The Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 1, 1999
Feb. 1, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 20


Heavenly Sounds To Heavenly Bodies

A former musician finds a new home in Physics and Astronomy

By Gary Dorsey

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Not many years ago, Sharon Tiebert (pictured at right) would find herself dashing through Europe, on her way to a recording session with Munich Radio or the Alfred Brendel concert series, and people would do a double-take.

"Haven't I seen you in performance?" someone would ask.

It was a typical Faustian bargain: artistic acclaim, a financial windfall, travel to far-flung places, name recognition and, oh yes, by the way, a few sacrifices--just a few.

Tiebert enjoyed those moments of recognition, praise and celebrity, mounting the summits of classical artistry as a member of the Annapolis Brass Quintet. French horn player, graduate of a renowned conservatory, one of the best of the best, she had struck the bargain that safeguards success.

She made an appearance at Carnegie Hall, entertained the president of the United States at his first inaugural, performed with Barbra Streisand. She toured Europe several times and recorded with what was once certainly the best full-time brass chamber music ensemble in the world.

But she lost her life. And when she finally reemerged at The Johns Hopkins University, delivered whole, no longer center stage, no longer the big draw, no longer at the top of her game, they classified her as a 39 and gave her a title, Administrative Assistant.

Today Tiebert is a member of the university's support staff, working in the basement of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, where she avoids the limelight and, confounding skeptics, seems very, very happy.

"People find out I'm working here and they say, 'Aren't you just a glorified secretary? Why are you working here?'"

She is insulted. But she doesn't blink.

Out comes the rapid response: "Well, it's a wonderful job, I've got some great challenges and I'm doing really interesting work. Honestly, people have no idea."

Just how a world-renowned musician winds up her career by writing grants and managing finances for a world-class astronomer is a classic story that begins in humble circumstances and ends in revelation and hopeful accord: In the small town of Beach Grove, Ind., during the late 1960s, little Sharon Tiebert wanted to join the fifth-grade band, but her parents couldn't afford to buy another instrument.

"I wanted to play the oboe," Tiebert recalls, "but my parents said, no, you're already playing the violin and that's costing us enough for lessons. I thought I'd be the one who ended up playing the bells in the marching band because there was no way my parents could afford another instrument--my brothers were playing trumpets. But the band director said, 'Sharon, you have a French horn-player's lips,' so she went out and bought an Army-Navy surplus horn for $10.

"It was this humongously heavy silver French horn that had been used in the Air Force band. The band director spent $40 fixing it so you could blow through it, and then, for $50, I had a chance to play."

Soon her two brothers switched to the French horn as well, and competition in the Tiebert household turned ferocious.

By the time they were in high school, the Tiebert Trio, as they were then known, played at competitions around the state, winning contests and collecting trophies. One day, the U.S. Navy Band came to town and the best players in the high school won a chance to share the stage with professionals. The ones who sat next to Sharon Tiebert were awed by what they heard.

Before the Navy band left town, they arranged to fly her out of Indiana.

"I didn't know anything about the East Coast or music schools or anything," Tiebert remembers. "But my parents let me go. I stayed at the home of one of the married band members, and he set me up with an audition at Peabody."

She won a near-full scholarship to attend the Peabody Conservatory, where in 1980 she earned a bachelor's degree in performance after three years and in 1981 finished her master's work.

Within a few years, Sharon Tiebert enjoyed a full-fledged career freelancing on a national stage, filling in at the Baltimore Symphony, playing with choral groups and in operas. An audition with the Annapolis Brass Quintet in 1989 catapulted her into the exclusive arena of international performance. She joined ABQ, who had introduced brass chamber music in Europe, and brought the group added attention as the first female to perform with an acclaimed brass ensemble.

In musical terms, it was a grand crescendo, but the end of only the first movement.

In Room 151 of Bloomberg, Tiebert runs the financial affairs of Warren Moos, a senior astronomer in the midst of his own crescendo as principal investigator for the FUSE ( Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer) satellite.

"Look," she whispers, excitedly, motioning to a gentleman passing by her doorway. "There goes John Hutchings--he's running FUSE for the Canadian Space Agency."

