When she was a child, Betty Jane Phillips’ live-in piano teacher would dictate Mozart and Bach to her while she played blindfolded. It was an exercise that helped to develop her perfect pitch and reflected her absolute passion for music – if she ever lost her eyesight, she would still be able to find the right notes from memory alone.
“She could transpose anything … she loved music and was insatiably hungry for it,” said Dr. Karen Soderberg, her daughter, and FSU’s director of Vocal and Choral Activities, who worked side by side with her mother for 10 years at FSU. “She had a phenomenal talent.”
Born in Valley, Wash., Phillips’ comprehensive training as a child prodigy led her to study with the world-renowned concert pianist and music educator Robert Pace at Columbia University. Pace’s teaching methods that focused on sight reading and nurturing students’ abilities to do creative improvisation were central to her own approach as a performer, educator and accompanist, something she fine-tuned while teaching piano in Astoria and Portland, Ore., and through her eventual position as an accompanist at FSU.
“For undergraduate music students, playing alone can be a very daunting and frightening experience, especially for freshmen,” said Dr. Mark Gallagher, assistant professor of music at FSU. “Betty Jane always took a very positive, calming and supportive approach when playing for students, working to build not only their performing skills but their confidence as well.”
It was this positive energy and support that caused countless students to form close friendships with Phillips that went beyond her work with their performances. It wasn’t unusual to find clusters of them spending time with her in the Department of Music office, where she often went to relax between rehearsals, or for them to seek out her advice on everything from life choices to relationships to problems at home. They even formed a Facebook Group in her honor called “Miss Betty Jane Rocks Our Socks.”
“Her loving, caring attitude I think made each of her students truly trust and really understand what she was saying to them,” said Britany Poindexter, an FSU junior majoring in music education and member of the FSU Chamber Choir who loved her dearly. “I think she saw the potential in each and every one of us, even when we as her students doubted our abilities. She would do anything for any of us if it meant helping us achieve our full potential in our field of choice.”
Phillips’ loving connection to others also extended to FSU faculty and staff and the local community, where she accompanied the Cumberland Choral Society and the Emmanuel Episcopal Church choir and was a member of the Cumberland Music and Arts Society.
“Betty Jane and I performed numerous times on campus and in the community, so we got to know each other very well as musicians,” Gallagher said. “But our relationship went much deeper than that. We spent many hours talking about her life in Oregon, her travels, my travels, politics, teaching, dealing with students. … She was like a second mother to me, always willing to give advice and support me since I’ve been a professor at Frostburg. We always had a lot of fun teasing each other and laughing when we were together – that will always be a special memory for me.”
Soderberg was also lucky enough to enjoy an extraordinary connection to her mother that went beyond family to include a shared love of music and teaching. “When you work with your mother, you have to develop a friendship, a collaboration. … I adored her,” she said. “If I didn’t treat the students well, she let me know. I respected her honesty. If there was a need for tough love, she was there to give it.”
When it came time for Soderberg to decide how to help music students through philanthropy, naturally she thought of establishing a scholarship in her mother’s honor. “I didn’t want the scholarship in my name. I thought, ‘The person who deserves it is Mom.’”
She introduced the possibility of the scholarship one day over lunch to Phillips, who loved the idea. In October 2009, Soderberg established the Betty Jane Phillips Scholarship, which supports students majoring in music with a concentration in vocal performance and/or music education.
The scholarship took on another dimension months later in February when, at 87, Phillips passed away, a loss that shook the entire community and caused many a student and faculty member to dedicate performances.
“It’s now in her memory instead of honoring her,” Soderberg said. “I’m so glad I did it and that she knew about it and was part of the process. … She loved the idea of supporting talented, young musicians.”
The FSU Foundation has embarked on a $15 million comprehensive campaign, Staking Our Claim: The Campaign for Frostburg, to raise badly needed funding for higher education in Western Maryland. Donations to the Foundation support student scholarships and programs, academic programs, faculty development and other critical University needs. For more information about supporting FSU, visit www.frostburg.edu/admin/foundation or call 301-687-4161.
Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 13 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity.