Passion for Teaching Inspires Giving

A lifetime of music leads MSU alumna to create scholarship gift for students in string area.

Marcia Mitchell at the beginning of her music teaching career in the Grand Rapids public school district.


Marcia Mitchell was never far from her cello. At 76, the alumna of the MSU College of Music remained an active musician, on stage and performing with the Rockford Michigan Community Orchestra just a month before she passed away.

Her best friend and sister-in-law, Deanna Mitchell, remembers that performance in December 2015, remarking that Marcia hadn’t told anyone she was ill. Instead, Marcia had performed as she always did, becoming one with the instrument that had shaped the arc of her life.

“She was an outstanding musician and a perfectionist,” says Deanna. “The tone of her cello was beautiful. She was very accomplished. Very musical. She loved to challenge herself. Her favorite was the Dvorak Cello Concerto—considered one of the most difficult pieces for cello.”

Marcia’s love for music, Deanna remarks, resonates through her nearly 40-year commitment to teaching instrumental music in public schools to elementary and middle school students. Her passion, too, lives in perpetuity through a gift she arranged right before her death to her alma mater she adored.

Beginning Fall 2017, the Marcia R. Mitchell Endowed Scholarship in Strings will award one or more scholarships each year to a student or students in the string area who plays a leadership role in the MSU Symphony Orchestra.

“She herself had attended MSU on a scholarship, and because of that, she wanted to make sure others would have opportunities like she did,” says Deanna. “She was a very giving person. Music was so important to her, and I know for sure that her education and experience at MSU was a dominating feature in her life.”

School portrait of Marcia Mitchell towards the end of her teaching career.

A life of passion

Dwain Mitchell, Marcia’s brother and Deanna’s husband, confirms that music was central to Marcia’s life, as well as to his. Their parents—both musicians and educators—ensured that the two siblings pursued music. Marcia played the piano and cello, and Dwain the flute. Both attended Ottawa Hills High School in Grand Rapids where their father taught music. Both, too, became students in the MSU College of Music in the mid-1950s, following in the footsteps of their father who had earned his master’s of music from MSU a generation before.

“I certainly wasn’t as famous and accomplished as Marcia,” laughs Dwain. “I marched in the band and got two trips to the Rose Bowl. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s in music education and played in the MSU and Lansing symphonies. She even took classes in Russian.”

Deanna also attended MSU, remaining friends with Marcia whom she had met as a teen in MSU’s youth orchestra in central Michigan. Then one day, on her way to a rehearsal, she met Dwain by chance in the MSU Music Building, not through any formal introduction by Marcia.

“I was reading the bulletin board before an orchestra rehearsal and he came up and asked if he could carry my cello,” she muses. “I said, ‘sure,’ and offered in return to carry his flute. I didn’t know he was Marcia’s brother until later.”

James Forger, dean of the College of Music, remarks that the life experiences and stories of alumni like Deanna, Dwain and Marcia show the transformative power that music can have on individuals and communities.

“Spartan alumni and donors recognize the value that music and music education can impart, and the joy it brings to those around us,” says Forger. “Marcia’s generous gift through her estate of $230,000 will provide more than $11,000 annually in scholarship support in perpetuity for deserving, talented and hardworking students whose primary instrument is cello, violin, viola or bass. Her generosity helps us to support a new generation of musicians as they work to achieve their dreams and enrich the world through their talents harnessing the power of music.”

A life of inspiration

As the three graduated MSU, all went on to pursue lifelong careers in music education. Marcia landed immediately in Grand Rapids Public Schools where she primarily taught elementary-aged students for 38 years. Beyond the classroom, she played the cello in local orchestras, including the Grand Rapids Symphony, Kent Philharmonic, and more. In between, she raised and showed horses, and upon her retirement from teaching, turned to raising and showing dogs.

Deanna and Dwain say that while Marcia led a life marked by many passions, music was first and foremost. That love, they say, lives on through her gift to support student scholarships in the String Area in the MSU College of Music.

“Music was just part of her and who she was,” says Deanna. “She always came back to it and was the happiest when playing, performing, teaching or listening. It was the one thing that carried her through life.”

For information on how you can support the College of Music, or to learn how to establish a named endowment, please contact Rebecca Surian, senior director of development for the College of Music, at surian@msu.edu or by calling 517-353-9872.

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