Tom Schaefer decided he wanted to play the fiddle at what might seem the most inopportune time – as he entered medical school at the University of South Dakota.
But he’d grown up playing the piano, and his girlfriend, Cathy (now his wife), had already gifted him a mandolin. Music came easily to him, it was clear, and he later admitted that melodies pleasantly and steadily eddy about in his brain.
In Vermillion he bought a second-hand fiddle, and immediately it felt right when tucked beneath his chin and as he gently grasped its neck in his left hand. In the calm of his own company and without the benefit of any formal instruction he discovered that learning how to make the instrument sound good was a useful and productive diversion from the intense studies of medical school.
And so, three years removed from first handling that fiddle and in his third year of medical school he stood on stage at the South Dakota Fiddle Contest and claimed the top prize. It was 1978, and the competition at that contest had been imposing, making his rapid rise and performance there doubly impressive. South Dakota had produced a wave of fine fiddlers, led by a Wakonda farmer named Chester Olson, who not only superbly played, but also handcrafted beautiful fiddles and guitars. Already in his 60s, Olson had become an inspiring force for a number of young musicians in southeastern South Dakota, and he was generous with his encouragement and mentoring. He was the person who originally suggested that Schaefer try the fiddle, and the two played together during Schaefer’s first years learning the instrument.
An eclectic and charmed music scene fed by the University of South Dakota and to some extent by Chester Olson had been born and was thriving in Vermillion by the early 1970s. On weekends downtown bars competed for patrons by offering live music performed by one of the many talented bands comprised of young musicians living in or near the community. It was common for these musicians to rent old farmhouses near Burbank or Gayville or Wakonda. All-night hootenannies were also common, as the different bands crosspollinated and discovered new sounds and new ways to play old songs. A jazzy, thoughtful bluegrass style of music emerged. Folks fortunate enough to pay attention heard that sound performed by collectives named the Red Willow Band, Dry Mustard, the Rocky Mountain Oysters, Blueberry Buckle and more.
Out of that dynamic musical environment came Tom Schaefer, medical student and fiddle player. Schaefer was a farm kid, born not far from where Chester Olson lived. Medical school followed graduation from USD. He’d witnessed the music scene explode in Vermillion and soon he was swept up in it. After winning the fiddle contest he was asked to join the Rocky Mountain Oysters, and he still remembers the first gig he did with the group.
“We opened for the Red Willow Band at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux Falls,” he fondly recalled. “There was a huge crowd, the place was jammed.”
It was his first performance with a band in front of an audience, and he was simultaneously nervous and ecstatic. As he stood on stage and played his fiddle he watched the crowd dance and cheer each song.
“I was hooked on live performance after that,” he exclaimed.
“People love playing with Tom because not only is he a great player, he's a great guy.”
The Oysters quickly became a staple in Vermillion and in the region, with their fiddler gaining more and more recognition, and the band developed its own signature sound, writing and performing its own tunes. Schaefer would subsequently win South Dakota fiddle contests again in 1979 and 1980, meaning he won three straight competitions.
Meanwhile, Schaefer completed medical school in 1979, and began an internship as part of the family medicine program at Sioux Valley Hospital, now Sanford Health. Then he practiced emergency medicine at Sioux Valley. At the same time he was playing regularly with the Rocky Mountain Oysters. It was a four-year adventure that flew by.
“I learned a lot at Sioux Valley. It was grueling, it was exciting,” he said, describing the 24-hour on and 24-hour off shifts he endured. “After four days of that sequence I had four days off, and that gave me time to focus on music.”
In 1984 he and his wife moved to Minneapolis so he could begin a residency in anesthesiology. After that they moved again, this time to Bismarck, North Dakota, for his first real job as an anesthesiologist. There he discovered a music scene that lacked his beloved bluegrass, but was rich with country western music, and he happily joined in.
“I was in a good country band called Mule Creek Junction,” he recalled.
Schaefer wanted to return to the Twin Cities, and in 1991 he found a job there as part of an anesthesiology team. Almost immediately he was playing music in the vibrant and diverse scene there. One noteworthy performance had him traveling to Detroit Lakes for We Fest and backing up Hank Thompson, a hall of fame legend who’d made his mark writing and performing western swing music.
“There were 40,000 people in front of that stage,” Schaefer remembered. “If I hadn’t played all that country music in Bismarck I might not have been able to pull that off.”
