FanFare Magazine Interviews Sharon Ruchman
Read the following interview of Sharon Ruchman by FanFare’s own Robert Schulslaper to gain insight into how this prolific original classical music composer found her inspiration to create four classical music CDs and counting.
Inspired by Melody and Memory: The Music of Sharon Ruchman
By Robert Schulslaper, FanFare Magazine
Sharon Ruchman was born in New York City and now resides in Connecticut where she regularly contributes to the cultural life of her community as both pianist and composer. As she explains, she showed an early interest in creating melodies but it was only later in life that she began to organize them into full-fledged compositions.
Robert Schulslaper: Do you remember what first attracted you to music?
Sharon Ruchman: When I was about five years old, I remember sitting down at the piano in our apartment and playing on the keys. I had a real curiosity about music. Three years later I began taking piano lessons and at that time I started to write down melodies in my manuscript book. Music was encouraged in my family. Interestingly, while my grandfather was not a musician, all of his siblings were.
I think that my parents assumed that I would be a teacher and pursue a career in music. I had several piano teachers along the way, but the one that stands out in my mind is Rosetta Goodkind, a wonderful, but very strict teacher from the Julliard School of Music. Ms. Goodkind thought that I had the talent to be a concert pianist, but I was never disciplined enough or ready to make that commitment. Sight-reading was natural for me, so I would pick up classical pieces and play through them. That seemed to give me great satisfaction, along with early exposure to the piano repertoire.
I have continued to play the piano throughout my career, both in concert and on recordings, but I have come to realize that the best gift, for me, is to be creative. Nothing can surpass that feeling, and I have felt fortunate to receive much joy through my writing.
Q: Was the piano your only instrument?
S: No. At that time, I was fascinated with the sound of the cello. I took lessons in school, and every day my mother would meet me to carry the cello home since I was still too small to handle it. I took cello lessons on and off most of my life and I always enjoyed playing it, but for one reason or another there were other things that busied me and I didn’t have enough time to practice it properly.
Around age ten, I started voice lessons, after my parents discovered that I had a big and rich sounding voice. I took lessons in New York City and continued my studies in voice through college, where I was a voice major. Piano lessons also continued through college.
Throughout my school years I enjoyed dancing, performing in musicals and school plays. While in high school I had the opportunity to accompany and sing in the chorus. Music was a very important part of my life then. My high school was in New York State and I decided to audition for All County Chorus, All State Chorus, and then later on, All Eastern Chorus. I was rated the number one alto in the county and was chosen to sing in all three choirs. It was a wonderful experience.
I decided to continue my education at The New England Conservatory of Music, where I majored in voice, studying with Mark Pearson, a tenor. I graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Music Education degree. As part of the Music Ed. program I was introduced to several instruments and even had to take some clarinet and violin lessons; I also took organ lessons. At the Conservatory I chose to take several theory classes. I was very interested and felt very comfortable analyzing the music of classical composers and studying harmony. I remember a number of class assignments where we had to compose fugues; I found this both challenging and fascinating. It seemed as if I couldn’t get enough of theory classes and writing.
I sang in the chorus conducted by Lorna Cooke deVaron and was often her accompanist. My last year of college, I applied to the Blossom Music Festival in Ohio and was accepted: I was chosen to be one of the altos of a sixteen-voice chamber choir conducted by Robert Shaw. That summer our chorus sang the last movement in Mahler’s Second Symphony. Our conductor was Leonard Bernstein. I recall being mesmerized by him, not only for his outstanding ability as a conductor, but for his deep emotion and passion for music and this great Mahler piece. Our chorus truly responded to him, which made our performance and experience extraordinary.
Q: What did you do after graduating from The New England Conservatory?
S: I received a scholarship from the Yale School of Music, where I continued to major in voice. It was a two-year program and I graduated with a Master of Music degree in 1973. The voice department at Yale was very small. I studied with Blake Stern, a tenor, and he and I were soloists in the Mozart Requiem with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. I continued my theory classes and studied harmony with Allen Forte and jazz with Willy Ruff. In my last year at Yale, I was asked to be part of the summer opera program at the Norfolk Music Festival, run by the school. I frequently performed as a vocalist while at Yale and also accompanied voice and instrumental students for lessons and recitals. After graduation, I taught music in the West Haven Public Schools (K-6) for two years.
