Plays Well With Others

Why Michelle Schumann is meant to be running the Austin Chamber Music Center

Plays Well With Others
Photo By Bret Brookshire

You only have to listen to her once to know that playing music is what Michelle Schumann is meant to be doing. When she's at the piano, she doesn't just make sounds with it; she coaxes feelings from it, vivid emotions in cascading rhythms and artfully shaded tones. In every note she strikes, you can hear a sensitivity to the drama and colors of the score expressed through fingers that float over the keys in a ballet. She connects to the music in a way that transcends the cognitive. She just gets it.

Similarly, you only have to talk with her once to know that heading the Austin Chamber Music Center is also what Schumann is meant to be doing. When she talks about the organization's mission, the words rush forth in a stream, so effusively and with such conviction that you feel this is more than nonprofit boilerplate. It's a statement of purpose flowing straight from the core of her being. Where ACMC is concerned, she just gets it.

This month, Schumann assumes the position of artistic director for the Chamber Music Center, a sizable challenge given that she's succeeding Felicity Coltman, who founded the organization and has served as its sole artistic director for a quarter of a century. Schumann has enough going on in her career – performing with the American Repertory Ensemble (just back from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), winning the 2006 Janice K. Hodges Competition for Contemporary Piano Music, producing the annual John Cage birthday concert (now in its sixth year), teaching and serving as artist-in-residence at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton – that she could get by quite well without running an arts organization. But then, to Schumann, the Austin Chamber Music Center isn't just any arts organization, as this conversation with the Chronicle makes clear.


Michelle Schumann: I've been in Texas for 10 years now, and I love it. I totally love Austin. I mean, I loved it the first day that I came to Austin. I came here for an audition for grad school, and the first day I was here, I was like, "I really want to go here. This is where I want to be." I think it was the audition where I was the most nervous because the stakes were so high. It wasn't about the school. It was something about the feel of the city.

Austin Chronicle: Can you put your finger on what that feeling was?

MS: I think it was the idea that people are excited about living here. And you don't generally get so many people who aren't just going through the mundane aspects of life but are really choosing things that make them feel like they're constantly being challenged, and they're constantly doing new things, and it incorporates their job and their work life – at least the people I know; they've chosen their career instead of falling into something like, "Well, from 9 to 5, I do this crappy job, and then I have this life." But even people who are like that, they have this life outside of that. More often than not, I feel like people have made their life 24 hours. "This is who I am. This is what I do." That attracted me right away, because I'm a musician 24 hours a day. There's not a moment when I'm not a musician. So I'm attracted to people who feel that about whatever they're doing. That's what I felt, what the vibe was.

AC: Has that feeling been confirmed in the time you've been here?

MS: Absolutely. Every time I meet someone, I'm always so impressed by how damn interesting they are. I don't meet dull people in Austin. They're always surprisingly interesting. I've been amazed in the John Cage things that I've done that so many people are not only interested in John Cage, but they know a lot about his life. And they don't just know his music; they know about his artwork and his poetry. Obviously, it's a small faction of people, but there are more people in Austin who go toward that sense of art than in a lot of places.

AC: One of your jobs takes you a little far outside the city to teach. Do you feel a difference when you're at Mary Hardin-Baylor?

MS: The great thing about teaching at Mary Hardin-Baylor is that in the music department we still try to bring in outside influences. One thing I've been able to do is develop an artists series there, and I bring in people from outside to give concerts and do classes with the kids. Even though Belton is an hour from Austin, its not necessarily insular. Being part of the university, we try not to be insular. We give the kids security, but generally we're trying to expand minds, to open up the kids' experiences and give them a sense of the wider world. You have to make it compelling to them. You have to make them trust you, so you have to be a trustworthy person. When I do the John Cage program, I usually do it in Belton first, and it's one of the more popular concerts that I do there. The kids love it! I mean, they really dig it. And usually, I have about 10 or 15 kids come from Belton to the concerts here in Austin, and that's what they really love, because they love being part of the Austin scene. So of course, it's a conservative university, but the kids understand why they're at the university, and why they're there is to become bigger citizens of the world. Now, they don't necessarily want to go to UT, you know, student body of 50,000; they want something that's a little more personalized. Most students that go to UMHB should be there; they're perfect for that, and the place is perfect for them. But it goes back to that issue of trust: They're able to say, "Okay, I trust professors to take me in a direction that is going to have me grow but without taking me in a direction that I don't want to go in.

