Unsung Heroes IV: Marianne Feenstra
by Sheldon Rocha Leal
On the 12th of November 2020 whilst at work I received a message from one of my all time favorite people, friend, mentor, teacher, colleague and confident, Marianne Feenstra. I excitedly unlocked my phone and proceeded to open my WhatsApp to absorb whatever pearls Marianne was sending my way on that Thursday morning. I soon came to realize, that although the message had come from Marianne’s phone, it had been sent by her daughter and the content of the message sent me spiraling out of control for the remainder of the day. The worst news ever: Marianne was no longer:( She had departed the night before, completely unexpectedly. How was this possible, I had just had contract with her, she was on the precipice of a whole new journey and I was expecting to bask in her brilliance for many more years. I was confused, hurt, astounded and shocked. With one mere message everything had changed. I have found that in my life I have always needed cheerleaders to help me through major obstacles and I had just lost one of my cheerleaders, mentors and confidents. A woman who was everything I aspired to be when I grew up: confident, assured, assertive, funny, intelligent, progressive and pensive.
But what is the story of this amazing force within music and specifically music education, who changed the lives of so many people?
Marianne was born in Port Elizabeth on the 20th of August 1951 and matriculated from the prestigious Collegiate Girls’ High School, established in 1874. After leaving high school she proceeded to the university of Stellenbosch where she completed a BMus, Education degree and later completed an MMus at the University of the Witwatersrand aka WITS. Post tertiary education she had an illustrious career working at some of the most prestigious higher education institutions in South Africa, with notable South African music academics. She worked at UNISA, the University of Pretoria, the University of Cape Town and the Tshwane University of Technology, albeit at the latter for a short period. She even worked at the prestigious National School of the Arts and St Mary’s DSG.
She was also an accomplished and published author who helped many people with her music theory, form analysis and history books and an entrepreneur, delving into many business ventures. As an educator, she was focused on helping others and in 1994 she formed the National Union of Music Educators. It was established to represent music educator rights when government started closing down music programmes at public schools post-1994, putting many full-time employed music educators/musicians out of work.
I met Marianne in 2004, when I was invited, with my dear friend Christine Ludwig, to be a part of a music SGB (Standards Generating Body) contracted by SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority) to draft a new national music curriculum. Marianne was the chair of the SGB and we were merely the underlings. I had recently been employed at the National School of the Arts as the Head of Popular Music and did not realize, at the time, that Marianne had freshly vacated the other head of music (Classical) post at the same school. I was completely and utterly intimidated by the larger than life figure that was Marianne. She cut to the chase, didn’t suffer fools and said it like it was. I did not want to be the guy that was told off by Marianne Feenstra. Grown men were made to feel like children in her presence for proposing ill conceived propositions. Additionally, everyone else on the panel were either Doctors or Professors and I was just the new kid on the block with a law degree, which added to the intimidation factor. Whilst sitting on the panel, drafting the curriculum, which took years, we were always told about the HE sub-committee, these were the big dogs, of which Marianne was also the chair.
Remembering my last day on the committee: I thanked everyone for being so gracious and welcoming me into their esteemed presence when Marianne said “you’re not going anywhere”. I was blown away…what did she mean? She wanted me to join the HE sub-committee. After many years of rejection and being made to feel like I was not good enough, here was someone who elevated me and saw the value in my contributions. She did that for me. I did not think I was up to it, but she was confident I had something to contribute and so I did and we designed a generic BMus qualification that would open up music education to greater numbers of students. The committee was consisted of many illustrious figures in music education, military, industry and academia and Marianne had a hold on them, just as she did on the figures in the FET and GET sub-committees. We got along really well in those gatherings, but I was always too scared to get too close to her as she was so larger than life. Eventually in about 2009 we went out separate ways and it would be about 3 years before our paths would cross once more.
In 2012 I was in my second year of BMus Hons at the University of Pretoria and I was completing my long essay or capstone project, which is entitled “Music As A Popular Subject Option”. For the study I had assimilated 4 sample groups: one of music academics, one of music teachers, one of music students and one of music parents. I was struggling to find individuals for all these sample groups and someone suggested I interview Marianne Feenstra. There was that name again…I very nervously phoned her, expecting to be rejected, but on the contrary she was more than eager to be interviewed for me study and help me out. The one hour interview turned into a 3 hour interview and in that time she gave me so much advice and mentorship, from how to complete my study, to what I should study next and what topic to pursue in my PhD. I was in awe of this amazing woman, who had achieved so much, we even broke bread together that day, which in Portuguese culture is a major thing.
I completed that study and eventually passed the degree and was accepted into a Master of Music programme in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. In a research Masters qualification, such as the one I completed, the university will usually allocate a supervisor to each candidate, who will mentor the student through the creation and completion of their dissertation. I had very specific ideas about the Masters degree, mainly inspired by advice given to me by Marianne, who had initially recommended I pursue an MBA qualification. I opted for the MMus degree as I was not able to afford the expensive MBA tuition fees and because I had been granted a scholarship by the University of Pretoria to complete the MMus. I also had very specific ideas about how I wanted to position my study, which would, therefore, make an MBA redundant. Initially I had some hiccups with my appointed supervisor, with whom I did not see eye-to-eye, but the universe works in mysterious ways and I was eventually allocated Marianne, which was the ultimate blessing. I was initially perturbed by the sudden change and its perceived impact on my study, but comforted by the fact that my new supervisor was a kindred spirit, someone who thought like I did and had that same work ethic. We went from being colleagues, to a teacher-student/mentor relationship, one I gladly embraced, as I respected her implicitly.
