Teaching Music For Life
Beth Schuld shares the keys to setting spirits free
illustration by Josh Holinaty
Beth Schuld is not the kind of person who does anything halfway. She is intense. She is passionate. And if her popular voice and piano classes are any indication of her talent as a teacher, it’s clear that Schuld has earned the respect of parents and students in the city’s music community.
The bulk of her teaching is done in the living room of her southside home, a cozy, sunbathed space not far from the Southgate LRT station. She is a regular instructor at Edmonton’s prestigious Alberta Music Academy and, over the years, she has been involved with a multitude of choirs, including I Coristi Chamber Choir and Richard Eaton Singers.
But, every Friday for the last seven years, Schuld has taken her teaching on the road, giving private music lessons to inmates at the Edmonton Institution for Women through a program organized by the Sing For Life Society of Alberta, a not-for-profit group started by Schuld’s colleague and mentor, Eva Bostrand.
Each lesson, says prison chaplain Snowy Noble, is something many of the women look forward to all week long. And opportunities to work one-on-one with someone like Schuld are huge boosts for their self-esteem and growth.
“The offenders here, many people have already written them off. So here is an opportunity for them to experience something different through music,” explains Noble, who has worked at the prison for eight and a half years. “Not only does she bring experience as a music teacher, but she is one that is very caring, loving and kind, and that is something that is communicated to the women.”
What is also communicated is Schuld’s belief that music is more than just something you learn to play.
“You can have someone with low confidence in and out of the prison and you can have someone who is more confident both in and out of the prison,” she explains. “So the work within the prison and outside of the prison, in many ways, isn’t that different. Because everyone, at the end of the day, is just human.”
Schuld’s teaching style is what might be referred to as holistic; mixing jazz and classical schools of thought with lots of hugs, lots of deep breathing, and body awareness and posture techniques she learned from her chiropractor, along with techniques borrowed from Ortho-Bionomy (an osteopathically based form of body therapy) and Integrated Body Psychotherapy (IBP).
Schuld herself started playing the piano as a small child, completing Grade 8 in The Royal Conservatory of Music and discovering in her early 20s that she could sing, too, after registering for a mandatory choir class in university.
Surprisingly, she managed to make it all the way to university without ever learning how to read music or understand the mechanics of how it works. “I don’t know if anyone knew. I just memorized everything,” she admits. As a result, Schuld says she had to work extra hard in college and university just to keep up with her peers, staying up into the early hours to complete assignments because she only knew how to listen to the music – the rest was a foreign concept.
This difficult and painful experience inspired Schuld to promise herself that her own students would leave with a firm grasp of the fundamentals, the reason she now starts teaching theory and technique way before any of them even enter the first grade of The Royal Conservatory of Music.
“For me, the goal is not whether or not a person passes an exam, or even if they are ready for their year-end recital,” explains Schuld. “Sometimes, I don’t put people in the recital or I hold them back from doing exams. It’s more important to me that, in my classes, they are learning to speak. I think that performing is an important part of music. But being present and being able to stay on your own path in your own time is more important to me as a teacher.”
Even at 40 years old, Schuld is one of those souls blessed with a wildly playful sense of humour. She admits to breaking out dance moves and operatic performances during lessons. Adding to the fun, Schuld possesses that kind of warm and explosive laughter that easily fills a room and makes students gravitate toward her.
But her playfulness should not be mistaken for a lack of focus. This is after all, the same highly disciplined perfectionist who tackled jazz performance at Grant MacEwan Community College after first studying classical music for four years. And the same high achiever who practiced the first movement of Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathtique” for eight to 12 hours a day for an entire year in an attempt to perfect her technique, back when she was a music major at King’s University College.
Two decades of teaching, however, and more than half a life spent practicing and performing have convinced Schuld that it is both impossible and counterproductive to try and isolate music from what is happening in the day-to-day lives of her students.
That means, if you don’t do your homework, she isn’t going to punish you. Instead, her approach is to help her students turn that energy into music, not silence or shame.
It’s something even the prison chaplain has noticed.
“In our context, many of the women, when they run into difficulty, don’t keep up with commitments or don’t follow through with practicing. When they work with Beth, it’s different,” Noble says. “Beth seems to have an understanding and grace in the situation. She really listens in such a welcoming way.”
Schuld’s grace extends even further, suggesting that the world should not be divided into people who are musical and people who aren’t.
It’s for this very reason Schuld started a series of monthly improv workshops to help professionally trained musicians and everyday people come together in a safe and supportive environment. They can show up with their own instruments or borrow one of hers. Some people just sit and whistle. Schuld says the gatherings are rare opportunities for participants to jam for pleasure with strangers and a chance to overcome the fear of improvising in front of other people.
The workshops are also an opportunity for Schuld to share with others her own philosophy about the role of a musician, which has almost nothing to do with fame and ego.
“As a performer, I am just so lucky to be able to be the person through which music moves – to give the audience something,” she says. “But the audience then receives it and gives it back to me and I can feel that. So there is this link between the audience and the performer. And the audience, the willingness to give to them and share with them is really important. It’s like we’re all in this together.”