Terry Schlenker’s creative careers live in harmony

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Terry Schlenker’s creative careers live in harmony

By Milo Smith, Alumni Review editor

When a work of art or literature is produced, it’s sometimes said the artist or author gives “birth” to their creation. But composer Terry Schlenker doesn’t speak of his musical compositions that way. Maybe it’s because Schlenker, who attended UND in the mid-’70s and again in the early ’80s, has spent the last 25 years helping couples literally give birth.

Schlenker was the founding embryologist of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Denver and, as lab director, saw the clinic become recognized as one of the most successful fertility clinics in the world. For the past 12 years, he’s been splitting his time between helping couples conceive and conceiving and composing music.

“It’s kind of like I have two passions in my life,” says the 53-year-old, who now works part-time as an embryologist and composes music in his free time.

One of those passions, though, did not get a chance to flourish until Schlenker was in his 40s.


The Ashley, N.D., native says he always loved music and was composing songs as a “nerdy kid” at age 12. But Schlenker realized as a young adult that composing music was a difficult way to put food on the table, so he studied to be a medical technician and pursued that career path. Along the way, though, he kept a thought in the back of his mind. “It was actually always my intention to be able to sort of partially retire early,” Schlenker says of his plan to one day write music, “so I was lucky enough to make that happen.”

While luck may have played a role, hard work was part of the equation as well. Schlenker says starting the fertility clinic in 1987 was an incredible amount of work. “Directing the lab was extremely stressful. It’s a high burnout kind of job,” Schlenker says. “I’d work a month straight, day and night, without a day off. I think I was on call every weekend for eight years.”


Schlenker says the job took its toll and he came to a point where he wanted balance in his life. After 12 years as lab director, he told his boss he could work part-time or he’d have to leave all-together. “I wrote very little music during those 12 years I was lab director,” Schlenker says. “I really felt I needed to free myself up to write music. And as soon as I gave up that job, the music began to flow.”

Once the stress gave way to creativity, there was one more obstacle to overcome: insecurity.

“To me, music is the ultimate form of expression,” Schlenker says. “It is expressing my deepest self. Up until age 40, I was just really afraid of exposing myself. A bad review would have been just devastating to me.”

Schlenker’s breakthrough came after he started singing with a professional group, the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir (SMCC), in Denver. The conductor asked choir members if they’d have any interest in arranging a song for an upcoming Christmas concert. Despite his self-doubt, Schlenker turned in a composition, but says he was so insecure about it that he made one of the verses optional because he thought it was “bad.”


Instead, the Christmas carol was a huge hit with the audience, providing Schlenker with the inspiration to keep writing. That first piece was quickly picked up by a publisher who asked to hear more of his work. He wrote more music for the SMCC. One of the members was an announcer for Colorado Public Radio who started playing Terry’s work over the airwaves. Terry’s music career started taking on a “life of its own.”

With the encouragement of positive reviews and audience feedback, Terry tackled his most ambitious project, a two-year effort to create “Mass for Double Choir.” It’s a nearly 25-minute-long composition the SMCC website describes as “a complex work that includes up to 10 parts singing simultaneously, as well as long, sustained chords and frequent meter changes.” It’s a piece that has since been performed by choirs all over the United States and in Europe.

That work attracted, in a roundabout way, the attention of Joshua Bronfman, director of Choral Studies at UND. Bronfman has commissioned Schlenker to write a piece for an April 29 concert featuring the UND Concert Choir singing with the Grand Forks Master Chorale.


A few years back, Bronfman was looking for a companion piece for the Master Chorale to do alongside Swiss composer Frank Martin’s “Mass for double choir a cappella.” Bronfman says when he did a Google search for double choir, Schlenker’s piece came up and he immediately liked it.

Bronfman says when he searched Schlenker’s bio, he realized, “Lo and behold, he had studied at UND. And I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this!’

“It was pure happenstance,” Bronfman says. “Finding people who have studied here is a big deal.”

Bronfman reached out to Schlenker and started a rapport. That relationship eventually led Bronfman to offer Schlenker the first commission the UND Music Department had ever made to create an original work. “I know it’s going to be something cool,” says Bronfman. “I’m really excited about this project because it strengthens us and helps the department grow. My goal is to provide as rich of an experience as possible for my students.”

“It’s like coming full circle,” Schlenker says of the spring concert, which will be a homecoming of sorts. “It’s where I started composition, and I get to come back and show people what happened to me. I’m totally excited.”

Schlenker remembers sitting at a piano in his Grand Forks apartment writing music during a blizzard. He also has fond memories of the education he received at UND. He says the best composition teacher he ever studied with was UND Music Professor Robert Wharton. “I think he was a piano or organ teacher,” Schlenker recalls, noting that composition was not Wharton’s area of specialty. “He was really memorable to me and he taught me a lot. I have great memories of working with Dr. Wharton.”


While his body of work and the accolades continue to grow, Schlenker still considers composing music “a hobby.” Though he works only part-time now as an embryologist, he has not lost his passion for that work, saying it is “amazing” to help couples conceive. “We now have had more than 10,000 babies born,” Schlenker says of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of these kids. Our oldest are now out of college. It’s been an amazing ride. We make a lot of people happy.”

Two very different careers.

One medical.

One musical.

In the end, they produce the same result: Joy.

To read more stories of UND alumni, students, faculty, and staff who lead fascinating double lives, read the Spring 2011 Alumni Review online at www.undalumni.org/alumnireview.

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