Debra Richtmeyer - American Saxophone Soloist, Professor and Author - 27
About Debra Richtmeyer
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 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 Past-President and Honorary Life Member of the North American Saxophone Alliance and an Artist/Clinician for Conn-Selmer Incorporated.
Debra has premiered commissioned works at eight World Saxophone Congresses and four North American Saxophone Alliance Conferences. In 1997 in Valencia, Spain she became the first woman to be invited to perform a concerto with orchestra at a World Saxophone Congress. In 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand, she became the first woman to be invited to give a master class at a World Saxophone Congress.
Prior to her appointment at the University of Illinois, Professor Richtmeyer was a saxophone professor at the University of North Texas and an instructor at Lawrence Conservatory. She received her degrees from Northwestern University where she was a Teaching Assistant and student of Dr Frederick L. Hemke.
Richtmeyer’s students and former students are leaders in the next generation of classical saxophonists and teachers.
- Getting started on curved soprano in a family of musicians.
- Hearing Hemke perform live for the first time.
- Learning with my parents, Larry Combs and Fred Hemke.
- Learning to be my own artist.
- Helping students to teach themselves.
- Needing competition for motivation.
- Increasing the practice hours to develop a foundation.
- Decreasing the practice hours with a foundation.
- Teaching efficiency for students to increase their learning speed.
- Breaking down music to learn it fast through correct repetition.
- Listening from the heart.
- How to write a book.
- Advising the Committee on the Status of Women in the Saxophone.
- Building awareness of minorities in music.
- Being the first woman to perform a concerto and give a masterclass at a world saxophone congress.
- Making tough musical choices when life gets busy.
- Learning to say no.
- Working with composers.
- Keeping in touch with former students.
- The source of original interpretation.
- Using recordings without being overly influenced by them.
- Practising with artistic intention.
- Improvising at home.
- Effortless to make music sound better.
- Directing energy to an audience.
- Building endurance with breaks.
- Embracing the possibility of failure as a learning process by stepping outside your comfort zone.
- Debra on Facebook
- University of Illinois
- Fred Hemke
- Larry Combes
- North Western University
- North Texas University
- Theodore Presser Publisher
- Connie Frigo
- Michael Bovenzi
- Committee on the Status of Women in the Saxophone
- Marcel Mule
- Jean-Marie Londeix
- Sigurd Raschèr
- Donald Sinta
- Eugene Rousseau
- Adolphe Sax
- Between The Notes: A Saxophonist’s Guide To Practise, Performance, and Pedagogy
(I’ll post the link when the book is published)
Transcript of podcast interview with Debra Richtmeyer.
Please enjoy the transcript of this podcast episode. With thousands of words in each episode it might contain a few typos and may also have been edited for clarity.
Barry Cockcroft: Thanks for joining me, Debra, for this conversation tonight.
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Barry Cockcroft: We’ve been talking about this for a little while, trying to sync up, and I know the last time I saw you was at the World Saxophone Congress in Zagreb, and we passed in passing, along with the thousands of other people, so that was always good to see you.
Debra Richtmeyer: Right, it’s great to see you too.
Barry Cockcroft: A great place to start, of course, is how did you get started with the saxophone?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, in my family my parents were both musicians, and my dad was the Director of Bands at Northern Michigan University, and my mother taught junior high band. So us kids were all involved with musical instruments, and we all started piano in kindergarten with my mom teaching us, and we got an instrument to choose in fourth grade. And my older sister played clarinet, so that was out, but I wanted to play flute. So my dad brought home a flute, but I was quite small, and my fingers didn’t really reach the keys.
Debra Richtmeyer: So he said, “Well let me come up with something else,” and then he came home… I don’t know, I don’t remember how much later, not much later… with a curved soprano saxophone. And it fit me perfectly, and that was the start. I played soprano saxophone, curved, for two years, and then I switched to alto in sixth grade.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you find starting out with the smaller instrument convenient?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, for me, it was the perfect size for me, and I didn’t really know any different. And it was a little bit of an adjustment when I went to alto. I would crack the G every time I tried to play, because my voicing wasn’t quite right for it, but I do think later on in life, it explains why I have such an affinity and love for soprano saxophone.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah. I think once you get hooked on soprano, it’s hard to give up.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah, it’s my favourite.
Barry Cockcroft: So I haven’t actually met many people that have started on soprano sax, and do you see that as something that’s happening more often as people begin to learn at a younger age?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, actually, I don’t know of anybody else. Every time I tell people I started on a curved soprano, they just look at me like, holy cow. And for me, it was perfect. It worked. And ironically, the next year when I was in fifth grade, Fred Hemke came and soloed with my father’s wind ensemble, in playing the Creston Concerto. And as you can imagine, it made a huge impression on me, and getting to meet him, and his personality, and so the next year I wanted to switch to alto, and so I think that had a little influence on me there.
Barry Cockcroft: Was that the first time you’d really heard concert saxophone?
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah, it really was, and shortly after my dad bought me Donald Sinta’s recording The American Saxophone, and that was a big influence on me as well, and so yeah. But Fred Hemke, first person that I heard that was really a professional. It was wonderful.
Barry Cockcroft: There’s a nice connection that he was the first person you heard, but then you were able to go and study with him later on.
Debra Richtmeyer: Absolutely.
Barry Cockcroft: That must have been a weird sort of… unless he was just fixated in your mind, and you had to study with him, but that’s a very unusual connection.
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, kind of a little bit of that did happen. When I heard him play, I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be fun to study with him someday?” So when I was a junior in high school, I asked my parents if I could go to the summer camp for high school kids at Northwestern. And they let me go, and it was a three week camp, and I got to have lessons with Dr. Hemke, and I played in the band under John Painter, and I got to pay the Ibert Concertino, the first movement with Hemke’s pianist, Milton Granger, who he did his recordings with, and that was a fabulous experience.
Debra Richtmeyer: And at the end of the camp my parents came to pick me up, and of my course my dad, the band director there, was thinking I would be coming there for college. And Fred had other ideas, he had my parents in his office for a very long time, and apparently told them I needed to come to Northwestern, and I never applied to anywhere else. And that was the end of that.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s quite a remarkable story, because often I’ve heard many times people say when they were starting out, they might have been listening to some Spyro Gyra, or some more soft jazz, or something pop. Something that was more music of the day. It’s unusual to hear someone, especially that young, to be showing an interest in classical saxophone. So is that the style you were starting in?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I think it’s because of my parents. I mean my father being a director of a wind ensemble, and the trumpet teacher, and the french horn teacher, he had people like Rafael Méndez to our house when they would solo, he would solo, and he would play recordings. Rite of Spring, I was doing puppet shows to that music when I was in third grade, and I was conducting his scores when I was in fourth grade, listening to his music.
Debra Richtmeyer: So I just grew up with a very classical surrounding of music, much more so than popular. I love popular music, but I really wasn’t wasn’t surrounded with that as a child.
Barry Cockcroft: So were your parents fairly hands-on with music and you, or did they sit back and let other people help with your development?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I studied with my mom through junior high lessons, and my dad really only got involved when it was time for solo ensemble contests, he would give me a couple lessons, and then through my junior year in high school they were my only teachers. And then I had that experience with Fred Hemke, and then I started taking lessons… I’d fly down there every once in a while and take a lesson in my junior and senior year in high school, and I studied with a clarinet teacher at Northern Michigan University, who also taught saxophone. But he was really a clarinettist, I mean he had studied with Marcellus, and that was…
Debra Richtmeyer: So Fred Hemke was actually the only saxophonist I’ve ever studied with, other than one lesson with Jean-Marie Londeix. That’s it.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s an unusual situation, because I often hear of people moving almost in steps from teacher to teacher, or being passed around, or sometimes changing countries and having a different cultural experience. So that’s an unusual story. So would you say, in your playing, and also we’ll talk about this later, but your teaching, would you say that you’re heavily influenced by Fred Hemke’s teachings? Or have you sort of branched out into your own direction?
Debra Richtmeyer: I would say I definitely have branched out into my own direction, but I would say that all of my teachers, including Fred Hemke, and I studied with Larry Combs for a year, on clarinet actually, he was the former principle clarinettist of the Chicago Symphony when I was doing my master’s degree. Everyone of them, my parents, they all had in common that they were great musicians.
Debra Richtmeyer: And so artistry has always been to the forefront for me, and when I studied with Fred Hemke, one of the most important things for me was that he let me be my own artist. He didn’t try to tell me, “This is how it should go,” as long as I stayed within the parameters of correct style for the composer, and the country, and the time period, and what not. But he really nurtured who I was as an artist, and that allowed me to grow and become the artist that I am today. And that philosophy has never left me with my own students. I try to teach them how to teach themselves, and become their own artist rather than telling them, “Well do it my way.”
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think there’s many students, in general, who try to emulate their teacher, or are people able to step away?
Debra Richtmeyer: I do think that you hear that. You can often tell by listening to someone who they listen to a lot, maybe their phrasing and their sound. But from day one, I don’t think Fred Hemke and I really sounded that much like each other, but he was an enormous influence in me from the standpoint of getting me to feel… to believe in myself, and to step outside my comfort zone emotionally, and go for it in my playing, not hold back. As you can imagine how he is.
Debra Richtmeyer: And he hardly ever played in my lessons, so it really allowed me to just be me, and I’m really grateful for that. That was important to me, and so I think that’s really important. I’m that way with all of my students, and I think that my students all have their own individual style and sound, and I think that’s great. I don’t want a bunch of clones of me running around.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, of course, I was very sorry to hear of Fred’s passing, only recently really.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes. Yes, we went to the celebration of life just a few days ago in Evanston, and I saw so many people that he influenced, and that were friends of mine in college, even 40 years ago. So. But as you were saying about people jumping around, I think times are very different now. When I was studying, there weren’t that many opportunities, and people didn’t really do that. So it was not common to go from teacher to teacher, in fact it was discouraged. That’s something that’s changed, with all the wonderful people that have branched out, and their students. And there’s always been great players, but there’s many more great players now, and I think it’s wonderful that there are so many opportunities for people to study with other people.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you feel sometimes students see so many different teachers, and hear so many different ideas, particularly master classes, that it can almost be overwhelming at times having so many differing bits of information, and contradictory ideas?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well I think if it’s a really young player, who doesn’t really have a grasp on the language, I think that could be confusing. But for someone who’s already a little bit more advanced in developing who they are, I always tell my students, “No matter what they say, go for it, try it, and see what you like and leave the rest behind. There’s always something that you can glean from every teacher, and you’re not necessarily going to agree with everything, but it gets you thinking.” And unless you’re a really young student, and aren’t going every week to a different teacher, I think it’s all good.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah. There is a tendency sometimes that people will reject an idea without trying it, and of course if you don’t try it then you don’t really know if it applies or not.
Debra Richtmeyer: Right.
Barry Cockcroft: So just putting some time into an idea, try it out, and then you can make the decision as to whether to incorporate that or to let it go.
Debra Richtmeyer: Absolutely.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s a little while ago, but are you able to perhaps describe the way that you started out practising? Because you were quite young when you began, and I’d be curious just if you could describe the ways that you practised as you evolved, you know, right at the start, through high school, and then into your tertiary studies.
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, as I said I was in fourth grade, and when I got into… and I didn’t play in a band, I just practised lessons with my mom. And when I got into middle school, I had a teacher who ran a little contest. Whoever practised the most got a little prize, and of course that was a good thing for me. Always into that type of competitive spirit. And so my practising really started from that, and I started practising regularly, an hour and a half every day, which for a sixth grader is… to me it was more than I was doing, and it made a big difference.
Debra Richtmeyer: And by the time I was in junior high, I had a mature vibrato, I was playing high school, college level pieces, and when I got into high school, I really didn’t practise that much, because I just didn’t have the competition, and it wasn’t until I got to Northwestern, and I started studying with Fred Hemke, that I really learned how to practise more than an hour and a half a day. And it really came about in a funny way, because I would go into my lessons, and everything would be fine, and one day early on, I probably was still a freshman, I had played everything for him, and he said, “Well, let’s play some duets.” And that was rare, because I can only remember a few times that he ever played in my lessons, and I thought, “Wow, great.”
Debra Richtmeyer: And he brought out duet, after duet, after duet, and they kept getting harder and harder, and I kept pace with him. And finally he put down his horn, and he looked at me, and he said, “If you can sight read like that, you are not practising enough. I want a new piece every week, and I want your scales up to 152 by next week.” And so that was a real kick in the butt for me, and I thought he was a little bit crazy. And I went and talked to the grad students, and they said, “Well how much are you practising ?” And I said, “About an hour and a half.” And they looked at me and they said, “Uh-uh, three hours, minimum.”
Debra Richtmeyer: So I learned, and then after that between practising three hours a day, an hour on scales, an hour on etudes, an hour on solo rep, and then my jazz band material, and clarinet and flute, and I played in the grad quartet from my freshman year on, and the wind ensemble. I was playing 9, 10 hours a day. And yeah, it was a big change.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s a lot of practise. I’m sure you don’t practise that much now.
Debra Richtmeyer: Oh, no.
Barry Cockcroft: So what is it that allows a professional saxophone player to practise way less than they did when they were a student?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I think it’s just crucial to develop that foundation when you’re young. When your muscles recover fast. I mean it’s the same in the sports world, you know, that’s why athletes time out at a certain age, depending on the sport. Because the muscles just don’t recover as fast. And so if you get strong, and develop that fast but fluid effortless technique, and understanding of phrasing, and can put in that time when you’re young, maintenance of it does not take nearly as much as what it took to build that kind of core strength and understanding. And then you just get more efficient.
Debra Richtmeyer: I’m so much more efficient learning music than I was when I was younger, and what my students… I mean I can learn more in an hour than it takes them weeks, just because of experience and knowing how to practise efficiently. And that’s something that’s really big in my teaching. Everyone of my students coming in, I show them how to practise in a much more efficient way so that they’re playing from their ear instead of their eyes, and playing from their heart instead of their head, right away. And how to retain it faster, and so that they’re making musical choices, and I’m not just showing them how it goes.
Debra Richtmeyer: And that’s something that comes from experience, but you can pass it on to students that have a basic musical intuition. If they don’t have any basic musical intuition, then it’s pretty hard to build from that. But if they do, boy, you can give them the tools and they can keep going forever, which is what I’ve done.
Barry Cockcroft: You know, I’ve got to tell you this story, and I won’t mention any names, but there was a student who, he was told by his teacher that his presentation had been good that week, but his G, his low G wasn’t too good, and maybe he could fix that up. So he went away, and we walked past his practise room all week, and he’s practising his G, and he’s practising his G, and his G, and he came to the lesson the following week, and he played his G for the teacher, and his teacher said, “That’s good, it’s much better. Now, what are you playing this week?” And he said, “Oh, I haven’t practised anything else, I was working on my G.”
Barry Cockcroft: So he had thrown a whole week of inefficient practise at a problem.
Debra Richtmeyer: Oh my gosh. Oh boy.
Barry Cockcroft: So do you ever find that? That people have just… they’ll throw time at a problem, but they just, they’ll refuse to embrace efficiency?
Debra Richtmeyer: Some students, at first, will baulk at some of the strategies that I use, because you really have to start smaller ideas, and slower, and putting fermatas, so that things get into your ear and you’re really able to hear where you’re going, and what’s important, what you’re saying, and getting what’s happening between the notes artistically. And sometimes, at first, they baulk at that, and they just want to play fast.
Debra Richtmeyer: But once I take them through it enough times, and they can see, in the lesson, how much better they played it in those few minutes, and how many weeks have you been working on this? They begin to really appreciate the value of learning these efficient skills.
Barry Cockcroft: So imagine there was just one measure that you couldn’t play. How would you break that down so that you could learn it as quickly as possible?
Debra Richtmeyer: Okay, well the first thing that I would do… and it really depends on how fast the notes are, and how many notes there are, but in general, let’s say if it’s a sixteenth note passage, I’m going to start and put fermatas on every other sixteenth note. So on the downbeat and the upbeat of every beat, and I’m going to sit on that fermata until my ear really hears it, and I know where I’m going next, and I’m making sure that… I mean, I can play two notes in a row correctly if I’m playing attention, you know?
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah. I hope so.
Debra Richtmeyer: We hope, right? And making my rules are always the right notes, always the right articulation, because it’s a drag to have to undo those later. And I don’t leave the note, the fermata note, until my ear has already decided, is this going to be a passing note, or is this an important note, and then I do two more, and two more, and two more, and each fermata, until my ear says that’s enough, that’s all I’m going to remember right now. It might be two beats, it might be one beat, it might be three measures. It just depends on how predictable the music is, and how many notes there are. If it’s 32nds, I would do every two, and then every four. If it’s triplets I do every three.
Debra Richtmeyer: And the next go round, I’m removing the least important fermata notes, and going a little slower so I’m still really hearing where I’m going, and I’m making artistic decisions, and then I go faster between those fermata notes, then I remove some more fermata notes, then I go faster between the remaining fermata notes and doing reps. Until I can play whatever that passage is, up to tempo, with the character that I want, and my repetitions are now solely focused on the artistry and not on the technique. And if I can’t do five to 10 in a row without making… my rule is only two mistakes in a row. If I make more than two mistakes in a row, then I either add another fermata back in, or I go slower.
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s the correct repetition that gets you there so fast. It’s allowing yourself to make mistakes that confuses your ear and your fingers.
Barry Cockcroft: So if you couldn’t get it in one practise session, would you just take a short break, would you come back the next day? How important is the time between those repetitions to ensure you’re getting the passages right?
Debra Richtmeyer: I will always have it right from the very beginning. It’s just I won’t have it at the tempo, and it might still have fermatas in it, but it’s always going to be in character, it’s always going to be the right notes, the right articulations. And so I will work to get it, whatever I’m working on, up to tempo as far as I can until I’m sick of it right now, and I’m moving on to something else. I’ll come back to it tomorrow.
Debra Richtmeyer: If I come back to it tomorrow, and I’m like, starting over, well that means I didn’t do enough repetitions, if I didn’t retain anything.
Barry Cockcroft: So one of the keys to repetition is, by repeating things, they tend to stick in your memory. Is memorization an automatic part of that process that you do, or is memorization something that you work on separately?
Debra Richtmeyer: I don’t have a great memory, but for playing by memorization, because I learn music so fast, what I see on the page reminds my ear of what’s coming up, and I can just do it. But to be able… and I do practise by memory at home, in passages, but to memorise an entire piece is a lot of work for me, because I can play the piece, and understand the journey of the piece long before I can recall every bit of it without any guide visually. But I do think it’s… I play better from my ear.
Debra Richtmeyer: So whether I’m using music, or not, I’m always playing from my ear.
Barry Cockcroft: I hear some people describe the sheet music as a sort of hindrance between them and the audience, but I also hear the opposite of that, where playing from memory is a hindrance because they’re so worried.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: So I mean, which way would you describe, what is that to you?
Debra Richtmeyer: I think it really depends on the player. I’ve got some students that, they can practise a piece for a couple weeks, and by the time they can play the notes they’ve got it by memory and it’s just no big deal for them. And gosh, I wish I was that way, but I’m just not. I’m the other way around. So I think for me, the most important thing with connecting with an audience, whether you have music or not is your intention when you’re playing from your soul. And when I practise, I’m actually aware of the audience, they’re in my practise room with me. I am playing to them, for them, with them, whether it’s one person, because it’s something intimate, or whether I’m playing to the whole audience at once.
Debra Richtmeyer: And even if I’m playing to one person, I’m aware that the audience is there, so that when I get on stage it’s nothing new. I’ve already been playing for them, and connecting with them, and a good example of that is if you’re having a conversation with someone and you know their mind is elsewhere, even if they’re looking at you, you’re not connecting with them. But if they’re directing their energy to you, and you feel that connection, you don’t have to necessarily even be looking directly in their eyes to feel that connection.
