you readers be sure to check back in for upcoming installments in the Musical Questions series!

Pic of Sister Rebecca Mary was taken by Sister Mary Beverly


  1. I will pass this along to Sr. Veronica, a Carmelite Nun I dearly love who plays the guitar. A nun with a guitar is such a striking pose.

  2. Thanks for looking at Sister Rebecca Mary's interview. She is a gifted musician, tho sadly arthritis has made it almost impossible for her to play guitar. She does play baritone uke, however-- in fact, I'll be stopping by there today to give her a uke lesson. Hope your friend Sr. Veronica enjoys this.


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