Songs that Penetrate the Heart and Stay There

Maria Schafer

Maria Schafer’s debut vocal album “To Know Love…” comes out in January, 2018. Written in an astounding five weeks squeezed between road performances with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the new album is mindful of all the types of love we feel and the mistakes we make.

Maria’s voice is full of nuance, strong in character and soaked in emotion that the audience cannot and should not deflect.

When did you start to sing?

I always liked to sing as a child. I think my elementary school music teacher might’ve seen a talent in me which resulted in a few small performances around town at assemblies, church meetings, that type of thing.

Were you ever inhibited about singing?

Unfortunately I was terribly shy about singing. My self-confidence and stage fright were big barriers to my performance for a long time, but I’m also very hard-headed about pushing through challenges and achieving success. Because performing publicly was so difficult for me, it was the perfect testing grounds for my constitution.

What was your journey that led you to the Glenn Miller Orchestra?

The Glenn Miller Orchestra has an ever-changing roster of musicians. Although there are a few members who’ve made lifelong careers out of their role with the band, most people stay around one or two years. When those positions are vacated, the road manager looks most often to university music programs across the U.S. for recent graduates who might want to get this experience.

My vocal instructor at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), where I completed my B.M. in Jazz Studies, was contacted about a vocalist vacancy and she sent out an email to some of her most successful female students. I sent in my audition material and was actually passed over for a former classmate, who took the job intending to stay a year. She decided unexpectedly that it wasn’t the right fit for her after four months.

At that point, the band called me back; I accepted and quit my quite nice day job as a technical recruiter for a manufacturing consulting firm, gave away all my vocal students to other colleagues, and begged my regular gigs to not forget about me while I was on the road, then flew out to Detroit, MI to meet the band.

What iconic songs from the Big Band era are your top favorites?

This might seem appalling, but I didn’t grow up listening to music. As a vocalist and because there aren’t many opportunities to sing with big bands, I wasn’t very aware of the genre until I transferred to my university program and became more familiar with instrumental music.

This gig has helped me discover that I adore arranger Nelson Riddle’s work for big bands; one of our tunes is this pretty killing chart on “When Your Lover Has Gone” which he wrote for Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics are just devastating and the band parts are so swinging, I have to try to seem demure while I silently sing the trumpet lines in the shout chorus.

How excited are you for the new CD?

I’m pragmatically ecstatic. I’ve been wanting to make a CD for a long time since I became a professional musician, and had been working very hard to gain the capital to fund the project. I intended on my first album being a representation of my modern originals and more folk-influenced jazz side, but I was given the opportunity to sell a CD out on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and decided this April to make a more straight-ahead jazz standards album that reflected my aesthetic.

I was furiously writing arrangements to record at the end of May, when we would have a scheduled break from the band. I went to New Orleans, flew out my guitarist, got the album recorded and mixed before I left town to rejoin the group and had the CDs printed and in-hand by the end of June.

Explain the name “To Know Love…”

The Great American Songbook is filled with absolutely wonderful lyrical and melodic gems centered on the topic of love: unrequited love, self-sacrificing love, all-encompassing love, abusive love, you name it, there’s a song about it. This past year in my own life has opened my eyes about how to experience and give love in my personal, professional, and performing lives, and this title is a hint that I’ve managed to get a semblance of understanding how to live in a more loving way.

What is your favorite track so far?

With my arrangement of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” I wanted a change from the most common interpretation, where the singer is always left heartbroken because of moving too quickly in a relationship and scaring the other person off.

My take relishes the adventure of falling in love, replete with its pains and joys, and sets the process as a rebirth each time the singer “falls in love.” The interlude I wrote at the end of the form pushes the narrative forward into a guitar solo, which explores yet another version of love too. It’s open-ended, a little cheekier, and a lot less depressing than most arrangements of the tune.

With no instrument to “hide behind” how does it keep you sharp and on point?