AC: Speaking of trust, you've been entrusted with a whole organization that's been in the hands of its founder for 25 years. Do you feel like that was a vote of confidence in your trustworthiness?

MS: Absolutely. I feel very humbled being given that trust, and I'm really challenged by it. It's not just coming into a job; it's taking over an institution. When something has been there for 25 years, there's no guarantee that it's going to be around another 25 years, so my mission is to make sure this institution is going to be in the future of Austin for generations to come. What Felicity has built has been a really fantastic thing, but it couldn't just continue with that one person. So the person coming into this position has to be someone who embodies the spirit of the organization and wants to see it pass herself. It has to be bigger than the ego thing of "I'm the artistic director." It has to be about being in service to the organization. So I feel quite humbled that it was decided that I would be the person to do this.

The way it came about is, Felicity was planning on retiring, and about a year ago she started talking to people, just finding out who was interested and what they felt about it. I was frankly floored when she talked to me. I'd been doing a lot of things in Austin, and I have a lot of experience, but I felt really touched that she thought that the things I had been doing were compatible with everything she's built over 25 years. It was something I took very heavily. I certainly didn't say, "Okay, I'm in." I thought about the things that we were talking about: It's not about me putting on concerts or me being a head of an organization. It's about building this organization and where it is now and where it can go and how it can go there.

It was a pretty long process. The [ACMC] board put together a search committee, and they did interviews and listened to recordings and saw people perform live. Of course, they weren't just looking for a good pianist. They weren't even looking for a good administrator. They needed everything: a great performer and a great spokesperson and a good teacher and someone who knew how to work with faculty and kids and with adults who were wanting to learn more music, too. It wouldn't be as difficult to find any one of those people, but to find someone who believes in all of those things equally? Does one believe in the importance of all of those things? I think that's where Felicity and I saw eye to eye. [It's] about the overall integration of performance and education. It wasn't, "Okay, we teach kids here, and we do concerts here." It's all about learning more about chamber music and playing music together and creating a spirit of camaraderie and a fun atmosphere where people feel like they can share music together. I think that's ultimately what we agreed on.

Plays Well With Others
Photo By Bret Brookshire

The great thing, once they decided on me, was March 1 was my first day, and we had six months of working together. That was perfect because I could get to know more people in the organization and see how the organization runs without having the pressure of all those deadlines having to be met. I could see how Felicity does things and how other staff people do things and see what things work really well, what things should eventually be changed, what should be changed immediately; but none of it had to be done rashly, none of it had to be done without a great deal of thought. I was able to plan all of this season ahead, which was really nice, really a luxury.

AC: You really hit the ground running.

MS: I did hit the ground running. When I came on, we were making final plans for the [Austin Chamber Music Festival]. There is no real downtime at ACMC. The summer is the craziest time because of the festival. We have a lot of concerts with guest artists, and we have upward of a hundred kids in the workshop, teaching them chamber music. Summer was always downtime for me. I went to different festivals in different places, but I've never had a really, really intense festival like that at home.

AC: And you were juggling that with the American Repertory Ensemble.

MS: Exactly. And I played two other festivals this summer, too: the Victoria Bach Festival and the Snake River Chamber Music Festival in Colorado, which [consisted of] three different programs in five days, with players I had never met before. It's a great life, though. My favorite part is making music with people I've never met before. At parties, I'm not the most gregarious person, but when it comes to playing ... If I could meet everyone by playing with them, I would immediately become good friends with them. Because that second you start playing together and you start making music and you start talking about the music, there are no pretenses. You don't have to be anyone that you're not. You can act however you want because you are embodying the music. So it's my favorite way to meet people. It's the easiest way.

