Hearing her piano teacher play for the first time, composer Maria Schneider felt like Dorothy stepping into Oz.
Question: When did you first discover your talent for music?
Maria Schneider: Well, I guess what I first discovered was a love for it and that was when I was, actually I was four, almost five years old, and I'm from a very small town in Windom, Minnesota, the southwest corner, and there was a woman that moved there in 1965, and she had been a stride pianist and a classical pianist from Chicago. And when she came to town, she was this great pianist, and the only reason she moved to Windom was that her husband and son had both died of cancer within, I think, like a month of each other or something, it was really tragic and her only living family was this daughter in Windom. So she moved to town, and my parents heard about her and invited her over for dinner. And after dinner, she started to play, and it was just, I mean, we had this awful little, sort of spinet piano in our house, but it was like, it was like in the Wizard of Oz when it goes from black and white into color. You know, my life changed at that point, and it was like her spirit just went into the air and was just dancing. I mean, I could see things, you know, beyond, in the music, with her, how her personality just came into the sound. And I said, "I want that, I want to be her." And she had red hair, and my hair was really bright red back then, and so it was just like, "I want to be Mrs. Butler." And so I begged my parents for lessons and maybe in myself I recognized that I had, you know, maybe a talent for it, but it was just an affinity for sound.
Question: What music did you love most as a child?
Maria Schneider: Well, let's see. I mean, it was a variety of things. I mean, classical music, mainly through my mother and my teacher, my mom used to play Chopin around the house a lot and so Chopin, Ravel, you know, Mozart, all the classical music. Not so much modern classical, although, you know, maybe some Stravinsky later on, and Copland, I was a Copland freak when I was young. And then I loved musical theater songs, like Cole Porter, you know, just standards, Gershwin, and, you know, Lerner and Lowe, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I was just crazy about that. And then my piano teacher really, you know, encouraged me to, you know, do piano kind of stride arrangements of, you know, American popular, old American popular song. And so those were the main things, you know, the jazz, I wasn't really conscious of what jazz was. The only jazz I knew about was kind of just old stride piano, you know, playing, and then boogie woogie, which she also taught me to play. You know, it was an odd way to begin.
Question: How did you transition from playing to composing?
Maria Schneider: Well, she really encouraged me. My very first lesson, she was an amazing teacher and my first lesson, I mean, it's funny how all things go back to Evelyn Butler, but my first lesson, she did something where she played a major triad and then she sang, "Bright the day," and then she played a minor triad and she sang, "Dark the night," and she said, "Everything in music has a feeling and there's a reason behind it, you know, and it comes through music theory and I want you to understand why everything you play sounds and feels the way it does. And we're going to analyze every piece that you ever play." Well, of course, when you start out on piano, your first pieces are harmonically very simple, melodically simple. So she started teaching me, you know, a major triad, the notes of the scale, you know, simple things like 1-4-5 chord, which is a very simple progression and made me analyze my music.
And then it kind of got me wanting to write music myself, because what I became interested in, more than the way I played the pieces, I loved playing music and, you know, pretending I was Horowitz or something, even though I was pretty horrible probably, but what I loved more than that was discovering what these composers wrote and, you know, and coming to lofty conclusions that, you know, Chopin wasn't good at writing endings and, you know, I was sort of critiquing composers at kind of a young age, it was sort of ridiculous. And so I started writing songs, just simple songs for friends, you know, and giving them as gifts and things like that. So it was just kind of, it's a pain because of the way she taught me, I think.
Recorded on December 11, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen