Harmonious Legacy

after 25 years with UWEC music program, Schwartzhoff says goodbye

Katy Macek, photos by Andrea Paulseth

NOT QUITE A SWAN SONG. Gary Schwartzhoff has retired from UWEC, but he’ll still direct choirs in the community.
NOT QUITE A SWAN SONG. Gary Schwartzhoff has retired from UWEC, but he’ll still direct choirs in the community.

Thirteen international tours. Some 30 juried performances. Hundreds of concerts. Thousands of faces.

That barely scratches the surface of Gary Schwartzhoff’s time as a professor of music and director of choral activities at UW-Eau Claire.

So what motivated him to make so many opportunities available?

He’ll tell you time and again, “It was because of the students.”

Because of the wedding he was invited to July 30 in Minneapolis, where a former student asked him to be part of a choir of 16 students she sang with at UWEC to sing on her big day.

Because of the lunch dates former students who are still in the area frequently ask for.

“So many relationships stand out in my mind,” Schwartzhoff said. “So many students who are doing great work, here in the Midwest primarily, but beyond as well. Music educators, moms and dads, how they’re affecting lives today is very rewarding.”

Take the number of students in his classes, multiply it by 25 years, divide it by four (assuming the students were in his program for four years), and that’s … a lot of students. He estimates somewhere around 1,000.

Oh, the places you’ll go

Asked about some of the memorable moments during his time at UWEC, Schwartzhoff pauses. How do you pick from 25 years of memories? But of course, it goes back to his students. Specifically, to performances they shared around in the state, nation, and world.

Most recently, that included traveling to Vatican City with the Concert Choir this January to perform in the Sistine Chapel. “A performance in the Sistine Chapel is a bucket list check-off, and I never thought we would get there,” he said.

Other performance locales include St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and a host of others throughout Europe and South America.

He was also able to have the concert choir perform at the 50th and 60th anniversary of D-Day in Europe. He had hoped for the 70th as well, but budget and timing didn’t allow for it.

“It’s the opportunity for students to have performing in some place that’s so celebrated in history,” he said. But he made sure his students had those opportunities on campus as well.

Building a legacy

Schwartzhoff received his master of music degree in choral conducting from the University of Northern Iowa in 1981 and his doctor of musical arts degree in conducting at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1990. Before coming to UW-Eau Claire, he taught for 15 years at Ames High School in Iowa. The 2015-16 school year marked his 42nd year of teaching.

Schwartzhoff watched the choral program grow dramatically in his first three semesters to the steady number it remains at today.

Through the years, he also continued the annual Cabaret performances – which were started by his predecessor, Morris Hayes – as well as the Madrigal dinners. He also directed the Concert Choir, the Chamber Choir, The Singing Statesmen, and taught conducting.

Marcia Van Beek, who has known Schwartzhoff since the early 1990s, thinks it’s this passion for giving students everything he has to offer that stands out. “I have known few people with the work ethic and passion he carries with him in everything he does,” Van Beek said. “He accepts nothing less than excellence, and that has greatly contributed to his success.”

Van Beek, a UW-Eau Claire Foundation employee, said he’s made her work connecting with choral program alumni easier as well. She said Schwartzhoff reaches out to the entire alumni, and even those who worked under Hayes, after connecting with Schwartzhoff, are willing to contribute to the Foundation.

And beyond the university, Van Beek is sure he has left a mark on the Chippewa Valley music scene. She started working under him in the Master Singers, a community choir program, which is in its 24th season this year thanks to Schwartzhoff.

“It’s a long-standing, very successful venture, and it speaks to Gary’s desire to promote great choral music, to connect with people on an emotional level, and he does that religiously,” she said.

Looking to the future

While he doesn’t believe his departure will negatively impact the UWEC music program, Schwartzhoff definitely knows budget cuts and financial strains are being felt in the department. Maintaining a good faculty-student ratio, retaining faculty, and dealing with budget cuts are among the major challenges in the immediate future, he said.

Looking at the faculty buyout presented to him in the fall of 2015, Schwartzhoff said he kept it as an option but didn’t plan to take it. But by May, in correlation with health issues, it seemed the best thing for him to do.

However, he’s confident in the music department’s success because of the other professors’ passions, especially as the campus footprint continues to change. He hopes the new Davies Center, Centennial Hall, the soon-to-be-built Confluence Performing Arts Center, and the new major event center on Menomonie Street will boost student retention and interest.  

Combining a home and work office into one was no easy feat, and Schwartzhoff said he revisited many memories while cleaning out his office in Haas Fine Arts Center. But after 42 years of teaching and with a lifelong love of music, he’s not ready to pack it all up quite yet. In his 43rd year, he’s ready for something new.

He’ll continue his work with the Master Singers and the Chancel Choir at First Congregational Church, as well as conducting at festivals “when the opportunity arises.”

 “When something has been such a major part of your life for so long, it doesn’t just end,” he said. “That’s why I don’t look at it as retiring, I’m retooling.”