We love getting to know Center for Musical Arts students! In this video, Center faculty member Lindsie Katz interviews student and jazz musician Lynn Schwankl.
Center for Musical Arts: Hi everyone. My name is Lindsie Katz, and I’m one of the violin and viola teachers here at the Center for Musical Arts. And I’ve also been writing some blog posts for the Center, so I’m sure you’ve all seen some of those. So today I’m going to be talking with one of our longtime students and participants in the jazz ensemble, Lynn Schwankl. Hi Lynn, how are you today?
Lynn Schwankl: Great. It’s nice to see you.
Center: You too. Yeah, even if it’s on Zoom. It’s great. So why don’t we just start off by having you just tell us a little bit about yourself and maybe how you discovered music?
Lynn: Well, I was introduced to drumming when I was about six or seven years old, I guess. I had a chemistry set that I got for Christmas. And then there was this little play… It was like a super miniature, a pool cue, and little discs that you could knock around on this board. It had little baskets in it, so it was like a kid’s pool table, only it sat on the floor. Well, anyway, I turned the back of my metal boxed chemistry set and two of the pool cues into drumsticks. The metal box became a drum, and that pretty much started it.
Lynn: I started taking lessons when I was eight, and then stayed with the program all the way through what we… I guess they call it middle school, but if there was an opportunity to play anything, I don’t even remember. It’s a long time ago for elementary school.
Lynn: But junior high and senior high school, whatever was available. I played in orchestra, I played the timpani in orchestra, and then was a snare drummer in the marching band. And the state, and then we did have a… Played very infrequently with the marching band, became a stage band. But then I was featured on a drum set during that and, but started playing professionally at the age of 15 when we did school dances.
Lynn: And so, it’s a scary number, but I’ve been playing professionally for 58 years.
Lynn: And anyway, got into playing clubs with some local friends. Grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, right on the Canadian border.
Lynn: Some very, very fine musicians from Fort Francis, Ontario, which is literally across the river, or across the bridge, as we used to say. I joined up with them and in 1970 I was solicited to go join them in Canada to take a run at “the big time.” And that’s pretty much what we did.
Center: Wow, that sounds fun.
Lynn: We formed a group in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I moved there. I was married at the time to a Canadian from Fort Francis, and we moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario, put the band together, went on the road. And then over the next several years, I was up there six and a half years. Recorded on RCA, these are Canadian labels, Heliodor, and a minor label called Astra Records. And a couple other things.
Center: Wow. That’s a lot.
Lynn: You haven’t lived until you’ve gone into the studio with 20 elementary kids singing Anne Murray’s song. Oh!
Center: Oh my gosh.
Lynn: I can’t, it escapes me right now.
Center: That’s okay. I’ll look it up later.
Lynn: Yeah. But anyways, and that was put on a little label on a 45.
Lynn: But anyway, so I did that and then I burned out on it.
Center: Oh, okay.
Lynn: We sort of started going in circles and not much was happening, and there were some band member changes. And I decided to come home, and came back and moved to Colorado in 1976.
Lynn: Played full time for 20 years or so. And then while I was playing, I visited a chiropractor because of a car crash, and a big light came on and I said, maybe I should get a real job. And I always felt a little guilty because I knew I had the brain power to get a degree. And so I transferred all 19 credits.
Lynn: …I could from my early, back in the 60s, and went all the way to a doctorate chiropractic, which I did for about 20, 25 years.
Center: My gosh.
Lynn: Kind of put the playing to the side. But then after I retired from that, then it came back into my life. And the Center for Musical Arts showed up in there, I guess, about 10 years ago.
Center: Okay. Wow.
Lynn: And the director of the jazz program there, Steve Christopher, I ran into him. He was directing for Colorado… I’m going to forget that too. You know what? It just it… But anyway. It was another jazz program and I was playing in a combo and an ensemble with them.
Lynn: Steve, and then lost touch with that group… Colorado Jazz Festival maybe or something.
Center: Cool. Yeah.
Lynn: That may be what it was. But anyway, and then out of the blue I got to… I think the way it happened, because it was a long time ago: I got a call from Steve, and we hooked up over at the Center for Musical Arts. And I had retired from the chiropractic scene by then.
Lynn: But couldn’t stand not working. And because of my schedule, I was having to get up at 4:30 in the morning and practicing, playing and practicing. I was just running out of hours in the day. And so we separated for a while.
Center: Kind of the opposite of musicians.
Lynn: And then, but I’ve been back, I guess twice over 10 years or so. And now we start up again tomorrow night.
Center: Oh, wow. Tomorrow night.
Center: What timing. That’s great.
Lynn: But anyway, it’s been circuitous.
Lynn: But a lot of fun. And through all of those years, I’ve played a little bit of everything.
Center: It sounds like it.
Lynn: Except I know it’s hard to believe at 73, that I’m not a hip-hop player, and it’s maybe the only music I haven’t played.
Lynn: But everything else. And primarily we were an uptown group. Tuxedos, used to have lots of frilly shirts. Still own four tuxedos. And played show and dance clubs and chased our records and that kind of thing.
Center: Oh, wow. That’s sounds like the life. I mean, it’s kind of like the musician’s dream, what you’ve just described your entire life.
Lynn: Oh yeah. No, we had a lot of fun because-
Center: Yeah, I bet.
Lynn: I mean, for the younger students won’t know… And my memory doesn’t serve me well sometimes too. There is some medical reason for that. They tell you if you’re going to have chemotherapy, you will get “chemo brain” and/or brain fog.
Center: I’ve heard of that.
Lynn: And what it does is it beats up on your memory. Donald Sutherland is the name I was going to come up with.
Center: Good job remembering.
Lynn: We spent, for instance, some of the exciting things besides having fun playing and making music. We spent our band up in… We were in Saskatchewan and Donald Sutherland came in the club, and he was doing a documentary for some Canadian history. And he was a Canadian mounted police or a military person. And this was to document an Indian, Native Canadian insurrection or whatever they called it. And so he said, “Hey. Why don’t you come out on the set?” And we spent a whole day with Donald Sutherland.
Lynn: And I mean, flown by Sun Oil, up into the tar sands of Alberta for their Christmas parties.. All kinds of wonderful, strange things that a lot of people would never get to do, and the music business has… We followed Harry Belafonte into RCA Studios to do one of our records.
Center: Oh my gosh, cool.
Lynn: So it’s been very cool.
Center: Yeah. You’ve seem like you’ve just been around everywhere and it sounds like you just have a lot of great memories.
Lynn: Oh, yes.
Center: Experiences that are unparalleled.
Lynn: Plus the tens of thousands of people you meet over that number of years.
Center: Yes. Yeah. I mean, that’s why I love being a musician too. You just get to travel to so many different places and meet all different kinds of people. And it just brings people together in a way that I don’t think anything else can, you know?
Lynn: Right. And probably the greatest enjoyment though, is playing with other musicians and creating. When you first start out, it’s very, very frustrating. I know, when you know almost nothing. And in fact I did watch an interview with you just before we started here today. And you talked about some of the very same things that I think too, is that when you first start out, you just think that it’s the most difficult thing you’ll ever do. But all of a sudden a little light comes on. And then all of a sudden that phrase you’ve been working on, it comes to you. And then you get better and better.
And the next thing you know, is you’re sitting with other musicians and creating beautiful, beautiful music. And then you say, ah, it was worth it. And in the jazz program, where there is so much creative going on as opposed to playing a song exactly the same way so that the crowd knows exactly what it’s supposed to say, jazz gives you the opportunity to improvise. And there is nothing greater than sitting like in a jazz combo, six or seven other, maybe four or five, six, seven other players, and listening to them have one of their magic moments and you just go, yeah. That was beautiful. And you have your own of course.
Center: Yeah. Right. Yeah that must be… It’s such a different approach to music, I imagine. Improvisation in general.
Lynn: Oh, yes.
Center: I do a little bit of that as well, but in the early music side of things, so it’s kind of… The jazz musicians and early music musicians kind of have a lot in common.
Lynn: Great. Well, yes. And then when you make a mistake, in jazz, all you have to say is, I meant to do that.