Q: Tell me about your great uncle Rudy (violinist Rudolph Fuchs).
S: When I was growing up, my grandfather would take me to Brooklyn to visit Emanuel Hirsch, the violist who played with Rudy in one of his string quartets. Mr. Hirsch would recount stories about Rudy, and expressed his great fondness for him and his extraordinary violin playing. Albert Vertchamp was Rudy’s teacher, who also played with him in their string quartet. Rudy was a virtuoso violinist who played for President Coolidge in the late 1920s and debuted in Steinway Hall, just one of many great halls my great uncle played. My father used to hear him practice when he was young.
I heard much about Rudy and his great tragedy. After actively performing as a soloist and with his string quartet on the East Coast, Rudy moved to California where he was the concertmaster of a classical music radio station. In the summer of 1933, he decided to visit his family in Brooklyn. He made a stop at the Chicago World’s Fair where he went up in a sightseeing plane. Within a few minutes the plane went up in flames. Rudy was 24 years old.
I have always been interested in knowing more about him, wanting to find a recording he might have made. But recordings were scarce and primitive in the late 1920s and early 1930s, so after much research I realized that I wouldn’t be able to acquire a recording. I do, however, feel a deep spiritual connection with him. I know he loved gypsy music and recently I have been composing more violin and piano duets in that style. Many years ago I was given his sheet music collection along with letters that he wrote to my grandfather.
Q: That’s a very moving story and it’s easy to understand why Rudy’s life and accomplishments would have great significance for you and your family. However, from what you’ve told me, he was primarily an instrumentalist, while you have become a composer. How did that happen?
S: I have always enjoyed writing melodies. Over the years, I would write them down on paper until I had many manuscript books filled with them. I primarily stored them in a closet not really knowing how I would use them. My interest in composing never waned, even though I had to put that on hold for a long time since I married at twenty-one, went to Graduate School, traveled, and taught music in public school. I had my first child when I was thirty-one and my second child four years later. I devoted most of my time to raising my children, but managed, once in a while, to perform locally.
It was after my grown son and daughter finished college that I had a strong desire to study composition more seriously in this new phase of my life. I decided to call the Yale School of Music, who put me in touch with Orianna Webb, a composition teacher at the school. I went for a private lesson every week for a few years. Ms. Webb exposed me to many great composers and their works. One of my assignments was to write a piece in the style of Bach and Bartok. I would also compose a new piece every week to bring to my lessons. Ms. Webb moved to New York and I discontinued lessons.
Around that time, I received a call from a former cello teacher of mine asking me to compose a cello and piano duet that she could perform. Within a week I completed it and showed her the piece. I didn’t hear back from her, but, by chance, spoke to a friend who mentioned knowing a cellist living in my town. Mary Costanza is a teacher at the Hotchkiss School and a wonderful musician. We met, and instantly connected. She really liked my duet and we started playing together. Composing my first cello and piano duet was the beginning of my writing career. I was inspired and prolific, and within a short time I was composing string quartets, trios, and duets with different combinations of instruments. I found some wonderful musicians from Yale and the Waterbury Symphony who would record my music.
After completing my first CD, I had a number of radio stations play my music and my first piano and cello duet was selected by NACUSA [National Association of Composers USA] to be performed near San Francisco. When my wind quartet was chosen to be performed at the Women’s Composers Festival in Hartford, Connecticut, I felt I was off to a good start. I proceeded to compose a number of piano and cello duets for my second CD, partly from practical considerations: I wanted to continue to perform with my cellist and have enough pieces for a full program.
Q: Your music sometimes reminded me of Brahms, Debussy, and even Prokofiev. Would you agree?
S: Composers such as Brahms and Debussy have had a great influence on my writing because lyrical melodies and imagery are the most important elements in my pieces. Since I have studied classical music all my life, other great composers styles have also played a role in my pieces. My musical language is primarily tonal, although I have written atonal music.
I have done a great deal of traveling throughout the world and find that I am affected by the different rhythms of ethnic music, sounds in general and even smells. I’m very sensitive to the role my surroundings, mood, and experiences play in my writing. For example, “Sea Glass” (from my first CD) was a response to several summers I spent in Maine. I wanted to compose a piece that captured the sound of the waves, along with the calmness and peace of that setting. Similarly, when I began writing music for my second CD, “Arrival of Spring,” I was looking forward to the spring season after a long hard winter, so it was natural for me to try to capture my thoughts of that beautiful time of year when the birds and plants seem to be celebrating the beginning of new life.
