Get to Know...Mary Cohen

Get to Know...Mary Cohen

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mary cohen sitting before pianoAssistant Professor Mary Cohen is involved in two university-community partnership programs related to her teaching and research: the Voices of Experience, where she mentors a music education student who directs the mixed chorus of adults age 50 and older, and the Oakdale Community Choir, comprised of men incarcerated (inside singers) at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center and women and men from outside the prison (outside singers). Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

So what do you do here?

I administer the music education program, which involves answering inquiries about the program, recruiting students to the School of Music who are interested in teaching licensure, and admitting undergraduates and post-baccalaureate interested in teaching licensure, and master’s and Ph.D. students interested in music education. I also make decisions about graduate teaching assistantships, teaching assignments, what course work we will offer in future semesters, specific aspects of our graduate program requirements, and improvements for our program.

On top of these administrative duties, I teach undergraduate and graduate course work in the department, and serve on a variety of university committees including serving on the board for the Center for Human Rights and a new initiative with the arts and human rights.

I’m involved in two university-community partnership programs related to my teaching and research. One is the Voices of Experience, which involves me mentoring a music education student who directs the mixed chorus of adults age 50 and older that rehearses at the Iowa City Senior Center.

The second partnership began with the start of the Oakdale Community Choir comprised of men incarcerated (inside singers) at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) and women and men from outside the prison (outside singers). I began this choir in February 2009. One of the outside singers, rhetoric professor Mary Trachsel, started the IMCC Writers’ Workshop in August 2009. Since then, a number of other educational programs have begun at the prison, including a parenting class facilitated by Emeritus Professor Dennis Harper, a Songwriters’ Workshop that I facilitate along with student assistants, a Hubub Job Club started by the men at IMCC and assisted by Assistant Professor Rick Funderburg, and a book club co-led by some UI law students.

Take us through your most memorable day at the university.

Probably the most surprising day was the 24 hours starting Thursday, June 12, 2008, and through the next day. After lunch, I received a voice mail from music education professor Don Coffman, who explained that we were anticipating floodwaters to go over the first floor of the Voxman Music Building. My office was on the first floor, so I headed directly over to the building. I moved my things to a practice room on the second floor. Then I helped others move the orchestra scores up to the second floor and began helping move the choral scores up to the second floor. By 7 p.m., we were all exhausted and decided to come back the next day to finish.

When we arrived in the morning, I noticed water had already covered River Street. Hearing the warnings of “Do not step in floodwaters!” I carefully stepped through ankle-deep water on River Street to Voxman. The building had been closed and locked because water had already begun moving into the building. I went to Main Library and helped with “academic sandbagging,” which involved moving rare materials to higher floors by passing them up a human chain. People had come out of the woodwork to help in any way possible. It was amazing to me, after moving to Iowa in July 2007, to see people coming together to work hard to protect the buildings of the university.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken—and did it pay off?

When I was close to the end of my doctoral studies, I attended a national music education convention. A festive jazz band performed at the banquet, but all of the music educators were sitting still rather than dancing to the exciting rhythms of the live music. I encouraged a group of people to get up and start a conga line through the ballroom, bringing others with us as we danced through the round tables spread throughout the large convention hall space.

I found out after I accepted the job at Iowa that the head of the music education department was sitting at one of those round tables, and he noticed me leading the conga line. He also knew that I was near the end of my graduate program and that he would be hiring a new colleague soon. I learned that he was appreciative of my leadership initiatives and general attitude about having fun, rather than thinking “What is that crazy person doing?!”

If you could spend a day with anyone, from any era, who would it be and why?

My sister, Dr. Judy Shinogle. Judy died unexpectedly on the morning of May 20, 2012, from a head-on car collision. A young man fell asleep while he was driving on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, crossed the median, and hit Judy’s vehicle as she was blinded by the rising sun. Judy was driving with her two beloved German Shorthaired Pointers, Bruni and Siege (short for Brunhilde and Siegefried of the German folklore), to an agility trial. I would like to tell her how much I love her and let her know the many ways that she influenced my life positively.

If you could have a song written about you, who would perform it, and what would it be called?

I’m actually working on that song now. After I began the Oakdale Community Choir, a songwriting component began in the summer. All of the songs I have written for the choir up to now have been co-composed with an inside singer who writes lyrics that I set to music. I am now working on a song called “Find the Joy.” This song was inspired by my sister Judy and her friends. The week after Judy died, her friends at an agility trial had a celebration of Judy’s life. They served pie and ice cream, and wore tiaras in honor of the way Judy used to dress up her princess, Bruni, in tiaras. They also sold bright orange bracelets with the phrase “W.W. Judy D.?” which stands for What Would Judy Do? The answer to the question written on the other side of the bracelet is “Find the Joy.” I am planning for the Oakdale Community Choir to perform this song for spring concerts—April 30 for IMCC residents, May 16 for approved outside guests.

If you could get rid of one invention in the world, what would you choose? Why?

Weapons, so humans will stop hurting one another in violent ways.

Name five of your favorite things.

  • InterPlay
  • Yoga practice, including meditation
  • Creating stories/rhymes/jokes/songs with my husband, Matt
  • Dancing
  • Bhakti Chai from Bread Garden


Steve Parrott, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0037


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