Retiring choir director will rekindle composing career

Photo by John Gessner

Martha Schmidt, a Burnsville High School choir director and music teacher since 2001, will rekindle her composing career after retiring in June.

Schmidt has been at Burnsville since 2001 

Her website is still under construction. Details of copyright and law are unmastered rungs on a steep learning curve.

Welcome to Marthahelenschmidt.com — soon to be the nexus of a new career in self-publishing for Burnsville High School choir director and music teacher Martha Schmidt.

Retiring in June after nearly two decades at BHS, Schmidt is eager to rekindle her career as a composer whose portfolio includes choral works but now runs to art songs and song cycles.

“I don’t think I’ve tried for a number of years to get anything published,” Schmidt said. “So now I just do it myself.”

She has five choral octavos under publication by the Theodore Presser Co. and a thick yellow folder in her office next to the choir room.

“These are a bunch of pieces of Schmidt, I call them,” said the teacher, who has occasionally used the line on students when they sing one of her choral works.

She said her singing voice is damaged by years of yelling over large groups of kids, whom she’ll miss.

“So many talented kids — unbelievably talented,” Schmidt said. “It’s a privilege to work with these kids every day.”

Her choral colleague at BHS, second-year director Jaclyn Anderson, said she’ll miss Schmidt but is excited about the next chapter in her career.

“She has ignited a passion for music in the hearts of so many young people, even leading some to pursue music or teaching as a vocation,” Anderson wrote in an email. “In my own experiences with Martha, I have been struck by her deep love for students, and the warmth that radiates from her as she interacts with others.”

Rich musical past

Schmidt was raised on a farm in Luverne, Minnesota. She learned piano from her mother and took flute and voice lessons. Her mother would accompany her on piano as she sang or played flute in church and other venues.

“It was a good team,” Schmidt said.

She graduated from the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she’ll soon join classmates for a 40th reunion. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees in theory and composition, the latter from Ithaca College in New York.

Schmidt spent an undergraduate summer in the French commune of Fontainebleau, studying composition under Nadia Boulanger, who taught Aaron Copeland and is widely recognized as one of the top teachers of the 20th century.

“That was such a privilege,” Schmidt said. “And I owe that all to my parents, my mother saying, ‘You should study in Europe this summer — look into it.’ ”

Schmidt taught choir and other music classes for three years at a private boarding school in Sedona, Arizona, before returning to Minnesota to be near family. She taught private piano, flute and voice lessons and worked as a paraprofessional at Edina High School for three years, serving as accompanist for the choirs and also working with the band program.

“Sitting there with the Edina choirs, sitting there at the piano, watching the director direct, it just came back to me that, ‘You know, I want to do that,’ ” Schmidt said. “That was kind of the impetus. So I got a teaching license at Macalester.”

She started her new career at South St. Paul High School and after six years was hired at Burnsville in 2001. Following what she calls a “revolving door” of choir directors, her long tenure has brought the program a stability it hadn’t had since the days of former longtime director Loren Squires.

She currently directs the Freshman Choir, Blaze Choir and auditioned Concert Choir, and teaches two piano classes. In the past she has also directed the school’s Bel Canto women’s choir.

Several years ago, “The district added piano and guitar to get more kids involved in music, and that has certainly worked,” Schmidt said. “We have a lot more kids in music because of those classes.”

She tallies the choral program’s success over time.

Every year some Burnsville singers are chosen for the Minnesota Music Educators Association All-State Choir, Schmidt said. Over the years, Burnsville choirs have sung Mass at the Vatican twice, sung at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and sung at Notre Dame in France.

“It’s a testament to the talent of the kids,” Schmidt said. “They get us these good gigs. I don’t imagine they let every single group sing at the Vatican. A tour company sets it up with us. They want to hear a tape, and they have to approve all your literature.”

In 1998 Schmidt wrote “Weep You No More, Sad Fountains” under commission for a debut by the All-State Choir.

“That was fun — my little three minutes of fame at Orchestra Hall,” Schmidt said. “Actually, we’ll say five minutes. And I know the St. Olaf Choir has done it since, and other choirs. It’s for women’s chorus. That was really special to me.”

Her choral works have been performed in Chicago, Minneapolis, Paris, Rome and Dublin.

Her art songs, written for solo voice and piano, and song cycles have set to music the poetry of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet and mystic, French poets such as Paul-Marie Verlaine and English writer and poet D.H. Lawrence.

Her self-publishing venture is “a leap of faith,” said Schmidt, who plans to continue substitute teaching at BHS. “But I have people who really support me and think what I do is really good. And they’re reputable people, like from Juilliard and some of those big schools. It gives me hope, I guess.”

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