When Margaret Saunders Ott – known to most as “Margie May” – was six years old, her parents took out a loan to buy her first piano. She began teaching lessons at age 11. At 15 she had enrolled in Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., and at 20 she was in a master’s program at Juilliard, in New York. During her final year there, she taught piano at a college in Harrisburg, Penn., 195 miles away, which required an overnight train ride. She passed the time practicing her senior recital in her mind.
Ott, who would go on to become an internationally known pianist, dedicated her life to music, and she shared that love with countless others who studied under her and listened to her perform. She taught piano at Whitworth and chaired the piano department for 25 years, beginning in 1960. She also taught at Gonzaga and Washington State universities, and was a visiting professor for a year at Payap University, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Ott performed in five countries and was a soloist for the Spokane Symphony and the Spokane Chamber Players. She received an Outstanding Achievement in the Arts Award from the Spokane YWCA and a Teacher of the Year Award from the Music Teachers National Association. Ott and her husband, Franklin, were longtime and well-known supporters of the arts in Spokane. She died in 2010.
During her long and creatively rich life, Ott constantly encouraged her students, whose photos filled her music room at home. “If you want to do something, and you’ve decided this is the thing you want to do, you can do it,” Ott said in an interview for Whitworth’s alumni magazine in the 1980s. She said that too many people are afraid to try or to discipline themselves, because they are afraid to make a mistake. She believed the word “mistake” should be removed from the English language; people should make the best decision they can in the moment, and if it proves wrong, they should make a new decision. “If we were perfect, we wouldn’t have to do anything,” she said. “Perfection is death, in a sense. There is perfection only in hope.”
While visiting an art museum in Seattle, Ott came across a 2,000-year-old jade piece. The entire design was made out of a flaw in the jade. “It was the most touching thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “That’s what a person’s life is: we’re all flawed. But you make a design out of the flaw. You make it into something good. That’s what an artist does. That’s what a creative person does!”