Martha Scherer interviewed by Sotos Djiovanis

Sotos Djiovanis is the English horn player of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Now a nurse by profession, Sotos graduated in nursing from the University of Central Florida where he was a scholarship recipient in the second-degree program (his first degree having been in music). Sotos had decided to pursue a BSN in his 30s after a successful career as a professional musician. As Sotos put it: “There are many students who simply wouldn’t be able to go to nursing school without the generosity of donors. Supporting nursing education is absolutely having an impact right here in our backyard. Your UCF nursing student of today is often your Orlando area RN, nurse practitioner, nurse educator, or nurse manager of tomorrow.”

Martha Scherer-Alfee is one of the first and only females to have studied with Marcel Tabuteau at the Curtis Institute of Music.  Originally from Minneapolis, Martha was a student of Rhadames Angelucci as a teenager. At age 16, Martha made the decision to forgo an oboe position in the Minneapolis Symphony and attend Curtis. After she graduated from Curtis in 1947, Martha served as English hornist in the Buffalo Philharmonic for 15 seasons. She lived in Detroit for many years after that and was very professionally active there. She performed in the Detroit Women’s Symphony, The American Ballet Company, and often as a sub/extra with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Martha was also a professor at the University of Windsor during this period in her life. In 1989, Martha moved to South Florida with her husband of 60 years, Erling, a string bass player. The Alfees are now both retired and live in Stuart, Florida. They have two grown children and two grandchildren. The Alfees have always enjoyed canoeing and camping. Martha has 28 years experience teaching swimming, American Red Cross life-saving, and water safety instruction. Today Martha and her Golden Retriever Molly work regularly in Stuart as a certified therapy team. Martha also maintains a private oboe studio.  I was a student of Martha Alfee in the 1990’s. She lived a good distance from where I grew up, but by the time I had a car it was clear that I needed to drive down to see her for regular lessons. Fine oboe teachers were hard to come by at that time in Florida, especially oboe teachers who were Tabuteau students. I wanted to sit down and talk to Martha for The Double Reed; she is a very special and talented person and I felt that more people should know her story. Martha stepped into a musical scene in the 1940’s that was very closed to women musicians, but she managed to make it in anyway. Martha has never really struck me as a hard-core feminist. Rather, I’ve always thought of her as a talented “in-the-trenches” musician who achieved success in spite of the obstacles that blocked female players of her generation. What follows I from a long conversation that Martha and I had during a balmy day in February, 2011.

Interview Excerpts

SD (Sotos Djiovanis): Laila Storch has written about how Curtis corresponded with her, saying that Tabuteau did not want to hear auditions from or teach any “feminine students.” How did you feel about coming into his class as a girl?

MSA (Martha Sherer-Alfee): Well, in the end I remember one thing that Tabuteau said to me in my third year. He said, “Say young lady, you should wear the men’s clothes because you play as well as any man tout le monde,” or of everyone in all the world. But he also said to me, “But you will probably never get the chance.” The thought of him saying the first part to me…I had that to help me keep my sanity for all of the times that I was refused from participating in auditions.

SD: You were in Curtis during the same years as Laila Storch and Marc Lifschey, isn’t that right?

MSA: That’s right, but Laila and I were not the first female oboe players at Curtis. I started in 1943, but my good friend Thelma Neft had been there before us. There was also another gal there named Marguerite Smith.

SD: Curtis kids did a lot of freelance gigs during your time there, didn’t they?

MSA: Oh yes, when I was in Curtis I was hired to go down and play English horn in Charleston, SC. The general manager of the orchestra down there at the time was Maude Winthrop Gibbons. It was my first time to go first class on a train. I had some wonderful times down there. I eventually played Handel’s Concerto in G minor there, on English horn. It really did transpose well. I had studied this piece with Angelucci. Angelucci was a fearsome teacher. When you studied a piece with him, you studied the part, the score, the piano part, etc. My young students today look at me like I am cuckoo when I ask them about the chords underlying a piece. I played it from memory; it was just lovely. It was just in a different key. At Curtis we always had to get permission to play a job. One time I had to go formally apologize to Mr. Zimbalist and Mr. Tabuteau because some colleagues and I had accepted a gig at a hotel in Philadelphia. Although I was very nervous, what Tabuteau said made me feel really valuable in the end. He said, “See you are my pupil, they must pay you well.”

SD: How did your parents feel about you going off to Curtis? In a way, Minneapolis and Philadelphia were a lot farther apart in the 1940’s than they are today.

