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April 30, 2001

Marian Dolan: An Acquired Skill

By Eric Rangus


Marian Dolan is a musician. Being a musician means lots of things. She plays an instrument (flute), but not professionally. She sings (as a back-row alto), but not as part of her chamber choir. She does not write music; her talent is in arranging. During concerts, in fact, Dolan spends most of the time with her back to the audience.

And she is a music teacher. When she reveals this to people, the inevitable follow-up question is, “What instrument do you play?”

Despite her training as a flutist, Dolan’s response is pretty consistent.

“I hesitate for a moment and then I usually say, ‘people.’” she said. “Folks will either chuckle or get this puzzled look, but it’s true. An ensemble conductor’s instrument is human beings.”

An assistant professor of church music and choral conducting in the Candler School of Theology since 1996, Dolan is conductor of Emory’s two chamber choirs, the Choraliers and the Candler Chapel Choir.

The choirs perform several concerts each year, and Dolan likes to stretch the stylistic boundaries of her singers. One minute they may be singing a black gospel tune, the next minute a selection of Christmas carols from Scandinavia. In 1998, the Choraliers presented a program entitled Requiem for a King, an interpretation of Mozart’s Requiem K.626. in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. The show took place on April 4, the 30th anniversary of King’s assassination.

“I try to teach larger concepts that will affect them not only in their faith journey as pastors-to-be, but will help them have an understanding of larger concepts like: ‘How do you explore another’s tradition?’” she said.

The Choraliers, Candler’s auditioned chamber choir, have sung in Finnish, Estonian, Korean, Russian, several African languages and even a few that are only spoken by dead people—Latin and Quechuan, the indigenous language of Peru and Ecuador.

“One of the greatest joys in teaching here is that the students have been so willing to explore beyond their musical comfort zones and wrestle with singing in other languages,” Dolan said.

Earlier this month, the Choraliers added yet another language to its repertoire. For its spring concert, “Gloria Dios! – Glory To God!” the choir performed choral music from the Caribbean and Latin America in Creole, the native language of Haiti. They were accompanied by Darryl Barrow, Oxford’s chaplain, who played congas, and steel pan player Dave Cooper. Jamaican composer Noel Dexter—who wrote several pieces for the concert—was guest conductor.

Nowhere is Dolan’s international bent more apparent than on the Multicultural and World Choral Music Home Page she helped create. Prior to going online, Dolan would distribute reams of information on paper. Photocopying was not only time consuming but expensive, so she created a website. The site ( includes listings for choral pieces from many different countries, as well as entries for American Indian works.

“I wanted to create a website where colleagues could go and find two things: ‘Where do I find it?’ and ‘What do I look for?’” Dolan said. “If you’re looking for music from Estonia, where do you find it? Who publishes it? Is it all written in Estonian, or is it in English?”

A resource such as this is essential for choral directors because much of their music is self-published, and a grass-roots distribution effort is the best way to find new music. And the web has been an ideal tool in strengthening communication among choral directors.

The Choraliers debut CD Endless Your Grace, for instance, is available only through the theology school. Selections can be heard on the Candler website.

Baltic music holds a special place with Dolan, a New Jersey native. Her maternal grandparents emigrated from Finland (her paternal grandparents are from Ireland), and she has traveled, toured and spoken extensively in both Finland and Estonia, the former Soviet republic just across the Baltic Sea.

In this country, April has been quite a busy month for Dolan. Not only did she have the spring concert, but the choirs also performed a commissioned piece at Candler’s homecoming, April 19–20, as well as another commissioned work on April 24. Both were written specifically for the choirs by Mark Gresham, an Atlanta-based composer.

“To have a piece of music specifically written for us is really exciting [for the choir],” Dolan said. “It’s as exciting, I think, as their exploring a piece of music that is outside their tradition’s typical style.”

But perhaps the highlight of the month came on April 17. That’s when Dolan received the Crystal Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching for the Professional Schools.

The honor is one of the most prestigious awarded by students, who nominate faculty and vote on the recipients.

“Professor Dolan has achieved many accolades in her career,” presenter Josh Bornstein told a full house in Cox Hall the evening of the ceremony. Bornstein is vice president of the Student Government Association, which sponsors the awards. “But her most valuable achievement is her magnificent ability to relate to her students. Her classes are interesting, engaging and enjoyable.”

“I was just completely surprised and humbled,” Dolan said. “To be nominated by your students is really extraordinary. To have students say they have learned about music—something that has sometimes mystified them or scared them or intimidated them—means that they’ll take that into everything they do in their life.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily because I’m such a great teacher, I think it’s because they’ve helped me learn in rehearsal and in the classroom how to present the stuff that I love and to help them love it, too.”

Yes, Marian Dolan is a musician, but she bristles a little at being called a “performer.”

“Our responsibility as a musical ensemble—both the choir and myself—is to reimage or re-present or reincarnate another person’s artwork,” Dolan said. “It follows along the same lines as a dramatist who writes a play; unless he or she is a solo actor, you turn it over to a theater company, and they re-present the play. That’s really what we do.

“We’re not performing,” she continued. “We reincarnating someone else’s artwork that they wrote when they had an encounter with God. They responded musically. Music—pitched sound and rhythm—is a theological language. And if I have anything to say at Candler, that’s it.”


Back to Emory Report April 30, 2001