William Schmidt

I still remember very clearly the first time I met Bill Schmidt and his wife Sharon. I was a student at UCLA and went to hear a recital by Tom Stevens, who was my teacher at the time. It was a great recital, of course, but what came as a huge surprise to me was how taken I was by his pianist, Sharon Davis. So when I decided to do a very small competition several months later I called Tom to ask if his pianist might be willing to accompany me. When I asked him about Sharon ,Tom said “oh yeah, she’s great, and she’s married to Bill Schmidt, the composer.” That didn’t make an impression on me because I had never heard of a composer named Bill Schmidt, but I called Sharon anyway.

Our first conversation was not an auspicious start for what was to become a life-long friendship. For I made the mistake of calling her shortly before the competition to play the Hindemith Sonata and the only rehearsal time we could find was just one day before I had to play. Totally thoughtless behavior on my part, of course, and I now realize that this lack of consideration for pianists exists with students unfortunately even to this day. Sharon seemed less than enthusiastic to hear from this college student, to say the least, and at one point the conversation took the following turn:

Sharon – “so what grade are you in high school?”

Me – “I’m a senior at UCLA”

But Sharon decided to play the competition with me probably against her better judgment and so we had our first rehearsal together. Although organization has never been a strong point with me, Sharon’s place seemed to be in a complete and different category of chaos. In addition, her daughter Heidi was in the playpen near the piano and would occasionally indulge in a crying binge. And finally, in the middle of our rehearsal her husband walked in the room dressed in shabby jeans and a t-shirt with a hole or two in it. All I wanted to do was play the competition and be done with it.

But then something magic occured. The competition went quite well, and when we played together it seemed like something special was happening between us. As I drove Sharon back to her house we really started talking with each other, and it was probably at this time that I realized that Bill Schmidt was THE William Schmidt, whose quintets I had played quite often. On this drive back home she suddenly said, “turn right here into this parking lot”, which I did, and soon we were sitting in a Baskin-Robbins eating ice-cream.

When we finally got back home Bill was there (still William Schmidt to me) and he asked a favor. He had just finished a piece for trumpet and piano called The Turkish Lady – would I mind reading through it with Sharon so that he could make revisions and corrections? I ended up staying and working on the piece well past 1:00 in the morning, and I regarded this as the luckiest and greatest honor a student could dream of: that of being able to work directly with a noted composer. What a gift that was! And even though Bill was many years my senior, that evening, without knowing it, Bill became not only my friend but also my mentor and inspiration in so many ways.

Years later I premiered a Concerto Bill had written for Trumpet and Orchestra. Before the performance we had dinner together and started tracing our professional friendship. To our amazement we realized that I had premiered fifteen separate works of his. This speaks volumes about how prolific Bill was as a composer (see the listing of his works at the end of this article, and realize that these are only the WIM publications for brass).

Bill had his own way of doing things, and he lived his life based on his own principals. He worked very hard at both publishing and composing, yet I never had the feeling he was working hard, perhaps because he was interested in so many different things. He and Sharon had countless oriental rugs in their house, and collecting these rugs was only one of his many passions. He grew orchids, built a pond in his back yard for koi fish, and laid an extensive brick patio. I remember one time when he started reading The Hobbit and got so involved in that book and Tolkien’s Trilogy that four days later he had finished the entire Lord of the Rings. But these were simply diversions, since his work as both composer and publisher was the central focus of his life.

Starting a publishing company (Western International Music, Inc./ WIM) as a family business is an extremely difficult thing to do, yet Bill was able to not only start a publishing company but also to turn it into the Number One company for brass and woodwinds in the United States. That is an outstanding accomplishment in itself, nonetheless, Bill was simultaneously becoming an incredibly prolific composer. I cannot think of another composer anywhere in the world who has been so successful in both aspects of the business (there are a number of composers these days who are successful publishing their own works, but they don’t publish other composers as well). And most of this publishing was done before computers became a part of daily life, meaning that the process of engraving music was much more time-consuming than using the engraving systems of today like Finale and Sibelius.

Bill did all of this by working consistently every day, alternating between aspects of publishing such as photography and dark room work (in the earlier days) printing, binding, engraving, office work, and that of composing. His hours were far different from the norm: he would sleep until 12 or 1 in the afternoon, never use an alarm clock to wake up, and then work until 2 or 3 or sometimes 4 the following morning. What by normal standards might seem to be a sort of slovenly lifestyle was in fact a very disciplined and committed way of living and being.

So what was it about Bill that made him such an exceptional and special person? One thing is that I don’t believe I have ever met someone who was as natural a person or as comfortable with himself as Bill. This natural way of being manifested itself in many ways, the way he dressed, his hours, the way he worked. He looked good in a coat and tie, but felt more comfortable in old “camping clothes” and I saw him in a suit and tie only a few times in my life. And, as an example, Bill is the only person I ever met in my life who could fall asleep in the middle of a conversation we were having-one moment we were talking, the next he was sleeping. You don’t get more natural than that! Bill was also the type of person who seemed positive and happy, who just seemed to love being alive and experiencing the many adventures of life. I remember numerous backpacking trips with him in the High Sierras where, totally whipped and tired, I would ask him how soon we would be at our destination. “Just over the next ridge”, he would say with a smile, and two hours later his answer and demeanor would be exactly the same. What made those answers so difficult to accept was the fact that he was carrying more in his backpack than I was and in addition was also carrying his little daughter. It’s hard to be angry with somebody when they are working many times harder than you are.

The time when we first met was an incredible time to be a student in Los Angeles. The Philharmonic had a great brass section (it still does) and some of the younger players in the orchestra such as Tom Stevens, Mario Guarneri, Miles Anderson, and Roger Bobo were also developing careers as soloists and chamber music players. As a result, many new works were written for brass, and Bill published them all, including composers such as Rayner Brown, John Cheetham, Robert Henderson, William Kraft, Lyle “Spud“ Murphy, Lewis Raymond, Irving Rosenthal, Fisher Tull, Frank Campo, and Sharon Davis. There was the Los Angeles Brass Quintet, and in addition the Los Angeles Brass Society, which was conducted by Lester Remsen, and included not only the top professionals in town but also their talented students. Many of these new works were recorded at the time and can still be heard on Crystal and WIM recordings. It was simply a wonderful and exciting time to be a young brass player in Los Angeles.

Bill was blessed in that he had a wonderful marriage with Sharon. They were on the same page, both musically and spiritually, both devoted to WIM, both avid backpackers, and totally devoted to each other. They were truly a team.

But in addition to a life fully and passionately lived, there was the work. There was always the work, the creativity, the publishing. His body of work is enormous; his works for trumpet alone (including arrangements) number 31; his works for trumpet in different brass settings, from brass duet to brass choir, number 61. And this is just his music for trumpet, which doesn’t take into account his music for horn, trombone, euphonium, and tuba. This is an amazing amount of creativity and work produced, especially when considering the fact that his output for woodwinds (especially saxophones and clarinets) is larger than that for brass. Yet what is even more astounding about his body of work is that he did all of this while running the publishing company that he founded–Western International Music, Inc.. This productivity as a composer and publisher would normally belong to someone with a type A personality, not someone who was so engaged with so many areas of living.

I think one of the things that is now so impressive to me is how Bill created his huge body of quality work. In retrospect, as a young would-be composer I guess I was perhaps a little disappointed in how he worked. I didn’t see any moments of fevered creativity, no successive nights without sleep when his muse decided to strike. In other words, he did not live the way a great composer should live, or so I thought. If Bill had a muse it was one who said, “do your work every day in a regular, consistent manner, and don’t be a prima donna about it.” And the older I get the more I can now appreciate how he worked and learn from his approach to both composing and life.

So I wonder if Bill realized that he was my teacher. Probably not, because he never sat me down and gave me a lesson, either in composition or music. But I believe that the greatest teachers can also teach by what they do and how they live, not just by what they say. And when viewed in that light, Bill was everything a student could want in a teacher: a vast array of knowledge combined with patience, good humor, and also a life of accomplishment.

In the late 80’s Bill and Sharon moved to Greeley, Colorado and I went off to Europe we fell somewhat out of touch. We were still in contact with each other, but not nearly so much as in the past. I regret that we lost some of the close contact that we had earlier on, but of course the feelings always remain. The final few years of Bill’s life were very difficult ones. He had a series of diseases and lost both strength and health. So in a way, perhaps I was lucky in that I never saw Bill when he wasn’t at the top of his game.

When one has a friend who is also a mentor, one is doubly blessed – there are the riches of both friendship and learning. And that relationship extends past death as well. For when I think back on how wonderful Bill was as a composer and teacher, I believe that his greatest lessons had to do with living a life as fully and joyfully as possible. And, no matter what obstacles I face in my own life, I can always hear Bill saying with a smile, “just over the next ridge.”

Used with the permission of the International Trumpet Guild. For more information on ITG, visit the organization’s web site (trumpetguild.org)