Donn Schroder – A Life of Music

by Alex Walsh

Donn Schroder composed his first piece of music while studying at San Francisco State. Fifty years later, he started his second…

“Why the lo-o-o-o-ong pause Donn?”

“I had no time to sit down and compose. Now I’m retired. I have the time.”

Donn Schroder is 84. He owns a blueberry imac.

“Why blue, Donn?”

(Donn laughs)

Donn Schroder is a retired musician, schoolteacher, and union official. He played viola in the Oakland Symphony and taught music in the Oakland Public Schools. He studied music in Vienna. He is an Oakland native.

To Be Or Not To Be…A Musician

Donn did not decide to go into music as a career. Fresh out of Oakland High school in the mid-1930’s, he chose the hotel business because the music business “wasn’t all that great.” He worked for a few different hotels before he was drafted into WWII. Donn was classified 4-F, which meant he did not have to be in combat, because of his eyesight. Instead, he was stationed at San Francisco’s Presidio   briefly.

“I heard about an opening in the (nearby) Fort Mason Band for flute. I had never played flute, but after learning to play viola, I found flute was very easy. So I took a few lessons from Herbert Benkman, an old time symphony musician in San Francisco, and in three weeks was playing whole notes in the band.” He was transferred from the military police to the 387th Embarkation Band at Fort Mason, where he stayed until the end of the war.

The 387th played for troops returning and troops leaving. “Sometimes we were called at 6:00 A.M. and told to get down to the pier. We’d get down there, and the ship would get there at 10. (laughs) We were just standing around in the cold.”

The musicians of the 387th formed a string quartet which included Frank Houser, Morry Wolohan, and Bob Grant, all from local 6. They played once a week for the ladies while they were making bandages. They also played concerts once a week for the officers’ club, the paratroopers on Angel Island, and the civilian employees. They rehearsed nearly everyday and had a good repertoire of popular and classical tunes. Donn became so proficient on the flute that, by the end of the war, the 387th had formed a woodwind quartet.

A Composer Is Born

After the war, Donn got married. He took advantage of the GI Bill and went to SF State to become a teacher. This is where he composed his first piece, a viola sonata, in 1951, under the guidance of Professor Wendell Otey. He did not write again until August 2001.

A Teacher Is Born

Upon graduation, Donn moved his family to Oregon. He joined the Portland Symphony and taught elementary instrumental music. He thought it wise to teach elementary school because his afternoons, evenings, and weekends would be his own, and the pay was the same as for the upper levels. He did not need the glory of having a high school orchestra; he played in a professional orchestra.

This lasted four years. Eventually the commute from Salem (where he lived) to Portland was too much. Donn quit the Portland orchestra and formed a string quartet in Salem. Four years later, rather than put his oldest daughter into a junior high he did not care for, “I got the crazy idea of packing up my family and going to Europe.”

Donn enrolled at the Vienna Academy, where he studied composition. He had received a small inheritance ($10,000), enough to travel and take care of his family for two years.

They had the time of their lives.

After Europe, Donn returned to Oakland. He auditioned for the Oakland Symphony under Gerhard Samuels and was accepted into the viola section. Donn served on the players’ committee for the symphony.  He taught elementary instrumental music in the Oakland Public Schools. The transcript he brought back from Vienna gave him enough units for a ‘Doctorate Equivalency’ from the Oakland Public Schools, which increased his pay schedule. A few of his students went on to professional music careers.

Mr. President

Donn retired from teaching in 1978, and from the Oakland Symphony in 1983. With his retirement bonus, he moved to Carmel, California,  with his wife, and began playing in the Monterey County Symphony. When the president of the Monterey union resigned, a group of musicians approached Donn and asked him if he would run for office. Donn said, “Yes, if you can assure that I’ll be elected.”

Donn was elected. He enjoyed the work.

He also served simultaneously on the Board of Directors of Musicians Union Local 6 in San Francisco. He commuted once a week, which worked out well for his weekly rehearsals at the famous Bohemian Club. Donn also served as a delegate to the AFM convention.

Golden Years

After ten years in Carmel, Donn moved back to his house in Oakland. He continued playing in the Woodminster summer musicals and Bohemian club orchestra. In the late nineties, he retired from performing.

Donn’s son, now a high school music teacher at Miramonte High School in Orinda, gave Donn Finale, a music software program, to do his composition work. “I have a tremor in my right hand, so I cannot do written manuscripts. It’s impossible. Finale opened up a whole new field, and I’m just having fun   composing.”

Since August 2001, Donn has written two string quartets, a string trio, and sonatas for violin, viola, and cello. He is currently working on a trio for violin, cello, and piano. Donn recently made a recording of his works (quartets and trios), under a local 6 demo recording agreement (of course), then had a party for the musicians, Phil Santos, Victor Romasevich, Wieslaw Pogorzelski, and Larry Granger, to celebrate the occasion. It is particularly fitting that Phil Santos, who began his violin studies with Donn, participated in the initiation of this new career for Donn.

“Music has been such an important part of my life, and always will be, even though I don’t play anymore,” says Donn,” Now that I compose, I’m still involved.”


Donn believes that it is important for musicians to teach, otherwise the art will just disappear. “It’s especially important for string players to get into the schools. You have to be a string player to teach strings. It’s a specialty.”

“I used to tell my students, ‘Music is a great door-opener.’ And it certainly is. Wherever you travel, if you bring your music with you, you’ll find an open door.”

AFM Local 6 Musical News, Aug 2002