Singer. Writer. Teacher. Ambassador.
Sylvia “Sylvie” Fichtner Briber of Schenectady knows all four vocations. As one of the Stockade section’s most recognizable residents — and as one of the neighborhood’s goodwill representatives — Briber has made friends in all four careers.
Sylvie hopes to meet old friends and make new ones on Saturday, when she will discuss the creation of her new music CD, “A Garden Sweet: Favorite Art Songs.” The music party will be held at the Schenectady County Historical Society at 2 p.m. and feature selections from the poetry-meets-music collection of art songs.
Briber knows and loves music and the Stockade. She has performed in church choirs and two quartets, In Good Company and Didynamous.
She graduated from the former Linton High School in 1965 and continued her studies at Hartwick College in Oneonta, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English education. She later received an associate degree in apparel design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
Briber eventually returned to Schenectady and worked at the Washington Irving Educational Center in Hamilton Hill in the Adult Life Management Program.
Briber added other life skills to her teaching repertoire by working in the Schenectady County Jail and in local drug rehabilitation centers. She earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the State University of New York at Albany and then, through the state Education Department and with statewide teachers, coordinated the development of a curriculum for Adult Life Management students.
Although she has retired from curriculum and fashion design work and teaching, Briber remains active in her community. She and her husband, Bob, live in a Victorian home on Washington Avenue with their Sheltie dog, Lollipop, and their Maine Coon kitty, Gigi.
Sylvie talked about her music, her neighborhood newspaper — The Stockade Spy — and living in the city’s oldest neighborhood in a lively question-and-answer session.
Q: Can you tell us what “A Garden Sweet” is all about?
A: It’s a collection of art songs, and art songs are poems that have been set to music. It’s a collection of art songs that I have learned over 37 years of study with my voice teacher, and it all started when I was living in the Stockade on Union Street. I was living next door to the Conservatory of Music and I heard all these people singing and playing instruments as I sat in my garden. I decided, “Gee, I would like to take voice lessons.” So I went next door and sang a few scales for voice teacher Karen Ranung, and that was the start of a 37-year friendship and study with her.
During that whole time, I studied lots of different kinds of music — opera, Broadway, everything — but my favorites were the art songs. I wanted to have a little memento of all my work. My teacher is now 85, and I felt I wanted to have some sort of summary of my work, and sort of give a little thank you to her, for all her time, so it’s something we both can enjoy. And if any of my friends want to enjoy my work, that’s fine, too.
Q: Do you get the chance to sing in public much these days?
A: Yes! I sing in several area churches, and I was part of a woman’s quartet. Then one of our members passed away, and we became a trio — it was called In Good Company and we did lots of performing all around. And then a second member passed away, and the fourth member moved away. So I formed a quartet out of our church choir and we have performed for the “Magic and Melodies” downtown holiday celebration. We performed at City Hall this past Christmas and also for the Festival of Trees at the Schenectady County Historical Society. We’re called Didynamous.
Q: Great name. What does it mean?
A: It’s a four-petaled flower and it has four stamens. It’s a botany word.
Q: You have become a very recognized person in the Stockade. Why did you move into that part of the city?
A: It goes back to when I first was here in fourth grade, when I was inside one of the houses and saw the old beams and the floorboards, and you know, the whole ambience down here. There’s so much history. I’m writing a book, “The Inscription in the Window” about this inscription in the glass in one of our windows: She wrote “Grace T. Watkins, April 22, 1883.” With the Historical Society right across the street, it’s very easy to hop over there. It’s become my second home. The librarians there are so wonderful and the staff is very supportive. They’ve been wonderful to me.”
Q: What will the book be like?
A: I’ve been wondering who was this woman, and what happened on that day, and who owned our house. I’ve just uncovered so many interesting stories, they all seemed to fall into a book. It’s in first-person and the reader is taken through as I make different discoveries. The reader follows along with me. It’s pretty fascinating.
Q: What’s it feel like to be an unofficial ambassador for the Stockade?
A: I have a great sense of belonging. When I take the dog for a walk in Riverside Park, it’s a very good feeling to know so many people and chat. People are very friendly here. With my work on the Spy, it’s always kind of fun to strike up a conversation with someone and then before I know it, it could turn into an article for the Spy . . . it could draw someone who’s new to the area. They can very easily become part of the whole community by starting to write for the Spy, and people get to know them that way.
Q: You’ve been the editor of the Spy since 1996 — what do you print in the neighborhood newspaper?
A: It’s my love letter to the Stockade. I love doing it. There’s something called neighborhood news, those are the minutes of the general meetings we have here. There are things about preservation, things that people should be aware of. We’ve had some fundraising and we’re about to make decisions on how to spend the money and give priorities to the projects. I think it’s a lot of getting the word out about different problems, and then there’s some fun stuff, like a red-tailed hawk was seen in Riverside Park — that’s in this current issue.
Q: What is the state of the Stockade these days?
A: I have to say personally, when we first came to live here in 1995, there were many houses on Washington Avenue that really needed a lot of work. I would say pretty much all of the houses on Washington have been restored. I think there’s maybe just one or two that still need a little work to the facade and need some painting. Overall, I just have seen more restoration, there are people taking more interest in their homes. I like to think the Walkabout has given people pride and I’d say maybe motivation, because people are asked to put their houses on and oftentimes they say they’re not ready this year but they’re working on it and they will be ready another year.
On my street, I can certainly say it’s vastly been improved and it’s really more beautiful. There are cherry tress that have been planted, so every spring Washington Avenue is just lined with beautiful pink blossoms. I say you don’t have to go to Washington, D.C., you can just go to Washington Avenue to see the cherry blossoms.