Mary Gardner

Making Math and Music Count

Mary Gardner Makes Math and Music Count

“I was born in Memphis.”

It sounds like something a venerable blues musician would say. Memphis: the place where the first rock and roll single was made in 1951. Where Elvis recorded his first record, “That’s All Right,” in 1954.


Of course Mary Gardner was born much later. Still, one can’t help but wonder if the city’s musical history, founded in the spirituals, seeped into her genetic fiber. She’s been involved in church music, the praise and worship variety, since the tender age of 13, serving in a leadership role since 18.

After Memphis, Gardner’s military family moved to Okinawa and six years later returned stateside to Cherry Point Marine Air Station in Havelock. 

“I grew up there,” she said. “Went to Craven Community College and UNC-Pembroke, then back to Havelock to work as a teacher at Craven Early College High School. In 2016, I had the opportunity to move to Greenville to work at Pitt Early College High School.”

But it’s not music she teaches–it’s math. 

“I decided to pursue being a high school math teacher when I was in high school,” she explained. “I do love math and music and wrote a paper in high school about how music connects both sides of the brain, brings people together, and helps with fractions. I spoke with my dad about what I wanted to be when I grew up and couldn’t decide between being a math teacher or a music teacher. My dad asked a simple question: ‘How many math teachers are in your high school versus how many music teachers are there?’” 

That was her “Aha” moment. “

“At my high school there were 7 or 8 math teachers,” she explained, “and there was one teacher who taught band and one who taught chorus. Looking at the odds, I knew if I went the music route it would probably be to teach chorus, so it was one position versus 7 or 8. It was better careers-wise to let music be my hobby and what I do for fun.”

And she’s been playing and singing music for as long as she can remember. She grew up singing with her dad, mom, and sister: “We were sometimes called ‘The Gardner Family Singers,’ kind of like The von Trapp Family Singers.”

“My mom probably gave me the biggest gift she could have given me,” Gardner said. “She sings alto. I sing melody, and she sings harmony. Growing up hearing her sing harmo–that’s been a great influence in my life. Inadvertently my mother taught me how to harmonize.”

Gardner was in the children’s choir through church and enjoyed music class all through school, participating in All-State Honors Chorus. She started playing piano in third grade, flute in middle school, and then baritone saxophone in Jazz, Marching, and Concert bands in high school. She went on to play in college bands too. 

Gardner enjoys singing all types of music and she said picking a favorite song would be like picking a favorite student. “‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ on ukulele has a special place in my heart because it’s a song my friend wanted so badly to learn but didn’t before he died.”

So is she a singer who plays instruments, or an instrumentalist who sings? 

“I would consider myself first a musician because that’s more the umbrella. And underneath that you can be a singer, piano player, ukulele player. In high school and college I learned more the music theory part of it, chord structure and so on. I like all the nuances of it…dynamics, tempos, so much more than opening your mouth or playing a chord.”

“I enjoy playing praise and worship music on the piano because it is very forgiving,” she said. “I tried to learn how to play the guitar because it’s easier to take with you and lead music; all you need is 4 chords and a capo. However, after being introduced to the ukulele, I quickly realized it has 4 strings and I use 4 fingers to play: it just makes sense. The ukulele is smaller than a guitar and I can still sing and lead music.”

Gardner is the praise coordinator for the 9:00 a.m. contemporary service at Jarvis UMC in Greenville, under Cheryl Stephenson’s leadership as Director of Music Ministries

“One of my biggest challenges is when I present music in a different format,” she said. “The other musicians have played a song a certain way or in a certain key. It can be a challenge to unlearn something. I find giving the praise and worship members enough time to get it in their ear helps. I send the chord sheet and a Youtube link prior to practice. Then they’ve already heard it a little bit.”

Gardner said she did a little karaoke but “the bar scene just isn’t quite my jam. I do love to sing other types of music–Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, country, anything.”

One of her favorite things about music is that it’s universal: “It can bring so many different people together. Just because you look a certain way or from a certain region doesn’t mean you can’t love all types of music. People assume everyone from the south loves country music. But that’s not true. It is true for me, but music is something that goes beyond stereotypes.”

As a math teacher and musician, Mary Gardner’s motivation is a simple equation: “My desire to worship God and lead others into a deeper love with Him through music.”

• • • 

Originally published in the Daily Reflector January 21, 2023.

Jarvis UMC’s Praise Choir. Photo by Donna Davis.