story and photo by janet i. martineau
As instrumentalists go, the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s principal violist is, well, aggressive by nature.
“I started off exclusively as a violinist,” says Susan F. Schreiber, “and it wasn’t until I was 19 and working on my bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University that I turned to the viola -- when my teacher there pointed out that I have a heavy style of playing and large hands for a small woman.
“It was evident in the bow arm, the way I brought it down. The stroke I have is more aggressive than what violinists normally have. Nobody had pointed that out to me before.”
|Susan Schreiber and her viola|
So that observant professor found a viola for her to borrow, gave her some books “and I was a natural physically and as a player with the viola. The strings are thicker so you can play it more aggressively and they don’t break.”
Schreiber says she finished her bachelor’s in violin performance, but her master’s degree from Arizona State is in viola performance. “I still play, and teach, both, but probably only play violin about 20 percent of the time.”
She has now, over the years, noticed that children seem to naturally pick an instrument that feels right to them when they are allowed to choose. “My son made buzzing noises with his lips as a toddler, and when he saw a French horn that was it for him.”
What happened in her case, she says, is that her concert pianist mother chose the violin for her. “I was 7 and my parents we having a party for a visiting orchestra and I was brought in to say hello.
“Several of them asked, ‘What does she play?’ So right after that my mother chose the violin for me because she had always wanted to play violin.”
A native of Concord., Mass., Schreiber now lives in Ann Arbor. She has played viola with the Saginaw Orchestra for seven years, and is in her fifth year as the principal. And she also is principal second violin with the Adrian Symphony.
“I freelance with many different groups in Michigan and Ohio, including the Toledo and Flint Symphonies. And I am the violist for the Beaumont String Quartet and play with the River Raisin Ragtime Revue.”
“Saginaw is the furthest I have to drive. I used to go all over the place, until I became a parent. That is the life of a freelance player -- we call ourselves the freeway philharmonic. But even as careful as I am in performance commitments, I am still this month missing one of my son’s high school band concerts. He is 16.”
Also on her resume is a six-year stint in Germany, playing principal second violin with the Goettinger Symphonie Orchester. She had gone to Austria as a summertime faculty member at the American Institute of Musical Studies “and I was an adventurer back then so I stayed. I loved living and working in Europe.”
What changed that was she came home to visit her parents in Ann Arbor and while there “I met my husband to be. He is a chief strategist for Oakland County.”
Another funny story about twists in life. When she was growing up, her father was an engineering professor at the University of Michigan and she had applied to the university’s school of music “until I realized I would be seeing my father’s office window every day. I just didn’t want that; I wanted to get away.”
So off she went to MSU and that instrument-changing professor.
Dad adjusted fine to her being at the other school and mom to the change in instruments. They even bought her current viola for her, made in 1965 by German master Werner Voight.
“It was the last instrument he made and it is unusual in that it is a quarter of an inch shorter but a third of an inch wider, especially at the bottom, than most violas. That small difference makes it resonate more and produce a very unique sound. But it is also hard to find a case.’
Schreiber teaches viola and violin privately, one-on-one; in her home and also at the Chelsea Center for the Arts. “My students seem to always come to a conclusion on which instrument to play. I am surprised that that I did not see it about myself when I was younger.”
When not musically engaged, she says she is a avid reader of history books and articles. “I would be an historian if I wasn’t in music. I love to delve into the past. And I love to hike and travel.”
Schreiber says of all the orchestras she has played, Saginaw ranks among the top.
“It’s the personalties and the way we work together. There is a sense of community, a sense of ensemble that not all groups have. It is very tangible. We pull together and want to rise to the occasion, to give our absolute best selves to the performance.
“And the community really supports us. There is great food at the rehearsals. We feel very special and cared for.”
She is greatly anticipating the March 23 SBSO performance and the Mahler Fourth on its roster.
“That is my favorite piece. It touches something in my heart with its rare beauty. The last movement is such sweetness; happiness and peace.
“And the viola part is just great -- a lot of meat to chew on.”