Debra Richtmeyer, an internationally renowned saxophonist and pedagogue, has been Professor of Saxophone at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1991 and has performed as a soloist and clinician in North America, Europe, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Thailand, and China. She has performed or recorded as a concerto soloist with numerous bands and orchestras, including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, The Slovak Radio Orchestra, The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Washington D.C. United States Navy Band. She was principal saxophonist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 1981-1991 and with the St. Louis Symphony from 1992-2002. She is a Past-President and Honorary Life Member of the North American Saxophone Alliance and an Artist/Clinician for Conn-Selmer Incorporated. Beyond her accomplishments as a musician, she is recognized as one of the finest educators on our instrument and worthy of the title "Matriarch of the Classical Saxophone."
TS: So I understand that you have written a book recently. Can you talk about it?
DR: Yes, I am excited to talk about it! The book is called, Between the Notes: A Saxophonist’s Guide to Practice, Performance, and Pedagogy. It is actually in the hands of the publisher, Theodore Presser Co., right now and will tentatively be released in the Spring - hopefully in time for the NASA conference in March!
The original idea for this book came nearly ten years ago from a former student of mine, Dr. Michael Bovenzi. He was using many of my teaching techniques with his own students and asked me to create a resource that he and other saxophonists could share and use in their teaching and playing. It was a great idea, but I found it extremely difficult to put my teaching techniques into words because so much of it is based on what I hear and feel “in-the-moment” as I work with students. After months of struggling without much progress, life intervened and I was unable to continue working on it. Three years ago, I gave a masterclass at George State University for the students of Dr. Jan Berry Baker and my former student Dr. Connie Frigo. Dr. Frigo came up to me afterwards and said, “You have to write a book!” I just laughed and thought, “Oh boy - here we go again.” She offered to help me write it, so long story short, I decided to give it another try.
This time, I started by making basic outlines for each of the chapter topics. I then expanded the outlines by writing down the concepts and steps, as if I was teaching them to a student. I didn’t focus on syntax or how it would flow from one sentence to another. After doing several chapters this way, I sent them to Connie and asked for feedback. She wrote editorial suggestions in each of the chapters and I made revisions and wrote additional material based upon her responses. The back and forth collaboration worked really well, and Connie agreed to become my official editor. We continued the process for each of the chapters until we agreed that the entire book was ready to be sent to Presser for publication. Ironically, I ended up expanding the book from 12 to 24 chapters.
TS: What are some of the topics you discuss in the book?
DR: It is in three sections. The first section is about fundamentals includes ten chapters on fundamentals such as posture, embouchure, breathing, articulation, intonation, altissimo, reeds, rhythm, etc. The second section contains 10 chapters on practice and performance techniques, such as warming up, practicing with artistic intention, preparing for recitals, concerto performances, auditions, overcoming performance anxiety, sight-reading, and how to study a score… The last section has 4 chapters on teaching techniques, how to become a private lesson teacher, how to diagnose fundamental issues, how to teach a masterclass, and how to coach saxophone quartets.
TS: Holy cow, that is extensive. I can see why it was daunting. But I know a lot of people will want to get their hands on this book.
DR: I hope so. It is a comprehensive book and the people we have shown it to have been very enthusiastic about it. It is the culmination of over forty years of teaching and playing and I am really proud of it and excited to have it out there as a resource.
TS: Well, it’s kind of hard to top that, but I have some questions that I have wanted to ask you for some time. In reading about you, I noticed both of your parents were band directors. Now both of my parents were in the restaurant business and forbade me to follow in their footsteps. But with musicians it is different. Were you expected to go into music, or was it something that came naturally for you?
DR: My parents, as musicians and band directors, strongly encouraged my siblings and I to play musical instruments, beginning with piano in kindergarten – but I never felt that I was expected to major in music. I began playing saxophone in fourth grade and even though my parents saw that I was naturally talented, they did not push me to practice or discuss music as a possible future for me. It was not until I was in high school that I consciously decided to pursue music as a profession. My older sister and brother both earned music education degrees, but then accepted positions in the business world. My younger sister loves listening to music but decided to stop playing an instrument in junior high school. Our parents provided us with the opportunity to be involved in the music field and then genuinely supported each of our career decisions. I am grateful for that and to this day have fond memories of playing in the summer municipal band with my parents and older brother and sister.
