Beyond the Keys: Q & A with Marilynn Ham

Piano teacher. Concert performer. Published arranger. Recording artist.

Though all very distinguished, these titles only begin to scratch the surface of the talents and career of Marilynn Ham, associate professor of music and artist-in-residence at Bethel College since 1989.

Inherited by her mother and influenced by the church, Ham’s love for playing and arranging sacred piano music began at a young age. After her first book of arrangements was approved for publishing in 1985, she continued to write one to two more per year, building a collection of more than 20 books.

In celebration of her latest book, recently released this month, Ham took some time to talk with me about her musical career, as well as her life away from the keys.

CB: Where did you go to school?

MH: [I have] bachelor’s and masters degrees in piano performance from Northern Michigan University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

CB: How did your career begin?

MH: It began with my “play by ear” arrangements for church preludes and offertories. My pastor suggested that I write these pieces down so others could play them. I sent the manuscripts with cassette tapes to three different publishing companies. One said if I could come up with 10 arrangements, they would publish a book for me, [though] the usual custom is to include a new arranger in a collection with other arrangers.

CB: Tell me about the process of composing and publishing.

MH: In 1996 I began to write with Finale music software, a major change for me from pencil and paper. I see the music going by on the computer screen as I write. When an arrangement is finished, I attach the file to an editor at one of the two companies that publish my works.

CB: What are your current responsibilities at Bethel?

MH: I primarily teach piano lessons. I also accompany the Bethel College Concert Choir. The remainder of my job is called “artist-in-residence.” This part of my job consists of practicing, writing and ‘concertizing.’ These all tie in with recruiting for the college.

CB: What do you like about your job?

MH: I love the flexibility of my hours. If I have a conference or concert away from Bethel, I am at liberty to reschedule my students as needed. I also love the one-on-one of teaching individual piano lessons. Each student is unique and brings joys and challenges to my teaching.

CB: What are your future career plans?

MH: I will continue to write piano arrangement books. My [newest] book titled “Come Unto Me,” an advanced sacred book of piano solo arrangements, is quiet, calm, meditative and reflective music [fitting the] theme of my book, Matthew 11:28-30.

CB: Future personal plans?

MH: To spend as much time with our two granddaughters as possible. In the very distant future we hope to build our dream home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Escanaba). We love the Great Lakes and spend as much time in and by the water as possible. A brand new hobby I’ve taken on is kayaking. I also love to “antique” with my husband.

CB: Tell me one interesting fact about you.

MH: I am the oldest of 15 children! My mother had all 15 of us in just 18 years! All by the same parents — no twins — all still living!

 

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