Steven, thanks so much for joining us today. As you know, I am a huge fan of yours. My first memory of listening to you play piano was at your house a few years ago. We all sat down in your living room, you turned off all the lights, and then you began to play. I got shivers down my spine as soon as you touched the keys. The funny thing is that when I heard you perform a while back at Smith College, you re-created that same kind of warmth and intimacy in a huge music hall. Can you explain to my readers how you are able to achieve that in such a large space? Also, maybe you could talk a little bit about where your musical inspiration comes from during these performances.
I wish I could explain to myself how I do that. When I started improvising on the piano at age three, I remember lying in bed—and this may sound really corny—and saying to myself, “How come I can do that?” I’ve always felt that the communication I depict through improvisation was just an extension of who I am. When I walk on stage, I’m definitely nervous at first, but I don’t feel any different than when I am talking to a good friend. When I sit down and the first sound is produced, I forget about my surroundings and just become absorbed in the music that is emanating from the piano. Each sound develops from moment to moment, and hopefully, at the end, an improvisation that has structure and form has been spontaneously realized. I like to think of my improvisations as spontaneous compositions.
When I improvise, I have no idea what will happen. How a piece will begin, where it will travel to, and how it will come to an end. It’s really like a conversation. We learn the language of words from the moment we are born, maybe even while we’re in the womb. And if that is the case, then we’re also hearing music and other sounds. As we learn, we begin to understand grammar and syntax and eventually, we can communicate with each other. There is no written script for us to follow.
The same is true of music. Having access to the harmonies and scales of the universe that resonate with me, and understanding the grammar and syntax of the language of music allows me to communicate using that language. We don’t reflect upon what we are going to say in a conversation, we just talk. Somehow, through our knowledge and understanding of the language it just happens. Of course, when we compose a piece, we now have the added element of reflection and making changes. There is no time for reflection or changes in a musical improvisation. A “mistake” becomes the next place where the improvisation can develop. I could say that my inspiration comes from the integrating of all the music that I have listened to combined with my emotions, since music is a language that exists without words. Now with that said, when words are put to music or visa-versa, another powerful art form emerges. I love writing songs with my wife, Jane Schoenberg, who, aside from being a children's book author is my collaborator on musicals and children’s songs.
I love that you can work so closely with your wife. Not everyone can do that! And you both have really encouraged and nurtured your two children, actress Sarah Kate Jackson and your son Adam Schoenberg, an amazing composer in his own right. Not only have you and Jane mentored your children in many ways but other young artists just starting out. Can you talk a little about a special mentor in your life and how he or she affected you?
I'd love to! My two most influential mentors were my last composition teacher while at The Hartt School of Music and my musical theater mentor, Sylvia Herscher. Arnold Franchetti was a great teacher and prolific composer, who was a student of Richard Strauss. Franchetti’s father was an Italian opera composer, whose good friend was Puccini! Franchetti taught me the craft needed to compose. He made me understand how to derive material from a motif and how to develop that material. We did this by writing fugues, by analyzing scores, and through other contrapuntal exercises. He taught me how to be complex and sophisticated without losing the soul of a work.
School was very hard for me, as the music I composed was given very little support. During that era—the 1970’s—music in the academic field was controlled by the atonal composers in powerful positions. I remember the worst moment for me came when I proudly brought in a chamber orchestra piece that was a very lyrical composition, very well composed and orchestrated, but . . . influenced by my love of rock’n’roll and the Blues. My composition teacher at that time said, “I can do nothing with this piece.” I threw it out, and changed teachers. That’s when I found Franchetti. I wish I never threw that piece away, but I had no outside support to know that.
When my son Adam was an undergraduate student at Oberlin Conservatory, he experienced the same lack of support from many of his teachers, because his music did not reflect the music that they were writing. The same composers, who piloted the direction of music when I was in school, still influenced most of Adam’s teachers. Since I had experienced that when I was a student, I was able to give my son advice that I would like to pass along to your young readers that I gave to both of my children. When studying, do all that your teachers ask of you. Learn what they know and always ask questions when you do not understand something. When you are working on your own piece, follow what your heart says, what is inside of you, and use the craft that you have learned up to that point to make it the best you can. Composing is heart and head. What’s inside of you is what makes you unique. If your teacher has something to say that will open up a new window in your mind, then bravo/brava to him/her for exposing you to that. But if the teacher cannot support your work, then don’t let that affect you, if you truly believe you have something to say. Either open up your teacher’s mind or get a new one.
Our teachers must inspire and elevate us as we learn, and not try to make us like them. As artists, we have to become somewhat unattached to what people think, because everyone has personal likes and dislikes. We all have them. Work to your fullest expression. Master your art and be happy with what you are doing regardless of where you are in your career and don’t be concerned about the judgment others put on your work. What is important is what you think about your work.