TS: You are from Michigan, is that correct?
DR: Yes, I grew up in Marquette in the upper peninsula of Michigan - my father was the Director of Bands at Northern Michigan University for about thirty years.
TS: I heard that Dr. Fred Hemke heard you play and told your parents you were attending Northwestern. Being from Michigan, you are in some pretty heavy saxophone territory. Was there any thought of ever attending a Michigan school?
DR: (laughing). Well, back then, the upper peninsula of Michigan was practically thought of as a different state than the lower peninsula. Marquette is quite far from cities such as Detroit and Ann Arbor. My father bought Donald Sinta’s American Saxophone album for me and I liked his playing a lot, but I was never able to visit Ann Arbor or meet him when I was growing up. Dr. Hemke on the other hand, soloed with my father’s wind ensemble playing the Creston Concerto when I was in fifth grade. It was the first time I heard a professional classical saxophonist live and I was really impressed by his playing and charismatic personality. I wanted to find out what it would be like to take lessons from him, so my parents gave me permission to attend the Northwestern High School Summer Saxophone Camp in the summer of my junior year. It was a great experience – I studied with him for three weeks and really enjoyed working with him. We had a great connection and he apparently believed in my talent, because when my parents came to pick me up, he told them privately that I must come to Northwestern University when I graduated from high school. My father wanted me to go to Northern Michigan University and be in his wind ensemble, but Dr. Hemke convinced him that Northwestern was the right place for me. I am grateful that my parents allowed me to go, and to be honest, I never applied anywhere else. It was certainly nothing against Donald Sinta or anyone else. It was merely how the stars aligned.
TS: So let’s talk about the next step. What was it like studying with Dr. Hemke at that time and what are some of the lessons you took from your time at Northwestern?
DR: Dr. Hemke was known for his ability to get the most out of his students musically. He helped me to develop my natural artistic skills, without making me copy him or do anything artistically that did not resonate with my own musical ideas. This was very important to me and to my growth as a musician. He also encouraged me to really “go for it” in my playing. I was a bit reserved at the time, and he was not reserved (laughing), so that was good for me. I also learned how much I needed to practice in order to reach my potential as a player. We sight-read duets one day at the end of my lesson and he looked at me and said, “If you can sight-read that well, then you are not practicing enough. You can prepare much more than what you are bringing into your lessons.” He challenged me to bring in a new piece nearly every week. I started practicing three hours a day - instead of ninety minutes - and learned, of course, that he was right. The additional practice time made a huge difference in my progress as a musician. Dr. Hemke challenged all of his students to be their best and he believed in teaching students how to fish – rather than handing them a fish. That philosophy has become the cornerstone in my own teaching as well. It allows students to continue to learn and grow for life.
TS: Along those lines, do you find it a challenge? Naturally, students are going to gravitate and be influenced by their teachers. How do you build unique musicians in a world that has put them into rubrics in their secondary education?
DR: It is true that students are influenced by their teachers. But in order for them to become unique musicians, they must be encouraged and mentored to learn to communicate authentic emotions and feelings through music, as intended by the composer and influenced by their own life experience and imagination. They must develop skills to figure out what is going on in the music and what the composer had in mind when he or she wrote it. It is not enough to learn the notes or copy another person’s performance. Combining knowledge and problem-solving skills with authentic expression from the heart creates artistry that is unique to the performer and how it is received by the listener. As a teacher, I am consciously aware of what I feel as my students play to be sure that what I hear and feel matches what they and the composer intended. I encourage my students to record, listen and tweak their practice sessions, until they are satisfied with their artistic expression and technical skills. I can always tell when they have recorded themselves for the first time because they make a quantum leap in their playing. If I hear a person play with technical accuracy, but do not feel anything from my heart, then I know that they are playing from their head - there is no emotional connection. If I feel moved by what they are saying through the music, I am likely to forgive any technical issues, because they have reached me on a soul level. This is the secret of what great artists do.
