by Melinda Arthur '25
May 19, 2022

For our Feature Series, M@A sat down with one of our wonderful subscribers and visitors to Buckley Recital Hall. In April 2022, Melinda Arthur ‘25 had the chance to speak with Ms. Madge Briggs, who has been a subscriber since 2015. Born in Chicago and raised in Decatur, Illinois, Madge is a well-traveled music lover who has visited almost all 50 states. Outside of the U.S., she has been to Europe at least 15 times, all around Canada and to Mexico. Back in Illinois, she went to music school and majored in music education. As one can tell, music is very important to Madge — but family is too. She has four children and five grandchildren. Her daughter, Sarah Briggs, is a beloved violin instructor here at the College. In terms of music, Ms. Briggs herself has taught piano lessons and public school music. (She also had a career as a school librarian!) Our conversation took us many places, just like her travels, from Bridgerton to favorite books and our very own M@A series. It was a delight to talk with Madge and we hope you enjoy reading her thoughtful responses. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We wanted to start by asking you, what is your earliest memory of a concert? Could you tell me if you've had any favorite concert experiences?

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Encircled headshot of Madge Briggs
By the time I could go to or was going to concerts, it was in Decatur, Illinois, which is in the central part of the state. And they had a very fun college with a very fun music school. I'm sure my mother took me to some of what they called community concerts in those days. My mother loved music and I was raised knowing all about classical music and taking piano lessons early. Probably the most exciting thing early on was when my boyfriend — who became my husband — and I went up to the very famous Chicago Lyric Opera. We saw Aida in the afternoon and Carmen at night one day, and I was just blown away by grand opera. My husband, Sarah's father, was a bass singer. He sang lots of opera and he got his master's at Eastman. So opera has been a very important part of my life. He sang lead roles at a small community opera company in Rochester and at the Light Opera in Manhattan. When we lived in Manhattan, we usually went to the Met.

They had a series that we went to as often as we could, and I remember the most moving time at the opera was the Ring cycle. I remember, when Valhalla crumbled, we were sitting in the orchestra and they had these huge pillars. It was just very dramatic, so full of music. My husband and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes, it was so moving.

You said opera is a certain genre that really speaks to you. Are there any other genres that you really like?

Well obviously, I love the violin, because Sarah is teaching lessons with the Suzuki method, which originated, believe it or not, around 1966. Suzuki came over here from Japan and started Project SUPER, which stood for Suzuki, Penfield, Eastman, and Rochester. It was coordinated at Penfield, which was where my husband taught and where all four of my kids graduated from high school. It was pretty unique that it started right in that spot where we lived. Sarah started taking lessons at the age of five, and as you know, it's been a wonderful career for her. So obviously, I love the violin and I have taught probably hundreds of piano players starting at the age of 17. I didn't teach a lot in Manhattan, but through the years, I've taught in almost every place I lived, except Manhattan. And of course, there's not much I don't like. I love chamber music. We always went to the Philharmonic in New York, because I love the symphony. I love solo recitals, both vocal and piano, violin, and jazz of course.

Who are your favorite performers?

I love Arnold Steinhardt. He was the first violinist with the Guarneri String Quartet, which we went to all the time in New York. They did a full series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. And then I've seen a lot of Jeremy Denk. He's one of my favorite pianists. I'm not sure about my favorite violinists. My favorite cellist, I guess, would be Yo-Yo Ma. And as far as the orchestra, I've heard a lot of orchestras because I've lived in Rochester, Raleigh and New York. They're all good. I can't really say I have a favorite orchestra. Except I do enjoy the orchestra concerts here and one of your composers [Eric Sawyer]. He's written some operas that had been performed in the area, like at the Academy of Music. Anyway, I've enjoyed his operas. They are really good.

How did you discover Music at Amherst? What makes you keep returning to M@A?

Well, actually, I discovered it because Sarah was on the faculty here. She's the only violin teacher at Amherst College, and she has had some wonderful students. She loves this job. Anyway, I moved here in 2007, about 15 years ago. I live in Northampton, so it's a bit of a drive, but I realized they had such a wonderful music program and so many student concerts, which were free. And then the Series: early on, I subscribed to that. I like to subscribe to something rather than just get the tickets at the last minute because that way I get it in my calendar, I know I'm going to go, I've already got the tickets, I don't put it off. And so I've loved having that Series for, I don't know, 10 more years and I think Amherst has an amazing quality of music, considering the fact that it's really just a liberal arts school. It's not a conservatory.

