Jan Pederson Schiff

In college, Jan pursued a degree in nursing, but auditioned for the Augsburg Choir as well. She missed the call-backs because she hadn’t seen them posted as she had left campus that afternoon. So when she found an invitation to attend the first rehearsal, she was sure it was a mistake – until she received a black music binder with her name on it – and then she knew it was real! That experience changed the course of her destiny. Jan signed up for a few music courses, found out how much easier they were than chemistry, and left nursing behind. She decided to study voice rather than piano, as singing came easy. In her junior year, she took conducting, and she found her soul. “It was a transforming experience,” she said. “I was able to express music through my body, which had been denied through my strict religious upbringing – we were not allowed to dance! I’m sure I would have been a great ballerina – but then I might never have found conducting!”

Following graduation, with a BA Degree in Music Education, she wanted to travel, but also to be of service somewhere. She applied to Vista, the national version of the Peace Corps, but with nothing coming through by September, she accepted a position teaching music in Chicago’s south-side inner-city schools, and moved into her first apartment with a high school friend. “That first year teaching was a challenge to say the least,” she says. “I saw 750 students a week in General Music classes! Needing to conduct a choir, I started a volunteer chorus at 8:00 AM. The kids came and we sang a cappella, as no accompanist was available. They sang for some local events, and were even featured on television!” However, still wanting to travel, she applied to teach in New Zealand, and decided to work as a substitute teacher while waiting for their school year to begin in January. She ended up accepting a substitute sabbatical position in the neighboring high school to her church and fell in love with her teenage choir. When the New Zealand job came through, she turned it down. She brought that choir to the state competition, and came away with top awards. It was a huge validation for her conducting talents.

But when that semester ended, she decided to pack her bags and leave for Europe with a friend. They traveled through Germany, the Netherlands, England and Scotland, attending the Edinburgh Festival. Then she boarded a ship to Oslo, Norway and left her friend behind. Her plan was to stay with some Norwegian relatives while looking for a job, and if nothing came through, head home. She ended up working at Fornabu Airport for SAS Catering, singing with the University of Oslo choir under the direction of Knut Nystedt (her favorite composer from Augsburg choir days), and also working as a Choir Consultant to the Barnasangerlag (a children’s choir organization) in Oslo. Through SAS catering, she was able to travel at fifteen percent of the cost of a flight. She offered her parents the trip of a lifetime to Norway, and then took one other trip of her own to Israel. Traveling alone this time, it did not take long to make friends at the youth hostels. “My most memorable time was traveling to Jordan,” she says, “Swimming in the Dead Sea, and being invited into the home of a young Palestinian boy, sharing sweet rice and mint tea.”

Not ready yet to return to the United States, but also not speaking Norwegian well since everyone wanted to practice their English, she moved to London and got a job teaching music with the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority.) She lived in Blackheath and taught music at Bloomfield Secondary School for Boys in Woolwich, South East London. Again, she formed a choir, which hadn’t existed at the school in years, and performed a Christmas and Spring concert to the delight of the staff and families.

After one year in London, she was now ready to return to the USA and decided the easiest way to find a new home was to attend graduate school. She applied and was accepted at the University of Colorado, known for its excellent choral program, but also for its mountains. After two years she finished with a Master of Music Degree in Choral Conducting with emphasis in Vocal Pedagogy, and she was ready for her first college teaching position. She accepted a full-time job at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. There she built the choral program to include a Masterworks chorus and a Chamber Chorale, and received wide recognition from the local papers, including her Holiday concert being named one of Wilkes-Barre’s highlights of the year. After two years, dropping enrollment in the school led to that job ending, so she moved on with her boyfriend to Flemington, New Jersey. There she got a part-time position as the choral conductor and vocal instructor at Somerset County College, and also began teaching private voice lessons from her home. When she and her partner separated, she asked herself what she was doing in New Jersey. Some years prior, she remembered someone saying, “I know, you’re a California girl!”, so she thought maybe now was the time to explore the other coast.

