Q&A with David Schultz

Excitement is in the air as we gear up for our upcoming free Family Series event "The Versatile Viola" featuring David Schultz on February 11th at the Holt Public Library! This event marks a great opportunity for enthusiasts of every age to gain personal insights into the classical music realm, directly from one of its most esteemed performers.

David Schultz brings a wealth of experience and a deep love for the viola to the table, offering attendees a glimpse into his exceptional journey in music. Whether you're a budding musician, a seasoned concert-goer, or just curious about classical music, David's stories and expertise are bound to inspire and captivate. Bring your questions and your excitement—this is an all-ages event not to be missed!

Q: As someone with a multifaceted career in conducting, performing, and composing, could you share how each of these roles informs and enriches the others in your musical journey?

A: Each of these roles has given me valuable perspectives that help to inform how I approach each one. 

As a conductor, my experience playing viola in orchestras gives me perspective from the musicians’ points of view, informing me of what they want to see and hear from me (as well as what they don’t want from me!); and my experience as a composer helps me to put myself in the shoes of the composer of the score I’m studying and rehearsing, understanding better the decisions they made in their music.

As a violist, my experience as a conductor has helped me to know in greater detail parts in the orchestra other than my own, often because I have conducted the work we are playing before, or have at least studied the score on my own. It helps me to know what is going on around me and what to listen for, which in turn makes me a better orchestral player. 

As a composer, my experience playing and conducting has helped to inform my own choices in music I write to make the jobs of the performers easier, from technical considerations to how the music looks on the page.

Q: You’ve had the opportunity to work with both professional orchestras and youth ensembles. What unique challenges and joys come with mentoring young musicians, and how does it compare to working with seasoned professionals?

A: These days I primarily conduct community orchestras made up of adult amateur musicians (though many of whom are very good players!), and while it is not exactly the same as youth symphonies there are many similarities. In any piece, the difficulties inherent in the music are the same for any ensemble, professional or amateur; however, a professional ensemble is able to overcome those difficulties much faster, whereas it takes more time with a less experienced group, and many pieces are simply out of reach. That makes programming especially challenging. I try to come up with programming that challenges the orchestra to work hard and improve over time, but is within their ability to give a satisfying performance - very difficult to achieve, especially when there is a wide range of experience and ability between the musicians. 

However, there is a joy in working with non-professional musicians that is different from that of professionals. With youth orchestras, it is a delight to see the excitement on the students’ faces when they are just discovering an incredible piece of music for the first time. And with community orchestras, though many players are more experienced with the repertoire, there is a communal sense of happiness in that everyone is there solely for their love of playing. However, this is not to discredit professional musicians’ passion for music in any way - my professional colleagues of course bring a strong love of music to their work, and that love coupled with incredible talent produces remarkable performances.

Q: Your work with the Dexter Community Orchestra and other ensembles involves community engagement. How important do you believe it is for orchestras to connect with their local communities, and what impact does it have on both musicians and audiences?

A: Community engagement is paramount to the success of any musical ensemble, professional or amateur. Recruiting musicians, building an audience, efficient management, fundraising, collaborations with guest artists and other organizations - all of these are essential to a group’s development, and they start by interacting with the community. Classical music can sometimes be seen as stuffy, insular, and elitist, and I think it is important to engage with the audience to tear down those barriers and make it a welcoming experience for everyone. I like to speak with audience members at concerts, hearing what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they might want to see and hear in the future. I try to stay in contact with other arts organizations in the community, support them, and make plans for collaboration when possible. I reach out to businesses and community leaders, not just for donations and sponsorships, but to see how the orchestra might help them, and how we might better the community together. The end result is a community of supporters invested in the success of the orchestra where everyone, musicians and audience, feels a sense of ownership, pride, and belonging.

Q: Music education plays a crucial role in your career, including conducting high school orchestras. How do you think music education contributes to young musicians’ personal growth, beyond musical skills?

A: I just read an article from the BBC the other day where “a new study claims that ‘practicing and reading music may help sustain good memory and the ability to solve complex tasks.’” (https://www.bbc.com/news/health-68105868). This is absolutely true! Learning an instrument does so much good for the mind, both in youth and adults. Playing music in school helps to develop so many crucial skills relevant in any endeavor - executive functioning, concentration, planning, meeting goals, listening, teamwork, fine motor skills.. the list could go on and on, and this doesn’t even touch on the positive emotional mental health benefits. Music should be a critical component of every students’ education, regardless of what professional field they eventually pursue. Some of the brightest people I know are the musicians in my community orchestras, many of whom studied music in their youth, went on to do something else professionally, but kept their love of music and are able to continue playing in community ensembles, many of them well into their golden years.

Q: Many young musicians aspire to have diverse careers like yours. What advice would you give to emerging artists looking to pursue conducting, performing, and composing simultaneously?

