As we were wrapping our interview, Sarah Schmalenberger asked if she was what I had been expecting.
The question, at the time, gave me pause. The short answer: no. The longer answer: Schmalenberger is the perfect example of why I don’t try to anticipate who I’m going to interview. People are usually more interesting, complex and wonderful.
Schmalenberger is an associate professor of music and music history, her instrument of choice the French horn. When Matthew George, chair of the Music Department, hired her in 2002, he described her as having “a very enthusiastic personality” and the “ability to communicate clearly.”
That enthusiasm and ability to communicate is clear no matter what Schmalenberger is talking about – although she describes herself, strictly, as a musician first. Musician she may be, but that love of music has taken her many different routes over the course of her career and off the beaten path of what she expected.
“That’s the thing about storytelling, whether it’s somebody else’s or now mine: As soon as you start that question, you put that first foot forward, it’s like all bets are off,” Schmalenberger said. “You just have to expect that you will wind up in places that you didn’t even know existed.
Protecting musicians' voices
While it seems obvious even early on that Schmalenberger was going to walk her own path (she told a mentor once that “I ain’t never gonna be you”), she also was thrown from what she anticipated her path would be shortly after she secured her faculty position at St. Thomas.
“I got cancer,” she said. “That changed things a lot.”
“A lot” meant not only going through treatments for breast cancer, but also the aftermath. The treatments – while successful – left her injured. She struggled to play her French horn.
“That’s part of my voice,” Schmalenberger said. “I can’t be a musicologist or a scholar – I can’t teach about music – unless I’m making music. I felt the [cancer] was threatening that … and I felt certain that I was not the only one. And I was right.”
Her research collected the stories of women musicians who also had survived the diagnosis of cancer but struggled with how the treatments affected their ability to play their instruments. Alongside Dr. Jean Gibenhain, professor of psychology, Charles Gesser, M.D., M.P.H., and Lisa Starr, M.S.N., C.N.P, they tried to bring to the surface the issues that these musicians faced: Music was a vital part of their live and they often put themselves at greater risk of injury to keep playing.
“The drive to be a musician is so profoundly, intensely part of the core identity that they will do anything,” Schmalenberger said. “[There’s an] utter terror of losing that connection.”
The study discussed quality of life, and the different options musicians could and should have available to them, with the hope of reminding people, especially doctors, that playing an instrument requires a range of different physical traits.
Although Schmalenberger finished her part of that work several years ago, she said she still has people who find that research and reach out for help.
“I start with that you have to do everything to save your life first,” she said. “There is no livelihood without the life. Then, find everything you can to plan ahead for after the surgery and chemo. … Plan mindfully for the quality of your survival.”
Schmalenberger said she has seen some spaces improve – and others not so much. She expressed frustration with how the music community as a whole still functions, particularly for women musicians. Illness and injury are sometimes purposefully hidden for fear of losing work, and that can come at the expensive of the health of the musician, she said.
But because more people are surviving cancer, particularly breast cancer, medical facilities are planning more for the quality of survival instead of simply survival. Schmalenberger especially praised the recent societal focus on mindfulness, and particularly in terms of work that some of her colleagues have been doing at St. Thomas, including the Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation.
Writing something different
With that project wrapping up, Schmalenberger turned her attention toward new research, which included Frank Zappa. Schmalenberger always had been interested in him, but her committee wouldn’t allow her to do her dissertation on him. She said she still continues to fight assumptions made about Zappa.
"Feminist scholars dismiss Zappa too quickly on the assumption that he was a misogynist," Schmalenberger said. "And so for a woman like me to be interested in studying his work and compositional ethos seems to go against feminism. But my sense is that his seeming contentiousness about women's issues must be considered in a much broader context of his brand of activism. He didn't do drugs, hated the hippie culture and was incredibly pragmatic about the music business. His enigmatic persona, as well as his compositional mastery, intrigues me."
That work yielded an upcoming essay in an journal, but while working on that, she also was approached by a colleague who asked her and a former student, Sarah Minette '11, to write a chapter in an anthology about women bands.
At first, Schmalenberger was not interested. But when she heard there wasn’t a chapter on female rock bands, she and Minette decided together to write on the culture of local all-female rock bands.
"Here’s this huge culture of rock that isn’t about the money or celebrity. It’s about being heard,” Schmalenberger said. Minette and Schmalenberger asked the bands why decided to play rock, why they were all-female and what their experience had been in the Twin Cities.
Schmalenberger said she enjoyed learning about the female rock bands a lot, but that there’s more to be discovered there. While she may continue doing work on the subject, she said she also values knowing it is time to move on from a project.
“Researchers have to get a sense of discernment when the project is over and when to say let’s move on and let others take the conversation,” Schmalenberger said. “I never wanted to have the definitive answer to everything. I wanted to leave something out there for other people to pick up the threads of my work.”
While she described herself at a “resting point,” that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have other projects to work on: She’s currently writing a scholarly personal narrative about her own experiences, and that’s to say nothing of BrassChix, the annual forum for female brass players she started, or Swing Sisterhood, an ensemble of women jazz musicians she helped bring together about a year ago.
George spoke highly of the variety of research activities in the Music Department in general, and praised Schmalenberger for contributing.
“Rather than doing a lot of the tried and true research in her area – musicology – she’s gone to a new realm,” George said. “Her research directly impacts her students’ interests in what’s meaningful to them.”
And from the sounds of it, that’s exactly the way Schmalenberger wants it to be.
“I look up at these books up on the wall. I use all this work in my teaching, but I’m not going to be them,” Schmalenberger said. “I have to write something different. I have to write about the voices that aren’t heard. The people who should be celebrated for just getting through their lives.”