She is enthralled, shepherding an energetic public relations effort, designing artwork for FUSE and skillfully managing a number of NASA grants that support wide-ranging research projects.

Other celebrated astronomers in the department, including the chairman, Paul Feldman, can remember going to hear her performances with the quintet. Down the hall from her, another Peabody graduate, violinist Barbara Dreyfus, works as chief administrator of the Center for Astrophysical Sciences, now coming into her second decade as a Hopkins employee.

Sharon Tiebert looks, surprisingly, at home.

In the second movement of this musical drama, the Annapolis Brass Quintet folded in 1993 at the peak of its existence. The threat of withering funding for the arts in this country and in Europe, which led to the disappearance or bland commercialization of a few other distinguished brass ensembles during the 1990s, made it impossible for the group to imagine maintaining a full-time schedule. ABQ, with Tiebert as its French horn player, staged numerous farewell concerts, and left the world a little less bright in its absence.

Still not satisfied with her accomplishments, in 1994 Tiebert sold her house, put all her belongings in storage and hit the road with a small orchestra traveling with the cast of Les Miserables.

"We played 48 states in this country, spent six months in Canada and four months in Singapore. We went everywhere. Eight shows a week, every week, no matter what. Even when we had 12-hour jet lag, even if you were sick, even if your mother died, if your lover died--tough luck, we played."

She was making more money than ever and trying to hang in with a team of musicians who were dreaming, as she dreamed, of making a half million dollars or more, if they could just endure a few years on the road. And then they could retire, or return to a more satisfying life with a financial cushion to support an allegiance to their beloved art.

Three years and 1,200 performances later, Tiebert had collected a small nest egg, and looked back on a disaster. Her marriage had ended in divorce, she loathed the horn, she had no normal social life, she survived evenings with fellow musicians fainting in orchestra pits from here to Japan and traveled from city to city in a zombie-like state.

"After you've slept in the first 30 Omnis, everything begins to look the same. You wake up in the morning and ask yourself, what day is it? And all you hope is that it's pay day. You have no life. You're spending all your time with colleagues. But you had a lot of money. It sucked the life out of you."

In the summer of 1996, Tiebert says, she "jettisoned." Vowing never to play again, she escaped to the Appalachian Mountains to hike and ponder her life--or lack thereof. The second movement ended, sadly, with a sense of loss and confusion.

Her friend Barbara Dreyfus talked Tiebert into coming to Hopkins. She knew of an opening in the Physics and Astronomy Department for an administrative assistant. "You're too normal to be a musician," Dreyfus told her. "Get a life. Just do it."

The third movement began, con brio, as one month after another Tiebert came back to life. Working from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., counting her blessings, she learned for the first time in 15 years what it meant to have a Christmas Eve at home, her own coffee pot, her own house, a tennis partner ... a life.

Even though she has started playing the horn again, part time, she is circumspect about the past, and fully ready to tell her story, which turns out to be a cautionary tale perhaps worth hearing in the august environment of Johns Hopkins.

"People talk about achieving dreams," she says, "to be the best in the world at what they do. Well, I did it. For me, it was learning a trade. It was creative input and more than a degree of artistic freedom. But at what sacrifice?

"I can look back on concerts where the audience was on its feet screaming after we finished a concert. That was nice, you know. But, in some ways, it was just too much to ask. I always had to be on a special diet because salt would make my lips swell. You had to carry around a humidifier to every hotel room to keep yourself in a controlled environment. You always had to be at the top of your game. There was just so much you had to give up. So there were great moments. But I now have real respect for people who resist the allure of fame and fortune to choose another road."

The fourth movement is under way. Sharon Tiebert is buying a house. She is marrying an engineer from Boston this spring. And she has rediscovered the pleasures of the horn.

Best of all, Tiebert has had her eyes opened to another kind of dream. She lost her life, survived her ambitions and again found herself working alongside the best of the best.

But you might also say that she is no longer a player. In musical terms, Tiebert has turned composer, which, it may turn out, could be her best performance of all.