An Author's Interview
Steve Schuch talks about A Symphony of Whales, his music, and the
importance of the Arts in the lives of children and adults How
did you first hear about the Chukchi whale rescue, the event on
which you based your new children's book, A Symphony of Whales?
I first learned of the rescue one winter while on tour in Alaska.
The Chukchi Peninsula is located right across the Bering Straight.
So people up in Alaska knew about the rescue, even though folks
in the lower 48 didn't. My "Whale Trilogy" piece (click
to hear the mp3) for solo violin and whales was a direct
response to first hearing this true story. I've since performed
it everywhere from schools and town halls to The Kennedy Center.
People are always awed to hear of 3,000 whales, trapped in the sea
ice, and rescued with the help of classical music and a Soviet icebreaker.
They're also amazed such a thing really happened without ever hearing
about it on the evening news.
Why didn't the rescue receive
more press at the time?
There were many factors at work. It all took place in 1985,
during the depths of the Cold War. This was not a time foreign reporters
roamed about freely in the Soviet Union. Whereas most news crews
prefer a fast breaking story, this one stretched out over seven
long weeks. Then there was the remoteness of site coupled with the
Siberian winter. No airports, no hotels, no phone lines. Had the
whales been trapped on a beach in the Bahamas, it would have been
Why do you think the whales
responded to classical music?
possibility is that music played from the icebreaker simply calmed
the whales enough so they werent afraid of it. Or perhaps
the whales really liked the music and wanted to hear more. I also
wonder if just maybe the whales experienced their own Mozart
Effect. Is it possible the music stimulated their spatial
reasoning skills, as it does with humans? Did that help them find
their way out the narrow ice-cluttered channel, back to the open
When did you first become
interested in whale songs?
While I was at Oberlin College, studying
baroque violin and biology. Dr. Roger Payne, who did much of the
pioneering research into whale songs, came to campus with his slides,
field recordings and his cello. That evening forever changed how
I heard music and thought about whales. Shortly afterward, Pete
Seeger came to campus and sang his Song of the Worlds
Last Whale. The next week I went out and bought a used folk
guitar for $25 and never looked back.
I still love classical music, especially Bach. Youll
hear his influence in some of my pieces too, along with a love of
Gypsy and Celtic music. But there is also a lot of natural history
at work. I love music that conveys a sense of place, that tells
a story or paints a picture. Whale songs do all of these.
Why is a whale song like a
Like a symphony, some whale songs may last 20-30 minutes. They are
not just streams of random notes, but show enormous complexity and
organization. Within a song there are different themes and variations,
much like different motifs in a classical work. Whales also show
respect for the music score. Committed entirely to memory,
the notes and phrasing to a given song change only gradually as
time goes by. Some whale songs even use a kind of rhyming scheme,
presumably to make it easier to remember what comes next in the
piece. Symphonic composers use different instruments to make a melody
interesting. Now imagine being able to sing all the notes of the
orchestra by yourself. This is what whales do.
How did you get the idea to
write your "Whale Trilogy? This piece for violin and whales is really a musical telling
of the rescue. It came out of listening to recordings of whales,
being moved by the rescue, and wanting to express my feelings on
the violin. The first part is very free form, with the violin imitating
the haunting sounds of the whales. Since I start the whale recording
in a different place each time I perform it, the violin part is
always changing a bit from one time to the next. The second part
is more like classical music, where the whales follow the ship out
to sea. And the third part is where they reach open water, and go
into more of a joyous dance. [Sound
And the book, A Symphony of Whales.... Several years ago a childrens book editor
in New York heard a live performance of my Whale Trilogy.
She tracked me down and asked if Id consider writing a book
based on the musical rescue. A Symphony of Whales is the result. Besides
the book, Ive also created an orchestral adaptation of the story.
Imagine Peter and the Wolf meets up with whales! In this version I
appear on stage as both soloist and narrator. Illustrations from the
book are projected onto huge screens, accompanied by full symphony
orchestra and whale songs.
Is the little girl Glashka in A Symphony
of Whales based on a real person, or did you create her? Many children, like writers and musicians, hear
music and voices in their heads. When I wrote this story, I wanted
to tell it through the eyes (and ears) of such a child. While I
dont know of an actual child by that name, there certainly
were people like her in that village who felt the call of the whales.
Once youve heard, really heard the song of a whale or any
other living thing, its hard to give up on them. I hope that
every village and city and town around the world has children like
Glashka...and that grownups will listen to what these children hear,
Why did you visit Alaska in
the winter? What are some of your memorable experiences there?
I went to Alaska in the winter of 1990 because... thats when
I was hired! But performing in native villages on the Arctic Circle,
venturing out with a sled dog driver at 40 degrees below, seeing
the eerie northern lights and long winter darkness... these are
experiences you dont get in many places. They later gave rise
to the imagery found in A Symphony of Whales. Without having spent
a month in Alaska, I would not have been able to write the book
the way I did. Thats why in writing workshops I encourage
folks to describe places theyve observed closely, characters
they know well, or can imagine in great detail.