TS: I agree. I remember hearing you speak in a masterclass, and you talked about the challenges you faced early in your career, motivating students. I realize the student body has changed quite a bit over the years. Today we see a student who is more apt to change or quit at challenges. How have you adapted to these challenges, and how do you deal with an ever-changing clientele?
DR: It is an on-going challenge. My teaching strategies have changed over the years as I have grown and matured as a player and as a person. Old-school fear as a motivator works but teaching students how to play a passage better in ten minutes than what they had achieved in a week or more of practicing is a healthier and far more effective motivator than fear. I am always looking for ways to help my students learn faster and play better. Success activates self-motivation and creates a win-win situation in the practice room and in life.
TS: You have been fortunate to see several changes in the world of classical saxophone. How do you balance out what seems to be trends or fads with what the music inherently tells us to play?
DR.: Well, I have never been one for trends. For me, it is about finding what resonates with authenticity. It’s getting to know the composer, understanding their nationality, and listening to their other works. It is also about listening to other pieces in that idiom or from that time period. I try and figure out what they had in mind when they wrote the music - what makes it come alive. There is never one size that fits all. It is more about finding what works artistically within the paradigm of what the composer wrote and then adding our own life experience into the interpretation.
TS: We all grew up in a time and age when the world of classical saxophone was very segregated, meaning by school. There were defined schools (Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, etc.). Today we have seen the lines of division blur a great deal. Do you see this as a positive, a negative or both?
DR: I think today is more positive. Schools of playing were much more separated when I was a student. Taking lessons from other professors was discouraged and you didn’t see many guest artists. But that gradually changed. Dr. Hemke and many other prominent players and teachers began to embrace bringing in guest artists – and everyone benefited. We learn from one another. With all the different forms of media today and the internet, it is easy to share and listen to players around the world. I make it a point to bring in guest artists every year and encourage my students to discover and explore what else is out there. Sometimes a seed will get planted, and they don’t even know where it came from.
The only time I would say that studying with multiple people can be a detriment is with really young players. If they are still learning fundamentals and basic musicianship, having a different teacher each week can be confusing and counter-productive. For more mature players, it gives them the opportunity to take what works for them and leave the rest. Over time the experiences blend and help them develop their own unique sound and artistry.
TS: I know you have been involved in bringing a lot of new works to the fore as well as created definitive performances of classic works. What pieces, commissions, or experiences do you hold near and dear to you as a performer?
DR: Every piece that I have been involved in is near and dear to my heart for one reason or another. Some pieces came about because I commissioned a colleague or a friend - or it was for a specific event. Some of the performances that are the most meaningful are those where I had the opportunity to perform with artists that inspired me personally and professionally. For instance, I loved playing Lee Actor’s Concerto at the World Saxophone Congress at St. Andrews, because I got to perform it with the Scottish Chamber Ensemble. They were terrific, and the collaboration and energy of the performance and the audience was truly special. There are many other special memories, such as when my friend Amy Quate wrote Light of Sothis for me to premiere at the World Saxophone Congress in Pesaro, Italy. I asked for a piece that touches the heart and she gave me just that with the movements, Grace, Passion, and Faith. I love that it has become somewhat of a standard work in our repertoire.
TS: You talk about the Quate. Here is a piece that is standard rep for so many studios. How do you balance teaching standard repertoire with presenting new works? I mean you can’t cover everything, and you just have to make some tough decisions.
DR: Yes, it is always difficult to find that balance with each student. I think it is essential for students to gain the knowledge of who is out there - players and composers. My students are required to do eight CD reviews each semester. I give the freshmen and sophomores a list of players to select from, all the way from Marcel Mule to the newest up and coming performers of today. Upperclassmen and graduate students are encouraged to seek out additional players and music that they find inspiring to listen to. I also do two studio classes each week, so they get to hear new music being performed each week. It is important to me that each student become familiar with standard repertoire as well as contemporary repertoire. It takes time and experience for young students to appreciate, understand and be inspired by contemporary music. On the flip side, students who love playing contemporary music must also be able to play standard repertoire and orchestral excerpts such as Pictures at an Exhibition with appropriate rhythm, style, tone and vibrato. It’s about developing a musical understanding of a wide variety of styles and time periods so that they can continue to expand that knowledge after they are on their own.
