Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Christina Schmidt, oboist and children's librarian, Allentown, PA

As mentioned in a previous post, Chris's story is incredible and without her, this entire project never would have happened! I can't thank her enough for participating in the project and for being an awesome and patient editor. 

What I find most interesting is that Chris actually took ten years off from playing the oboe, then took it up again and went on to do so many amazing things -- not only with music, but as a children's librarian and raising a family. She is a true inspiration to all!

Oboist Christina Schmidt of Allentown, PA, recently retired from a professional career spanning more than four decades, including many years with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, and the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra. Chris earned a BA in English at the University of Rochester, where she studied with Robert Sprenkle at the Eastman School. Throughout much of her performing career, Chris also worked as a librarian, earning a Master of Library Science degree at Kutztown University and heading the children's departments at Parkland Community Library and Allentown Public Library.

Let’s talk mostly about the time period when you were doing both jobs -- so, oboe and the librarian job.

I never went to a conservatory. I got a degree in English at the University of Rochester, and I studied with Robert Sprenkle at the Eastman School. When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a scientist. I went to the University of Rochester partly because of Mr. Sprenkle, as I knew I could take lessons from him. It never actually occurred to me that I would play the oboe as a career. It just always seemed like something I would do.

I got to know Dick Killmer [now oboe professor at Eastman] one summer when I played in a little orchestra out in Colorado after my freshman year in college called the "Blue Jeans Symphony." It was a small group conducted by Walter Charles that played every summer weekend in the high school at Estes Park, and was sponsored by the Levi Strauss Company. They found other jobs for us musicians; I was a maid in the Three G's Motel. For concerts we wore red and white checked western shirts, blue jeans, and red neckerchiefs!

I was one of I think three musicians from the East. I rode out there in a car with a group of strangers and somehow survived. I was so ignorant of what high altitude (7000 ft) does to reeds -- and what to do about it -- that I can't imagine how I played at all and I had no lessons or coaching while I was there.

Fourteen of us girls lived together and we all tried to take turns cooking. Dick Killmer was teaching in Longmont, CO and was principal oboe. It was all quite an experience, in a beautiful setting. That orchestra morphed into the Colorado Philharmonic at some later date.

After college we moved to North Carolina and my husband got a PhD in musicology at UNC and I worked at the Duke University Library and played in the Duke U. Orchestra and the UNC Orchestra. When we moved up here to Pennsylvania, I had gotten kind of tired and discouraged with the oboe, and I had a baby coming, so I put the oboe away and I didn’t pick it up for almost ten years. I decided to give it up and concentrate on child rearing.

We had two boys, two years apart. I did some preschool teaching and started volunteering at the fledgling Parkland Community Library in suburban Allentown. I started as a volunteer, and the library grew and I became their children’s librarian. I was getting paid for 25 hours a week, but I really needed to do more work than that, so I would often bring work home. I missed playing, but I was busy and didn't think much about getting back to it.

Dick Killmer came to visit sometime during the 1970's when the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra came to play at Kutztown University. He said he would send me some reeds or cane if I wanted to start up again. I started thinking that perhaps I could do it, so I started working at it slowly. I didn't know of anyone who was teaching oboe in this area at that time, but I had my trusty book The Art of Oboe Playing by Mr. Sprenkle and David Ledet, and a few etude books from college studies. After a year I felt ready to try playing with the Moravian College orchestra.

Here's an amazing fact: Just after we moved to Allentown, my husband Henry, who is a trombone player, joined a recently-formed brass quintet. The principal trumpet player was Donald Spieth. At dinner one night with Don and his wife, we came to the realization that Don and I were both in that orchestra in Colorado during the same summer!

Don encouraged me to play again, since he needed a principal oboist for the Moravian College Community Orchestra, and eventually, I did join that orchestra. Later, he became the conductor of the newly founded Lehigh Vally Chamber Orchestra, and I began playing second oboe and English horn.

My formal oboe studies ended at the end of college, 1964. I went to Kutztown University and got my Master’s Degree in Library Science during the 80’s.

One of the conflicts I had, working so much, I just didn’t feel like I could devote the energy and the time to taking more lessons. I would think about it from time to time, and wish that I could manage that, but I felt I could not manage that discipline. I have always listened to classical music and attended concerts when I could. I think good listening is so important, and I feel I really learned how to improve my playing mostly by listening to my fellow musicians play or sing.

In 1989, I was invited to become the children’s librarian at the Allentown Public Library. That was a good job for me at the time. My older son was going to college and this was a full-time job that offered much better pay and some benefits. When I did the interview, I told the director that my music was very important to me, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do the alternate Saturdays which were required of the head of the children’s department because of my concert schedule. And she said, “Well, you just try to arrange the schedule how it suits your concert schedule, as long as you work the required number of Saturdays.” It was my responsibility to make out the schedule, and it just so happens that my rehearsal schedule fit quite well with the arrangement, though I sometimes had to work two or three Saturdays in a row.

I was second oboe and English horn with the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra for 25 or 26 years, from when it was founded until it folded around 2005. I also served on the Players' Committee for a time. It was an orchestra that grew up from an effort by some local musicains in the early 80’s and it really became very popular. We had some big-time soloists such as David Shifrin, Lang Lang, Joshua Bell, and Eliot Fisk. A lot of the orchestra players came from New York. Some of them were hired to teach at Moravian College or Lehigh University. So I played with colleagues that were professionally active. 

We had rehearsals on Friday afternoons and a concert that night, repeated Saturday night. I had Fridays off from the library, so I could do the rehearsal and the concert and then I would work all day Saturday and do the concert that night. Sometimes I had concerts several Saturdays in a row, so I had to make the library schedule out way ahead of time and try to make sure that my staff was willing to be pretty flexible. And they were, which was great.