Center: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. The same here is like, oh well, I’m just going to do that again. [laughs] My gosh. Well, wow. So, the next question I have for you is, you’ve kind of already answered it, but what inspires you to continue participating in the Center’s community? Because you seem… You’re so involved, you have been so involved in different communities in your life, and it’s pretty amazing that you’ve stuck around with the Center. So can you talk a little bit about that?
Lynn: Well, the bottom line is, is there is nothing in your lifetime once you’re hooked and you are a musician, and… And you hear about people. One of the songs on RCA, I was missing my girlfriend up in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, where they literally were rolling up the sidewalks while we were still playing.
Center: Oh my gosh.
Lynn: I wrote a song that ended up on RCA in 45 minutes. And so, those creative juices don’t really get to come out anything like they do in the arts. And whether it’s painting or sculpture or music.
Lynn: And so the thing that’s kept me going is that fire that burns inside you, that when there’s an opportunity to play, the fire is ignited again, and there’s nothing like it. And then of course in jazz, you take solos all the time. And you get to experiment with all of the things that you’ve learned. In my case, it’s just like I said, I’ve been playing since I was eight. So that’s 65 years, soon to be 66 years. And all that experience, you get an opportunity to use it. And every once in a while, it’s just pure genius. And you just feel so, you just light up like a Christmas tree.
Lynn: And then the other piece of that is you hear phrases and things from the other musicians you’re playing with and you feel the same, and you just go, wow. That was beautiful.
Lynn: And to see other people create like that, is a gift too.
Center: Right. Yeah. So do you feel particularly drawn to the Center for Musical Arts, like the jazz ensemble because of how supported you feel in that “fire ignition,” or what particularly about CMA or the Center?
Lynn: Well, when I first started, I was playing in a combo and the ensemble.
Lynn: And so you’re reading charts in a big band, and so your improvisation only happens when: “Oh, by the way, Lynn, you’ve got eight bars from here to here.” And Steve Christopher, the director, he’ll just say we need eight bars here. Okay. Well, okay, great. And then you take a solo for eight bars and you come back in.
Lynn: The same way that any of the other horns or other instruments might do that. And I know I’m not rambling because I’ve forgotten what the question was.
Center: That seems like, you know, you can just talk really. But it was mostly just, I just wanted to know, like what particularly about the Center ignites that fire and keeps you going?
Lynn: Okay. Well, what it is is it’s a group of like-minded people. And some of whom are exceptional, and the rest of us are not too bad.
Center: Oh my gosh. [laughs]
Lynn: And the opportunity… But where I was going as a drummer, there isn’t anything on the face of the planet that is more fun than kicking a big band. Period.
Center: Oh my gosh, I bet.
Lynn: There just isn’t. You can make or break a big band by not having energy as a drummer. And so for me, it’s just great. And then I even… I’m also a vocalist and I also play guitar.
Lynn: I’ve got, at the ripe old age of 73, I still have three octaves with falsetto.
Center: Wow, Can you give us a demo?
Lynn: Well, I can tell you that I can hit three octaves on the G below middle C. Okay.
Center: My gosh. Wow.
Lynn: And I do have some mouse sounds in there too. It’s a long story, but we had a guitar player. We were partying one night. If you remember the song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”?
Lynn: Well that… I don’t know if it’s a contra soprano, whatever that does that.
Center: Oh yeah.
Lynn: Very, very, okay. He could hit that in his sleep.
Center: Oh my gosh.
Lynn: I was always chasing him in falsetto, which kept my voice pretty tall, even though I was a baritone. But he screeched a G, a triple high G above middle C in falsetto. And I don’t even think mice could do that.
Center: That’s really hard.
Lynn: So anyway, I was always excited about falsetto and using it. I will tell you that it goes away as you get older, and you have to be very careful which notes you decide to sing.
Center: Oh my gosh.
Lynn: And I know where they are. And so there’s a mid range falsetto I’ve lost. But I’ve picked it up in full voice, which makes no sense whatsoever.
Center: Oh my gosh.
Lynn: But so I did get an opportunity to sing a blues tune with the ensemble one time too, so that was a kick. And my claim to fame is a lead vocalist and a harmonizer from the drum set.
