Throughout the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra’s 60th anniversary season, we are profiling a different musician every week.
I recently spoke with Susan Schaffer about her musical journey. Susan is the OSO’s Assistant Concertmaster and will play in the Concertmaster chair for our next several concerts while Concertmaster Rachel Kristenson is on maternity leave.
I asked Sue how her early musical life unfolded. “My two brothers and I all took private piano lessons; mine started just after I'd turned six. Later that year, a brand new Suzuki violin program offered group lessons for beginners, so my father - who was tone deaf but loved music and adored the violin - and I started together.
“After nearly six months of Twinkles, my dad brought home a Book 1 LP to discover what came next. I would play each new piece back on my wee violin, until I got stuck at Perpetual Motion. Soon after, I started private lessons.”
A student’s first private music teacher can be crucial and if they set a tone of inspiration can have a positive influence on their entire musical future. Clearly Susan had this kind of positive experience with her first violin teacher, Norbert Boehm, who played Concertmaster of the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra (LSO).
“When I was eleven,” Susan shared, “he invited me to join the second violin section at the symphony, where I played for seven seasons. Mr. Boehm came by this inspiring teaching honestly as his mentor was Thomas Rolston, Artistic Director of the Banff Centre and founder of Talent Education Edmonton. Thomas, who became like a musical uncle to me, helped my parents to find additional opportunities to encourage and nurture my development. My first experience at the Banff Centre was before my thirteenth birthday in the Young Artists Program, and it opened up incredible musical horizons.
I asked Susan how those broadening musical horizons led to her career choice as a professional musician.
“I was lucky to play in many different scenarios; symphony, chamber music and teaching. As my learning journey meandered, I was always fortunate to have many supportive mentors: Norbert was patient, persistent and passionate in his efforts to inspire me. Stewart Grant, conductor of the LSO and Southern Alberta Chamber Orchestra (SACO) gifted me with immeasurable experience and an abiding love of orchestral music.
“I met John Loban at Banff as a 12 year old, and he later nurtured me during my first two years at UBC. During several teenage summers at Rocky Ridge Music Centre in Colorado, Larry Fisher guided me to my first solo concerto with orchestra. For my last two years of high school, I commuted each week to Mount Royal College, where Lise Elson drilled my technique and helped me conquer many fears. During my final two years at UBC, Geoffrey Michaels helped me work through the challenges of tendinitis. Along the way, there were numerous incredible artists in master classes that gave me invaluable feedback. I also benefited from years of Alexander Technique lessons as a young professional, which informed my understanding of healthy movement; I’m not sure how I would have managed otherwise.”
Clearly, it takes a musical village to raise a professional violinist.
I’m always interested in how a musician moves from being a student to being paid to play. I fondly remember the first time I received a paycheck after conducting my first professional concert. I couldn’t believe that I was being paid for doing what I loved. I asked Susan to talk about that aspect of her career when she moved from student to professional.
She reminisced, “As a teenager, my first paid "gigs" were playing in pit orchestras in numerous community musical theatre productions in Lethbridge. When I was 16, the CBC live recorded a SACO concert including the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings; I was so nervous, I think I could’ve played my part in my sleep. Playing Principal Viola in the Kamloops Symphony was my first professional position, post university. At the same time, I joined the OSO as a Core player without a set position; I rotated between 1st violin, 2nd violin and viola. When the newly created Assistant Concertmaster position became vacant a year later, I auditioned and never looked back.”
As Susan has had so much performing experience, I asked her if she has any favourite repertoire that she enjoys playing.
“Bach has always been my favourite composer, but I love playing any music where I feel an emotional connection - to the composer, to my colleagues onstage, to our audience - it’s unique to any other experience I can think of.” I imagine that Susan will really enjoy playing the OSO’s concert titled “Bach’s Playlist” which we will perform with guest conductor Ivars Taurins at the beginning of April. Ivars has crafted a program of music by Bach and his colleagues, all of which could be found on Bach’s musical shelves.
Susan fills a crucial role in the OSO as Assistant Concertmaster, sort of like Rachel’s “Number 1” in star trek terms. “I like to joke that the Assistant Concertmaster position is the classic "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" scenario!” Susan explains. “Besides preparing my part like any other section first violinist, my job is to be ready to step in should the Concertmaster be unable to perform. Generally, that means preparing solos that I’ll never play, "just in case"; however, since my dear friend and colleague, OSO Concertmaster Rachel Kristenson is currently on maternity leave, I’ve stepped up to Acting Concertmaster until she’s ready to resume her duties. I loved playing Messiah in this role and now Orchestral Rock Odyssey which we are performing this weekend. Then our Side by Side 60th Anniversary concert with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. So much variety and so rewarding to be in the leader’s seat.”
A professional orchestra, like the OSO, does multiple performances over a season with a variety of programs. As we only come together for a day or two before the show to rehearse it is imperative that each of the musicians arrives with their own part ready to go. I know that Susan is meticulous in her musical preparation. I asked her to share the process that she follows to ensure that her confidence is in top shape.
“I spend time almost daily working on my technique, and tweak my routine depending on the demands of each program. If possible, I’ll listen to the repertoire, especially if it’s new to me. If I’m responsible for bowings (deciding if the entire string section is moving their bows up or down so we are in sync), I’ll do a quick run through, just to get the broad brush strokes, then go through in detail, sometimes waffling about the best - or at times, the least worst - option. I work out fingerings that help me to feel both technically secure and in tune with the composer’s musical intentions. I work with a metronome daily, to ensure that I take nothing for granted, in being ready for whatever a concert weekend experience might throw at us. From first rehearsal to first performance, we have - at most - two days to assimilate all the nuances that Rose is looking for, so coming well prepared to hit the ground running is crucial.”
Not only is Susan an accomplished symphonic violinist, but she has other performing aspirations also which she described for me.
“For decades, my husband, former OSO Concertmaster Denis Letourneau and I have performed as the duo Romanza del Arco, and have arranged diverse repertoire for violin and viola; everything from symphonic works and pop tunes to over 100 hymns. I have also found it very rewarding to teach hundreds of violin and viola students all over British Columbia. I used to clock about 50,000 km a year getting to the various music schools for teaching. More recently I’ve started to nurture a different passion as Denis and I have been attending dance classes weekly for the past decade learning ballroom, Latin, Country and Argentine tango. I have also added in adult ballet classes in Armstrong. Learning to dance has become a huge passion for me and it has transformed the way that I feel and interpret music. Denis and I have been thrilled to break out a few moves in front of the OSO when Rosemary has requested."
When the violin goes back in its case, Susan seeks out other ways to relax and recharge. We often see her with Denis doing Tai Chi warm ups between rehearsals. I asked her how else she likes to spend her time.
“I’ve been an avid reader my entire life - apparently, last year I saved over $17,000 using the Okanagan Library - and in good weather, I enjoy getting out in the garden or going for a hike. I’ve more recently discovered snowshoeing, and am relishing the opportunity to enjoy forest bathing year round.
I asked Susan if there was anything else she would like to share and got a very passionate response. “I’m nuts about dogs,” she said, “and while we don’t have one at the moment - it’s just a matter of timing - I’m an adoring auntie.” I can attest to this as Susan is definitely my dog Griffin’s favourite person. She finished with an announcement “if anyone needs an occasional dog sitter, please get in touch! (just make sure your puppy likes the sound of the violin).
Rosemary Thomson is music director and conductor for the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra. For more information: Okanagansymphony.com