Gerard Schwarz is the Conductor Laureate of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and a Distinguished Professor of Music at The Frost School of Music in Coral Gables, Florida. Maestro Schwarz also serves as the director of the All-Star Orchestra and as a volunteer for the Washington Music Educators Association, where he mentors young musicians and their directors.
During his tenure with the Seattle Symphony, Schwarz not only built the orchestra into one of the world’s finest and led the campaign to fund the symphony’s performance space, but he conducted the group in an amazing 140 critically acclaimed recordings and on numerous television programs and concerts. Under his direction, the Seattle Symphony received two Emmy Awards and took major strides in music education and the establishment of the Soundbridge Seattle Symphony Music Discovery Center. Schwarz also finds time to work with local school orchestras and has served as the All-State Orchestra conductor for more than half of the states in the nation.
Question: How did you get started in music in school?
Schwarz: My elementary school in Weehawken, New Jersey had an excellent music program with an orchestra, band and chorus. Most of us played an instrument starting in fourth grade. I already played the piano and chose the trumpet.
Question: Were you involved in other school and community activities outside of music?
Schwarz: I was involved mostly in music but I played tennis, baseball and participated in swimming as well as school-based clubs such as the science club.
Question: Did you always want to pursue music in college?
Schwarz: It really started earlier because of my younger years playing piano and taking lessons but, yes, I knew I wanted to be a music major in college.
Question: Why did you choose conducting over performing?
Schwarz: In both cases, I was a performing musician. The main thing was the different focus from being a part of the whole to being more in a leadership position.
Question: How was performing with a professional orchestra similar and dissimilar to performing in your high school ensemble?
Schwarz: Both groups have a different focus in regard to the interpretation and quality of the pieces being performed. In my high school, even though we took our music very seriously and cared deeply about the interpretations and quality, the focus was on representing the music being performed well. As a professional orchestra, we were trying to reach as perfect a level as we could, as our livelihood was at stake in addition to our approach as musicians.
Question: Do you miss being a performer now that you direct most of the time?
Schwarz: Yes, I loved being a player and making the sound myself.
Question: What advice would you give to school musicians who want to become members of a professional orchestra?
Schwarz: I think that we all need to keep all of our options open. Yes, work hard to become as great a player as possible, but be aware that there are many wonderful career possibilities in our world. Also, always focus primarily on the interpretive ideas of a specific work. The technical challenges are very important, but the music-making should always be paramount.
Steffen Parker, a member of the High School Today Publications Committee, is a music educator, computer geek and instructional support specialist from Vermont, where he organizes music festivals and supports other states with online services for their events.