A: First and foremost, practice your instrument. Learn it to the best of your ability, under the guidance of a supportive teacher. Play as much as you can in many different ensembles, and get to know the musicians and leaders. Network with other musicians - you never know when a random person you’ve worked with before will present you with a new opportunity. 

If you want to compose, write as much as you can, and make it a habit. Don’t worry if what you write is “good” or not; the more you write, the more you will develop your craft. Write music for your friends and have them play it for you, then ask for their critical feedback.

Conducting is tricky to pursue because a conductor’s “instrument” is the orchestra, and it’s difficult to arrange for a group of musicians to play for you when you have no experience. There are many workshops and seminars where aspiring conductors can get experience on the podium, but these can often be expensive. The first orchestra I ever conducted was in undergrad - I asked a handful of friends and colleagues if they would form a small orchestra and give a concert, and I bribed them with pizza! From that experience I was able to compile some video footage, and I used that to apply to other schools and workshops, starting me on my long journey of becoming a conductor. I also had many mentors along the way. Try to meet conductors, ask if you can attend their rehearsals. Watch and learn, and take lessons if they are offered.

Build strong time management skills. I can’t manage my life without careful planning. I need to schedule times for individual activities like practicing, studying, etc. and I treat them like commitments I can’t miss. Otherwise it’s easy to let those things fall by the wayside.

And this may sound a bit pessimistic, but learn to manage your expectations, and be ready to be flexible and adapt to what comes your way. Music is a horribly competitive field, and while you can find many opportunities in it, there are just so many people who want to do the same thing as you, and not enough good paying jobs to sustain everyone. But if you’re willing to stick it out for the long run and put in the work, it can be a very rewarding pursuit. When I look at how my career has developed over the last twenty years, while not everything has happened as I might have initially planned, I still wouldn’t change anything from how it went, because it led me to what I’m doing right now, which I truly love.

Q: You’re involved in contemporary music with ConTempus Initiative. What role do you see modern classical music playing in captivating and engaging younger generations in the world of orchestral music?

A: I actually haven’t played with ConTempus Initiative in a while (I should probably remove them from my bio), but I am still actively engaged with new music and living composers in all of my professional endeavors. I think it’s important to see the orchestra not just as a museum for the great works of the past, but as a living ensemble that continues to evolve and thrive through premiering new pieces of music as well. Art is often a product of its time, and though we can keep older works alive in performance and learn from what those composers wanted to express about their experience of the world, we need to continue to produce new music that reflects the unique aspects of the current day. In particular, I see technology playing an increasingly important role in music and how we experience it, and I think young people are especially adept at dealing with the rapid changes in tech and applying it to art. I think if orchestras can learn to adapt to the changing technological landscape, there will be great opportunities to welcome new generations of listeners, composers, and performers into this ever evolving orchestral tradition.

Q: Looking ahead, do you have any upcoming musical projects or endeavors that you are excited about that you would like to share with us?

A: So many exciting projects on my horizon! Each of my three community orchestras have concerts in March with fun programs. Dexter Community Orchestra is presenting an all-American program on March 3, featuring a local harmonica player, Peter “Madcat” Ruth, in what should be a thrilling outside-the-box type of concert. Mason Symphony, my orchestra closest to Lansing, will be playing a concert on March 9 featuring Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, as well as a very talented student bassoonist, Alec Jachalke from Okemos High School. Finally, the Livingston Symphony Orchestra is giving a St. Patrick’s Day concert on March 17 that will feature traditional Irish music paired with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

An event I’m especially looking forward to later this year will be Dexter Community Orchestra’s May 5 concert. Dexter is where I live, so I feel especially connected to the community there. Titled “Bi-Centennial Celebrations,” the concert will be celebrating both the 200th anniversary of the founding of Dexter, as well as the 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The orchestra has commissioned a brand new work from local composer Evan Chambers to honor the history and beauty of Dexter, and we are forming a large chorus to present the Beethoven in its entirety. 

Q: Finally, as we look forward to our Family Series event titled “The Versatile Viola,” what can families and young music enthusiasts expect from this special event, and what message do you hope to convey about the viola and classical music?

A: The viola is a beautiful instrument, and is often overshadowed by other string instruments. I want to give it some love and show how it has its own special characteristics (it’s not a “big violin!”), but also works beautifully in tandem with other string instruments. I’ll be playing a few short solo pieces to demonstrate the viola’s versatility, and will also touch on the role the viola plays in the orchestra. All throughout I’ll talk about my own musical journey and the role the viola has played in it. Above all I hope everyone who attends will have fun and will walk away feeling a greater love for music. For those who don’t play an instrument yet, I hope they will be inspired to start learning one, and for those that do, I hope they will be inspired to keep practicing!