My perfectionist tendencies gave me a chip on my shoulder about being a vocalist; when things go wrong, they just go completely off the tracks. In those moments where things have the option of completely going haywire OR becoming a very magical experience, the only thing that will ensure the latter result is immaculate preparation on my part. If I don’t do my work at home, I sure as heck can’t expect anyone else to save me on stage.

Where do you look in an audience when you perform, or are you in your own head?

I love to look at peoples’ faces and really sing to them. Most of the time as an audience member I find it rude if a musician has his or her eyes closed for the duration of a song; there are exceptions of course. I can be in my own head all day. I don’t need people to watch me undergo that experience alone; I want to make sure we’re communicating with each other in that moment, otherwise I’m not sure of the purpose of the performance.

What are you learning about production and marketing that will be useful going forward?

Above all else, I love, love, love to be nerdy and learn about anything that I’m interested in at a very high level. Lots of books, master courses, video seminars, and interviews with older musicians have gone into educating myself.

My fault is that I gravitate much more easily to the business side than the musical side, and so I am now quite familiar with new marketing strategies that are trending right now like Facebook Ads, email marketing, audience retargeting and the importance of social media branding; but I’m not always as quick to come up with the musical material for those marketing strategies. Now having produced my first album, I’m also better aware of all the steps required from start to finish, and am constantly looking at other peoples’ presentations to see what they did, figure out why it works, and how I can apply those lessons to my own work. I also enjoy sharing this information with other musicians, and am considering adding artist management to my music business someday.

How do you take care of your voice?

Daily. It’s a matter of staying hydrated (but not too hydrated, as our schedule only allows for bus stops every 2-3 hours!), avoiding acidic foods, and drinking tea instead of coffee. At night, I make sure to drink alcohol minimally, and if a place is so loud that you’d have to start yelling to communicate, I’ll either pull out a “Minnie Mouse” voice which carries over the crowd better or just not speak at all.

I also sleep with a humidifier next to my bed in hotel rooms, which I feel helps as we change locations, rooms and weather situations so frequently.

What kind of exercises do you do to keep the vocal chords in shape?

My go-to sequence on gig days consists of just two exercises: slowly and intently singing through chord tones of a major chord on a very resonant vowel, and a lip trill (buzz) on very, very low notes. I focus on visualizing the notes coming through my apparatus rather than listening to the notes themselves.

How would you describe the differences in how jazz is appreciated around the world?

When I traveled to Australia we were told that vocal music in the schools was still in the very early developmental levels. I traveled with a vocal jazz group there and the reception of the group was phenomenally warm.

Jazz fans in Japan are diehard fanatics; every jazz performance there, whether it’s a tiny jam in a cafe or a filled concert hall, is received by absolutely supportive audiences, and I bet that’s regardless of the sub-genre of jazz. I didn’t get a chance to explore Latvian jazz too much, but in that region of Europe there is a very tight-knit community of jazz musicians which often travel to and from Latvia for performances and festivals, so I know they have a great audience support as well. 

Talk about the personnel in your band and how you came together.

Right now the only mainstay in my group is guitarist Shane Savala, who attended CSULB a couple of years before I did. I think we met by playing on another student’s recital together, and he was one of the first people I started collaborating with. The chemistry is wonderful between us, and Shane is an absolutely phenomenal musician and person, constantly growing and working to improve himself and his playing. It’s been an honor to work with him, and I love that we push each other to constantly improve our lives outside our music as well.

I most often play with drummer Eric Hagstrom, another CSULB alumnus. He studied with the renowned Jeff Hamilton in Los Angeles, and has a killer foundation in his technique and small-group playing. His genre knowledge never ceases to astound me, and he is also a member of a great psychedelic rock band Brainstory, which is definitely making headlines in their field. They most recently opened for a leg of Chicano Batman’s tour.

I waffle back and forth on what I want from a bassist and so haven’t said for sure who’s “the bassist” in my band, but the one I most often play with is also a CSULB alum, Nick Ornelas. He’s a great asset to have on the stage and has great arrangement ideas as well. Shane, Eric, Nick and I have all known each other for the past four years or so and have grown so much musically and personally. Every time we make music together is a real treat.

