Montana State University

Understanding the power of music to transform lives is subject of Nov. 4 Provost's Lecture

October 22, 2013 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the MSU Honors College as well as a first-rate concert soloist, composer, award-winning professor and mentor to some of MSU's most accomplished students, will speak about "My Life in Music: A lifelong quest to understanding the value and transformative power of music in our lives, through performance, composition and teaching,” at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. The lecture is the third in the Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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If music is the sound track of our lives, the composition that accompanies the journey of Ilse-Mari Lee must be a symphony -- rich with varied rhythms, intertwining themes and intellectual substance.

Lee is Montana State University's newest dean. Last month, the Montana Board of Regents approved her promotion from director to dean as they elevated the MSU Honors Program to college status, making it the MSU Honors College.

But becoming a dean is only one of her accomplishments. Lee is a first-rate soloist, recitalist and chamber musician as well as an internationally recognized composer. Additionally, she is a scholar, an award-winning professor, a mentor to some of MSU's most accomplished students and a devoted mother. Her numerous awards include the Montana Arts Council Individual Fellowship, MSU’s Wiley Award for Meritorious Research, and MSU’s President’s Excellence in Teaching Award

Lee has accomplished all of this with a great deal of grace. Perhaps the secret to her doing so can be summed up in one word:  music.

In fact, in the past 24 years that she has been affiliated with MSU, Lee said she has noticed that music is often a common denominator among some of MSU's best students.

"I have noticed how many of our best students who applied to our (honors) program were also musicians," Lee said. "We know that participation in music can positively impact students’ test scores and academic performance. And, that is just the beginning."

Lee will explain more about her theories in “My Life in Music: A lifelong quest to understanding the value and transformative power of music in our lives, through performance, composition and teaching,” the next lecture in MSU's Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series set for 7-8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. A reception will follow.

The Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series, which is free and open to the public, recognizes faculty distinguished at MSU for their scholarship and creativity. It is part of MSU's Year of Engaged Leadership. Lee is the third in the series of faculty members reflecting on the inspiration for their work in lectures suited for professionals and lay people alike.

Lee's own life in music began near the beginning of her life in South Africa. The daughter of a piano teacher, Lee can't remember a time when she wasn't surrounded by wonderful music. She was five when she first began lessons with her mother. Lee said she not only learned a lot from the piano lessons, she also absorbed a great deal by listening to all the music that was played in the house.

"My mother was a gifted pianist, and at night as I fell asleep I would hear Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven and Bach," she said.

Soon, Lee's family had its own chamber trio. Lee migrated to playing the cello, her sister the violin, joining their mother on the piano. Then her brother came along, who became a bass guitarist and is now an active jazz musician in South Africa.

The family home was also rich with books and reading, activities that continue to define Lee today.

"My mother was a progressive soul," Lee said. "When I was growing up, many books were banned in South Africa. However, my mother hid those books behind the whiskey in the closet. As a special gift, my mother gave me a copy of 'Cry Beloved Country' signed by Alan Paton," she said of the classic book about the struggle of black Africans in South Africa.

And while Montana is truly Lee's home now, her South African roots remain deep. Much of Lee's worldview is still strongly influenced by her South African upbringing.

"When I was 14, riots erupted in Soweto when police officers opened fire on school children," Lee remembered. A trip to Israel when Lee was a teenager was eye-opening. "I saw how the rest of the world viewed what was happening in South Africa," she recalled. "It was the beginning of an awakening."

Lee said that playing the cello has opened doors for her throughout her life. She earned a bachelor's degree in music from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and won the prestigious Jim Joel Scholarship in 1983, following an intense three-day competition. Lee said that winning the prize, which funded three years of studying music in the U.S., was a turning point for her "because it was a testament to the mentors who believed in me. My life changed in an instant.”

Lee received two master's degrees from Northern Illinois University: one in cello performance and the other in music theory and composition. She received a doctorate in cello performance and pedagogy from the University of Arizona. She came to MSU in 1989 as a cello professor. Nearly from her beginning at MSU, she also has taught honors students and has served on the selection committee for MSU Presidential Scholars at the request of Victoria O'Donnell, who was the director of the MSU Honors Program at that time. About 12 years ago she was asked to teach a popular honors course on music in society that she still teaches. 

Lee continues to make time for performance. She performs each summer at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole Wyoming. She founded the MSU Cello Ensemble in 1998. While she was its director, the group toured Europe and China. A poster from the group's performance on the Great Wall of China still adorns her office in the Honors Quads.

Lee moved from Howard Hall to the Honors Quad full time seven years ago when she was named assistant director of the honors program.

"My philosophy has always been, what can I do with my time to have maximum impact?" she said of the shift to the honors program. "I discovered that preparing a student for a major award is very similar topreparing a student for a concert or a competition. It is all about preparation."

Lee has done an excellent job preparing her students for major awards. In the last year, University Honors students have won Rhodes, Marshall and Udall scholarships as well as a Fulbright Fellowship and four Goldwater Scholarships. In fact, MSU is among the top 10 institutions in the country in the number of Goldwater Scholarships its students have received.  

"It is a great honor for me to write recommendations on behalf of our students for awards as well as for and medical and graduate school applications," Lee said. "I know how meaningful it is to have a mentor that cares for their students. I know what it is like to have a door opened. It can change your future."

"We are providing highly motivated students with access to an education that is equal to that of elite institutions in the nation," Lee said. "The opportunity for our students to engage in research as undergraduates while interacting with world class faculty members in seminar and small classroom settings is very special indeed.

"I feel very honored to be here. …. I feel as if I have found my niche.""


Ilse-Mari Lee (406) 994-4689,

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