Marjorie Susan Gile Ness

1950 -

Marjorie Ness, organist and music educator, has been involved in church music and teaching for over forty years. She has earned recognition as an accomplished organist and is known for her creativity as a church musician and teacher at all levels.

Marjorie was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children of William Osgood and Vera Eugenie Gile. Although both parents were not musicians, they loved music and provided opportunities in music for all three children.  Marjorie recently talked about her parents, early music study, and her decision to pursue a career in music:

My mother, who had always wanted to play the piano but had not been able to take lessons as a child for lack of money, was determined that her children would have lessons.  My father had listened to the orchestra programs sponsored and aired by NBC, CBS, and ABC radio in the 1930s and had acquired a love of classical music. As a result we not only had lessons but were encouraged and supported by our parents in our music activities.

I started piano lessons when I was eight and organ when I was fifteen. Because my brother and sister were in the band, I also wanted to learn a wind instrument and ended up playing the saxophone.  It wasn’t because I was interested in that instrument, but because my sister, who had died just before I entered junior high, had played one and it was available. When the bassoon player in the band graduated at the end of my sophomore year, the band director came to me and offered to teach me the instrument. He gave me a lesson every day that summer and I played it in the band during my last two years of high school and also played it in the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Following graduation I was already signed up to go to Gordon College and Seminary, a nearby conservative Christian college, but really wanted to pursue music.  While my parents preferred Gordon since I could stay at home, I confided in the associate pastor in our church about my interest in seriously pursuing music, and he suggested I apply to Oberlin. I did so without my parents knowing it, sending in an audition tape. I was accepted but needed my parents to sign on before I could enroll. When I told my parents about what I had done, they responded by saying that if I had gone to this much trouble, this must be what you want to do and said OK. They then supported me financially for my study there. Because I loved playing in orchestras, I asked about borrowing a bassoon and playing at Oberlin. I was politely told to focus on my organ major: they had enough bassoonists.

Marjorie enjoyed her work at Oberlin, which was at a conservatory level but in a liberal arts setting. Upon graduating from Oberlin with a B.Mus. in organ in 1972, Marjorie enrolled that summer at Northwestern University for additional study in organ, a decision that infuriated her teacher when he learned about it since he believed she was talented enough to have gained admission for graduate study at the Eastman School of Music. 

She chose NWU because it was near Chicago, in contrast to Oberlin which was in the country, and because she wanted to study organ with Grigg Fountain, who had been recommended by students who had graduated ahead of her and had studied with him when he had been at Oberlin. She was a scholarship recipient at NWU and because of the school’s year-round scheduling was able to complete an M.Mus. in organ in 1973.

Marjorie began her teaching career with a one-year interim appointment at Westmar College, a United Methodist school in Le Mars, Iowa. At the end of that year she went to the University of Iowa, where they had recently dedicated the largest tracker organ in the U.S. She was now an Iowa resident and qualified for a reduced tuition rate.

She enrolled as a doctoral student but because she spent her first year taking music education classes, the organ department didn’t take her seriously until after she had passed a qualifying exam on the organ. In the spring of her second year, having completed her student teaching in the previous fall, she began to seriously pursue doctoral organ study. While in Iowa City, she served as organist at the First United Methodist Church, a position she really enjoyed and held for four and a half years.

She came to view obtaining teaching certification as one of her best career decisions. It provided important insights in working with children’s music groups in worship settings.  Additionally, it not only enabled her to teach part-time in public schools while working on her doctorate at UI, but eventually opened doors for her to enter the teaching profession.  

While at UI she met William Ness, also a doctoral student in organ. They married during the Labor Day weekend in the fall of 1976, shortly after she joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. By coincidence, her mother had become aware of Adventists when her former daughter-in-law had become a member of the church.  Marjorie later talked about those years:

My mother had grown up a Congregationalist and my father a Methodist and we went to this union church because it was near our home. We had an American Baptist minister and our associate pastors were from every denomination. I never really claimed any particular church during my high school years. My brother’s ex-wife had become an Adventist and had used some of her beliefs as a weapon when dealing with the children from the marriage.  When I appeared on the scene with an Adventist boyfriend, my mother’s first reaction was “Oh no, not you too.” I assured her not all Adventists used their faith in that way.

Neither one of us had completed our degrees when we left Iowa City.  I took a one-semester position at University of Wyoming in Laramie the first of January 1979 while William continued to work on his degree.  In March he moved to Andrews University to teach while Warren Becker was on Sabbatical, and I joined him that summer.  When Becker returned in 1981, we stayed in the area for another year.

At that time we moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, where we both served as co-directors of music at the First Presbyterian Church and I taught a couple of classes at the community college and had a number of private students. While there, we chaired the Ottumwa National Undergraduate Organ Competition.  I was able to commute to UI once we had returned to Iowa and completed my degree at UI in the fall of 1982. In 1987 we moved to Massachusetts, where we began our association with Atlantic Union College.

In her time at AUC, Marjorie served as coordinator of the music education program, director of the preparatory division, and chair of the music department from 1992 to 1995. She also served at two churches, a small Congregational one for three years and an Episcopal one for five years. From 1995 to 2003, she served as full-time Minister of Arts and Music at the Wesley United Methodist Church. During her last year in that position, she began teaching at Fitchburg State College, where she presently teaches. She recently talked about the events that led to her employment there: 

I had met the head of the humanities department at FSC when I was teaching at AUC, and she would come as a judge for festivals and piano competitions that I had organized.  She had become aware of my work at the college and with Thayer Conservatory, and I had briefly taught a class for them during the 2000-2001 school year.  She called me in August 2002 and wanted to know if I would be interested in teaching full-time for them during that year, and I hesitated. I was still full-time at WUMC.  She was persistent, however, and I actually wanted to return to academia, so I went to the pastor at the church, explained my situation, and offered to work half-time for them since I knew they were having financial problems. She agreed and for that year I held both positions.

I continued to teach at Fitchburg on a three-quarter basis in the following year. I was hired as Director of Music at Memorial Congregational Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts, in 2003, and when a full-time position opened at the college in 2004, I applied and was hired as a full-time tenure track teacher.

Ness presently conducts two choirs and teaches classes in fine arts, world music, symphony, 19th century music, choral conducting, and music education. She was a guest lecturer in the Summer Music Institute at FSC in 2011 and 2012.  

During her years in church work, which had started at age nineteen, she performed as organist and did extensive work with children’s and adult choirs and handbell ensembles. She continues to give piano and organ lessons privately. William has also been associated with AUC, serving as its church’s Minister of Music for thirteen years, beginning in 1987. During that time he developed five choirs and two handbell choirs. He continues there as one of its staff organists. He has served as organist and Minister of Music & the Arts for the First Baptist Church in Worcester since 2001.

Marjorie was a finalist in the National Women’s Organist Competition in Chicago in 1978. She was also a Merit Scholar at Northwestern University and while at the University of Iowa, she was a Ruhl organ scholar. In 1986 she toured in Central Europe and England where she presented a series of seven concerts, including one at the St. Germain des Pres church in Paris. She was active in the American Guild of Handbell Ringers and the American Guild of Organists and served a term as Dean of the Worcester chapter of AGO from 2000 to 2002.


Sources: Interview, December 2012; Information at the Fitchburg State College website; Obituary for William Gile, her father, The Boston Globe, 27 May 2012; personal knowledge.