A birthday song for Martica

9/10/2004 – Patrick Schönbach was born with a debilitating illness, but an unusually agile mind. Against all odds he grew up to be a musician, programmer and chess player. A while ago Patrick met a woman grandmaster on the Playchess.com server. A friendship developed, across 7000 km of ocean. Now it has resulted in a beautiful birthday chess song.

Patrick Schönbach: Musician, programmer, chess player

Patrick Schönbach is a person in a special situation, which makes it necessary to give some background information. Patrick is 33, and was born and is living in Germany. He was born with cerebral palsy. At this point, many people would already say: "Oh, what a pitiful fate". But is it really? Decide yourself!

When Patrick was about four years old, his parents went with him to an expert for such cases, and as part of the examination, an assistant of the professor also tested his intelligence. The result was: an IQ of around 170! The professor himself did not want to believe this result at first, as he was convinced that someone with Patrick’s pattern of disability also must be mentally disabled.

The professor was also shocked by something else during the examination. Patrick’s brother, who is nearly 18 years older than him, was studying medicine at that time, and while he was learning, young Patrick often sat on his lap, looking into his illustrated medical books. And since his brother was studying, he repeated the Latin names of muscles, bones and other body parts. During the examination, Patrick playfully called out the names of the muscles the doctor touched – in Latin.

The professor said that given the severity of Patrick’s disability, the statistics show that only one of one thousand cases is not affected mentally. “So, did I really have that bad luck?” Patrick asks today. “Do I have the right to complain about the injustice of my situation? Yes, indeed, my life is not easy, and it has never been easy, but have you ever actually met a person whose life has been really easy, all the time? I haven’t.”

Young Patrick discovering his musical talents

At the age of six Patrick learned the chess rules and played occasionally. However he was never a member of a chess club. Nevertheless, chess has always fascinated him, and when he has the time, he works on improving his play, using books or, of course, “those wonderful ChessBase products” (he has owned Fritz since version 2 was out). Later, he went to a normal high school, and at this time, he discovered his greatest talent: music. Since a very young age, he liked to play around on keyboard instruments, but because of his disability his possibilities to perform music were quite limited.

Patrick (left) in high school, eleventh grade

When Patrick was about 12, the first home computers came out that allowed the user to input notes, which were then played back via synthesizers. This allowed him to write music (he cannot use a pen), and also to perform it to some extent. After some pop songs (“they were quite silly”) he discovered classical music, and it interested him so much that he started to study it seriously. He taught himself all areas of classical composing, using only books and uncountable attempts and exercises: harmony, counterpoint, musical form, orchestration, etc. “Looking back now, I honestly wonder myself how I survived all these highly complex books as a teenager,” he says. “I genuinely feel that Johann Sebastian Bach was actually my first composition teacher.”

Patrick Schönbach today (right) with a friend

After finishing high school Patrick decided to study musicology and music theory, which at first glance seemed impossible, because it requires that the student must be able to play at least two instruments. But he did not give up hope, and after a year of playing “bureaucratic ping pong” with the Bavarian Ministry of Culture, Patrick was granted permission to study the subjects he wanted, even though he could not play an instrument in the traditional sense. He started studies in 1992 and finished them with a Master’s degree after some ups and downs and hardships in life in the beginning of 1999.

Since Patrick had been using computers such a lot – he calls the computer “my pencil, just a bit bigger than the normal one” – he also taught himself how to program. After finishing his degree in music he beefed up his programming knowledge, again in self studies, bringing it to an industrial level. Since the fall 1999 he has been working out of his home as a freelance software developer, with special skills in Eiffel, C, C++, Ruby, Perl, Java, Visual Basic, Smalltalk, Pascal, Basic and x86 Assembler. Since Germany is somewhat restrained in the area of telecommuting, he has always worked for companies and organizations abroad. Finding projects has not always been easy, but with perseverance and also patience it has always worked out somehow, at least so far.

Of course, he still plays chess, mainly correspondence chess by email, but he also plays online chess on Playchess.com. And when he has the time he will compose music. Which is what the following pretty incredible story is about (did we mention that, apart from his native German, he speaks fluent English and French?).

