September 26, 2023

Rhythm and Roots

For UMW junior Bethel Mahoney, coming to college was as much about freedom as anything else.

The middle daughter in a multi-ethnic family – her father is African-American; her mother Ethiopian – she was caught between kinships and cultures. A musical instrument, one that she’d choose more for its size than its sound, would help set her apart. Now, the first in her family to pursue a four-year degree, she’s a standout in UMW’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Cellist Bethel Mahoney, a psychology major at UMW, is a standout in the University's Philharmonic Orchestra.

Composed of Mary Washington students and Fredericksburg-area musicians, the group is the perfect arrangement for Mahoney. A psychology major who prefers ensembles to solos, she thrives on making connections – from the freshmen she leads as a Mason Hall resident assistant to the impromptu jam sessions she strums up across campus.

“I love bringing people together through music,” said Mahoney, who grew up in Northern Virginia.

Her parents – her father played bongos and congas; her mother taught techno dance – were protective, and Mahoney would find her first taste of freedom away from home at summer camp. Still, she was drawn into her family’s musical world and chose to play the cello when she was 8.

“It was the biggest [instrument] they had at the time,” said Mahoney, who also plays guitar, piano and ukulele. “I took it.”

Took it and ran.

Music gave her that summer-camp sense of freedom, and she excelled. If she felt like a face in the crowd at her sprawling Annandale high school, that ended when she reached for her bow. She won awards for her playing and landed a seat in the school’s top orchestra.

Then, for her artwork – a flyer she created for a marketing class – she won something else … a fieldtrip to Mary Washington. “It looked amazing,” she said of the Fredericksburg campus. “I thought, ‘I’m ready for this.’”

She applied for early-action admission and managed to thwart her parents’ best efforts to keep her living at home. Mason Hall, it turns out, like those long-ago summer camps, gave her the space she needed to grow as a freshman. She signed on with the Songwriters Club, found work in the music department and joined the University’s branded marketing campaign.

“Bethel’s a nice person, but she’s also smart and hardworking,” said Philharmonic Director Kevin Bartram. “She has a lot of promise, and she’s coming out of her shell.”

Part of that progress stems from a project she’s tackling with Bartram. Together with two additional student aides, they’re working on a national initiative to uncover 19th-century composers’ obscure and partially finished scores and make them playable at the university level. It’s taken the group to the Library of Congress, and Mahoney recently spoke about her part of the project to a full house at UMW’s digital auditorium.

Back at Mason Hall, where she’s now an RA, her evolution continues. This first-generation college student is planning for grad school, working toward a career in music production and keeping a floor full of freshmen inline.

“They’re new and they need help. I know so much about this school, and I love putting it out there,” Mahoney said. “I really want to make this year top notch, because that’s where it all started.”