I had the support of the other librarians and the director. At that job I didn’t have to bring as much work home and it wasn’t what I’d call a stressful job. So I had my evenings free, and I would practice and make reeds at night. It was a scheduling challenge, and that’s probably true for a lot of musicians who work full-time.

I was also second oboe in the Allentown Symphony and would occasionally play English horn there, too. I was also playing second oboe in the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra, another professional chamber orchestra in the area conducted by Allan Birney, a professor from Cedar Crest College. I started there in the 80s and played until I retired in 2010. Beginning in 2000, I played fourth position in the Bethlehem Bach Festival Orchestra. I subbed for them in the 80s, and Mary Watt, their principal oboist, recommended me for the fourth oboe position. I was a regular until I retired in 2010. I also played principal for a time in the Schuylkill Symphony in Pottsville, PA. It only had one or two concerts a year, and it was also conducted by Donald Spieth.

None of these orchestras had heavy schedules, as in full-time orchestras. We usually had between two and five rehearsals and usually met once a month during the season. That was enough playing to keep in reasonable performing shape, and it was good to always have something new to prepare for.

I also know that playing second oboe was a much better fit for me as a person with another career -- I cannot imagine having to play principal regularly, with the extra stress and responsibility that entails. And I was more temperamentally suited to second. I had a small number of students until I got the job at the Allentown Library, and then I decided that I wasn’t going to be able to continue with teaching. I had a couple of pretty good students who went on and did some playing in college.

I retired in 1999 from the library. I had a bunch of reasons for that. My mother was moving out of a big house and needed someone to help her...I was facing some health problems at that time, it wasn’t anything too serious, but that seemed like a good time for me to retire, and then I kept playing right up through May 2010.

I do not remember considering quitting either playing or my library work, because I found both very satisfying. I think I must have been quite efficient in those I can't imagine how I did all that!

Did you do any preparation for the cane when you were working on reeds?

That’s a really good question. You know, I never did get a gouging machine. When I started playing again, I talked to Dick Killmer because I knew he could be helpful, and he told me, given my schedule, and having two children, it would be a good idea to not even get into gouging. I bought cane from a couple different places, but I ended up with pretty reliable cane from Pat McFarland. I would shape it, but I didn’t do any of the earlier prep with the cane. I don’t see how I could have managed that.

Did you ever take any auditions?

No, that’s another bit of luck of mine. I just sort of fell into all of my orchestral positions. Those ensembles didn’t require auditions at the time. It would have been a great strain on me to try and prepare for auditions. Audition preparation is something that anybody considering working full-time would really have to think hard about, because that’s what’s involved these days.

So this is obviously before the days of Blackberries, and the internet, even! What kinds of tools did you use to manage the crazy schedule, or was it just pen and paper?

Pretty much pen and paper. We didn’t even have an answering machine for a long time.

How did you manage to stay sane and deal -- I’m sure you were fatigued?

I think what happens, when you have this kind of life, is that you have to make a lot of choices about what you can and can’t do. There were a lot of cultural things going on in this area that I just couldn’t do because I was either playing or I just didn’t feel I had the time, such as plays and other concerts and so forth. And even things like fund-raising walks, I just felt that I had to pretty much concentrate on keeping up with the oboe. 

I don’t think fatigue was too much of an issue. I have a musician-husband who also has played in many of these orchestras, and so he understood the situation. I might add that John Symer was near by in Philadelphia to take care of my oboes....a big advantage!

Did anything from your orchestral jobs help you in your library jobs? Or anything from your musical training sort of help you to succeed with that?

That’s a really good question. The skill of being organized is crucial for success in both my careers, not to mention keeping a family going. Children's librarians are performers, too, so performance skills did overlap. I did story hours for children. I’m not much of a singer, but I did little songs and finger plays. And both librarians and musicians need to be good listeners and adapt their responses to each situation.

Did the library jobs ever keep you away from the oboe for long periods of time?

Once I had started playing again after the ten-year hiatus, work never really kept me away from the oboe for too long. I had to work one night a week, but it was Monday night, which is almost never a rehearsal night. So I was usually able to practice some every day. I needed to really keep at it, because I was playing with very well-trained people and I had to meet a high standard.

Who are your role models?

Mary Watt is one of them. And Dick Killmer -- we haven't really played together since that summer in Colorado, maybe one other time, but he’s been a good contact and somebody who has been encouraging. He helped me a little bit with reeds when I started back playing after taking the ten years off. And, well, I’ve played with a lot of very fine oboists, Nobuo Kitagawa, Cheryl Bishkoff, Lisa Kozenko, who played Principal Oboe in the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra for a long time.

What advice would you give to young people who are considering careers in music? 

Find a good teacher, listen to as much music as possible, talk to musicians. A real full-time career as an oboist or other classical musician is a long shot and will take great effort and skill. There are so many more highly trained musicians today than when I started out, so the competition for playing opportunities can be fierce. But there are many of us who have found ways to fulfill our passion for playing music, while we take on other responsibilities. I would encourage anyone who loves music to keep playing and seeking opportunities to share your talent with others.

Did you have anything you wanted to add? 

I think we pretty much covered it. The only thing I didn’t mention was I did play in a woodwind quintet for quite a while, and that was a whole lot of fun. But we had a really hard time getting together, and we finally folded because of it. That’s a different kind of playing and I really enjoyed it and I missed it when it was finished. I might add, too, that the extra income from our playing, while not in the impressive range, was a big help for our family!

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