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Music That Heals

Posted by on Tuesday, August 31, 2010 in Fall 2010, Featured.

Associate Dean Pam Schneller, who has taught at Blair since 1999, founded the Vanderbilt Community Chorus a decade ago, directed the Vanderbilt Concert Choir and Chamber Singers from 1999-2008 and led the Blair Children’s Chorus program for 14 years.
Associate Dean Pam Schneller, who has taught at Blair since 1999, founded the Vanderbilt Community Chorus a decade ago, directed the Vanderbilt Concert Choir and Chamber Singers from 1999-2008 and led the Blair Children’s Chorus program for 14 years.

It would be easy, and true, to say Pam Schneller lives and breathes music.

It would also be an understatement.

Schneller—a longtime fixture within the Blair School of Music—views music as more than lyrics, voices and instruments, as more than even the world-unifying “universal language.”

Indeed, Pam Schneller sees music as a spiritual force of sorts, a type of intangible, art-as-life-giving source of healing and hope.

“All music, and vocal music in particular, has the ability to express and bring to life ideas and emotions too deep, too powerful for words,” says Schneller, who serves at Blair in many roles, including associate dean (pre-college and adult program), senior lecturer in choral music and guest conductor for Blair choirs. “I believe music is one of the keys to the salvation of the world.

“Making music in community makes each of us more fully alive, more fully human and more fully connected to each other,” she adds. “I chose to make my career in choral music for that reason, because of the power and joy that comes in enabling others by teaching and evoking the music that lies within each one of us.” 

From a practical perspective, Schneller says music offers people a chance to gather, rejoice, reflect and, well, be human.

“Music in community is a key part of most of our significant human rituals—weddings, funerals, commemorations, celebrations,” she explains. “At the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, people all over New York and the world came together in song. They were speechless, but they sang.”

That Schneller sings today can render folks speechless, once they learn her story.

While jogging in Los Angeles in February 2005, Schneller was hit by a motorist. She spent several weeks in intensive care and underwent surgery for brain hemorrhaging and broken bones. Music helped save her.

“I cannot tell you how, only that music does heal physical and emotional wounds,” she says. “Doctors and nurses—and singing parents—have long known that music soothes, calms, relaxes and promotes healing. In ICU, my blood pressure was alarmingly high. Although I was basically in a coma, my husband [Chancellor’s Professor of Piano Roland Schneller], I am told, sang to me, over and over. Every time he sang, my blood pressure went down. Talking didn’t do it. Music did it.”

As Schneller began to recover in the hospital and, later, in a rehabilitation center, people in her choirs inundated her and Roland with “aid, good wishes and encouragement.”

“Over and over we heard ‘because the choir—and the music you help us make—mean so much,’” she says.

“Because it ‘meant so much,’ it gave me strength to keep trying and not give up,” she continues. “Not to be self-deprecating, but I knew it wasn’t really me they were responding to. It was ‘music in community.’”

And, no doubt, the Vanderbilt community has Schneller’s conductor’s baton waved all over it, as the spirited academic founded and/or has overseen six of the 10 existing choirs associated with the Blair School of Music.

The accomplishments are enough to impress husband Roland, one of Blair’s original faculty members (his tenure began in 1964) and a venerable figure himself within the Vanderbilt community. Roland says his positive-karma-ed wife always serves as an inspiration.

“Making music in community makes each of us more fully alive, more fully human and more fully connected to each other.”

—Pam Schneller

“She’s such a positive and giving person, I almost feel like whatever she is doing, even if it weren’t in music, it would be in the same loving and giving attitude,” Roland Schneller says. “Music is simply her way of communicating.”

Schneller says he and Pam share music in many ways.

“We talk a good bit about it, not about music per se, but our place in the musical life of Blair and the community,” he explains.

A trained vocalist as well as pianist, Schneller says he has always enjoyed singing under the direction of a skilled conductor, in this case, his wife.

“She has a wonderful manner and presentation,” he says. “She works so well on a larger stage. She’s proactive. I admire what she is. She is a choral conductor and amateur pianist. I’m more of a one-on-one person. She is exactly what I am not.”

No question Pam Schneller is versatile within the music realm. A decade ago, she founded the Vanderbilt Community Chorus and remains closely attached to that group. She also remains close to the VU Concert Choir and Chamber Singers which she directed from 1999-2008 and the Blair Childrens Chorus program, which she led for 14 years. In addition, she has an extensive background in the church music sector, working as the full-time director of music at local Presbyterian and United Methodist churches from 1988-99.

“Serving as a church musician for over 20 years taught me a profound reverence for the power of poem, prose and misic,” she says.

With the church work and full-time choral conducting duties behind her, Schneller now focuses fully on teaching undergraduate conducting and on Blair’s pre-college and adult students. About 700 strong, the students range from infants to adults in their 80s.

“Getting to know as many of them as I can is a goal and a big challenge,” she says of the students. “I work to help parents and students learn about the many types of classes, lessons and opportunities we offer at Blair.”

In the process, Schneller endeavors to help the pre-college students build and enhance a sense of community.

“I enjoy assisting faculty with the Myra Jackson Blair Honor Scholars,” she says. “These high school students are immersed in music at Blair with lessons, ensembles and classes,” she explains. “Finding others that share a similar passion for music is such joy.”

Schneller’s work with youth is not unexpected, as music quickly became a part of her life while she grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.

“I had my first choir solo in grade five in school,” she remembers. “I first conducted a choir in high school. My choral director allowed me to conduct a women’s group in a piece I had written for music theory class. I was hooked on making music with others and never looked back.”

Indeed, Schneller has not looked back since that fateful February day in 2005 either. She returned to Blair in July of that year and has come full circle since then, having given a speech for the Blair Senior Recognition event in May 2009. During the speech, Schneller used music education—and the love of music as a healing force—as a metaphor for life and the future the graduates were facing.

“No matter who you are or how perfectly your life in and out of music has gone so far, you will find that life brings great surprises, bizarre challenges and incredible and unexpected opportunities,” she said that day.

Looking back, Schneller says penning the speech was enormously difficult. Her emotions ran high. Some physical pain, despite being assuaged by the healing force of song and sound, remained (and still does). Still, Schneller embraced the challenge of crafting and presenting a speech that would directly impact the Vanderbilt students—and subconsciously act as catharsis for Schneller herself.

“I was so humbled to be doing it and there was so much I wanted to say,” she recalls. “Above all, I wanted the graduating seniors to know that their music has given them gifts and skills that will enable them to deal with whatever life brings them.”

Life has brought Pam Schneller many challenges. Music has helped her face them head on.

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