Remembering Mary Elizabeth

People

Mary Elizabeth, composer, author, teacher, and Sibelius beta tester (among many other things), died on July 20, 2020, after a long battle with cancer.

She was someone that most Sibelius users likely never heard of, but she played important roles in making Sibelius what it became.

Mary Elizabeth had a diverse and impressive background in writing and music. Her talents were evident from an early age, and she wrote her first opera when she was in high school in Evanston, Illinois. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in English, she moved to New York, where she became a writer and editor of K–12 student and teacher materials.

She later earned a master’s degree in education in Reading and Language Arts at the University of Vermont, and began to write and design original educational materials, primarily in the areas of language and literature. In addition to all of her output in the music field, Mary Elizabeth’s works include an American English slang dictionary and thesaurus designed especially for non-native speakers, a series of literature teaching guides and a series of five grammar books.

Mary Elizabeth, photographed by her neighbor Harry Summerfield

I met Mary Elizabeth, who called herself “ME”, in the Sibelius beta tester forum around 2003, in between Sibelius 2 and 3. I had just written my first big Sibelius plug-in (Realize Chord Symbols), and Daniel Spreadbury invited me to be a tester and try out new things that were being added to the ManuScript plug-in language.

It was a pretty big test group, and, like most such groups, people had different approaches. Some, exemplified by the late composer Derek Bourgeois, used Sibelius on their huge works in progress, and unearthed a ton of bugs and problems. ME was a different kind of tester, who looked at a feature from all angles, and wondered what would happen if you did this (oops), or that (oh, no!), and looked to see what would happen it you did things most people would never think to do. A lot of stones were overturned that way as well.

She was working as a mentor in the Vermont MIDI Project (now Music-COMP), where young music students submitted compositions online in Sibelius, and regional composers mentored them and offered feedback. She was also composing, and writing books, and lots of other things I only caught glimpses of through posts on the beta forum.

She showed interest in some of the plug-ins I was writing, and effectively became my own beta tester for quite some time. She had lots of ideas, missed nothing, questioned everything, and was the best tester I ever had. Everything I did with her was better because of her participation. Over the years I have occasionally dedicated plug-ins (as one might dedicate a musical composition) to people who were important in their development. This does not happen very often. Nine of my published plug-ins are dedicated to her.

ME and harpist Heidi Soons. From the article Composing for the Harp in harpspectrum.org.

She researched and designed several thousand pages of international music education content for the Sibelius Worksheet Creator and co-authored the content for the Sibelius Groovy Music series for Musica Viva Australia’s Musicadventures series.

In a 2009 Sibelius Blog post, Daniel Spreadbury wrote:

“We worked with Mary Elizabeth, a Vermont-based author and educator, who was crazy enough to agree to do a survey of the secondary music curricula in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Over the course of several months, she established the common factors between these highly disparate curricula, and then established a common set of terminology that could be used to describe the elements of music theory and notation used by them.

 Having done that, she set about designing the actual activities that became the hundreds of different naming, matching, evaluating etc. worksheets. She also found copyright-free texts that can be used as stimuli for composition or improvisation, and hundreds of pieces of repertoire, from keyboard music to nursery rhymes to folks songs from different cultures around the world.”

James Humberstone, a Sydney, Australia-based composer and educator, was working for Sibelius at the time, and had been commissioned to write a children’s opera. ME wrote the libretto and worked on educational materials, and the opera Kiravanu premiered in September, 2008, at Sydney Showgrounds, performed by nearly 400 children from MLC Sydney and Broken Hill, a sister school in the outback, whose students had never been in a city before.

I have a lot of what I call “Sibelius friends”, and I have only gone out of my way to meet two of them in person. One was Daniel Spreadbury, whom Neil Sands and I visited in London, and the other was Mary Elizabeth. I was visiting Boston with my kids in 2008, and I left them with their cousins for a day to drive up to Vermont. ME and I had a wonderful day wandering around her town. She had baked vegan scones for me to take back to my daughter, because that is something she would think to do.

Mary Elizabeth and Bob Zawalich in Vermont in 2008

I did not hear much from her after 2012, when the mass firing of the Sibelius developers caused a lot of people to walk away. A few months ago she called to tell me she was very sick, and wanted to say goodbye. We had a long and happy conversation nevertheless. Her biggest disappointments were letting go of some of the many projects she would not have time to finish. She always kept a lot of balls in the air.

Before she died, her sister Wendy got a list of people to contact so they would not be left wondering, and I got the call when the time came. The family is trying to get some of ME’s music published, and Wendy said that people could contact her if they had questions or wanted to get in touch at [email protected].

For me, the pleasure of participating in the Sibelius community is the reason I spend so much time interacting with people here. ME was a big part of my community, and now when I look around I see the void where she used to be.

Comments

  1. Peter McAleer

    Thank you Bob. This is a wonderful and totally deserved tribute to a mutual friend, Beyond that I simply don’t have the words.

  2. Chris Crawley

    I didn’t know this lady, but undoubtedly her presence must have been considerable and her contributions to various parts of the world of music invaluable. Bob has written a moving little memoir of her here. Her death is a great loss.

  3. Pedrito López

    As a long time Sibelius user (since v.1) and without knowing it I am sure I must have been helped by Ms. Mary Elizabeth’s work, as well as all other members of beta tester team, and altough I did not know her personally, I want to thank her, and hope that this new journey may be full of light and music.

  4. Mark Arnest

    Thanks for the lovely tribute.

  5. Mark Arnest

    Thanks for the lovely tribute.

  6. Dave Metzger

    What a beautiful tribute, Bob. I would see posts by and references to ME but never knew her backstory. How wonderful it is to learn it, and to have acknowledgment of her many contributions, frequently unseen by most, that have helped us all.

  7. Graham Ranft

    ME and I emailed occasionally about life and musical matters
    of mutual interest. Sorry to hear of her passing – she went too soon.
    A great legacy in Sibelius. RIP ME.
    Graham, canberra australia

  8. Svend Aaquist

    RIP

  9. Mike Lyons

    I am so sad to hear of this. ME was a wonderfully energetic person who inspired others to do better. I only had limited contacts with her, but she left a BIG impression. R.I.P.

  10. Michael Kummer

    Thank you for this tribute to ME. I was at this time in the same beta testers group and had some conversations with her. Since I live in southern Germany, I had never the pleasure to meet her personally and after the change of Sibelius to AVID we were not longer beta testers. But we were friends in Facebook and so I constantly wrote to here on her birthday and got back nice greetings. I was very sad to hear from her death on a personal message on Facebook. ME will stay in my memory – R.I.P.

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