Charlotte Mabrey is remaining in the groove, even though the tempo might be changing. As a percussionist and educator, Mabrey has been a prominent and inspiring local presence since 1978, when she moved here to perform with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Three years after landing that gig, she began teaching at the University of North Florida. In 1984, Mabrey presented the recital on campus. Since that inaugural performance, these annual concerts have offered a unique blend of engaging compositions, dance, performance art, and spoken word, with a consistently invitational vibe. In every program, Mabrey has selected the material, as well as guided her UNF percussion students and guest performers through pieces that run the gamut from the comedic to contemplative. Over the years, the recitals have become much-anticipated events, at times leading to standing-room-only turnouts. On Aug. 22, Mabrey presents her 26th and final concert at UNF, now updated to Along with Mabrey, this year’s lineup includes her longtime collaborator Robert Arleigh White, as well as Greg Hersey, Peter Wright, Heather Cotney, and Justin Staub.
This year sees not only her last on-campus recital, it’s also Mabrey’s last as a UNF music professor. She’ll still work part time in a per-service position for the symphony, but her retirement is undoubtedly a loss to local music academia. During her time and tenure at the school, Mabrey has guided generations of students through the ins-and-outs of playing percussion while offering reassurance and direction toward navigating the path of becoming professional players. Outside the classroom and symphony hall, Mabrey has been a mercurial presence on the local music scene, jumping through genres, working on usually eclectic projects, and collaborating with an untold number of local players (this writer included).
Folio Weekly recently spoke with Mabrey about leaving campus, breaking barriers, and her upcoming retirement plans.
FW: So you’re transitioning into retirement. That’s a major life change. How’ve you been feeling about all of this?
Charlotte Mabrey: Well, I’m kind of terrorized, if you really want to know. I’ve spent my whole adult life working, for 30 years. I have two jobs: the symphony and also UNF. So my whole life has been about planning, working … so part of me is freaked out because I don’t have any hobbies. [Laughs.] When I used to fill out job applications and they’d ask me for a hobby, I’d look on the other person’s paper, because it was, like, “I don’t know what this means!” And if they put “biking,” I’d write down “biking,” if they put “reading,” I’d put “reading.” Knowing how I’m going to continue my life is something of a mystery, but at the same time, I’m getting a sense of “it’s time.” It’s time for UNF to get some new blood and time for me to start letting go of some of these responsibilities. As my students have gotten better and the program’s gotten better, there’s more of a surge to get them into graduate schools. And I don’t mean to make this sound ego-driven, but it’s alarming to think that you sort of have their lives in your hands and it’s very sobering. I think I suffer more than the students because I want them so badly to succeed.
You’ve been a real figurehead for not only strengthening the local left-of-field music community but for introducing audiences to more obscure and experimental music. Modesty aside, do you have any thoughts about this quarter-century-plus of what you’ve been doing here?
You know, I think part of my curse and also a gift is that I’m very single-minded. I came from a school, the University of Illinois, that was steeped in percussion ensemble tradition. And I’m a middle child, so I like everyone to get along [laughs], I like to problem-solve. So the idea of doing solo concerts never really appealed to me. One, I think it can get extremely ear-fatiguing: You hear three marimba solos in a row; you can’t remember the first one. And two, there’s the joy of working with other people. So when I got the job at UNF, my boss at the time said, “You should think about putting on some concerts.” And I was, like, “OK!” [Laughs.]
Little did they know.
Right? [Laughs.] You know, do I love tradition; I love knowing that things are going to be in place and I’m going to kind of step into that. All of my concerts, while they sort have changed and grown a little, they all have the same basic structure. Now it’s a lot more involved because there’s lighting and video involved. But it’s always been about having a first piece that kind of brings everybody in, then I do a marimba solo … so it follows this pattern. Yet I always try to do pieces no one knows because people don’t really go into the record stores or libraries and say, “Oh! I want to see what this percussion record has on it!” I really want people at the concerts to be really relaxed. I’ve never been on the cutting edge of playing atonal or just linear music; I’ve always wanted to play music that people will dig. People getting in their cars, going to a concert; I know all about that. I want them to feel like making the effort to show up was worth it.
The concerts seem to have both these poignant and humorous pieces. I remember seeing one of your concerts maybe 15 years ago; one piece in particular had the players juggling drumsticks back and forth and it seemed as indebted to the Marx Brothers as it did Modern Music. Did you add this humorous element, if not to disarm the audience, at least to kind of open them up, and say, “Hey, this kind of music is all right”?
Exactly. You know, my father was a big figure in my life and I learned early on that the way to get his attention was to be clever. And I think that casts a shadow over how I interact with the crowd. I love laughing. I love everyday things becoming sort of humorous. When people laugh together, it puts everyone at They don’t feel as if “I’m not going to understand this music. I’m going to feel like an outsider.” Once people start laughing, there’s just this group together and we’re going have an hour-and-a-half-long experience together; then they go with it. To me, it always feels very intimate, whether there’s 800 people there, a 1,000, or 200. When you get people engaged and it’s amazing what happens. So many of their barriers drop and they’re not afraid anymore. I’m a person who is by fear. You know? In the orchestra, you have to play it perfectly. So there’s always a fear factor when I get up on the stage. If we can remove that, then true emotion can come out. As long as we’re fearful, we’re stuck. So I use humor. When I get up onstage, I don’t know what happens to me; I actually “become funny.” But in real life, I’m just this Joe Shmoe. I’ve actually had people come up to me and say, “You know, you’re a lot funnier on stage.” [Laughs.]
Now that you’re transitioning into retirement, what are you transitioning to?
That’s the million-dollar question! I want to help with HabiJax, I might be helping at Brooks Rehab Hospital. They have an extensive program for folks in wheelchairs, brain trauma … there’s lots of research concerning the use of music and art to enrich lives. Because of my partner Melissa, I’ve attended a few events like surfing, waterskiing, and bowling. I hope I can manage a road trip to visit old friends, but I suffer from anxiety attacks, so I have to work up to that. I think I’ll sleep for a week, read, and buy my own five-octave marimba; although everyone says I need to replace my 1983 BMW. I do know that I won’t haunt the halls of UNF. I think it would be too painful.