Debra Richtmeyer: So for me it’s all about the energetic connection and the intention, and if I’m directing it outward, and they’re paying attention, they will feel it. And that’s the way I am as an audience member, when I listen to myself back in recordings, and I’m rehearsing, practising . I try to listen to it from my heart, and so what do I feel? And if I don’t feel anything, then I know I was in my head when I was practising , instead of playing from my heart. And if I feel emotionally moved, whatever my intention was when I listened to it back, then I know an audience will too.
Barry Cockcroft: Great. Now, you’ve been teaching at the University of Illinois. Is it 1991 you started there?
Debra Richtmeyer: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I taught at North Texas for 10 years before that.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s almost 30 years in the one university.
Debra Richtmeyer: Right.
Barry Cockcroft: And 10 years before that. That’s almost 40 years teaching.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: Now-
Debra Richtmeyer: Hard to believe.
Barry Cockcroft: Hard to believe. Could you describe, currently, what’s your typical week look like, as far as your teaching goes?
Debra Richtmeyer: It varies from semester to semester, because I’m always working my schedule around my students’ schedules, and when they have classes, and trying to find blocks of time where I can teach lessons. So I have blocks of time for my own, whether it’s community work, or family work, or practising , or if I’m preparing for something, or whether I’m working on writing, scholarly writing. And so it varies. I usually prefer to teach maybe three or four hours a day, and then have the rest of the day for those other things. This past couple of years, I’ve been working on a book that Theodore Presser’s going to be publishing soon, which I’m really excited about.
Debra Richtmeyer: So I needed larger chunks of time, so I taught larger chunks of lessons, and sometimes I would be there until nine o’clock at night. So that I could have those days to write.
Barry Cockcroft: Are you able to talk about that book, or is it a surprise coming up?
Debra Richtmeyer: I’d love to talk about it.
Barry Cockcroft: Great, what is it? What’s the topic?
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s being published by Theodore Presser, which is really exciting, and it’s called Between The Notes: A Saxophonist’s Guide To Practise, Performance, and Pedagogy, and it’s 24 chapters. And the first third of it set, each chapter is a different fundamental, and the second third is different practise techniques, and performance techniques. And the last section is teaching techniques. So it’s really exciting.
Debra Richtmeyer: My students have been trying to get me to write this for about 10 years now, and I tried, and I didn’t get anywhere at first, I just didn’t know how to do it, how to write it. My teaching is so experiential in the moment, what I hear, I react to, and I didn’t know how to write that down in a way that anybody would want to read it, including myself. And so it kind of fell by the wayside, and then a few years ago, three years ago, I was doing a masterclass and once again, a former student, Dr. Connie Frigo this time, came up to me, and says, “You have to write a book!” I’m like, “Oh, gosh,” rolling my eyes, “I’ve tried.” And she goes, “Oh, you’ve got to do it.”
Debra Richtmeyer: She pushed me to write this book again. My former student, Dr. Michael Bovenzi was the one that tried to get me started on it 10 years ago, and then when I expressed to Dr. Frigo that, when she asked me if I would do it, I said, “Well I don’t know about the writing part,” and she said, “Well, I’ll help you.” And what that ended up actually turning out to be was my writing each chapter and sending the rough draught to her, not worrying at all about making it perfect, just getting my ideas down. And then she would spend time editing it and putting together ideas of how it might be formatted, and what information I might add, and send it back. And then I would rewrite things and send it back.
Debra Richtmeyer: And this would go back and forth between each of us doing editing, and her offering suggestions until it just became clear that it said what my teaching was all about. And what really helped the process, too, was she actually took the time, came out, flew out and visited me for an entire week and watched me teach all of my students for a week, and my masterclasses with them. Just to see what my teaching was like today, because when she did her masters with me, that was many years ago, and that was wonderful so that when she would read what I was talking about, she had seen me do those very techniques. And it really helped having her input, and a second set of eyes, and her encouragement, and just kind of nudging me, a “How’s it coming?” Things like that.
Debra Richtmeyer: And I’m not sure I would have ever finished the book if it hadn’t been for her, so I’m really grateful for her help. I can’t wait to have it as a teaching tool for myself, and my students and former students are all excited to have it too. It’s really kind of my life’s work as a teacher, and performer. Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Wrapping up the experience you’ve had over those years of teaching.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: One thing I’m really curious about is, how did you go about learning a new skill, which is writing. How did you get over that hurdle you had, where you were a bit stuck, and you couldn’t write? What changed that enabled you to start to get your ideas down in a way that you were happy with?
Debra Richtmeyer: That’s a good question, and I’ll tell you what the difference was for me. When I first started trying to write it, I was trying to write it, each chapter as if it was a finished product. And that was, it was just too overwhelming. And so what I did instead was I just, like, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven points, as if I was teaching someone and this is the points and what I would go, and just getting the ideas across, and not worried about trying to connect the sentences, or connect the ideas, or anything. Just getting everything down, and then going back and worrying about well, how to put these ideas together in cohesive paragraphs and what not, and filling in blanks that needed to maybe say a little bit more about.
Debra Richtmeyer: But wow, what a difference, it was so much more freeing, because I wasn’t trying to write the finished product from day one.
Barry Cockcroft: In your mind, were you addressing a single person as you wrote, or were you being general?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I mean really talking to a saxophonist or another musician, so much of the book applies to any musician, and so it’s general and specific at the same time. It’s a hard question to answer, but both.
Barry Cockcroft: A writer told me that if you try to write to please everybody, you please nobody.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah, it’s like I’m teaching to someone, and if they come across this problem… yeah. And that did help, too, exactly what you’re saying. Thinking of who your audience is, and who you’re talking to as you’re writing.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you feel like you’ve acquired a new skill? That it’s almost like picking up a new instrument? Is it like that?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I’ve never done anything like this before, so I think I was a good writer from the standpoint of just basic, being able to put together good flowing sentences, and paragraphs, and beginning and ending. I will say that it, what was fascinating about the process is… and I was talking to Connie about this… was the more I got into it, and the more we got to the later stages, it felt so much like when you’re learning a really big piece.
Debra Richtmeyer: You’re doing it in stages at first, but then you start to really look at it from a larger perspective, and how does this fit in within this section, and this movement, and what is the arc of the whole piece, and what’s the journey that you’re taking? And going through those different stages with the book, it just kept reminding me of the process that I go through when I learn a piece of music.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, you’re talking about Connie. I remember the last time I saw you both together, we were in a bar, in Zagreb, and I think the World Cup was on, or the semifinal, you know, it was the semifinal for the World Cup, last July.
Debra Richtmeyer: Oh, yes.