Because I recorded in New Orleans, I was only able to bring Shane out to record guitar for me, and used amazing local musicians Kyle Sharamitaro on drums, Joe Butts on bass and Brad Black on trumpet, who also plays split lead trumpet in the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Kyle is such a bright light, so easy to work with and grooves like no other. I think he gigs most nights in NOLA in a variety of different groups because he’s so easy to work with.

Joe is one of the best, if not the best, bassist I have ever played with. Fantastic human being, and the tastiest bass solos I’ve ever gotten to hear. I’ve already transcribed all the solos he played on the album.

Brad has this wonderful tone on his trumpet and comes from this sick mixture of funk, punk, trad jazz; his playing has opened my ears dramatically and I consistently learn from his playing and his musical tastes.

Which instruments do you most prefer to collaborate with?

My first collaboration love was guitar. There’s a human quality to the sound that just resonates so well with my voice; you can shred like crazy on a guitar too, which is always fun to sit back and enjoy on stage.

I also like the relationship between voice and just bass as the only harmonic instrument. I explore this in “Lush Life” and “In Summer (Estate)” on my first album. There’s something about pairing two instruments which are perpetually checking their intonation against each other, it just puts this synergistic edge on the moment that allows for some really special things to happen.

How do you work to increase your range?

At this point, I no longer work on increasing my range. I’m a soprano with a well-developed jazz range, D3-F#6, and those are pretty much all the notes I could hope to use effectively in performance. I do keep up my classical chops by occasionally warming up with arias on my day off, to keep that part of my range fluid.

Do you scat and how hard a discipline is that to master?

I do scat. It’s something I have natural talent in, but to graduate to a truly meaningful skill level it’s definitely a very difficult discipline to master, and more so to be artistically pleasing in doing it. I’ve been pretty disheartened by how many instrumentalists and even vocalists say they just abhor scatting, and the optimistic part of me believes that they’ve probably only heard self-indulgent amateurs attempt to scat before.

What do you hope to bring to the audience when you perform?

Special experiences that make them think about rich memories. Sometimes those are heartbreaking ones, like the first time someone looked in your eyes and told you they no longer love you. It’s tinged with the devastation and self-punishment that the dejected person must be doing something wrong. Or bittersweet moments like when you sang your mom’s favorite song with her while she was in hospice for the last time and you were really saying goodbye. But also wonderfully light moments too, like that electricity you feel when you high-fived your employer when you asked for a raise and actually got the number you wanted, or the effervescence that fills you when you’re finally, truly in love for the first time.

How are you preparing for your new release?

It’s being sent to publications, radio stations and bloggers for reviews and features, while there are also goodies being prepared to be sent to current and potential fans.

How will it be marketed?

It’s being marketed as a collection of modernly-arranged jazz standards with folk and world influences. Social media teasers, encouraging fans and friends to share the music, videos, photos, an album release house concert in the Los Angeles area, and hopefully a tour in April 2018 are all part of the marketing plan. As a self-release, it’s being distributed via CDBaby, and all this promo and marketing is done by me.

What is the biggest challenge for new jazz artists today?

I think because jazz has such a long and well-established history, and those who are educated in the genre are taught mostly about what’s already happened and not what is happening today, that the biggest difficulty is making the choice between creating original jazz and pushing forward into unknown territory, putting some kind of filter/aesthetic on jazz standards, or just completely staying in tribute territory and digging into an already established (and passed) style of jazz.

Each avenue is completely legitimate to some and completely whack to others, but can be a career for any jazz musician who wants it.

Countries you would like to perform in?

I absolutely love to travel and try to learn new languages, and that’s something I’ve tried to support through the molding of my music career. Europe, Denmark, France, Spain and Germany all have fantastic jazz support, while I’d love to travel South America and explore more of the Brazilian/Afro-Cuban side of my musical interests.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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