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  • Cathy Schule: An exquisite fairy tale for trombone, Bulgarian opera and lavender vibes

    Kristina Dencheva
    20 June, 2022

    She is an elegant American lady with a sunny smile. Born in North Carolina, she graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory (Bachelor of Music Performance, Trombone) and Columbus State University (Master of Music Performance, Trombone). Her career is almost like a round-the-world trip that led the young performing artist from China through Lebanon, Italy and Bosnia to Bulgaria. Well, till nowadays. Where will be her next career stage? It's still a mystery. Catherine Schule was playing in LaGrange Symphony Orchestra, Sarajevo Philharmonic and Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Since 2019 she is trombone player at State Opera Stara Zagora Orchestra. For this interview for our "Brass Stories" we met each other at an unusual place: in the city of Chirpan at the opening night of the annual Lavender Festival... 

    Please share with us how your adventure with a trombone began.
    When I was 8 years old, I somehow came to the decision that I wanted to play trombone. In my country, we don’t begin orchestral instruments until 10, so I had gone to my general music teacher and told her that I was going to play trombone then. Of course she was shocked… I was a small child and the instrument was much taller than I was at that age! When I told this to my mother, we came to an agreement. If we picked an exact date two years later and at that moment I felt the same way, I would be allowed to play trombone. I think I ran into the music store on that day to buy my first trombone, and I never stopped playing since!

    The musicians who made the most important influence on your career so far.
    Naturally, my conservatory teachers. James DeSano at Oberlin, Bradley Palmer at CSU, and Terry Cravens in Los Angeles. All helped guide me not only as a trombonist and musician, but helped teach me valuable lessons about the music industry and life itself. There have been countless musicians over the years who have influenced and inspired me. I’ve been very lucky to have played with wonderful trombone sections too over the years. All of them have truly been like family to me.

    The composers you love to play, the music you love to listen to.
    To name a few to play: Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Verdi, Dvorak, Puccini, Mahler, Sibelius, Bernstein…. In my free time, I listen to a lot of jazz.

    Tell us more about your orchestra experience in LaGrange Symphony Orchestra and Sarajevo Philharmonic. 
    LaGrange was my first regular job as a graduate student, and Sarajevo my first full-time job out of conservatory. I think I learned a lot from these orchestras. In the Conservatory, I didn’t normally play again and again with the same exact section or orchestra, so it was an interesting learning experience in this way. There’s a lot to being a good orchestral musician that goes beyond playing the notes, and I think it’s integral to have opportunities like this to grow.

    How did you decide to go to Cairo? As far as I remember, in the State Opera of Stara Zagora in 2018 I met 2 string players (I can’t remember violin or viola) who told me that they too arrived from the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Sounds so unusual like a combination of destinations for work to me. 🙂
    Ah yes, very nice people. Actually, a few of us ended up here from Cairo, including my flautist colleague and friend who also works here now in Stara Zagora. The music world is small, and sometimes it happens like this. As for Cairo, I was nearing the end of a year-long contract in Sarajevo when I heard of the audition. With some luck, I ended up there.

    And how did you decide to come to the State Opera Stara Zagora Orchestra? 
    Actually, the string couple you mentioned had told me about the audition, and it seemed like a good opportunity.

    Please share with us your point of view on Bulgaria and your life here.
    I’ve really enjoyed my time here. Of course, two of the three years I’ve stayed have been during the time of covid, so there has been some element of unpredictability, but that’s the same everywhere. Bulgaria is such a beautiful country. I’m in love with nature: the lakes, mountains, sea…     

    Verdi - Otello, Ouverture, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, conducted by Riccardo Chailly

    The women in the classical philharmonic orchestras around the world are still very few in the groups of wind instruments. The process began but in such slow motion. Of course, we don’t talk about flutes, but about clarinet and bassoon, for example, and brass instruments. What is your opinion about it?
    I think you’re absolutely right when you say it is a process in slow motion. When I was a child, I was interested in things like math, science, football, basketball… so in my other activities I was generally more often around boys. So it was very normal to me to be surrounded by my male peers. But I think I never played with another female trombonist, or had ever heard of or seen one, until I went to conservatory eight years into my studies. Even in a city so progressive, with encouraging teachers, I suppose when I started to study 21 years ago, it still wasn’t considered typical for women to be playing an instrument like trombone. 

    I’ve been glad to hear about more and more young students in recent years taking up less traditional instruments. There have been some organisations, like the International Women’s Brass Conference, which I think are so important to encouraging young people in this manner. Change like this lies in our young people and how we can help pave a path for them. I only hope that those of us in these positions now can serve to encourage those in the future generations to pursue their dreams, regardless of their gender.

    The ladies who play trombone still are an exotic accent - especially here in the Balkans. Actually the only one memory I have was from the fantastic concert of Hugh Laurie in Sofia I think in 2014. He came with his Copper Bottom Band and an amazing jazz trombone player - a very beautiful lady. Can you share your observations on this topic from Bosnia and Bulgaria?
    Interestingly enough, I have played with more female trombonists and brass so far in the Middle East than in the Balkans. But the world is ever-changing, and I’m looking forward to watching as more people enter the music world playing the instrument of their inner heart’s voice, no matter their gender.  

    Where will be the next orchestra where you would like to play?
    We will see! I’ve loved living in Europe, but I have a very open mind about this.

    Do you have a special dream to play a trombone piece with an orchestra you admire and probably a conductor you would like to work with? 
    I’ve been fortunate to have played 2 of my 5 top “Want to Play” in the past couple years: Verdi’s Otello and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. I hope someday to get the chance to play Sibelius’ 7th Symphony, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, and Respighi’s Church Windows. As for conductors; there are so many marvelous ones I’d love to work with, but I’d never dare to name just one! 

    Messiaen - Turangalîla-Symphonie, Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Susanna Mälkki

    Because we are here at the annual Lavender festival in Chirpan I would not hesitate to ask you do you like Lavender, Cathy?
    Of course!

    What is your favourite colour?
    Emerald green.

    Your favourite season?
    Autumn… I love all things to do with pumpkins, scarves, carnivals… especially tikvenik!

    Your favourite movie?
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

    Respighi: Church Windows, P. 150: II. Saint Michael the Archangel · Buffalo Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta

    Your favourite book?
    That’s a difficult question for sure. I don’t know if I can pick just one. Recently, I’ve been reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, inspired by our ballet’s premiere of Stefan Dimitrov’s rendition of this tale. I think many books in the moment of reading are my favourite until the heartbreak of turning the last page.

    Thank you for this marvelous interview …
    Thank you very much as well! It’s been lovely meeting and speaking with you!


    The BRASS STORIES Project is supported by the
    National Fund of Culture of Republic of Bulgaria

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