Barry Cockcroft: And there was this crazy party going on around in the whole city, and Selmer had organised a party for the saxophone players. And all this was happening all at once, and I was talking with you and Connie, and I remember that, and you were discussing the committee on the status of women in the saxophone. And you’re an advisor to this committee, could you talk about what this group is, and also what your role is in advising this group?
Debra Richtmeyer: As you can imagine, in the saxophone world, particularly when I first started out, there weren’t very many women. In fact, there were no other female saxophone professors when I first started out. And gradually we’ve seen more and more, although there are only five full professors in the United States, of women saxophone professors. In the whole country, which is pretty shocking actually when you think about it. And we looked at sister organisations such as trumpet, double reeds, flute, and so many of them now have committees on the status of women, with the goal in mentoring women, particularly in instruments that are male dominated. Not so much flute, but brass and composition were two that we really looked at.
Debra Richtmeyer: And helping mentor young women, and just having them a chance to meet others, and so we modelled it off of that, and presented the idea at the national conference, and it was immediately, unanimously voted in, so it now is part of the bylaws that there is a committee on the status of women, and Connie’s the president. I didn’t want to be the president because I was in the middle of writing this book, and couldn’t take on anything else, but to be an advisor.
Debra Richtmeyer: So I’m not actively involved with it, but I am one of the mentors. They set up different mentors, and then you could apply to be a mentee, and there are male and female mentors, but the mentees are all women at this point. And they paired us up with one person, and they were looking at commissioning some female composers, and it’s just bringing awareness for women in how to navigate in a male dominated world, because it is different when you’re in a profession where you’re vastly the minority. And just understanding your role, and how to navigate that, I think it’s invaluable. I would have loved to have had that mentorship when I was young.
Barry Cockcroft: Where I come from in Australia, there are, I would say, fairly even numbers of… this is starting out… men and women playing the saxophone. And then moving into university studies, it’s very similar, but there seems to be a drop off after that. Is there any sort of consensus on why that is?
Debra Richtmeyer: We saw that here, too, that there’s many more women at the earlier ages, and then as you get up into grad school it drops off, and then getting jobs it drops off, and there haven’t been enough studies to really be able to say a consensus of why that happens. But it’s not uncommon, it’s not just saxophone, it’s in academia in general we see that. Whether it’s because they go and have families, or they don’t get hired, it’s hard to say. There isn’t any one factor.
Barry Cockcroft: Let’s say you’re putting applications together for performances, should there be some guideline to say we need more equal representation in big performances?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I don’t know how cut and dried that should be, because that gets really tricky. But I do think that the awareness needs to be there that… and it’s not just with women, it’s also with minorities… that sometimes we do have to reach out and give them an opportunity to be showcased, so that it opens up more doors for other women, or minorities, to see that, yes, this is attainable. It’s the old glass ceiling thing. And whether, to say well, there must be this many, or a certain percentage, I don’t know, but these are the kinds of questions that are being asked.
Debra Richtmeyer: This past year, the North American Saxophone Alliance at every single regional conference, members of the committee, including myself, held what do you want to call it, panel discussion where we talked to everybody that came to the audience. You know, what are your questions, what are your ideas, how can we bridge this gap? And it was so exciting, and we all had the same questions and presentations, and then it’s all being compiled right now. But it was fascinating, and so encouraging to see the men and women that came, and their ideas that they had, and the excitement level, and so it’s really in the beginning stages of this.
Debra Richtmeyer: So I can’t really answer your question just yet, but those are the kinds of things we’re asking.
Barry Cockcroft: This might seem insane now, but in 1992, there was I think one, maybe two Chinese saxophone players at the congress. And there were some issues of having enough money to pay for some things, and there was a general call for some support to help with some funding. And everybody threw in, you know, not much money, a few dollars. Everyone threw in a bit of money, but it was enough to enable the support, to move to the next thing. You would not say now, you would not say he’s in a minority any longer.
Barry Cockcroft: There’s so many people playing coming out of China. I know politically things have changed, but sometimes a little bit of support can really go a long way.
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s so true, and it’s really exciting. I mean I was the first woman to get to play a featured concerto at a world saxophone congress, the first woman to give a masterclass, and that’s how it gets started. And now you see more and more people doing it, and I hope that at every large conference there’s at least one woman that’s being represented. And just having that awareness when you’re making those choices, I mean should it be a deserving person, of course, but I think there’s plenty of great women out there, and great minorities out there, that we can make those inclusions if we have that awareness that it’s important.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, alongside your long career as a teacher, you’ve also performed very widely, both as a soloist and also in orchestras, and all sorts of different aspects of music. How have you manged to develop and maintain different aspects of music while holding down full time teaching jobs?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, it’s a juggling act, that’s for sure, and it’s hard. And it was certainly easier when I was single, because family is so important to me. And when I got married, and we had a… well, our son is 16 now, he’s not a baby anymore. But part of it’s figuring out your priorities, and the priorities shift depending on what’s going on in my life. When I was younger, I did all kinds of backup for entertainers, for about 15 years, and played bari sax, flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet in those situations. And it was great fun, and I did that.
Debra Richtmeyer: And then when I came to University of Illinois, I decided, okay, I need to let that go, it was fun, but now I’m too busy. And so I let that go even though I loved doing it, and I don’t do much playing inside orchestras anymore. I played with the Dallas Symphony for 10 years, and oh my gosh I played hundreds of concerts with them. It was incredible, I learned so much, and it was so much fun. When I moved here I played with the St. Louis Symphony for a few years, but it’s three hours each way instead of a half an hour, and I finally let that go, and now my former students do it, and it’s wonderful to see that.
Debra Richtmeyer: So it’s just making choices, and priorities, and I am very select about what performances, opportunities, that I say yes to. I say no many more than I yes to, because I look at my students and I realise if I’m gone all the time, that’s not good for them, and then I have to make up all the lessons, and it’s just… and it’s not good for my family. And when my son was young, I hardly did any far away performing, because my husband drives 65 miles each way to his job, and I had to be here, to be able to take him to school. And so it’s always a matter of juggling, and you can’t do everything, and probably the thing that suffered the most was my personal practise time, so I had to get even more efficient.
Barry Cockcroft: You’re lucky you’re so efficient.
Debra Richtmeyer: That’s right.
Barry Cockcroft: Are you someone who finds it difficult to say no, or are you quite pragmatic about choosing what you do with your time?
Debra Richtmeyer: I am much better about saying no now than I was when I was younger. I hated saying no when I was younger, because you didn’t know if you’d get that opportunity again. But I look at it now as, I’ve learned… it’s like, you learn with experience, well how many weeks or months do I need to prepare this music for a recital? You just learn from not being prepared, and the oh, I guess I should have practised longer for that, right? And I’ve learned now I can only have so many things on my plate, and so many committees, where the stress level is just too much for me, and the cost is too high.