For two years we worked on my dissertation and got everything approved on its first submission, which from what I’ve heard, is unusual. She was resolute in her supervision task and had various confrontations with the establishment in order to get my study passed. A true sign of a warrior and what I loved about Marianne. I have dealt with many academics over the years and when I say she was the Gold Standard of supervisors, I really mean it. She had her finger on the pulse of my study from various vantage points, always made the best decisions and gave the best advice, which always resulted in positive outcomes. She was confident, self-assured and unwavering. After the completion of my dissertation, she told me that she would be retiring and I pride myself on being one of her last official students. When I got the letter to say I would be graduating she told me, that although she’d had a bout of ill health, that she would be attending my graduation, and she was true to her word. On the day of my graduation there she was in a wheelchair. Incidentally on the same day, the person graduating next to me was one of my former students, Dylan Gibson, who had subsequently become one of Marianne’s students…how the wheel turns. He graduated with a BMus on the day I graduated with an MMus. Seeing Marianne’s name on the front page of my dissertation is something I’m still proud of to this day. To have such an accomplished academic as my supervisor was a real Honour for me.
We remained friends post my Masters studies. We spent hours on the phone talking about the state of music education in South Africa or talking over a tea regarding various topics such as politics and other world matters. I called her on many occasions for mentorship and advice, which she was brilliant at dispensing. No matter how depressed I was, just hearing her voice and her belief that everything would be alright in the end, turned my mood around. Throughout my PhD study I consulted her extensively, considering the topic of that study was also informed by early discussions I had with her. She even helped me put together my first paper presentation in 2019 for a Nelson Mandela University colloquium I took part in, which was hosted by yet another one of her former students Dr Glen Holtzman.
At the beginning of 2019 I got a call from Marianne who announced that she had gotten engaged to the love of her life, Chris, and that she wanted me to sing “Top of the World” by the Carpenters at their wedding. I was honoured and surprised she asked me to sing one of her favorite songs at the wedding, when she could have asked a plethora of former students or musicians with whom she had contact, who would have gladly complied. I agreed and my colleague, Carli Spies, and I worked on a special arrangement of the song. On the day of the wedding I was petrified that I would make a mess of the song, especially considering that I knew there would be a room full of music academics and professionals in attendance. But as always Marianne wanted to bring me into the fold, just as she did years back when she asked me to be part of the HE SGB. The performance was a success and she loved it so much she mentioned it on various occasions.
In the year between her wedding and passing I discovered that she was helping out Dylan Gibson with the completion of his Masters Dissertation, after he had been let down by his supervisors: she couldn’t help herself. Furthermore, she took up the cause of disenfranchised music teachers, who were being precluded from getting their practice numbers. She teamed up with one of my mentors, Prof. Caroline Van Niekerk and a private Higher Education provider to create and roll out a Post Graduate Certificate in Education, specifically focused on arts educators. The aim of the qualification was to empower creative teachers with a qualification that would entitle them to permanent practice numbers. She was really excited about this project and we spent many hours speaking about the status quo and how it could be altered through the introduction of the qualification. Besides for music education she was involved in many other ventures. She was the embodiment of an entrepreneur: she ran a guest house, a catering and a clothing company. Marianne was always busy doing something and was a also very keen gardener.
Just over a year after her wedding I was contacted once more, but this time to sing at my mentor’s funeral. I really didn’t want to do it, but how does one say no to a grieving family and I felt that I really owed it to this amazing music warrior, who had invested so much in me. My performance would take place during the blessing of the coffin. I was very intimidated by the performance: I didn’t want burst out crying or go off pitch and make a fool of myself in a room filled with South African music luminaries. My friend Tronel Hellberg, and yet another one of Marianne’s many former students was by my side and fed me relaxants through the service. By the time I sang I was nicely marinated. I decided that I would sing acapella, in old church tradition and the song I selected was “Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace”, the Prayer of Saint Francis, an iconic Catholic hymn and one of my favorites. It was also the hymn adopted by Mother Teresa for her order and Anglican Archbishop, and Nobel Laureate, Desmond Tutu has stated that it is an integral part of his devotions. I felt that it was the perfect gift from me to Marianne, as a Catholic to an Anglican. As I sang the song, in that beautiful Anglican church, Christ Church Arcadia, I felt that my journey with Marianne had truly come full circle. Additionally, I felt privileged to be able to say goodbye to her in the way I feel most comfortable, with my singing voice, with no additions or enhancements, just my naked voice.
I truly believe that the universe works in mysterious ways and that Angels are sent to assist people on their life journeys, sometimes to set one straight or to validate one’s journey. Looking at the path Marianne and I travelled I truly believe she was one of my angels, who was there when I most needed someone, and now she is no longer there. What I have disoovered, however, is that she was an angel for many people, not just me. Although she was a divisive character at times, she was a fighter for justice and equality and even though she was my angel, there are many hundreds of people who can recite similar stories as the one I have in this article. She helped so many people and changed many people’s lives, having lived a life fully actualised. We all should aspire to live a life so fully fulfilled and she most certainly did. Thank you for the music Marianne, RIP and please give them some order in the holy choirs. Peace, Love and Happiness…