The percussion world lost a pioneer of the marimba, as well as a leading ethnomusicologist, when Vida Chenoweth died in her hometown of Enid, Oklahoma on Dec. 14, 2018 at the age of 89. She was one of the first successful solo percussionists, having premiered Robert Kurka’s “Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra” (opus 34) at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the Orchestra of America on Nov. 11, 1959.
Her passing was announced by her niece, LeeAnne Chenoweth Lawson, a violinist, formerly with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and founder of the Timeless Concert series. “My sweet Aunt Vida passed away peacefully after suffering from declining health and dementia. During the last few years, as her memory declined, I continued to have joyful visits with her, whether or not she realized who I was. She was always cheerful to the end and found joy in simple things in life.”
Chenoweth was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame in 1994. “The news of my being nominated took me by surprise,” she told PAS Historian James A. Strain for a Percussive Notes article. “It triggered memories of the many years when all my efforts were toward gaining a classical status for the marimba.”
Born in Oklahoma, Chenoweth was raised in a musical family who owned a music store in Enid. She attended William Woods College, then a liberal arts junior college for women, in nearby Fulton, Missouri (1947–49) before moving on to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she had the opportunity to study with marimba legend Clair Omar Musser. Vida graduated from Northwestern in 1949 with degrees in marimba performance and music criticism.
She was a graduate student at the Alliance Française in Paris in 1950 before returning to Chicago and the American Conservatory of Music, where she earned another double degree, in music theory and percussion, in 1953. Chenoweth made her solo debut at the Chicago Art Institute’s Fullerton Hall in 1956, performing a public recital of pieces composed for the marimba.
On Nov. 18, 1956, Chenoweth presented a concert at Town Hall in New York City. The New York Times heralded her technical mastery, and Musical America magazine wrote, “Miss Chenoweth is to the marimba what Segovia is to the guitar and Casals is to the cello.”
Following more concerts on the East Coast, Chenoweth was soon invited to perform in venues around the world, eventually playing marimba on six continents and becoming an impetus for creating new music for marimba. In 1957, Jorge Sarmientos, Guatemala’s foremost composer, dedicated his “Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra” to her. In 1962, she made the first recording of marimba music for Epic Records, which included music of J.S. Bach, Musser, and the “Suite for Marimba” by Alfred Fissinger.
“My earliest memory of Vida Chenoweth was through a vinyl LP record that she made in the 1960s,” recalled Dr. Kathleen Kastner, Professor of Percussion at Wheaton College. “I was a teenager, and it was my first time to hear a ‘famous’ marimba player. A little more than a decade later, I met Vida in person at Wheaton when she began teaching ethnomusicology classes.”
At the peak of her concert career, Chenoweth received serious burns during a kitchen accident in her New York City apartment. While her right hand healed, she became involved with the Summer Institute of Linguistics and wanted to help translate the Bible into the tongues of indigenous people across the South Pacific.
While recording the complex tonal language of the Usarufa people in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea and using linguistic techniques, she devised a method of understanding the musical structure of their indigenous songs. Chenoweth continued to study this new field, earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Auckland in New Zealand in 1974.
While living in New Zealand in the early 1970s, Vida never lost her love of music and the marimba. One of her most famous students was Leigh Howard Stevens. “I will be forever grateful to one of my most significant teachers, Vida Chenoweth, for patiently imparting to me the key concepts and musical habits that made her a historic performer on the marimba,” Stevens said.
“To say ‘I studied with Vida Chenoweth’ doesn’t do justice to the story, or to her,” Stevens continued. “That common phrase doesn’t convey her almost limitless expenditure of time and effort, trying to shape me into something I wasn’t at the time: focused and disciplined. I virtually lived in her flat in Auckland—three days a week, six hours a day, for almost four months in the summer of 1972. I practiced like a madman, with Vida often looking over my shoulder, offering measure-by-measure directives, forcing my mallets down closer to the bars with a mallet she held. That was really the only technical ‘tip’ she ever offered: ‘The closer you stay to the bars, the easier it is to hit the correct ones.’
“The rest was about musicianship, memorization, and most of all, practice. When she was in another room and I thought she wasn’t listening, it wasn’t long before she would yell through the closed door, ‘Slower! Back to the beginning, and this time with NO WRONG NOTES!’
“The next summer, Vida was back in the United States and teaching in Chicago, so I moved into my brother’s house in Barrington, Illinois for a few months so I could commute to Chicago several days a week to continue my lessons with her in a more traditional format. Looking back,” Stevens added, “it amazes me that so few musicians availed themselves of this monumental resource for more than a smattering of coaching sessions. To this day, when I lose focus and begin to just play instead of practice, I feel her disapproving scrutiny. And I continue to pass her ideas on to my own students, giving Vida full credit.”
When Chenoweth returned to Chicago, she taught ethnomusicology to graduate students at Wheaton College and also started an undergraduate world music class, long before such classes became part of the standard music curriculum. Although she focused on her new career, she continued to perform some marimba concerts and teach a few students. Her last public performance was at Lincoln Center in New York in 1980.
“Vida was teaching at Wheaton College half the year,” Lawson explained, “and at the University of New Zealand the other half. We used to joke how she had fall and winter all year long! I am comforted to know that her work is recorded in the Library of Congress.”
In addition to translating David Vela’s Information on the Marimba, Chenoweth authored The Marimbas of Guatemala, a definitive reference book about the instrument she loved.
This past October, Kutztown (Pennsylvania) University’s Center for Mallet Percussion Research dedicated its “Celebrate Marimba” festival to Vida Chenoweth. In addition to a presentation about her life and music, guest artist Andrea Venet, Associate Professor of Percussion at the University of North Florida, performed the Sarmientos Marimba Concerto with the KU Orchestra.
“Vida was a courageous pioneer with a determination to bring music to people: initially as a classically trained marimbist and later as an ethnomusicologist who recorded, transcribed, and analyzed ethnic music as a means of preserving indigenous music and culture,” stated Kastner. “A devoted teacher, friend, and musician, she was inspired and motivated by a deep love of God, and a commitment to love and serve others, many of whom have been greatly impacted by the legacy of Vida Chenoweth’s life’s work.”
“She was a strong little lady,” Lawson recalled with a smile. “Five-foot-two, size five shoe—and so intelligent and strong. Even though she was my aunt, we were more like mother/daughter. She lived a fabulous life, which took her all over the world.”
"Vida Chenoweth was the mother of American marimba playing,” summarized Gordon Stout, Professor of Percussion at Ithaca College. “There is no question that the culture of marimba playing in this country was primarily influenced by her teaching, recordings, and performances. Those of us who were lucky enough to personally gain from her tutelage will always remember the dedication that she brought to everything about the marimba. Her life was multi-faceted, varied, and rich, and we will always remember Vida.”
—Lauren Vogel Weiss
Author’s note: One of my favorite memories of Vida was when she would attend rehearsals of the Fort Worth Symphony when she was visiting her niece, LeeAnne. If I wasn’t playing on a piece, I would sit in the hall with her, talking about percussion, PAS, and music.