Debra Richtmeyer: So it has to be something that is important in terms of my contribution to the saxophone world. It has to be something that I’m going to enjoy, and it’s going to be something that is good for my students as well. I’m very selective about what I say yes to.
Barry Cockcroft: I see sometimes a tendency for saxophone players to play for other saxophone players. Is there something that you’ve done that takes the saxophone out into the wider community, where you’re playing for people who don’t play the instrument, and are just there because they love the music?
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes, I have had the opportunity to do that, and I love doing that. When I get to do concertos with orchestras, it’s… they oftentimes, especially 10, 20, years ago, they’ve never heard classical saxophone before, and they’re amazed by it, and love it, and it’s really special. And that’s one of my favourite things to do, because you’re really bringing the beauty of the classical saxophone to mainstream music lovers that never even knew it existed.
Debra Richtmeyer: And I love doing that, and I’ve played at people’s weddings, I’ve played at funerals, and I’ve played at all kinds of things where there isn’t another saxophonist in the room, and it’s just people who love music, and love the connection that we get through music, and the emotions. And so to me, sometimes, that’s the most special audience.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, I see that you’ve worked a lot with composers in premiering works. How important has it been to you to work closely with creating new works with a composer, and also premiering the pieces in their first concert?
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s wonderful to get to work with composers. One of my first solo CD that I recorded when I came here was all commissioned works of composers on the faculty, and it was so wonderful to be able to go to them, and play for them different pieces, and then come back and they’d give me some ideas, and then we’d go back and I’d say, “Well, I think this is what you’re intending, but on a saxophone that’s impossible, how does this sound?” And I’d play it, and they’d go, “Oh, yeah, that’s what I meant.” I’d say, “Oh, great, this much easier than what you wrote.”
Debra Richtmeyer: And if I have that opportunity, there’s nothing better, because they want it to be accessible, and I want it to be accessible to a wide variety of players, and a wide variety of audiences. And if it’s only accessible to me, and a really tiny, small audience, then that’s a shame. So I have been involved with some larger commissions, where I didn’t get to have any input with the composer until after it was all done, and that’s not my preference, but as long as they were working with a saxophonist, I think the product is always better.
Barry Cockcroft: Have you seen anything in music that gives you a hint as to why some pieces will endure, and other pieces will just kind of fall by the wayside once they’ve been premiered?
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes, I definitely think there are some factors in that. Sometimes… and there was a phase that some composers were really interested in exploring, and it’s all great exploring different things, but exploring mathematical models, and computer generated things, and the music was quite intellectual. And from that point, it was very interesting, but even to musicians listening, sometimes… well for me, I can speak for myself. If I’m not engaged emotionally, I lose interest pretty quickly. And so it’s important for me, whenever I’m working on a piece, that I’m finding what’s the journey, what is the composer saying, and how does that relate to my life experience, and my heart?
Debra Richtmeyer: And if that’s authentic from me, then someone else will feel it through their own lens of life experience, and it’ll be a very personal experience. And I think when a piece is written that doesn’t touch us in that way, we can sort of take it or leave it, and those pieces that move us somehow, no matter what the emotion is, those are the pieces that endure.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, I was reading your biography before, I think somewhat unusually, you have a kind of list some students that are a very important part of your life. Not just when you’re teaching them, but also into the development of their careers afterwards. Would that be right?
Debra Richtmeyer: Absolutely, and I’m really behind in updating those lists, that list is years old. I need to get in there, and get it updated, because some of those people don’t even… have different jobs now, and have been promoted, and have higher ranks, and new people that I could add to the list. To me, they become family. That’s one of the things that I just really love so much about teaching is that it’s much more than teaching saxophone, it’s about helping people grow, and figure out who they are, and helping them become their own teacher.
Debra Richtmeyer: I mean, there comes a point where I get to let go, and just say, “Okay, you’ve got the skills, you’ve got the tools now to keep going for life,” and that’s exciting. It’s like the parent that sends the child off. Okay, now, go. Go for it. But when you connect with people in that way, and helping them have the courage to take risks, and be vulnerable, and understand that failure is a part of learning, and growing, and it’s a really close relationship, and there’s trust involved in both sides. And yeah, it’s so special, and I do stay close to them, because they became a part of my heart.
Barry Cockcroft: I bumped into someone last year, and he said he had taught 2000 different students.
Debra Richtmeyer: Oh my.
Barry Cockcroft: And because I had bumped into one of his students, and she wondered why he’d fallen out of contact. And I asked him about it, and he said, “Look, after 2000 students, each student is so important in the moment, and at one point you just have to let them go, because there’s so many people.”
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah. Yeah, it’s easier today than it used to be to keep in touch, because of Facebook, and all of those things. But when I first started teaching it was very hard to keep in touch, especially when I moved from Texas to Illinois. So I’m not in touch with some of them as much as I might today, but still, even through Facebook, I can see what’s happening in their lives, and seeing them get married, and have families, and be teachers, or go into other professions, and that’s fine too.
Debra Richtmeyer: So no, it’s not possible to keep in touch with every single one, but when the intention is there on both sides, it happens. Even not as frequently as you might like, it’s like your friend that you only see every few years, but it feels like no time has passed.
Barry Cockcroft: One area I would love to pick your brain a little bit is in relation to interpretation. And I’m curious to know where interpretation actually comes from. Is it just a mix of other people’s interpretations, is it just copied from someone, or can interpretation be a convincing and unique idea?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I would hope that it’s always a convincing and unique idea, but there are certain parameters within that. I would not play a piece of baroque music the same way I would play a piece from the Romantic period, and vice versa. I mean, there are… I think it’s important to know, if you didn’t write it yourself, to know something about the composer and their other works, and where they’re from, and what time period, and their style. I think all those things inform musical interpretation, and then I think also reading what they wrote in terms of dynamics and tempos. That can help really inform what they had in mind, and what makes sense. Because you know, sometimes just even one tempo change can turn something from being tender, to making it melancholy, or something that is passionate, to making it bravura, a very different feel.
Debra Richtmeyer: And so I think it’s important to try to figure out what they had in mind, and so often, well especially with good music, there is a certain tempo that brings it alive and makes sense. You say, “Oh, okay, this, I get it now. I see where they were going, and the changes in dynamics.” For me it’s not just loud or soft, it’s why did they write forte? What kind of… what am I saying here that would warrant me playing loud? I mean it could be anything from passionate, to exhilarated, to anxious, to… and there’s so many different… And the same with piano, I mean it could be tender, it could be melancholy, it could be teasing, there…
Debra Richtmeyer: So I’m looking for that journey that makes sense, that’s cohesive to the whole piece, and of course life experience, soul plays into it. If I’m playing a piece that’s about loss, it’s going to be so much more poignant for me now, having lost both parents, than… and certainly in relationships we’ve all lost, love and lost, and that, the world… it’s going to have such more depth of feeling than someone who’s maybe 16 and talented completely, but just hasn’t had those life experiences yet. So.
