Susan Scherman believes her musical roots began as a toddler growing up in Weehawken. “I went to the Danny Halloran School of Dance at age four,” Scherman recalled. “I took up tap dancing. I wanted to take violin lessons, but my father wouldn’t let me. My grandmother danced with Fred Astaire (who once lived in Weehawken), so dancing was in my background.”
But Scherman was never really able to follow her musical instincts. She always loved music and even traveled to see some bands perform, like Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton and Xavier Cugat. She even became friendly with members of those bands.
Scherman was busy pursuing a career in nursing and eventually became the school nurse at Weehawken’s Roosevelt School, where she also taught health education.
However, Scherman’s life changed dramatically one day in 1994 when she was driving on 19th Street in Weehawken, near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance and near the firehouse.
“I was stopped at the red light and a car plowed into me from behind,” Scherman recalled. “I was almost killed. My head broke the rearview mirror and my face hit the dashboard. They took me to the hospital, strapped to a backboard.”
Scherman suffered several injuries in the accident, including fractures to her lower back. She would require facial surgery.
“It was really bad,” she said.
After spending time in rehabilitation, Scherman was required to go to physical therapy sessions. Someone suggested a form of physical therapy that uses music and body movements as a form to recovery.
Help from Feldercranz
Called the Feldercranz method, the patient is taught how to carry the skeleton, with no pressure on the body, through music.
“It’s used a lot by actors and dancers,” Scherman explained. “They use it so they don’t get so stressed out. You’re taught to move the body correctly in time with the music.”
Scherman attended sessions at the Lucy Moses School for Music and Dance in New York, near Lincoln Center. And while attending the sessions, strictly at first for therapeutic reasons, Scherman was spotted by someone who thought she had the makings of being a musical conductor.
“She told me that I had a natural gift,” Scherman said. “I told her that I always conducted at home for the fun of it. But she told me that she thought I should really pursue being a conductor. She said that I had the right rhythm and movements. There’s a certain movement for every sound. It’s a difficult thing to describe. You have to see with your ears and hear with your eyes to be a good conductor. She told me that I had the talent.”
That’s all the encouragement Scherman needed. She was going to be a conductor.
“I started slowly at first, researching every area as to what kind of music to use,” Scherman said. She also called upon the services of her friend, Weehawken High School music director Steve Spinoza. “I picked his brain,” Scherman said. “Steve was a really big help. I also asked Chris Gulhaugen, who was Lionel Hampton’s arranger, for help. They helped me on the spiritual level. They told me to go for it. I always knew I could find the musicians.”
With that came the birth of Scherman’s Big Band orchestra. It’s called the Robert Lawrence Orchestra, conducted by Susan Scherman, in honor of someone who offered financial support early on.
Scherman has been conducting the 19-piece band, playing tunes from the Golden Era of swing and boogie-woogie, for the last five years. It’s very rare to find a female band leader, but Scherman does it.
This weekend, Scherman will be conducting her band at the Weehawken Day Festival, but the band plays several gigs throughout the year.
“One of our biggest clients is the Grand Central Partnership,” said Scherman, playing many gigs in Grand Central Station in New York. “We were also just hired to perform at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey’s 50th anniversary celebration in December. We’ve performed at the Warwick Hotel and just finished a date at the Park Theater Performing Arts Center in Union City. So we keep busy.”
Scherman was excited about finally getting a chance to perform with her band in her native Weehawken. “I’ve been trying to work on this for two years and it finally came through,” Scherman said. “And the members of the band are top-of-the-line musicians, performing with several big-time Broadway productions. So we have a lot of experience.”
Scherman wishes there would be a way to make music her full-time job. Instead, she still continues to practice nursing, currently working at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey in Newark, as part of a pilot program for autistic patients.
But she’s having fun and she’s healthy – and that’s all that matters.
“It’s great,” Scherman said. “Who would have ever known?”