Lynn: Except Phil Collins wouldn’t let me sit in, you know?
Center: [laughs] Sounds like you’ve had just a lot of really great memories.
Lynn: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Center: So many, wow. Is there any particular one from the Center, from a concert or from a rehearsal where, maybe a magic moment that you can tell us about? You’ve kind of already touched on a few, but.
Lynn: There were many.
Lynn: But one just recently, breaking out of COVID, we played… And it’s terrible, I think it’s Dickens is the name of the club. And there we went in with…both the intermediate and advanced jazz combos played that night. And I was playing drums on both of those. And it was just like everybody, everybody just showed up 100… And I hate to say 110%, but there’s no such thing. Except if you’re flying a jet, they actually, you can go to 110% power and I’m wondering, how do you do that?
Lynn: But anyway, everybody was firing on all eight cylinders. It was just absolutely magic. And really coming out of COVID and not really playing that much, to have a night like that and of course, brought the house down. I think we were able to get maybe as many as maybe 75 people in this COVID time to come in.
Lynn: And it really was magical and brings back… And all of these people, of course, this is a Center for Musical Arts performance, and we do several of these a year, various groups. And as fundraisers, and it’s really for the Center. And it’s just a wonderful, wonderful time to support the Center with our musical ability.
Lynn: And so that one, it was just magical. And I think part of it was, everybody showed up… [phone rings] Sorry, I forgot to mute my phone.
Center: That’s okay.
Lynn: Everybody showed up that night and it was just special. And it’s what keeps me playing is that kind of magic. It will happen. Doesn’t happen every night and every song.
Lynn: But when you get two hours of everybody just over, above and beyond, is just magical.
Center: Yeah. I agree. I’ve had a few of those experiences myself, and I can’t even describe it, the flow that you feel. It’s just amazing. Especially after not being able to play with people for so long that, that’s like a special kind of magic that you were just thinking about. So that’s great that you had that experience.
So maybe as our last question, just to sort of round things off. If you were to give a piece of advice to younger musicians, we kind of touched on this at the beginning, but what would you say? What would you say to maybe help them get through those times that practicing feels like the last thing they want to do?
Lynn: Right. And very rarely something good and special is easy. It’s almost never easy. And the fruits of your labor will show up after a while. And so, just never give up. Just know that there’s going to be a special moment just around the corner. I mentioned earlier in your Zoom here was… You were speaking about the interaction between the student and the teacher. I think it’s critical that there is that, and not go in there with a wooden ruler and whacking the student on the, saying do this, do this, do this.
Lynn: But having an open relationship, make sure that… And I’m speaking as the student now. Make sure you give feedback, but not whining about the fact you have to practice. But this really works for me.
Lynn: And that’s one of the things that all instructors have to go through is to find out what works best for any individual. Some are very timid and you can’t pound on, you can’t beat them with a stick. And others are some, you got to prod a little bit. But it’s an interaction between student and teacher.
Lynn: And it takes time. And the practice though, if you don’t practice, you won’t get it. So stick with it, but never give up, keep at it. If you love your instrument, if you love what you’re doing, just know that in time it will become one of the greatest things that has ever happened in your life.
Center: Aw. That is a great way to end things. Wow. Yes. I couldn’t agree more. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Lynn, and thanks for your patience with Zoom, as usual. And I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day. Thanks so much.
Lynn: Thanks a lot. Yes. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure and I feel honored that you would like to hear my story. And look forward, hopefully in the not too distant future to maybe see you around the Center. It’s a long swim though, so be careful and watch for icebergs, and anyway… But it’ll be wonderful to see you in person.
Lynn: We can sit down over a cup of tea and you can tell me about some of the fascinating things. And if you keep going back to the Netherlands, maybe we can time our trip so that you can show us around, okay?
Center: That would be really great. Yeah. For people who don’t know, I’m studying in the Netherlands for a year for a music program. So that’s what Lynn is talking about.
Lynn: Okay. Right. So bless you, be safe, and stay healthy, and never, never give up.
Center: I will not. It’s great advice for anyone playing an instrument or singing. Thanks so much. Okay.
Center: Thanks. Thanks so much.
Lynn: Yep. Bye.