Q: Do you follow a set routine or do you wait to be inspired before setting to work?
S: There is a pattern to my writing process. Every day, I sit at the piano to create a melody or melodies. Then I walk away, return to the piano, sometimes going back and forth several times until I am satisfied with the motifs for my future piece. It is then that I ponder instrumentation and the key of the piece. I tend to compose duets, trios, or quartets and I choose a key depending on the mood, range of the instruments, and what sounds appropriate. The mood determines if it is major or minor, but the choice of keys is an individual decision. There are really no rules for that. I do, however, like to vary my keys. After I have determined the key and a melodic theme, I sit down at my computer to work with my Finale notation program. There, I set up my score. I split my time between the program and the piano in working through my piece.
When I compose, I try to incorporate many elements in my pieces but top of the list are melody and the emotion the piece conveys. Atonal music, I find, leaves me unemotional and apathetic. I desire my audience to be inspired, and that my music has a lasting effect on them. People have often told me that my music is very calming.
I want each of my pieces to be unique. I try to make certain that I don’t repeat the same melodic patterns from past pieces. It is important that I introduce elements of surprise in my music. By that, I mean that certain cadences or phrases don’t necessarily resolve or develop as expected. This engages and piques the listeners’ interest.
I like to use a similar structure in my compositions and I incorporate several melodies, each different, but working together musically. I often end a piece as I have begun it so that there is a satisfying sense of completion.
Q: Speaking of listeners’ expectations, titles such as “Sea Glass,” or “Arrival of Spring” are very evocative: Any thoughts on how or why you choose a title?
S: Sometimes I have a specific title in mind and write music to fit. Often, though, I create a title after my piece is completed. Some titles come naturally, but there are pieces that don’t feel as if they need a descriptive title. In those cases I use the standard designations—sonata, duet, trio—plus the key in which the music is written.
Q: You obviously give a lot of thought to the formal and emotional aspects of your work. You’re particular about key selection and melodic compatibility, you incorporate surprise or unpredictability to sustain interest, you strive not to repeat yourself, and you want to move your listeners: My impression is that you’re always looking for new ways to express yourself.
S: I like to challenge myself and often seek to write in a new way or use some instrumentation that I have never used before. For example, I recently finished a Trio, “Serenade,” for soprano, violin, and cello, a new combination for me. I am hoping to record it for my third CD (to be released by the end of the year), along with several other new compositions: Duet for Flute and Piano, a solo piano piece, and four Violin and Piano duets, “Longing,” “Lament,” Kaleidoscope,” and “Remembrance.” There will also be three Cello and Piano duets, a two-movement piece entitled “Hope,” a Cello and Piano Sonata, and “Variations on a theme”.
I am also setting a book of poetry by Susan A. Katz to music. She’s an internationally recognized poet who believes that language is the key to all learning and that poetry is, in turn, the key to language. Susan finds inspiration for her poetry in the everyday business of living, in family joys and sorrows, and in the vast and compelling landscape of the natural world. Her poems reveal intense passion for the living quality of language and she cares deeply about the words and rhythms that capture the beauty and sensory impact of imagery. I have enjoyed the challenge of illustrating her poems musically and I feel that my vocal studies gave me an increased sensitivity to the phrasing, breathing, and range of the singer.
Q: On your website you refer to yourself as a contemporary classical composer. I suppose that’s largely self-explanatory, but nonetheless, could you elaborate a bit?
S: I have always felt reluctant to categorize my style. Although I have atonal music in my repertoire, I mostly lean toward classical music. Contemporary Classical Music is really a loose term. I consider my music to be a product of different styles of, mostly, the great classical composers. I try to incorporate these into my own style, although my music does not necessarily fit into any particular category. As I’ve said, my “classical” orientation predisposes me to prefer tonal music: in that sense I’m a traditional composer. Certainly much of contemporary classical music is atonal, experimental, and rhythmically complex, but I feel that people often respond well to lyrical melodies, something they can grab onto and remember for a long time. That is why the great classical composers still have an impact on audiences today. Their music is timeless. I, too, want to have an impact on my audience by writing music that exudes emotion and gives one a sense of solace. Ultimately, I hope to touch people’s hearts.