MSA: My parents were fine with it; it was a fantastic opportunity. I remember my aunt saying to my mother, “You mean you’re going to let Martha go to that bohemian school?” I think that she was referring to the fact that there were students there from many countries. This was one of the great things about Curtis though. There were several Canadian students at Curtis, many of them French Canadian. We learned French in Madame Tabuteau’s class and I got to know many of these students much better than I would have otherwise, since I was eventually able to speak French with them.

SD: You were in Curtis during the war, were there a lot of girls in other studios when you were there?

MSA: On most of the other instruments in Curtis there were females. I think Tabuteau was one of the last ones to take on girls in his class. I believe that after Tabuteau retired there weren’t any other girls to study oboe at Curtis until 1957 or so.

SD: Would you say that Tabuteau was equally as demanding and temperamental with you and Laila as he was with the male students?

MSA: Oh yes, there was no going easy on us because we were girls. He was very temperamental. When I started at Curtis, I heard from the registrar Helen Hoops how Tabuteau’s boys often came down from their lessons in tears. I vowed to myself then that I would never let him see me cry. I remember how Tabuteau would sometimes say, “Say I fix that reed for you,” then smash it and hand it back to you. But other times he would work on it and with just a few scrapes it would play like a dream. Tabuteau would tell us, “You must learn to play well on a bad reed.” It is so true because sometimes you have to play on what you have because the clock is counting down and the concert is about to start. Tabuteau was very temperamental and his lessons were unpredictable, but at his lessons you always learned. I generally had my lessons last in the day with Tabuteau, which meant I often ended up with a longer time. We would often play long scales together, in thirds of course, slurred and tongued. He used to like to have a contest to see who could play the low notes the softest and the longest. He would just get this twinkle in his eyes. It was such a privilege to be at Curtis. I probably went to hear the Philly Orchestra twice a week most of the time that I was there. Curtis had a box and sometimes we got to sit in it. It was such a gift to hear Tabuteau, William Kincaid, and all the other wonderful players make music. The Philadelphia Orchestra has always had such a gorgeous A=440 sound, they’ve always sounded like velvet to me. I’ve loved listening to them over the years.

SD: You have said that you regretted not going to France with Tabuteau?

MSA: Yes. Tabuteau invited me one summer to come with him and his wife to his home in France. My folks weren’t well-to-do at all and I just didn’t have the money. I regret not having tried to borrow the money from somewhere else, or from Curtis. It would have been a great opportunity and I wish now that I could have made it happen.

SD: John Mack always told me about Tabuteau conducting at Curtis. Did he conduct when you were in school?

MSA: Oh yes. All of my colleagues in school, with due reverence to their own teachers, said they learned the most from Tabuteau. He was so demanding and demonstrative with his phrasing. We were so fortunate to be there. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about how Tabuteau influenced our lives.

SD: So you started auditioning in your final years in Curtis?

MSA: Yes. One of the first jobs I auditioned for was in Indianapolis. I forget the conductor’s name, but he had a bit of a reputation. People that I knew said, “If he offers to let you come into his office, then you had better be scared.” Well I played well and they said to come into this room and let’s talk about a contract. I literally ran out of there! [laughs] It scared the dickens out of me because of everything that I had heard. I had also at one point written the orchestra in St. Louis about an opening, signing my letter with the name “M. Alfee.” They wrote back to me very interested, citing my studies with Marcel Tabuteau. I wrote back to them as “Martha Alfee” and never heard back from them.

SD: As you know, I was the English hornist in Honolulu for a while. Weren’t you offered a position in Hawaii years ago by a conductor?

MSA: Yes. Steinberg had a lot of guest conductors come to Buffalo. Steinberg had Stokowski come and conduct and it was such a wonderful experience. He just painted pictures when he conducted; he made clouds. The strings sounded like velvet. It was unreal. When he left the sound left and never came back. I don’t know how much time went by, but one day I picked up the phone and heard, “This is Leopold Stokowski, I would like for you to come and be my English horn player in Hawaii. I will have my attorney break your contract in Buffalo.” He said that he had a job for my husband Erling as well. It is my great regret that I didn’t take that job. Hawaii had not yet become a state; Erling and I had just purchased a home in Buffalo. I probably should have called Tabuteau for advice on it.

SD: When you look back upon everything, what do you think?

MSA: Well, the one thing I really loved more than anything was playing English horn in the middle of a big orchestra. I also love that I’ve been able to teach so many students over the years. Music is a different sort of life, but it’s a very special life. I feel that Erling and I have lived on a cloud our whole lives, being in music. I’m just so grateful to have studied with Marcel Tabuteau and to have had the privilege of attending the Curtis Institute of Music. It really shaped my whole life.