McHenry County's 'mother of music' leaves large legacy

CRYSTAL LAKE – McHenry County lost its “musical mother” Monday, but the sound of her music still resonates across the country.

From award-winning opera and musical performers in New York City to studio musicians for artists such as Josh Groban and Kanye West in Los Angeles, Marie Ann Vos opened doors to music’s biggest stages for generations of McHenry County students for more than 30 years.

Vos, the founder of the McHenry County Music Center and Youth Orchestra, died Monday at 75 years old from complications brought on by Parkinson’s disease.

“Between her voice studio and the music center, she has touched hundreds, if not thousands, of lives,” said her son Thomas Vos, who has played violin for Grammy-award winning artists and on major motion pictures. “One of the doctors who helped her took lessons from her.”

Vos’ passion for bringing world-class musicianship to the area started more than 30 years ago, when most schools in the county cut string instrument lessons and ensembles from the curriculum. She decided to gather interested parents and students and started her first orchestra group in the basement of her home with about 20 participants.

It quickly grew until it became the McHenry County Music Center with the three orchestras of varying skill levels it features today. Her passion was clear early on, Thomas Vos said, as she would convince the top-level conductors and performers she drove her boys to for lessons in Chicago to come to Crystal Lake to help with the orchestras.

“She was taking us into Chicago for top-notch music education and saw a need for that here in the community,” Thomas Vos said. “Kids here didn’t have those opportunities.”

One key to the success was introducing the Suzuki method of teaching music to the area. Thomas Vos said the key to that method is teaching music as a language to students at a very young age and making it part of the environment. He and his twin brother started on string instruments when they were 2 years old.

The Suzuki method still is used at the McHenry County Music Center.

“We learn to speak years before school and reading and writing,” he said. “The same concept applies in music.”

Cathy Ames, who became the second executive director of the music center after Marie Ann Vos retired in 2005, called Vos a mentor and a major influence on many of the musicians in McHenry County.

“The whole experience she created here is very unique,” Ames said, noting it brings together the top musicians from area high schools. “It’s a dream come true.”

One of those dreams came in 2009 when Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Rachel Barton Pine offered the world premiere of her arrangement of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” with the McHenry County Youth Symphony.

Marie Ann Vos had a hand in developing artists as talented as Barton Pine, including Michael Zegarski – a 20-year veteran of the New York City opera and musical performance scene.

Zegarski, who studied at The Julliard School, credited Marie Ann Vos for changing his life when he started lessons with her at age 15. He said her support was just as important as her lessons, recalling a time when she drove him to Ohio for a vocal competition.

She also was in attendance for his New York opera debut.

Despite numerous awards and years of performing, Zegarski will have an unfamiliar feeling Thursday when he steps on stage for his next audition. It will be the first time he will not be able to call his mentor.

“I will be standing on that stage and thinking of her and how I got here,” he said. “I can’t call her, and that’s the hardest thing.”

A memorial service will be at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the First Congregational Church, 461 Pierson St., Crystal Lake. A memorial concert also is being planned for later this spring.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the McHenry County Music Center or the First Congregational Church Music Ministry.

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