Debra Richtmeyer: And every time you play, for me, it’s different. It’s a different take on it, and that’s what keeps it interesting, if I had to play everything exactly the same every day, I’d be bored out of my mind.
Barry Cockcroft: How do we balance listening to recordings and being informed by an interpretation, and listening and being biassed by listening to a recording?
Debra Richtmeyer: That’s an excellent question, and there is a line there. And for me, I tend to not listen to recordings of pieces that I’m working on in the beginning stages, ever. Because I want to do that discovery of the piece without bias. I might do some work on the composer, maybe listen to other pieces that the composer wrote, which can be symphonies, or orchestral works, things like that. Just to get a feel for their harmony and their sensibilities. But I like to have an idea of how… what makes sense to me of the piece, before I will listen to other interpretations.
Debra Richtmeyer: Now, if it’s a transcription, after I’ve done that, I will then go look for interpretations and listen, and find the one that’s similar… that makes sense to me, and just see what do I like, and what do I don’t like. And that way, it can be informative without a bias, because… But I discourage people from listening to a recording, 18, 20, 30 times before they even start practising , because then you don’t really learn how to do discovery of a piece, and they’re really, whether they know it or not, they’re copying someone else.
Debra Richtmeyer: And that’s fine when you’re learning the language, and maybe really important when you’re first learning the language, like jazz players do transcriptions of all different artists to learn the language. But at some point, you need to be able to put your own unique interpretation into it.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you believe that few people agree with?
Debra Richtmeyer: I don’t know. I can say that one thing that I’ve noticed seems to be different when students come to work with me. There’s a really common teaching style, not just in the saxophone world but in many musicians, where the philosophy is learn the technique first, and then add the expression and emotion later. And I just, I don’t find that to be a good strategy. I am very much into practising with artistic intention, and in fact that’s a very big part of my book, because that’s such a core part of my teaching.
Debra Richtmeyer: So that you’re developing the oral muscle memory, and the emotional muscle memory, and the technical muscle memory from day one, and not having to go back and undo all of those things to change the muscle memories.
Barry Cockcroft: Thank you. If you just had one piece of music that you could play from now on, is there something that you would love to keep playing?
Debra Richtmeyer: Boy, that’s an impossible question, but I do love to improvise at home. When I’m not trying to prepare for an upcoming concert, and I can, I love to just stand in my kitchen on the wood floor, and just whatever mood I’m in, whatever mood, emotions, I just love to just improvise. And so I would always do that.
Debra Richtmeyer: But if I had to pick a written piece, I would go to something that just has so many memories for me, and that particular piece would be Rachmaninoff, Vocalise, solely because that piece… I’ve played it at people’s weddings, people’s funerals, it brings back so many wonderful and important memories and times in my life that I would always want to keep those memories alive through that piece, and those emotions.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one hour to practise, how would you spend your time?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well that’s usually all I ever have anymore, so. Truthfully-
Barry Cockcroft: It’s like one hour, that’s so much.
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s not much. It does, again, depend on what I’m doing. I will warm up, I think that’s really important to get the muscles warmed up so that you’re not playing full blast immediately. And my goal when I first start playing is to have everything feel effortless, and sound great, and I can play soft and loud effortlessly. There’s no strain involved. And sometimes the muscles take a little bit longer than others to relax, and have that happen, but that’s really important.
Debra Richtmeyer: And I’ll probably have the tuner sounding just so I’m maybe even playing C major scale on top of it to just get everything to open up and gradually adding vibrato, and getting into the altissimo, and gradually getting louder so that I can start on that F in the Glazunov, and play it effortlessly, full volume, and then I know I’m ready to actually practise. And in fact, got a concert coming up, I’m going to be working on the parts of the pieces that need the most work. I won’t often give myself the luxury of practising the stuff I already can play. I just make sure that within every two to three days I’ve been through all of the music, but I make sure I’m spending the majority of the time on the things that aren’t there yet.
Barry Cockcroft: To do something effortlessly requires an awful lot of effort, and it’s almost like it’s important for the audience not to see any of that effort, that it for them is coming out with ease. Is effortlessness something physical, or is it more of an approach in your mind?
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s both. I think it’s so important to figure out how to play something with the least amount of physicality as possible, and keeping your mind… Obviously if you’re playing a very intense emotion, there is high, high energy, but if you’re playing with muscle tension, or anxiousness, emotionally, that changes the music. The audience can feel that tension at some level, and you’re going to tire out faster, and you’re going to feel that at some level. So awareness of… I mean if you watch great players, they’re out there, great violinists, they’re out there moving a mile a minute, but they have figured out how to make it easy, and that’s what I’m always looking for, is how can I make this sound better, but be easier?
Barry Cockcroft: Very nice. Now, I think this is probably a horrible question, but who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone and why?
Debra Richtmeyer: Oh my goodness. There are so many people on that list, how can you narrow it down to one? I don’t think that I could, but I go back to the earlier ones because they started it for us. Marcel Mule, and Londeix, and Sigurd Rascher, and Sinta, and Rousseau, and Hemke, and because they started, well and Adolphe Sax too, we couldn’t be here without him. And so they had a vision, and they started it. If I had to pick one, it would be Fred Hemke because of my personal connection with him, and his belief of making music as an art, and as an expression. And that transcends the saxophone.
Barry Cockcroft: You know, all of the people you sort of reeled off then, every one of them has left a legacy behind, both through their performances, the composers they worked with, but also through the long list of students that they taught. I can see the same thing in your own career, that you’ve germinated a whole generation of musicians that have come from your teaching. Do you think that the legacy of a teacher is something that we should think about while we’re working, or is it just an outcome that happens from the things that we do?
Debra Richtmeyer: My goal is always to keep growing as a person, and as an artist, and as a musician, and as I grow as an artist and a musician, my teaching changes, my playing changes, and how I work with students change. And that, to me, is what it’s all about, and then I see them going out and doing marvellous things. I learn from them, too, and it’s a two way street. So I’ve never gone about it from the intention of creating a legacy. It’s always just working with whomever I’m working with, and helping them to be the best they can be.
Barry Cockcroft: Great, thanks. Now, if we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s essential, I think. It’s through failure that we learn the most, and if we’re afraid to try something because we might fail, we really short change ourselves.
Barry Cockcroft: I was talking to somebody the other day who was saying improvisation is essentially a series of mistakes, that… and through that process is where great music comes from. So it’s essential from an improvisatory sort of compositional point of view. You were describing improvising before, is that something that you do publicly, or is it a private part of music making for you?
