Cello Appassionato: Kathryn Schutmaat

Kathryn Schutmaat of Jasper grew up in Venezuela playing the cello among a family of musicians. She was a founding member of the Venezuelan National Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Herald photo by Sarah Ann Jump.

Story by Leann Burke

A 200-year-old cello sits on a stand in the sitting room of Kathryn Schutmaat’s Jasper home. The instrument, like its owner, is at rest after decades of playing in orchestras and chamber music groups around the world.

Kathryn, 60, began playing the cello when she was 4 or 5 years old — she can’t remember which one anymore — and quickly began her career as a concert cellist in Caracas, Venezuela, where her parents — who were missionaries —  raised her and her five brothers.

The Schutmaats were a musical family, and everyone played an instrument. One brother played the flute, two played the viola, one played the violin, her mother, Pauline, also played the violin, and her father, Alvin, played the piano. But Kathryn was most drawn to her brother, Bill, and his cello. The other instruments, she said, were too high pitched.  

“I just loved to hear my brother play,” she said.

Growing up, Kathryn figures she and her brothers spent more time learning their instruments than they did in school. A typical day for them meant waking up in the morning to practice, going to school, then spending the evenings being carted around Caracas to various music conservatories for more music lessons and rehearsals.

The Schutmaat family posed for a portrait before a concert in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1962. From left, Peter on flute; John on viola; their mother, Pauline, on violin; their father, Alvin, on the piano; James on violin; Fred on viola; Bill on cello and Kathryn on cello. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Schutmaat.

When Kathryn was growing up, Venezuela was a rich oil country, and classical music was en vogue. Almost everyone Kathryn knew played an instrument and was in an orchestra or chamber music group. The country’s classical music culture also drew musicians from Europe who immigrated to the country to be part of the culture, and Kathryn studied under several such musicians.

As Kathryn’s interest in the cello grew, her aunt, Glen, who was also a cellist, gifted Kathryn the 1817 Hornstein cello that now sits in her home. It’s the same cello Glen played. Kathryn is convinced the cello is blessed by a guardian angel. That’s the only way it could have survived all the travels, she said.

Kathryn warmed up and tuned her cello with members of the Experimental Orchestra before a performance in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1965. At the time, she was the youngest member of the orchestra. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Schutmaat.

Kathryn began her 25-year classical music career as the youngest member of the Experimental Orchestra in Caracas, Venezuela. She went on to be a founding member of the Venezuelan National Youth Symphony Orchestra in 1975 and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in 1981. She took master classes in Nice, France, and Venice, Italy, in 1977 and played in the International Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the Youth Orchestras Festival in Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1983, she participated in the Youth Orchestras of the Americas Festival in Puerto Rico, and in 1986 she was part of the Recording Orchestra of the International Festival of the French Radio in Montpellier, France.

“I was super lucky to have all that art and music,” she said.

People will often tell Kathryn how lucky she was to be able to do something she loves. While she knows she was lucky, Kathryn doesn’t think people realize that being a professional musician isn’t “all pretty and pink.” It takes a lot of discipline to practice for several hours every day, there are a lot of auditions, and musicians tend to be envious of each other.

“It’s a tough world,” she said. “... But you do enjoy playing.”

In 1992, Kathryn moved to Colombia to play in the Barranquilla Symphony Orchestra. She later moved to Cali, Colombia, where she played in the Valle Symphony Orchestra and worked as a cello professor at University of Valle. She met her husband, Manuel, in Cali. He attended every one of the Valle Symphony Orchestra’s performances and jokes that he was a musicologist. The couple moved to the U.S. in 2003 to flee economic woes in South America. The move marked the end of Kathryn’s professional music career.

When asked what kept her in professional music for so long, Kathryn just shrugged.

Kathryn walked home after a practice with the Valle Symphony Orchestra in Cali, Colombia, in 1995. She walked about one kilometer each way with her cello in tow.

“I guess it’s what I knew, and I liked it,” she said.

Kathryn and Manuel moved to Jasper to join one of Kathryn’s brothers, Fred, who was living in Jasper at the time. At first, she didn’t miss playing. She was burned out on classical music, she said, and refused to even listen to it when Manuel played it. Then, one day she realized she did miss playing, and she cried.

Although she still misses playing professionally, she hasn’t cried since the one time, and she’s enjoying new experiences. She currently works as a bilingual teacher’s aide at Head Start. It’s different from anything she’s done before, she said, but she enjoys the creativity that teaching preschool allows.

Still, she hasn’t left the classical music scene totally behind. When she first moved to Jasper, she taught cello lessons. She also plays the occasional wedding or church service and has performed in Will Read and Sing for Food shows. She’s also written a series of lesson books for children to learn the cello.

“(The project) just sort of grew on me,” she said. “I was like, ‘I have to do that.’”

Kathryn’s books are different because they’re geared specifically for the cello, rather than stringed instruments in general, and they include a mix of music from all over the world, particularly South America. Kathryn may be a U.S. citizen, but she considers herself South American. She and Manuel both miss the fast-paced city life, spending every afternoon in a cafe and walking everywhere, but they’re glad to live in the United States where there are more luxuries than in South American countries. They’ve settled into Jasper and don’t see themselves moving anytime soon.

“I’ve had a very exciting life,” Kathryn said. “I don’t need anymore.”




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