Later he worked at Fairview Riverside Hospital and then University Hospital. He and his wife raised two children in their St. Paul home. When his youngest child graduated high school he and his wife moved to Nashville, and he started working with a medical group there and participating in that city’s talented musical community.
“We moved there so I could experience that scene,” Schaefer said. “I played a bunch, and met some really fine musicians, too, but we missed the upper Midwest, and we moved back to Minneapolis.”
Dr. Tom Schaefer now works with a group of anesthesiologists serving outpatient surgery centers and an eye clinic in suburban Minneapolis. His life continues to balance fulfilling work in medicine and his passion for music.
“Music has helped my work in medicine. It has given me the sensation of tension and release,” Schaefer explained. “I think music and medicine benefit each other, at least for me they have. There are elements of art and science in each. I like using both sides of my brain. I’ve had a wonderful career as a physician. And I’ve met and worked with some incredible people pursuing each. I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had in medicine or music.”
Schaefer’s longtime friend and periodic fiddle-playing partner Owen DeJong has enjoyed watching and listening to Schaefer’s musical style and ability evolve. Dejong, himself a top-notch musician and recently retired musical host on South Dakota Public Radio, described his pal as possessing a light and quick feel for the fiddle.
“He’s got a great bow arm, with a delicate touch and a firm grasp of music,” said DeJong. “People love playing with Tom because not only is he a great player, he’s a great guy.”
“I’ve become a better doctor because of music.”
Schaefer’s demeanor is laid back, cheerful, bright-eyed. He lets the music come to him, flow to him and through him. He is more comfortable complementing or driving the sound of a team, a band, but given the chance he easily embarks on a prolonged solo, expressing a range of emotions from playfulness to sorrowful.
He may not have taken lessons when he first started learning, but these days he eagerly seeks guidance to broaden his skills and repertoire. At the moment he’s learning classical violin from a member of the Minnesota Orchestra. DeJong can hear the new influence.
“He is always working to better himself as a musician, and he is succeeding. He has become proficient playing Irish music. Now he’s playing Bach. You can now hear Bach in his bluegrass. Because so much of how he plays he learned on his own he has developed his own unique style. I’ve never heard anyone play quite the same way as Dr. Tom.”
“There’s no end to my learning about the fiddle and music,” Schaefer declared. “It’s the same with medicine. You’ve got to keep studying. Both music and medicine are endlessly fascinating for me. I’ve been doing medicine all these years and I’m still learning, still seeing things I’ve not seen before. I’m a much better clinician now than I was 20 years ago. I’d like to think the same thing is true about my ability as a musician.”
Not only does he continue to learn but he also teaches music, including at the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest and Festival, held each June in Weiser, Idaho.
“I quit competing some 30 years ago,” said Schaefer, “Now I go there to teach and play. There’s plenty of jamming. You get to use your ears a lot.”
In the Twin Cities he keeps company with excellent players, helping out during recording sessions, pitching in when a band needs help, doing benefits and playing regularly with a group of friends. You might catch him playing at a bluegrass establishment called the Hook and Ladder.
“Most weekends,” he noted, “I am playing with somebody.”
He’s worked with a long roster of musical luminaries including Thompson, Garrison Keillor, Jethro Burns and Paddy O’Brien. Last summer the Rocky Mountain Oysters reunited in South Dakota for a series of five shows after a couple decades on hiatus. Each of the band’s individual players seemed to have gotten better for their many years spent apart. Standing on the far right-hand side of the band - his customary position - was Dr. Tom Schaefer, a reserved smile visible above his instrument. His playing was smooth, strong, confident. He backed up when he needed to, and provided stylistic flourishes when it seemed necessary, or when his bandmates looked to him to show the crowd just what he could do. He drew his bow or bounced it, lengthening or compressing notes. He hammered. He plucked. His instrument spoke with a mature, accomplished voice. This was an artist comfortable with his chosen path, and with his own walk through his personal history.
After a performance he explained the sensations he feels while playing. “Consonance and dissonance is what you provide to the listener,” said Schaefer. “In certain styles of music there is a good deal of improvisation. When I improvise it’s best for me not to think too much. A good solo succeeds when the player understands that we all have baseline melodies in our brains, and that the listener is familiar with about half of what they hear, and is surprised by the other half.”
Schaefer continues to experience two successful careers that have each supported the other.
“In music,” he explained, “you need to find a calm state of mind to play better, to elevate your level of play. The same is true in medicine. During difficult events while managing anesthesia I am able to find a calm. My experience as a musician has helped me do that. I’ve become a better doctor because of music.”