she smiles, holding up an oboe
Brenda Schuman-Post (Photo/Kingmond Young)

Oboist plays ‘sounds that lift our spirits’

Brenda Schuman-Post, a veteran oboist, was setting up for a free concert that she and her band were to perform at a shelter for some of San Francisco’s neediest residents when one of them asked her, “Why are you here?”

Schuman-Post’s reflexive answer came from the heart.

“Because you need us,” she said.

And her band, Sonic Forest, began to play.

Schuman-Post is a professional oboe player and teacher in San Francisco, where she lives in a house on a rise out in the Sunset District, with a 360-degree view of the city, hills and ocean — or fog, depending on the day.

It is no exaggeration to call Schuman-Post’s musical career extraordinary, from her spiritual relationship with the oboe to what she has done with it as a musician. She has challenged the musical convention of the oboe as a complementary orchestral instrument, using it for jazz improvisation and solo arrangements, as well.

Her curiosity about the unique qualities of the instrument led her on a research trip to East Africa, where she witnessed the creation of an oboe from the harvesting of the wood, to an English workshop where she saw the crafting of a high-quality instrument.

But beyond all this, she is committed to performing music for the elderly, whom she describes as “the population that needs it most.”

Music offers a temporary escape from our troubles and preoccupations, Schuman-Post says, beginning a list of benefits she has observed. It provides a sense of peace and gratification. It jogs your memory. It energizes and socializes people, sometimes rousing them to dance.

“Senior citizens are a totally delightful audience and severely underserved. They are craving music and not getting enough of it,” Schuman-Post says.

Playing for these special audiences, she says humbly, “also increased the diversity of what I could already do as an oboe player and what I had yet to learn.”

she plays oboe with her back to the camera, outside; tree harvesters look on
Brenda Schuman-Post plays for African Blackwood tree harvesters in Mozambique. Third from right is Allan Schwarz, a Jewish South African conservationist.

Sonic Forest has performed at many senior centers and residencies around the Bay Area, such as Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco, the Reutlinger Community in Danville, Rossmoor in Walnut Creek and the Redwoods in Mill Valley.

She also gives lectures and demonstrations to the general public about her amazing experiences in search of the dark, dense, African Blackwood tree, which grows sparsely in only two countries (Mozambique and Tanzania) in the world and is the only tree from which oboes, clarinets, bagpipes and some flutes can be made. Locals also use it medicinally and to craft sculptures.

She’ll be presenting at two events: Oct. 28 at the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley and Nov. 27 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Following Schuman-Post’s talk at the botanical garden, Sonic Forest will perform, featuring the oboe, Celtic harp, violin, upright bass, and percussion. The second event, titled “Harvesting the Music Tree,” is part of the OFJCC’s Community Tuesdays series.

Schuman-Post’s relationship with the oboe has the resonance of something preordained. Born into an Orthodox family in New York City, she remembers being terribly moved by the sound of her rabbi blowing the shofar. In sixth grade, her public school gave her a choice: clarinet or violin. Her father, a trumpet player who filled their home with the sounds of Louis Armstrong, nudged her toward the clarinet. But after a year of listening to her, he said, “I think you should play the oboe.”

Tears well in Schuman-Post’s eyes as she tells how the pieces fell into place.

“I didn’t know what the oboe was. I really don’t think I had ever heard it,” she recounts. “But he promised me music lessons if I would play the oboe, and I wanted the lessons. So they rented an oboe. And as soon as I opened the case, I knew it was my instrument. My father knew it, too. Otherwise why would he have suggested it? And I‘ve been practicing every day since for 50 years.”

Her musical education continued through two master’s degrees, during which time she strove to demonstrate that the oboe could be a solo instrument. She mastered the required orchestral repertoire for oboes, while forming more intimate ensembles to play other kinds of music. In 2011 she formed Sonic Forest, devoted to programs that inform audiences about the relationship of music to nature, and they are actively performing to this day.

The oboe, she has learned, is a special instrument in many ways.

It has a bright, penetrating sound that is easy to hear — a fact that elder listeners especially appreciate. Its pitch is more stable than that of strings, and both of these are reasons why the oboe is traditionally played to tune the orchestra.

But more important, she believes, it is because “it is the sound that raises your spirits, gathers community and announces that something wonderful is about to happen.”

Back in the ’70s she discovered that nearly all societies have some kind of treble double-reed instrument, like the oboe, used for both sacred and secular music. The double reed produces a sound similar to a human voice “and it is always the instrument that is used to bring people together,” she asserts.

“When you hear that sound, it touches you in an extraordinarily physical way,” she says. “I understood that, for me, it was not just about becoming a great oboe player. I have a responsibility in front of the audience to gather them as one body and to uplift them.”

Brenda Schuman-Post performance and talk, 4-6:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at UC Botanical Garden, 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley. $35-$40, registration required. events.berkeley.edu. Also 1-2:30 p.m. Nov. 27 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $15 at the door. paloaltojcc.org/events. Seniors can get door-to-door rides to the JCC for $10 round trip, funded in part by the Senior Mobility Initiative at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Reservations need to be made by Nov. 22 by calling (650) 223-8741 or sending an email to bsaad@paloaltojcc.org.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.