TS: Your presence in the world of saxophone, as a woman, reminds me of Maria Schneider as a composer. She was at Nebraska years ago, and someone asked her what it was like to be one of the leading female composers in jazz. Her response was, “Well, someday, I will be good enough to simply be viewed as a composer and not a female composer.” Obviously, you have been a trailblazer as a saxophonist and have been one of more visible female saxophonists in classical music. How have you dealt with labels and your artistry?
DR: I agree with Maria’s sentiment. It is flattering to be called one of the best female classical saxophonists, but ultimately it is about being viewed as an excellent musician, regardless of gender or instrument. I was very fortunate to be in an environment growing up in which it was totally about how you played, regardless of gender. The teachers at Northwestern were members of the Chicago Symphony, and they expected strong fundamentals and good artistry. Dr. Hemke was chief among them. He didn’t care about anything except the music. If I got in trouble it was because I didn’t have the music prepared - it wasn’t because I was a woman. I learned early on to let my playing speak for itself and to always be prepared to play. This attitude served me well when I entered the professional world and discovered that being a female saxophonist meant that I often had to prove that I was there because of my musical talent, and not for some other reason. Once they heard me play I was accepted and respected – but I always had to earn it. Nowadays, there are many wonderful female saxophonists, so I think that it is slowly becoming less of an issue. Hopefully, someday gender will be a completely neutral factor in the perception of talent. Regardless, it is essential to focus on being prepared to the best of your ability and being professional in each and every playing situation. First-rate musicians want to hire and play with first-rate musicians. My advice to all young saxophonists, male or female, is to strive for excellence and let your playing speak for itself.
TS: What do you look for in a student?
DR: I look for several things. Most importantly, can they express emotion through music and are they willing to work hard? If they are nervous and in their heads during their audition, I see if they can play from their heart when directed to do so. Are they receptive to new ideas and willing to try different things? Are they eager to learn and grow? Do they have an upbeat attitude? Are they someone I would want my own child or student to work with? Personality is important because if you have two equally skilled players, most people will hire the musician they would rather work with on a personal level. I believe that it is important to help young people grow as people as well as musicians. If a student is unable or bristles at my efforts to help them play from their heart or try something new, then I might not be the best teacher for them.
TS: The job market has certainly changed a great deal over the years. How do you counsel your students in this area?
DR: The mainstream musical world is more aware of the classical saxophone than ever before. Professional orchestras are much more receptive to the instrument and there are so many more great saxophonists and music that include saxophone throughout the music world. Classical musicians today expect a classical saxophonist to be excellent, rather than being surprised by it. That didn't use to be the case, but it has been a long time coming. Composers love writing for saxophone because we will play their music and many more conductors and management are open to hiring saxophone soloists and quartets than ever before.
Opportunities for saxophonists continue to expand because they can make and present their own CDs, create their own websites, and learn about and explore entrepreneurship. They can get out there and make it happen rather than wait for someone to come to them or assume that it is out of their hands. I advise students to find their passion and niche and seek out ways to make it happen.
TS: This final question is in two parts. First, if you could go back in time, say 25-30 years, and gives yourself advice, what would it be? In the second part, what is next for you? What is on the horizon?
DR: Wow…what would I tell my younger self? That’s a hard one. I guess I would advise the younger me to take it one day at a time… to enjoy the journey…to understand that challenges are opportunities for growth and to have faith that difficult times sooner or later lead to greater opportunities as a direct result of those seemingly bad experiences.
As for what is coming up in the future? Many changes are on the horizon. Next year will be my 40th year as a full-time college saxophone professor. I am considering retiring from full-time teaching in the near future, so that I have the time and energy to explore new projects and personal interactions. My husband and I like to travel, and our son will be graduating from high school and going off to college, so we will be able to visit saxophone studios and former students around the world on a more frequent basis. Beyond that, time will tell what new chapters open up in my life. I look forward to seeing how the saxophone world continues to develop and I hope to continue to be an active part in it for many years to come.