Sylvia Herscher was a great mentor of mine in the Musical Theater world. Before she died, she received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. She would have been called a producer in this age, but when she worked with Jule Styne in the 1950s, she was called a production assistant and general manager. She was an agent in the William Morris Agency and later in the 60s and 70s, she headed the theater department publishing of the Edwin H. Morris Company and after at G. Shirmer. Sylvia put together and matched creative teams for many musicals. A Chorus Line being the most successful. She also saw Annie, and brought that to the Goodspeed Opera House for it’s first production. I met Sylvia after being asked to be the composer of a Broadway bound musical that never really got off the ground. I can sum up Sylvia’s wisdom and detachment by quoting her four famous words. Because it takes so long to develop a musical and most fail to make it, Sylvia taught me and my daughter to just go “on to the next.” She said it as a statement. “On to the next!”
Steven, I know you had a serious injury early on in your career, just as you were beginning to play out a lot. Do you mind telling us about that and how that experience affected and transformed the tragectory of your career? And how does it feel to be back performing once again?
Well, in 1985, I was contacted by Brian Carr, who was Keith Jarrett’s manager and at the same time was offered a contract to sign with Ted Kurland Associates. Ted’s roster included such jazz artists as Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Sonny Rollins, Betty Carter, and on and on. Though I am not a Jazz pianist, I do improvise, and was thrilled to be represented by such a great agency and decided to go with them to begin a major concertizing push. So you see, with just those two options, my career was growing at a fairly fast pace. My two albums, Pianoworks and Three Days in May were around 20,000 each in sales, which is unusual for a classical/jazz record.
Then, in 1986, less than six months after signing with Kurland, I was playing tag with my son, who was five years old at the time. I caught him while running down a hill with him in my arms. I tripped over a rock and landed hard on my right hand, pushing my son out from under me. I broke and tore ligaments in my right hand pinky finger. I went to a major hand specialist who was Leon Fleisher’s hand surgeon and he told me the bad news. I could not perform for over three years. It was one of those worst scenario injuries. That injury completely stopped my emerging career as an improvisational concert pianist. I said good-bye to my agent, to performing, and immediately began scoring more films. Mostly PBS, BBS documentary and kid’s stuff. I gave a few concerts in between, but was always too aware of my injured finger, which made it impossible for me to totally disappear into that special place when performing. So I stopped performing altogether. I knew I would return, I just didn’t know it would take so long for me to once again feel confident to be able to improvise in public.
It feels like it is supposed to be happening now. It feels right. Two years ago, I decided it was time to do it again and I performed and recorded a concert at Smith College in Northampton, MA. I wanted to release a new CD, but didn’t feel strong about all of the improvisations so I did another concert the next year and even filmed it, in hopes of showing myself to concert producers via my website. So, my new CD, Steven Schoenberg Live: An Improvisational Journey, features seven improvisations from the first Smith College concert and two from the second.Well, I'm sure a lot of people are happy that you are performing live once again after all these years. The music world certainly has changed so dramatically since you first began your career, although you have, of course, continued to compose. Any pearls of wisdom for upcoming musicians or composers trying to make it now in the digital age?
I’m just learning about that right now. You are right. Things have really changed from when I first started my career. CD’s are selling less and less, and digital downloads are selling more and more. The power of the Internet for publicity and to market oneself is humongous. Everyone is learning as they go. Like your blog, it’s all about making oneself as visible as possible until eventually, if you are lucky enough to hit it at the right time, people will follow you. I have no words of wisdom, other than to say, keep on producing, getting performances, sending out your music to conductors, orchestra managers, musicians, producing your own concerts, designing your website, uploading your productions on to YouTube, Facebook, My Space and any other similar site. And if you can, hire a publicist and radio person to work your stuff.
Can you say a word or two about your upcoming concert at the Rubin Museum of Art on May 7th in New York City (a concert which, by the way, I will definitely be going to!)
Talking about publicists, I hired Chris DiGirolamo, of Two For The Show Media, to work my new CD. He got word of an opening to perform at the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York, and sent my CD to them. Soon afterwards, I received an email from the Rubin, inviting me to perform on May 7th. The concert begins at 7pm. The museum has an intimate hall and it’s a great place to perform. I’m very excited about the upcoming concert. Like all of my concerts, I have no idea what I will do. Hopefully, my Muses will be by my side that evening, and I look forward to playing for you, too, Mira!
Thanks for your time and generosity, Steven. I look forward to hearing you on May 7th! See you there!
You can find Steven Schoenberg's CDs on Amazon or go to his website: www.stevenschoenberg.com to order CDs, listen to his music and see video clips of him performing. If you would like to see Steven in concert on May 7th in NYC, please visit the Rubin Museum's website for tickets: http://www.rmanyc.org/
The Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street New York NY 10011
Box office: 212.620.5000 ext. 344
Tickets: $18 in advance / $20 day of. RMA Members receive 10% discount .
I think Steven’s music is some of the most incomparably beautiful music I’ve ever heard. When I listen, I am transported . . . to someplace very peaceful. If I were to be banished to an island and could take music, his would be among what I’d choose . . . and if there were only two choices, Schoenberg would be one! ~ Lee Thornton, Senior Host, Weekend Edition, All Things Considered, National Public Radio