Other memorable moments from Alaska: the tour
organizers last minute advice on what to do if my bush pilots
plane went down; an emergency landing on a frozen river at minus
54 degrees, just as the fuel lines were starting to freeze; packing
my guitar and violin in special thermal cases inside mummy sleeping
bags; learning how to start a truck at 45 degrees below with a four
foot long flame thrower; and eating lasagna made from llama steaks!
Do all your stories have musical connections? Its
actually hard for me to say where stories end and music begins.
Most of my stories have music running through them, just as many
of my favorite songs are story songs. The
Gift of the Wee Folk is a good example of both. Its a
traditional Irish tale thats been kept alive for hundreds
of years through oral tradition. In live performances, I weave Celtic
guitar accompaniment throughout the story, along with a singing
part for the audience. Enough people began coming up to me after
shows asking if there was a book, I finally had to write that too.
The challenge then was to convey the cadence of the character voices
and the music in the language of the book. As with the trip to Alaska,
here too it helped greatly to visit Ireland, walk her stone walls
and green countrysides, and listen closely to the music and speech
You have played your violin
in a number of unusual places. Where was the strangest? The most
inspiring? The most fun?
Ive always loved how the violin sounds in unusual places.
On our honeymoon, my wife and I managed to find our way into a sea
cave that is only accessible at low tide. Id packed along
a violin (an inexpensive one, just in case). We had a great time
listening to how the violin notes reverberated off the low rock
walls and ceiling. In the darkened tide pools, sea anemones waved
their arms slowly to the rhythm of the waves. Seaweed hung from
the walls and ceilings, adding to the overall effect.
unusual gigs have ranged from playing for a whale watch in ten foot
seas to performing my Findhorn Suite on the summit of
Mount Monadnock in New England. The winds were so gusty above tree
line it was all I could do to keep the violin bow on the strings.
There was also the onomatopoeic recording session for
The Twelve Days of Christmas which included a real turtle
dove, four calling birds, and Kerry, a live milking cow. When Kerry
licked the recording microphone, the sound inside my headphones
was something else! [See A Celtic Celebration
Why is music an important part
of a child's education?
Music is a doorway to the imagination. Along with storytelling,
it is a powerful force to develop minds that can remember and think
creatively. Current research into the Mozart Effect
shows how listening to certain kinds of music can stimulate brain
development, particularly mathematical and spatial reasoning skills.
Music and stories also touch our interior selves, our spirit and
emotions. They help draw us together as communities, and develop
empathy and awareness of others.
I was lucky to grow up in a home surrounded
by music. While neither of my parents was a professional musician,
both played a little piano and a lot of records and tapes. Choral
harmonies fascinated me even as a child. Mom usually read us a story
at bedtime. Sometimes she sang lullabies, too. On camping trips,
wed get to hear one of Dads ghost stories. My parents
probably did these things because they were fun. But they were much
more than that. Parents who play music and read aloud to their children
give them a head start on a lifetime of learning. A love of beauty,
curiosity and imagination... these are gifts that will never grow
You have said "Life is a symphony,
not a sound bite." How does this philosophy inspire and inform your
Like many artists and educators, I am concerned about a growing
sound bite mentality in everything from arts to news to politics.
What happens to art when it is reduced to a short blurb? What happens
to us? What happens to our society? Nowadays we get a whirlwind
flurry of information, but with only the lightest dusting of meaning.
Meaning requires time and context. Sound bites offer neither.
Deep down, I want to hear music and read books
that stretch the imagination. I want in-depth interviews and documentaries
that challenge us to think and remember. I want to feel real sand
between my barefoot toes, not virtual, and wonder at the nighttime
sky. I want to hear my own muse, yet also raise my voice with other
voices, to make a symphony worth living for.
About the Author (view
full Artist Biography)
STEVE SCHUCH has delighted audiences of all ages across the U.S.
and Europe. Classically trained on violin, he also is an award-winning
author, singer/songwriter and storyteller. Venues range from schools
and town halls to symphony orchestras and The Kennedy Center.
Haunting violin and whale calls... music and tales
of Ireland... a pizzicato interpretation of a Picasso painting...
these are just part of Steves wide-ranging repertoire. Honors
include composer awards, PBS soundtracks and five fiddling championships.
Steves recordings with The
Night Heron Consort are national best sellers. His musical story,
A Symphony of Whales, has received five
national book awards, and his childrens recording, Trees
of Life, the Parents Choice Gold Award.
For four years Steve taught a graduate course on integrating
music and storytelling into classroom curriculum. A former Audubon
naturalist and Peace Corps volunteer,
he lives on a farm with his wife and various creatures. Personal
interests include white water canoeing, Mexican food and relating
to large reptiles.