Lori Schiff is in some ways uniquely suited to work at Juilliard, where she’s taught Alexander Technique since 1991. She started playing the trumpet as a child and studied at Eastman before going on to Northwestern to study trumpet as an undergrad and getting a master’s in trumpet from the Manhattan School of Music. She’s been on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School for more than 20 years and is currently a guest teacher at the Internationale Meistersinger Akademie and the New World Symphony. Other institutions and organizations where she’s taught are the New York Youth Symphony, the University of Maryland Opera Studio, Theater Aspen, the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, the International Congress for the Alexander Technique, and the American Society for the Alexander Technique. Recently, she taught some Juilliard alums in the West Point Band.
How did you become interested in music?
When I was very young, my mother played Herb Alpert records on the stereo all the time. The trumpet sound caught my ear and my heart. Later I heard, and was enthralled with, Maurice André. I started lessons in public school in the fourth grade and loved it. I wanted to be a trumpet player from then until the Alexander Technique caught my interest along the way.
How did you become interested in Alexander Technique?
When I was at Northwestern, an Alexander teacher, John Henes, did a demonstration with a few instrumentalists, and all improved their playing on the spot. It was amazing. At the time I was on a kind of plateau in terms of progress, so I decided to try it.From the very first, the lessons were life-changing.
You’ve run multiple marathons—are there overlaps between that and musical training?
Being a professional musician is a lifetime endurance event. Both things require daily discipline and attention to oneself. Both yield incremental progress and the satisfaction of improvement while moving through a myriad of challenges.
If you could have your students take up any athletic discipline, what would it be?
Whatever they enjoy! For general health and fitness, frequency and consistency are important. Running, biking, swimming, walking, surfing, skiing—anything that they have easy access to do and can delve into out of joy will be rewarding. If the activity can happen outdoors in natural light, all the better.
Tell us about the class you gave at West Point recently.
Yalin Chi (Pre-College ’99; B.M. ’03, M.M. ’05, piano), who had taken Alexander Technique with me, emailed me out of the blue. She is in the Military Academy Band (she’s a staff sergeant), and along with playing, she organizes professional development events for the musicians, so she asked if I would come up to work with the band. Bill Owens (Pre-College ’01; B.M. ’05, trumpet) and Chris Venditti (B.M. ’08, M.M. ’09, trumpet), who are staff sergeants, and Denver Dill (M.M. ’03, trumpet), who’s a master sergeant, also attended.
What surprised you most about your teaching there?
The environment—the musicians and staff were very open and interested in the work. This was not surprising. However, I learned that the military is very supportive and appreciative of musicians. It’s a different career than what many artists aspire to—and it’s not easy—but practically speaking, it’s worth consideration for many.
If you could have your students read any book, what would it be and why?
Letters to a Young Artist, by Anna Deavere Smith [Schiff has taught at Smith’s renowned acting intensives]. It’s realistic and encouraging for artists of all types and ages—she reminds us that the arts and artists matter in society.
What’s the most satisfying aspect of teaching?
Generally, seeing the physical and emotional confidence that grows in students as they realize how much they can do within and for themselves. Specifically with musicians, hearing the changes that occur when they use their body even a little better is endlessly amazing and thrilling.
And the most frustrating?
Students not showing up.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I live in a flock. There are three oiseaux exotiques (exotic birds) who let me live with them; we migrate west to Aspen via Toyota every summer. We are Francophiles. Two of them whistle the Marseillaise.
What are you reading?
I just finished The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. It’s a lively, imaginative novel that takes place around the abolitionist John Brown. Great characters, humane, full of empathy and gender twisting in the Shakespearean way. Funny, colorful, ironic writing. Other recent reads: Medical Apartheid, by Harriet Washington, and Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Charles M. Blow; writings of Abraham Lincoln; and sections of books by F. M. Alexander. There’s a stack of books on the nightstand—eclectic taste.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would it be?
You are meant to feel good. If you don’t feel good, get curious about how to improve yourself. Mind, body, emotions, and spirit all live in the same place—you—and you are in charge of yourself.