Innovating Through Artistry

Eastman School of Music grad Maria Schneider jazzes up her musicianship with a keen business sense

In Interesting Articles, Leadership, Music on January 18, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Hey Eastman Institute for Music Leadership thanks for the great plug! It really is all about community!

Written by ANNA REGUERO • STAFF WRITER for The Democrat and Chronical • JANUARY 18, 2009
bildeI have such nostalgia for that school,” says Maria Schneider about the Eastman School of Music, where she received a master’s degree in 1985, studying closely with Bill Dobbins and Rayburn Wright. “It was just higher learning at its best. I worked so hard there.”

But Eastman wasn’t easy for Schneider, who did her prior studies at the University of Minnesota and University of Miami. She was rejected the first time she applied.

“I really, really appreciated it when I did get in,” she remembers. “I think one of the most valuable things about the school, the level of the musicianship is just so high. When you’re around other musicians striving and everyone’s at a high level, it just pushes everyone higher.”

Schneider returns to Eastman on Friday to perform a concert with her 18-piece jazz orchestra — the same band from her two Grammy-winning recordings — as a benefit to help deserving young jazz musicians afford tuition at Eastman. A number of Eastman graduates are members of her band, including Charles Pillow (alto saxophone), Rich Perry (tenor saxophone) and Gary Versace (accordion).

Schneider, who can’t help but speak openly about her insecurities, remembers fearing disappointment during her time at Eastman; she wanted to prove that she was worthy of being accepted to the school.

I think you can rest easy now, Maria.

Schneider’s musical voice has become unmistakable. Her compositions are mostly through-composed with specific solo sections, meaning that her music is written out much like a classical composition, rather than simply a head melody with chords. Yet the music remains within a complex jazz vocabulary and allows for areas of improvisation, using all the available sounds in a jazz orchestra. Her compositions are large works rather than merely tunes.

Most noticeable is that they’re melody-driven. Schneider creates unique beauty and expression through her warm-bodied compositions.

Since Schneider’s school days, she’s become more than just a composer of some of the most original big-band music out there. She’s also become a symbol of entrepreneurship, a hot topic now for the next generation of musicians.

After ditching a record company for fear of losing the rights to her own creative material, her 2004 recording Concert in the Garden was the first recording to win a Grammy (best large jazz ensemble recording) without in-store distribution; instead, it was dispersed solely over the Internet.

Using the same method, her composition “Cerulean Skies” (from Sky Blue), a piece inspired by bird watching, where bird calls fold into an atmospheric dreamscape, won a 2008 Grammy for best jazz composition.

Schneider was the guinea pig for a Web site called ArtistShare, which allows artists to not only sell their finished recordings but also documents the making of the project. Those who want a CD become participants who pay for different levels of access to Schneider and her creative process and ultimately fund the recording along the way. At the highest levels, for example, a fan could meet Schneider and even witness a recording session.

It’s Schneider’s willingness to try out an uncharted business model that’s brought her as much fame as her breathtaking compositions.

At Eastman, Schneider will also be a featured conference speaker in “Preparing the Generation-E Musician: The Place of Entrepreneurship in Higher Education Music School Curriculum.” The conference, which runs Thursday through Saturday, invites music school leaders from around the country for timely workshops.

“She’s the poster child for this with all the work she’s done with ArtistShare,” says Ramon Ricker, the director for Eastman’s Institute for Music Leadership. “I think this Internet thing where she is actually connecting with her audience by allowing them to be in the process with her, she has the kind of personality that can do that.”

Schneider advocates for musicians to be more than one-trick ponies. “Classical music and jazz, all these forces in schools need to come together,” Schneider says, giving her advice to schools. “The musical world out there is becoming integrated and eclectic.”

It would make sense, then, that Schneider’s latest entrepreneurial and musical risk has been crossing over to classical music. She was commissioned to write a piece for the soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra called “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” which received a performance in October.

“Originally I was really scared,” she admits. “How am I going to bring my voice to the classical world? I’ve heard lots of jazz people write classical music and suddenly you wouldn’t know it’s the same person.”

Once she started writing, she realized how easily her ideas translate to classical music — the intricate harmonies, the counterpoint and especially her keen sense for melody. The hardest task was writing for voice.

Schneider has been known for her use of vocalese, where the singer sings a pitch without words, masked as another instrument in the texture.

“The next transition was writing for words,” she says. “I was surprised to find out that I love it. My initial thought was, it’s hard enough to write music; how am I going to write with this extra limitation on it?”

The musicians, she says, seemed to be taken aback with the freedom of expression she asked for, including Upshaw, who works with a number of contemporary composers.

“I’m not even talking about her improvising, just going ahead and behind the beats,” says Schneider. “It shocked her that I would give her that liberty.”

She expects to work more with Upshaw on future projects. She’ll also be doing a good dose of classical composition, as she’s just accepted a commission from the Kronos Quartet. She’s also in talks with Peter Sellars about writing a staged theater work.

“Everything is a first,” she says. “The thing I learned from the Dawn Upshaw thing was to just jump off a limb and do something different.”

  1. Great article. I’ve rarely found so much practical information about Maria Schneider, and I realy think that she IS a model of entrepreneurship, as a musician and composer.

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