I agree. Coming here and exploring all the music that Amherst has to offer has been very interesting because I've never seen anything like it before. Yes, everyone is so talented. I have some classmates in the Orchestra and in the Choral Society. So it's very nice to see them be passionate about their music and perform for a whole bunch of people who also love music.

That's another thing: the students here really support the music concerts. They go and they cheer. One of Sarah’s finest violin students is doing a concerto with the orchestra [Marie Leou ‘22].

You spoke about teaching. Do you have a favorite teaching experience? Or what does teaching music bring to you? Why does it interest you so much to help people learn this amazing sort of passion and to foster this love of music in others?

To me, the piano is the basis for reading music because one, you have both treble and bass clef, two, you're using both hands, and three, it's very basic. My kids played the piano, both girls played violin, my son cello, and my other son trumpet. You needed two instruments in my house… And I love teaching piano because it's one-on-one. You feel like you're really turning this little kid on to music and getting him to enjoy it as much as I did. I remember one time, a high school friend was staying all night with my older son. He said he had never heard such a loud or noisy household with practicing and four kids! It was a lot going on all the time. Also, I've always done choirs: church choirs, choral society in Rochester, Bach choral, or some macro group. I did this as an adult.

Then I did some public school teaching, Grades K through 6. But that wasn't my cup of tea for music. My husband said it's because you couldn't get every little kid to love music the way you do. So it was a little frustrating. That's when I got a master's degree in library science and became a school librarian, but always kept up with my music.

I think librarians in school are really great, based on my experience with librarians in school. You're like the best people that I knew.

Well the one thing about the librarian is, you actually interact with every single person in the school. I mean, students and teachers. Oh, I loved being a librarian. And I love books and reading.


“...Music is the most important part of my life except for family.”


Does music inform any other passions you have?

I love to play bridge but that has nothing to do with music. Well, I have to say, music is the most important part of my life except for family. I go to as many concerts as I can, I listen to it on the radio, I watch television that includes music, I guess. It kind of enhances movies, because some of the music for the background of a movie or even a television show just makes it all that much better for me. The Gilded Age was a recent series on [HBO MAX].

I love it because it was set in New York City and I love New York City. And the music was really well done. There's some Korngold and Hans Zimmer, some very fine composers who have composed more moving music of that nature. I realized that my love of hearing music enhances the television show or the movie.

It's very interesting how TV and movies use music. I've seen, recently, that a lot of them have been using classical music.

Yes.

It is, and years ago, the cartoons did a lot of the same thing.

Yeah. It's amazing. A lot of people are discovering classical music, and they become passionate about music through popular media. I'm wondering, have you seen the show Bridgerton?

Oh, yes.

Did you watch season two?

Yes. I've just finished season two. I just finished season two a couple of nights ago. Because everybody was disappointed that Regé-Jean Page wasn't in s2. But then you got into it. And it was great.

I think they used a lot of pop turned into classical music. And then there is dancing. Oh, it’s a very nice show.

Yeah. You haven't seen the Gilded Age yet, but it's set in the late 1800s. And so they have ballroom dances with musicians too. I think one of Sarah's students, I'm pretty sure, former students of a few years back, was in the show as a violinist.

That is so cool! On the theme of classical music, I was going to ask what classical piece of music is your favorite? I personally did a project on Bolero by Ravel. And that's one that I always go back to. There’s just something about Bolero- I don't know what it is, it just caught my ear for loving classical music. I was wondering if you had something that caught your ear and it was like, oh my god, I'm so excited about this?\

Well, early on, when I didn't know that much about music, I used to love Tchaikovsky’s piano works. But then, later on, I have to say, Bach, anything by Bach is my favorite. I've sung his major works — the B minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion, several times and lots of cantatas in the Bach Festival choir in Rochester, and I think if I had to choose one composer, it would be Bach. And a piece of music? It would be Mass in B minor.

I think those are really good.

Yes. And If we go any further, Wagner and all those operas. I've seen every single opera. I've even seen some early ones.

To close out our conversation: We have a lot of things going on in today's times that are really stressful and horrible and hard to deal with. So what role do you think music plays in our healing, in our finding solace in these terrible times?

A lot of people on Facebook and in news articles say that the arts are feeding the soul during these times. And we need music and art and museums to help alleviate some of the stress and we mustn’t lose sight of that.