AC: When you were younger, was there an experience that hit home for you the difference between playing alone and playing with other musicians?

MS: The first real chamber-music experience was when I was about 13 years old and was doing a piano camp. A couple of pianists were also string players, and my teacher thought that it would be a good idea for us to do a trio as part of the final concert. And that experience was so fun. I had learned my part separately. They had learned their parts separately. And when we got together ... that was the first experience where I thought, "This is something that I need to have in my life: I want to work with other musicians doing things other than piano." I love strings, but I don't play strings; so when I play with a string player, it's as good as me playing the violin, because basically I focus more on their part than on my own part. When I'm playing with a singer, that's the way I sing. It's the way I can be a part of that sound, coming out and supporting it. But it's not really about supporting it; it's about being it with them.

Actually, when I was younger than that, when I was about 10 years old, I played for the school choir. We had this competition, and my teacher asked me if I would play this little piece with them. I don't remember every performance I did when I was a kid, but I remember that competition because there was this crescendo in the music, and I just took it to the limit; I could feel that as I was getting more emotionally involved with the music, the choir was responding to that and they were giving more. My teacher even told me afterward that because I did this thing musically, the choir responded to that and sang better than they had ever sung before. So I felt that I had this power at the keyboard, and it wasn't about being powerful, but it was about initiating a musical/emotional experience and knowing that you could do that. If you can be more musical and more imaginative, then it becomes this really fun little competition.

AC: It's a lively conversation as opposed to a rote exchange. And the audience picks up on that, too.

MS: Sure. I think the most terrific thing about chamber music is that we often do it in close settings. People are so close that they get to witness how the musicians interact with one another. There are all these looks that happen. You see the musicians breathe together. There are so many moments where we just smile at each other because something happened that was really special. Or, if there's a piece of music that's very serious and emotional, you can see everyone's faces furrow up in this community of anguish. I feel like that's what we get from chamber music, and we don't get that so much with an orchestra. We would probably get that more if we could see the conductor's face while he was conducting because there's probably a lot of that in the looks between the conductor and the orchestral players. But we don't. And because the orchestral musicians are usually so far away, we don't see their sweat or the really fine motor actions. But with chamber music in these small settings, the audience becomes a part of the performance.

AC: How central is it to ACMC's mission to introduce students to this idea of the richness of playing together?

MS: That is absolutely the centerpiece of the mission. Plenty of kids take lessons, but it's when they actually get together with other kids where they can feel like they're not by themselves; they're not just in a practice room, but they're actually making music. And it gives them such a sense of responsibility for what their music-making is. If they're in a string quartet, they have to be responsible for their own part, so they can inspire everyone else. Again, it's this idea that, "If I'm inspiring, then these people will be inspired, and then they will inspire me."

And the nice thing about chamber music, as opposed to orchestra or band, is that the kids are by themselves. They have to make decisions for themselves. They're led all year by a coach, but when they're onstage, they're communicating with themselves. They're able to make those decisions on their own. And they know that they can't just do crazy things because, again, they have that responsibility for the members of their ensemble. It teaches so much.

Like I said, when I had my first experience when I was 13, I was absolutely hooked. I loved solo piano, but working with other people is about the most fun that I've ever had. My best friends have been people that I've met through chamber music. The very first person I played with here was Ames Asbell, from the Tosca String Quartet, and I think the second person was Leigh Mahoney of the Tosca String Quartet. I did their doctoral recitals – and instant friendships!

AC: Where will you be taking the Chamber Music Center artistically?

MS: I want to present concerts of the highest quality at all times. And that goes outside the playing, [to mean] that they also have this theatrical sense, that they're an entire show. "We're going to create something for you so that you go away feeling that you were really at something special." The one group in town that really does that for me is Conspirare. When I leave [a Conspirare concert], I feel like they had me for an hour and a half, they created a world for me in that time. And I hold that with me when I leave. I mean, when you go to a movie, you get thrown into that world. The theatres have designed it in that way, so that when you go into that dark space you get encapsulated in that space. I would like to see that done with chamber music. end story

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