She drove cross-country to Los Angeles, and soon got a part-time position at LA City College teaching voice classes. Six months later she was offered another part-time position with Long Beach City College, directing their daytime women’s chorus (formerly a PTA chorus that the college adopted) and a senior citizen’s choir. The senior’s choir was part of a recreation center’s program that was cut after Prop 13. “But by that time,” she says, “I had established such friendships with the seniors that we continued for six more years, each of them paying me one dollar for my time.” These choruses would sing for retirement and nursing homes, and now and then for local community events.

Though happy with these choirs, Jan recognized that she missed making professional-level music, so she founded the Hollywood Chorale. “I was living in Hollywood at the time,” she reports, “And noticed there was no such choir in existence, so I advertised for auditions in the local paper and decided the name Hollywood Chorale had a nice ring to it (who would come audition for the Jan Pedersen Singers?!)” The choir became very active with the Hollywood Arts Council, singing for many local events, receiving recognition and awards from the city of Los Angeles, the California Motion Picture Council and the Susan B. Anthony Award for Cultural Achievement in Hollywood.

But it was again time for a change. She was being lured to Northern California after a close friend moved to West Marin. So without a job, she sadly left behind what she had created in Hollywood and moved to Marin County in the fall of 1986. Finding a delightful rental cottage off Panoramic Highway with a stunning view of Mt. Tam, she knew she had found paradise! She began a private vocal studio and started a women’s chorus class at Strawberry Recreation modeled after the Long Beach City College Women’s Chorus. That chorus is the founding chorus of Singers Marin, Wings of Song. As this women’s chorus grew, there was interest from others for her to start a mixed chorus, which took on the name Choral Singers of Marin, which later became the official nonprofit name.

It was in 1988 that Jan met her husband, Tom Schiff. Jan had been conducting the Community Congregational Church choir of Tiburon for the past year, though Tom never attended the service when the choir sang. They met at a special Angel Island service the Sunday after Easter, and six months later celebrated their beautiful wedding ceremony on Mt. Tamalpais. Jan wrote a composition for the choir to sing at her wedding, inviting a colleague from graduate school to conduct. She also surprised her husband with a song written especially for him and sang it with her guitar:

Dreamer, I’ve always been a dreamer, holding this day in my heart.
Knowing that someday, someday upon a mountain, my life would take a new start.
Here it is coming true, here I am, loving you.
Let your dreams lead the way, and you’ll find that today, they’ll be coming true for you.

In 1994, Wings of Song hosted the California Women’s Chorus Convention, which brought 300 women together in a concert at the Marin Center Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, conducted by Schiff. Raising funds for music scholarships to be given at the convention, they far exceeded their fundraising goals and ended with extra funds. A decision was made by Wings of Song members to do something to promote music in the schools, and they decided to host a local High School Honors Choir. This resulted in the realization that most of the High Schools in Marin County did not have a choir, except for Novato, and especially San Marin High under the direction of Emily Gates. She supplied all of the boys for this choir, and several of the schools found girls who wanted to participate. It was a great success, and was held again the following year. Several students then wanted Ms. Schiff to start an afterschool program for teenagers, which she did, and thus les étoiles was born. The youth program for young children began almost simultaneously in the fall of 1996 as Caroling Kids, which evolved out of the request of some Singers Marin parents.

The choruses today include four separate youth choruses and three adult ensembles. The summer chorus is open to families to participate together. All of the ensembles perform regularly for local retirement homes and health care facilities, bringing much joy to the residents. In addition, the choruses sing for numerous community benefits and events, and also present Holiday and Spring concerts for the general public. Today, Jan is most proud of the fact that her youth program coordinator/conductor is a former voice student and past member of les étoiles. Upon completing her degree in music, she has returned to working for the organization. “It is most rewarding to know that I had an influence on her career choice,” says Jan. “Others as well have found their current professions in the performing arts because they participated with Singers Marin. It is satisfying to know we are making a difference as we live out our mission: Touching hearts…uplifting spirits.”