In this series, KMFA Story Seeker Natalie Zeldin explores Austin musicians and groups that are "on the edge" between classical and...something else. This is her ninth article in the series, for more, see her last article on Graham Reynolds and pushing the boundaries of classical.
Michelle Schumann is a pianist, concert programmer, educator, and an all-around advocate of good music. As the Artistic Director of the Austin Chamber Music Festival (ACMC), she’s developed thoughtful and incisive programs that engage audiences in novel ways with the music. ACMC is in the midst of its annual summer festival. Michelle spoke with us about her background in music, her view of chamber music, and how she keeps herself creatively engaged through new challenges and projects.
How did you get started playing the piano?
My parents bought a piano the summer before I was 5. They asked me if I wanted to take lessons, and I was immediately excited. I actually remember the day that my mom called the piano teacher. We were in the kitchen, and I was watching and listening to that conversation; the excitement for playing the piano was already inside of me. I don’t remember much about my early childhood education, but I always remember playing the piano. I even remember my first recital piece-- I know the tune in my head from when I was 5!
What drew you to the piano?
There was a sense of exhilaration of doing something with my my body on this big instrument. I also come from a big family. The piano was an escape from the chaos of having four brothers. Parents often talk about the challenge of getting their children to practice, but that was never a challenge for my parents. I enjoyed practicing, playing, and just fooling around on the piano. It was probably around age 13 that I decided I wanted to pursuing being a professional pianist. Even at that age, though, I knew it wasn’t a done deal. I wanted to be playing and existing in a musical career at a high level and was willing to invest the time and emotional energy to get to that point.
So then how did you arrive at the point that you felt ready to be a professional musician?
It seems silly, but it had to do with degree milestones at first. In high school, I wanted to see if I could get into a great school. Then, when I started my undergrad, I remember thinking, “if you still suck after this degree, you can do something else.” I always had this feeling that it would never be too late to do something else, but it would be too late if I didn’t do music now. Every time that I finished one of these milestones, I felt that I went beyond my initial expectations of myself. Whatever my glass ceiling was, I would bust through it and find a new glass ceiling. That’s how my career has worked in a lot of ways.
What’s your favorite part of playing the piano?
It’s hard to say because I’ve been playing for so long. I feel that my favorite part is that it doesn’t feel like I’m playing an instrument. It’s just an extension of my body and how I hear sound. I’ve developed this special relationship with the instrument. It’s just home for me.
You have an eclectic career as a pianist, educator, and artistic director. How did you end up in this position?
At a certain point, I basically stopped making decisions of where I had to land professionally. All I needed to be responsible for is working hard and pursuing creative projects. I’ve always practiced a lot but I started practicing even more. I then started producing my own concerts professionally. If I would have decided early on what my dream job was, I never would have found this. What I’m doing now is exactly would I would have dreamed of but better, so I’m glad I never put a limit on what my dream could look like.
You’re a piano professor at University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and you also coach chamber groups with Austin Chamber Music Center. What is it that you enjoy about teaching?
There are 2 prongs. The first is selfish. When I’m teaching, I’m learning: about the composer, the piece, the execution, the expression, the interpretive possibilities...it’s completely exhilarating. It’s like practicing, but with someone else. The second reason I love teaching is because I love passing on the knowledge that was given to me by great teachers. I have had amazing teachers since age 14. I am not the product of any one of them, but an amalgamation of all of this great teaching I’ve had. I don’t want the things my teachers said to me to die with my generation, so I teach them. I get pleasure from continuing their ideas.
What is it about chamber music that’s different than other types of classical music?
It’s the impetus of chamber music that motivates me at all times. Chamber music is music made by composers for their friends, to be performed in intimate environments. Not to be cheesy, but chamber music is really about friendship, both between the players and with the audience. I don’t get the same thrill playing for a 3000-seat theater as I do for 200 people. In this smaller environment, I can feel the communication and the direct impact of my choices. So many composers used chamber music as their most direct communication. Shostakovich’s string quartets and cello sonata are painful and sarcastic as his way of talking about what was happening in his land. They are even more raw than the symphonies, which were subject to censorship. Chamber music is the really personal music.
Austin Chamber Music Center presents concerts that extend beyond the traditional string quartet. How do you select people for your program, and what do you keep in mind?
“Chamber music” was never meant to be one idea. It isn’t just string quartet, but it’s the aesthetic of a group of friends playing for a group of friends. When the parameters are loose like that, there are lots of things we can do. I always have my eyes and ears open. I love trying to build diverse audiences. One thing that I’ve learned over and over again is that you cannot please all people at all times. But I do like to please all people at some times! At the end of the day, ACMC is a service organization to provide great artistic experiences to people. You can’t do that unless you can get people through the door. So it’s important to connect with people and find out their interests. This way, we can help bridge the gap between what audiences are comfortable with and what might stretch them to have more transcendental artistic experiences. I feel passionate about that.
How do you balance the demand to program old classics and the desire to push forward and pioneer contemporary music?
I love the combination, and I’m glad that we do both at ACMC. I love weaving narratives so that the new music refers to the older music or vice versa. This year, every concert has a work by a living composer. One of the concerts has a work by David Lang called Light Moving, which is a clear connection to the composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Lang is a protégé of these two composers. Then, on the second half of the program, we have music by Brahms, Clara, and Robert Schumann. The idea in this concert is to contextualize the relationships and references between composers that exist in different times.
Austin Chamber Music Center is in the midst of its summer festival. What are some concerts that you are excited about presenting this year?
There are two that I am particularly excited about. The first is a collaboration with Austin Shakespeare that will feature scenes from Henry VIII. Between each of these scenes, we’ll be performing music that will comment on the scenes and supply the emotional impetus through music. I’m really excited about how the music and acting will compliment each other to enhance the experience for the audience. The second concert that I want to talk about is a reprise concert with two singers from Conspirare, where we will be presenting 30 songs with the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The program is all works by living composers. It will be an hour and fifteen minutes without a break. Everything is connected with improvisation and recitation, and the songs are stunning.
For more information about upcoming concerts part of Austin Chamber Music Center summer festival or the concert season, click here.