Smile Politely

The man who taught us to hear

Jon Schoenoff, head of Audio at Krannert Center, passed away last week, and to commemorate his impactful and important life here in Champaign-Urbana, we asked a few of his colleagues to give us their best. Here they are:

Jon Schoenoff was subtle, often hard to read, quite funny in an oblique manner, wry and deprecating [to himself and others he was comfortable with], extremely knowledgeable, and very dedicated to KCPA. A mutual friend [a former assistant of mine, and former student of Jon’s] told me a classic Jon story in the Krannert Lobby at his memorial service. Jon [quite literally on his deathbed] had Barbara [his wife] hold the phone up to his head [as he was too weak to do so himself] as he carefully explained what had to be done for a recording / concert that day at KCPA. Giving 200% — You gotta love that!


He was fascinated by technology, and often spoke that he had a DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] “problem” [there is a 12 step program for that it’s called analogue tape!], he would buy most new DAW’s and plug-ins, loved any new gear, and especially mic’s and pre’s. His office[s] were often a jumble of “cobbled” together, and very exactly connected gear, new and old, various bits working or not. He taught his students to build or create things they did not have, or could not afford. He wasn’t the only person in the area with a burner, just the guy with a big HD, fast computer, great ears, and time to work meticulously on peoples music! Jon was integral to the success and fame of the Sinfonia de Camera here at UIUC, and Ian Hobson’s brilliant playing and conducting was always featured in the best possible manner by their multi decade collaboration. Ian could record anywhere in the world, and it is a tribute to his respect for Jon that he chose him as his engineer.

We would peacefully argue about the best piece of gear for this and that, and where the best spot in the Great Hall was for ambience mic’s, etc., and he loved to experiment. We had a long standing joke that the two of us were among the few people in the world that knew how to spell the name “Jon.” He would actually listen to other people’s opinions, and try their suggestions re: Audio/Recording, and then give good feedback about his experiences. He would approach sound design for a student’s recital with the same care he would lavish on a symphonic recording. It is a testimony to Jon’s teaching prowess that so many former students came back to CU after decades [in many cases] for his service. He has former students scattered around the world in the fields of music, dance, engineering, and production. He leaves a rich and vast audio legacy, along with a great family behind. For me going to KCPA will never quite be the same, and I will think long and hard about this great man the next time I am in the “Great Hall” at KCPA.

Jon Pines, Private Studios

Jon had access to much technology, in many different arenas: wonderful microphones and up-to-date digital equipment, all manner of PA gear, etc. He had access to amazing acoustical spaces, a more complex and subtle technology, and knew how to make them work. If you think of the creative horsepower that he worked with there, and that he channeled… it was all in the service of art and human expression, and always at the top possible level of quality. Jon himself was an excellent composer, and it is a tribute to him that though he was so talented in so many areas, he also had the humility to use all his gifts to put others in the best possible light.

The Krannert Center really does feel like family, and that amplifies the loss to his friends and family. He was the motor of the Krannert complex, which relied on his expertise and superior ears in all of its areas of artistic endeavor: hundreds of live performances a year, theater productions, music recording and reinforcement, opera, dance, and all. They’re going to have to hire four people to try to make up for what he did.

Beyond technology, and beyond the place, he possessed the knowledge, the discriminating hearing, and the communication skills to bring the best out in everyone he worked with. That meant that it was always a learning and bettering experience whether someone was working with him or studying with him- a mentor and teacher by example.

Jon was a great teacher as well, and the wealth of knowledge that he imparted will multiply through his students’ teachings. He was the classic outwardly gruff teddy bear, a man who wouldn’t say no to projects, an enabler of creativity. One of his sons told me at the visitation: “I learned early on to pay attention when my father spoke, because he was about to say something either completely correct- or completely hilarious.” How true.

It’s not enough to say that he will be missed. A mountain has disappeared from our skyline. Farewell, Jon.

— Mark Rubel, Pogo Studios

When I got the phone call from Tammey Kikta to inform me of Jon’s death, so many memories rushed back…

I’ve known Jon and had the privilege of working with him for more than five years. Which is to say that I have been teased by Jon for quite a while. Whenever I’d go to the audio department I’d usually get some sort of variation on “what do you want now, Spelman?” Of course, it was delivered in Jon’s unique faux-curmudgeonly style that always made me smile. There was *just* enough of a twinkle in his eye to let you know that he was pulling your leg, but not so much that it didn’t also put a little fear into one’s step; my next thought was usually something like “oh no, I hope I know the proper name for the gizmo that I need” or how can I explain my concern about such-and-such that won’t make me sound like the rambling fool that I am?”

After having just a little fun with me, Jon would then quickly show that not only was he an expert in whatever it was that you asking about, but that he really wanted to help.

The one thing I never heard was the word “no.” I have worked for venues around the world and I have become all too familiar with phrases like: “that’s impossible” or “we don’t do that sort of thing here.”

Whether the issue was as important as addressing a composer’s complex audio needs for a massive sound installation in the lobby or as mundane as an artistic advisor requesting the right wires to connect an iPod in a hotel lounge, Jon always found solutions. And what’s more, he always followed up to see if the solution was working well, or if there was perhaps a way to make it work better.

He did all this because he cared. He cared about artists, about patrons, about students, about people. My heart goes out for Jon’s family and everyone at the Krannert Center whose lives he touched.

— David Spelman, Ellnora: The Guitar Festival at Krannert Center

At Smile Politely, we too, wish the Schoenoff family best wishes during this difficult time.

More Articles