Frederic Friedel

A birthday song for Martica

By Patrick Schönbach

When you log into the Playchess.com server, especially when there is an exciting event running, you are almost certain to see Patrick logged on, usually supplying some low-key comments, chatting with friends and generally spreading good vibes. Recently those vibes hit a young lady from Equador, a women grandmaster, who was playing in the ACP tournament. The result: a permanent friendship and a beautiful chess song. We will come to the latter at the end of this report. But first here is Patrick's log book of the events.

WGM Martha ("Martica") Fierro from Equador

May 2, 2004: On Playchess.com, the 2nd ACP blitz tournament for women was about to begin. Being an enthusiastic chess amateur, I decided to watch the games a bit, not knowing that on this day I would win a new very good friend, and that it would make me compose a song about chess. The participants arrived one after the other. Curious about people's reaction, I sent some of them a message on the server wishing them luck. But as expected most of these stars seem not to feel like talking to patzers like me. Anyway, it did not bother me. Then, Martha Fierro arrived, a WGM originally from Ecuador but living in New York. I had not really heard of Martha before, just seen her on the lists of participants. I sent her a message as well, wishing her luck. She immediately replied in a very friendly way, and we had a short but nice conversation that went on between the rounds of the blitz tournament. After the games had been finished, we agreed to stay in touch.

May, 2004 – beginning of September, 2004: After overcoming some technical problems, we communicated online on a nearly daily basis, sometimes longer talks, sometimes quick conversations, because Martha usually tends to be quite busy. Being a composer, I had at some point the spontaneous idea of creating a very special birthday gift for my newly won friend in the chess world. One day, I jokingly promised Martha to write her a song for her birthday, which was on September 6. I am not sure, if she took it serious at that time, but I usually keep my promises. In the beginning of June I started writing some drafts. But since I had to do other things as well, the work on the song progressed rather slowly. Nevertheless, I wanted to keep my promise. In the meantime, Martha and I had become really good friends. As the end of August, I started to put more effort into the song. By beginning of September, the music and the lyrics for the refrain and the end were finished. But now, the difficult part had to be solved: How to write funny, heartfelt and rhyming lyrics for the two verses of the song? And how to do so in a foreign language!

September 3, 2004 – September 6, 2004 early morning in Germany: Lacking a necessary cable to do such a recording myself, I asked a friend in London to produce a purely electronic version of the song as an MP3 file, which he kindly did. Meanwhile, I was working very hard on the lyrics for the two verses. Not being a professional lyricist, it really was not easy for me, but step by step, I made progress. In the early morning hours in Germany, right in time for Martha's birthday, everything was at last finished. I was very tired, but also very happy.

September 6, 2004: Martha's birthday. Actually, I was very curious about what Martha would say when she heard the song. I sent her the recording and the song, and she was very delighted and touched. Of course, I was very happy, too, but what is a song without sung words? Just an electronic voice artificially singing "doo, doo, doo" all the time. For a composer, this is not really satisfactory, and therefore, I thought about ways how I could talk someone into singing this song as soon as possible. I also showed the song to the staff of ChessBase because I knew that many people there are very interested in music. And furthermore, without Playchess.com, probably I never would have got in touch with Martha. They liked the song and asked me if they may put it here on this site.

Lev Zhurbin of New York

September 7, 2004: As a first attempt to make the nearly impossible possible nevertheless, I emailed my old friend Lev Zhurbin, a freelancing viola player and composer living in New York as well, whom I had met back in 1995 when he participated in the youth orchestra of a famous German festival for classical music, the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. I asked him if he had an idea how one could get a recording of the song sung by a real human being. He recommended David W. Solomons, a countertenor (this is a male singer who has the ability and technique to sing very high notes) living in England. David liked the song immediately as well and promised to give it a try.

Countertenor David Solomons

September 8, 2004: In the afternoon, I received David's recording and I was very amazed. Given the spontaneous character of the project, the recording was really good. I sent it to Martha as a surprise immediately, and she was very, very delighted, too, especially as she did not expect me to get a sung recording that quickly.

September 9, 2004, early morning: I am sitting here, writing this article, and I hope, you will find listening to my song that, of course, partly deals with chess as amusing as I enjoyed working on it. For comments, suggestions, critics, and whatever, feel free to email me at any time: pschoenb(at)gmx.de.


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