Music with Minnesotans: Grace Tangjerd Schmitt

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
May 1, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — What would Rachmaninov or Schumann - composers affected by mental illness - have created had they lived now in the time of Prozac?

Maybe the question we might consider, is the opposite one - what would they have NOT created if treated with modern medicines?

As someone who has dealt with some dark days that seemed like they'd never end - but mostly living a mentally healthy life - these are questions i have often considered. There is some argument that disease can spur the creative process, that darkness can reveal a creative light otherwise untapped.

Today my guest is the Executive Director of Guild Incorporated. It is an organization that provides mental health services to our community, Grace Tangjerd Schmitt. Grace tells me that at Gulid, people are not defined by their diagnosis. They are not their disease.

Ms. Tangjerd Schmitt - pronounced tang-yerd - shares a beautiful story of a singer who lived in an institution much of her life due to schizophrenia. As Grace plays piano, she was able to accompany Diane from time to time. The miracle happened when this woman emerged out of her illness and into being a soprano, free of care. It was a revelation.

Grace played the oboe in school and grew up on a diet of the Metropolitan broadcasts every Saturday. Hearing music through her ears is so affecting. She speaks of the power of music, the grip it has on our soul, a path for all of us to get outside ourselves, our worries, and our difficulties.

At Guild, music participation is integral to helping people with mental illness find their strengths and to use them. And everyone gets involved at the level they can.

Often when we talk about composers having mental illness we hear it as a criticism, as pejorative. But it is just a description. It's just one of the conditions these people live with. Grace mentions a terrific book that is now on my reading list Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.

What is astonishing is that as the international authority on bi-polar disease, Dr. Jamison has risked her profession to speak openly about her own diagnosis with the disease. But in the end she says she wouldn't change her life for the gifts she has received through this life challenge.

And I wonder, as Robert Schumann languished in an "insane asylum" and asked his doctors for manuscript paper to continue composing, if he might have thought the same thing.

Grace Tangjerd Schmitt's playlist:

Robert Schumann, Traumerei - John O'Conor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Serenade No. 10: Adagio - Sabine Meyer and friends

Camille Saint-Saens, Samson and Delilah: Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix - Angela Gheorghiu

Johann Sebastian Bach, Two Part Invention #6 - Bela Fleck/Edgar Meyer

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Cosi fan tutte: Soave sia il vento - Renee Fleming and friends

Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto for oboe, violin and strings - Hilary Hahn/Alan Vogel/LACO

Next week Hennepin County Judge Elizabeth Cutter joins me. She was named a Minnesota Lawyer of the year in 2011 and became a District Court judge just this past January, but tells me her life can be told musically.

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