Our Very Own Virtuoso
by Caroline Fairey Photography by Laurie McCall
On July 8th, professional musicians from around the country will converge at St. Andrew By-The-Sea for a night of instrumental celebration and fanfare.
However, this concert isn’t a ticketed event. All the performers flocking to Hilton Head have something in common—they are the friends, family and former students of Mrs. Dorothy Phyllis Mauney, who will celebrate her 90th birthday surrounded by music.
Mrs. Mauney has been teaching violin for more than 70 years. Before she moved to South Carolina, she lived in Ohio, New York and Alabama. Each place holds a special place in Mrs. Mauney’s heart—Alabama, her home state; New York City, where she studied at Juilliard; and Ohio, where she taught for 10 years at Oberlin Conservatory alongside her husband. She’s taught hundreds of aspiring, talented musicians from around the globe—and for the past 30 years, she’s been sharing her gifts on Hilton Head Island.
“I didn’t plan on coming back to the South,” Mrs. Mauney laughed. “But my husband fell in love with Hilton Head, and he brought me down here to visit, and once I saw it, I said, ‘Okay!’”
Mrs. Mauney has a wonderful, vibrant energy about her. When I met her, I was surprised at how young she looked. I would barely have guessed that she was 80, much less about to celebrate her 90th birthday. “It’s because I’m still teaching,” she told me. “I think the fact that I’m busy using my head, and I do crossword puzzles and Sudoku, it keeps my brain active.”
Right now, Mrs. Mauney teaches four young students and three adults, but over the years she’s taught hundreds of Lowcountry musicians. She helped create the Hilton Head Youth Orchestra (HHYO), which, at its height, had enough violins, trombones and bassoons to fill out the ranks of a full symphonic orchestra—quite a feat for the island. Near her retirement, the HHYO played the 4th symphony from Brahms, her favorite composer. “It was quite something for young people to accomplish,” Mrs. Mauney said with pride.
She was an accomplished young musician herself. Although her mother began practicing piano with her when she was 5 years old, Mrs. Mauney took up the violin when she was nine out of love for her grandmother. “She was my favorite person in the world. So I learned the violin to please her, and I just fell in love with it.”
Mrs. Mauney’s parents supported her pursuit of music—at times, a little too much. “I remember when I got into the University of Alabama, my father went up to the dean of the music school and said, ‘My daughter’s going to be an asset to your school!’ And to me, he’d say, ‘You’re going to solo with the Birmingham Symphony!’ It was so embarrassing. But then, I did solo with the Birmingham Symphony, so he turned out to be right.”
Most of Mrs. Mauney’s family practiced music in some way. Her late husband, Miles and his identical twin, Ernest, toured the East Coast as the Mauney Twins, moving their Steinway pianos with them from city to city. Her daughter, Phyllis, played the harp as a member of the U.S. Marine Band, and performed for 20 years and four presidents at the White House. Her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and nieces all work in music as well.
However, she doesn’t believe musical ability is genetic. Mrs. Mauney believes that practice, practice and more practice is the best way to succeed. (In the music world, this is known as the Suzuki Method—which one of her contemporaries at Oberlin developed.) She works patiently with students to perfect their form and technique before they jump ahead to classical solos.
“Even some of my students at Oberlin needed to go back to the basics,” she said.
Mrs. Mauney’s love of teaching music shines through her pupils. Kearston Gonzales, a 12-year-old violinist, will perform along with her sister at Mrs. Mauney’s 90th birthday celebration. “Mrs. Mauney is the best violin teacher I have ever had,” she said. “She challenges me to always improve and encourages me to always do my best. I am so fortunate to have her.”
After a lifetime of music education, motherhood and giving back to her community, Mrs. Mauney is looking forward to her night of celebration, joy, reflection, laughter and beautiful music, surrounded by friends and family.
Her advice for a happy life? “Don’t stretch yourself thin,” she says. “So many people divide their time between this, that and the other. You can’t do anything well if you overwork yourself. When I was younger, I loved to draw and paint and play piano, but I stuck with the violin, and everything turned out for the best.”
Feline Friends: Mrs. Mauney lives with her daughter, Phyllis, and seven sweet cats.
Out on the Town: Her favorite Bluffton restaurant is Truffles Café. Ten years ago, she celebrated her 80th birthday there!
Party Time: Mrs. Mauney’s son-in-law, David Kane, a pianist from Maryland, composed a brand new piece of music for her 90th birthday. He, her daughter Cynthia and her two grandchildren will perform the new music as a quartet at the celebration.
Tech Savvy: She doesn’t like to leave her students, so when she’s away from Bluffton, she holds lessons over Skype! She said, “It’s not quite as effective as real life, because sometimes the picture cuts out.” We’ve all been there, Mrs. Mauney.
Bait and Switch: Mrs. Mauney was married for 59 years to Miles, an identical twin. She rarely got them mixed up, but she did slip up on the biggest day of her life—her wedding day! “They were standing too close,” she said. “I couldn’t tell which one I was supposed to smile at.”