Schmidt Reflects On Music Career Performing, Teaching Near And Far

Andy Schmidt is shown with piano students and their teacher while abroad in China as an adjudicator for the National Guild of Piano Teachers last summer.

Andy Schmidt’s passion for performing and teaching music has resulted in travels to the other side of the world and back again, and cultivated the talents of many others in the process.

Having first set out on his journey as a pianist, and later an organist, more than 40 years ago, Schmidt is now translating his abilities toward the instruction of more than 40 private piano students at St. James Episcopal Church and Germaine and Pappalardo. He also traveled to China last summer as an adjudicator for the National Guild of Piano Teachers and listened to piano students in the cities of Nanjing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Wuhan and Xiangyang.

Between offering private lessons, for which he is still accepting new students, and his involvement with various Jamestown area musical organizations — including his recent elevation to director of the Jamestown Choral Society — Schmidt always has something going on in his very musical itinerary. The following are his responses to questions posed by The Post-Journal in an effort to garner a further understanding of his own personal philosophy toward music, as well as that he wishes to impress upon his students:

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P-J: When did you first begin studying piano, and what drew you to the instrument so much?

Schmidt: As far back as I can remember I have always adored music. My mom was a music teacher and my dad was an avid audiophile so there was always music in the house. When I was a small child my mom tried to teach me piano, but that didn’t work very well because we were too casual with each other. I sensed that I needed a more disciplined approach, and so when I was 9 I asked my mom “Could I take piano lessons from someone besides you?” She said “yes” and signed me up with Helga Hulse, who at that time was the best piano teacher in Jamestown. Other than a brief break from lessons when I was 12, I stayed with Mrs. Hulse until I graduated from Chautauqua High School in 1982.

P-J: What went into your decision to continue studying piano and music, and eventually take it up as a profession?

Schmidt: When I graduated from high school I still wasn’t certain what career path I wanted to pursue, but I definitely knew what I was most interested in: namely music! I was eager to continue studying not only piano performance but also music theory, simply because it interested me. The summer of 1982 I studied piano at Chautauqua Institution with Ozan Marsh and Jared Jacobsen. I then continued my musical education at Fredonia State College for two years and then I transferred to the Eastman School of Music, where I completed my bachelor’s degree in piano performance in 1987. My primary collegiate piano teachers were Phyllis East at Fredonia and James Avery at Eastman.

After I graduated from Eastman I was deep in debt and needed to make some money. I started teaching lessons and discovered I enjoyed it a great deal. I discovered I loved teaching students at all levels, and I still feel that way today. I truly enjoy seeing my students each week, and helping them to progress. I also became interested in playing the organ, and have played in three area churches over the past 30 years. Currently, I am director of music at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, where I play the church’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ and direct both the adult and junior choirs.

P-J: As a teacher, what is it that you try to impart to your students about the instrument and music as a whole?

Schmidt: As a teacher, I simply want to make music enjoyable and enriching to the students’ life, while still holding them to fairly rigorous standards. I believe that the students feel better about themselves if they have worked hard and really gotten their pieces to an appropriate standard of excellence. I feel this is true for students of all ages and all levels of advancement. I encourage my students to set appropriately challenging goals for themselves and work hard to follow through and make those dreams a reality.

I encourage my students to play all styles of piano music. Whether they’re playing classical literature or artful arrangements of pop songs, I always try to help them attain a fluent, polished performance.

Most of my students participate in the annual auditions of the National Guild of Piano Teachers. The guild is a tremendous organization, in my opinion. Every year over 100,000 students nationwide participate in these auditions, which are held at over 700 guild centers throughout the United States. My students participate at the guild center which is located at Fredonia State College. In a guild audition each student performs from memory for a guild-appointed judge who critiques their performance. The students are graded and are also eligible for various awards and prizes. I’m grateful to say I’ve had many students win a wide variety of awards and prizes from the guild over the years.

In 2004, the guild asked me if I would also work for them several weeks a year as an adjudicator. I said “yes,” and my annual guild trips to various locales have become an important part of my life. These trips are educational for me because I get to see what other teachers are doing that works or doesn’t, as the case may be. I love seeing what other guild teachers are doing with their students.

In the past decade the guild has been expanding into Asia. There is now tremendous interest in piano in many Asian countries. I was honored to judge for the guild in Taiwan in 2016, and in mainland China last year. And I am very happy to announce that the guild has asked me to return to judge again in mainland China this summer!

I greatly love hearing the Chinese kids play piano because, for the most part, those kids PRACTICE! The majority of them take it very seriously and the results are often magnificent. And it’s obvious that the kids enjoy being able to play so well. I think most of them feel absolutely great about having worked hard to achieve a high level of success. Of course, kids in any culture feel great when they have genuinely attained a high level of excellence.

P-J: Recently you were named director of the Jamestown Choral Society. Can you tell me about that, as well as some of the other various community projects you’ve been involved with through the years?

Schmidt: This past September I was appointed director of Jamestown Choral Society. I have enjoyed directing church choirs over the past 25 years, so for me this feels kind of feels like an extension of that. The biggest differences are that JCS is a bigger choir, and we can do both sacred and secular music. Our spring concert will be held Sunday, April 15, at 4 p.m. The concert will be held at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn Square. Just like with my piano students, the concert will feature both classical and popular selections. I just can’t see any reason why those two genres can’t exist side by side on the same program. The concert will also feature my junior choir from St. Luke’s, who will sing along with the Choral Society on two selections.

P-J: Do you have any thoughts/observations on the local music community and the talents you’ve witnessed both as a student and a teacher?

Schmidt: I think Jamestown is an amazingly musical town. The overall standards here of musical performance and music education are much higher than one would typically expect for a small city in Upstate New York. Sometimes when I attend a concert by the Jamestown High School A Cappella Choir, for example, or one of our many other exceptional area ensembles, I am just amazed that we live in this great city of music. I really mean that. Look also at how many local music students over the decades have gone on to major international careers, including Douglas Ahlstedt (tenor), Josh Stanford (organist), my dear friend the late Jim Beal (tenor), and quite a few others, actually. These individuals didn’t hone their talents in a vacuum. They needed a vibrant musical culture which could nourish them in their early years to prepare them for international careers later. Jamestown did that for them. I really do regard Jamestown as a great city for music, and it continues to be my joy to contribute to it to the best of my ability.