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In Music

Janet Schiff and her century-old cello. (PHOTO: Royal Brevväxling)

A cello turns 100


In 1913, Milwaukee musician Janet Schiff's cello was crafted in Transylvania, Romania, by a man named Babos Bela. Hence, 2013 marks the cello's 100th birthday and Schiff is ready to celebrate.

From the moment she saw the cello, Schiff knew the instrument was her soulmate. She saw a photograph of it with its former owner, Radu Nagy, a musician in Bucharest, Romania.

"I took the photo down for a closer look and that is when I saw my cello for the first time. I was immediately taken by the golden brown varnish, wide wood grain, patina and petite size. Somehow I knew that it would be mine one day, even if I had to go to Romania to find it," says Schiff.

Later, Schiff learned Nagy was coming to Milwaukee to study with the cellist Wolfgang Lauer, who has since passed away, and she started taking lessons from Nagy. She found out that, much to her disappointment, his cello was not for sale.

At the time, Schiff had what she describes as a "crappy 1970s German cello." She struggled with its cumbersome size and average tone.

"I remember when Radu first let me play on his cello. I carefully added my bow. I was nervous and excited," she says. "Playing became effortless suddenly and I didn't have to stretch my hand for every note. I wanted this cello more than ever. I dreamt about playing it often."

Three years later, Nagy told Schiff he was ready to sell his cello and she didn't hesitate to buy it. She named it "1913" after the year it was made.

"My cello and I need each other: I need to play, the cello needs to be played," she says. "I doubt that I'll have another cello besides 1913. She is my soulmate."

Schiff says she feels at times while playing the cello that she might be connecting with both Lauer and her deceased identical twin sister. Schiff's sister died in a sledding accident when the girls were 7 years old.

Recently, she dreamed she opened her cello case and there were two identical cellos inside.

"Sometimes I think maybe she can hear me playing," says Schiff.

Schiff plays the cello daily both by herself and with her band, Nineteen Thirteen, a chamber rock trio which is named after her cello and includes drummer Scott Johnson and former member of the Violent Femmes, Victor DeLorenzo, who contributes percussion.

The band has a regular gig the second Thursday of each month at The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave. The group has also performed at Summerfest, the Milwaukee Art Museum and many other clubs, restaurants and local music venues.

Schiff and 1913 have upcoming shows on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at the Jazz Estate and Saturday, Feb. 18 at Via on Downer, 2625 N. Downer Ave.

Schiff also teaches classes at Family Music Center, 5020 W. Oklahoma Ave., and in private homes.

"I enjoy teaching so much. My cello has made me a better teacher because I'm more able to communicate and share musically," she says.

Schiff comes from a musical family and says music was an important part of her life growing up.

"My mom is an amazing pianist, my dad can play a mean guitar and my grandmother was a musician, too. My sisters and I sang a lot," she says.

Originally, Schiff's parents gave her a guitar, but she wanted a cello, so she fashioned a bow from a coat hanger and turned her guitar into a cello. Years later, she got a real cello and studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and then UW-Milwaukee School of Fine Arts.

"Even though I enjoy classical music I have a progressive side, so I studied experimental music, too," she says.

Schiff is also the mother of a 12-year-old boy, James, and is a cancer survivor. She works as a histotech with a skin cancer surgeon.

"Surviving cancer and radiation was one of the most intense experiences I've had. It's been almost four years and so I'm considered out of the woods from a recurrence. Now I'm honored to help those with cancer so this has come full-circle for me," she says.

Nineteen Thirteen recently recorded two pieces for an upcoming full-length album. The group will release a single in the near future. Plus, Schiff has been working on a solo project.

"Above all, I want to stay healthy so I can live as long as my cello has," Schiff says.

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