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s private for me. I have not put in the time to learn… and my improvising is not jazz, it’s classical oriented, although sometimes I’ll throw some jazz in there, whatever I’m in the mood for. But I have not spent the time to learn how to improvise on written out changes, all the backup work that I did wasn’t exactly very exciting, just stand up and take solos. But when I’m playing on my own, it’s always I’m playing, I’m hearing where the melody’s going, and harmonies in my head as I’m playing, and so I’m making it up as I go.
Debra Richtmeyer: So yeah, somebody could transcribe changes of what I’m doing, but I’m not following those changes as I’m going, I’m creating them.
Barry Cockcroft: Beautiful. Now, before you go on stage, what’s the most important thing that you do to ensure that you’re going to be playing at your best?
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah, that’s so important for everybody to figure that out, and everybody’s a little bit different. For me, I like to make sure that I’ve got about an hour and a half to make sure where my body is where it needs to be in terms of relaxed, and ready to play effortlessly. It’s like the person that’s going to go run the four minute mile, they make sure their muscles are ready, or they’re not going to run their four minute mile, because they’re going to be tense.
Debra Richtmeyer: So that’s a part of it for me, and I play a little bit, rest, play a little bit, rest, play a little bit, rest, until I can just play and it isn’t hard work for me at all. There’s no strain physically. And then I make sure that I’m relaxed, and I’m excited, and I’m drawing in the energy of the universe. I know this sounds kind of woo-woo, and then projecting that love outward. So that energy I’m already directing that energy to the audience before I even walk on stage, because as I mentioned earlier, it’s about communicating to the audience, and making that connection energetically. And energy’s real, before I even walk on stage, and if I’m focusing on that, I love to connect with people, then I’m excited and I’m thinking through the piece, I’m singing through the piece, I’m getting in that mood.
Debra Richtmeyer: And if really doing that, then the nerves are different emotions, so it really helps keep those things more as extra adrenaline to heighten the emotions of the piece, rather than feeling nervousness, because that’s a different emotion. And the last thing that’s really important for me is I make sure that I have apple juice, because I can be a bit hypoglycemic, and I’ve learned the hard way many years ago that if I don’t have apple juice about 15 minutes before I go on stage, adrenaline makes your blood sugar drop. And I’d get out on stage and all of a sudden I couldn’t think, and I’d start sweating, and shaking, and I didn’t… be like, “What the heck’s going on?” And I learned that, and now that never happens to me.
Debra Richtmeyer: And I’ve told a lot of students about it, and for some they don’t need it, it depends on your physiology, and for some it’s been a game changer, as it was for me.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think about your audience while you’re playing?
Debra Richtmeyer: I don’t think of them as an audience, as much as I think of sharing and connecting what I’m saying to them through the music.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you say that your career has developed through a plan, or has it been a more organic process?
Debra Richtmeyer: Definitely more organic. I mean, I’ve been through lots of different things, I knew I wanted to play something professionally when I was in college, I thought I wanted to teach at the university, but beyond that I didn’t really have a plan. And over the years, some physical injuries through car accidents changed my plan radically, but from each thing that happened, that I might have thought was bad at the time, something great came out of it that wouldn’t have happened, or I grew in a way I wouldn’t have grown if those things hadn’t happened as a teacher, or as an artist.
Debra Richtmeyer: And so yeah, I have to say it’s been more organic.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something both that you do yourself, but also that you advise to ensure that we can enjoy long and healthy careers?
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes, I do think that it’s important that students, and well professionals obviously too, but be aware of the muscles and how to use them in a safe way, how to do stretching, how to stay hydrated because hydrated muscles are stronger. How to be aware of the ergonomics of whatever instrument you’re playing so that your playing is more efficiently, you’re not in home position with stretched tendons, which is a recipe for getting tendonitis.
Debra Richtmeyer: I mean there’s just, learning some of those things and paying attention to your body I think is really important, and when your body is hurting, that’s a red flag and you need to figure out, is it because I’m doing something that’s ergonomically not correct, that I need to stop doing? Or did I just play too much today, and I need a day off?
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think in practise it’s better to do quite small amounts with small breaks, or large amounts with larger breaks?
Debra Richtmeyer: I think you need to do both. I think the small amounts especially as you’re gaining endurance is really important, you gain endurance safer and faster by having small amounts. Bud Herseth, who was principle trumpet of the Chicago Symphony for decades, used to say, “Yeah, I practise 10 minutes… all day long.”
Barry Cockcroft: With a bit of hindsight, is there a piece of advice you’d like to send back to your younger self that you would have loved to have heard?
Debra Richtmeyer: Stretch more. I didn’t know about stretching back then. For us, it was like, oh, my neck’s killing me, and that was a badge of honour, and now I know better. And also just to not be afraid to take risks, and to really understand that it’s all about connecting with the audience. It took me many years to figure that out, and so I felt so connected to the universe in my practise room, but I’d get on stage and it’s like, “Holy cow, there’s an audience there looking at me!”
Debra Richtmeyer: And it took me a long time to figure out how to turn that to a positive for me, so that playing on stage was as enjoyable as playing in my living room.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you describe to me a risk in saxophone playing?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well I think a risk in anything in life is stepping outside of your comfort zone. Being willing to try things you might fail at, and realising that that’s okay, and that’s actually important. And so embracing the possibility of failure as a learning process that’s necessary.
Barry Cockcroft: I mean you mentioned that making mistakes is an essential part of our development. Are you okay when things don’t go right? Do you cope?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well. Nobody likes it when things don’t go well, but I have learned the hard way, that the most important thing… I used to put pressure on myself, you know, it’s got to be flawless, got to be perfect, because I was capable of that. But that’s a really high standard, and nobody’s perfect, and so if that’s your standard that’s a lot of stress. And I learned over the years that if my goal is to play from my heart and soul and be authentic, and risk emotionally, I have control of that. And if I play a wrong note, and my ear knows where I’m going next, I can recover, then that takes the fear of playing a wrong note off, and I equate that to, if we’re having this conversation and I stumble over a word or two, that doesn’t ruin our conversation.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, are there changes that you’ve seen in the saxophone world, and are there things that have stayed the same that have surprised you?
Debra Richtmeyer: There are so many things that have changed, oh my gosh. I mean there’s so much more repertoire out there now, and much more difficult repertoire. So many more players, so much more opportunities to listen to other players. You know, you can get on YouTube and Spotify and just hear so much more than when I was young. We had LPs and there weren’t… it was hard to get records, recordings, from people outside of the United States. And that’s changed drastically, and that’s wonderful.
Debra Richtmeyer: One of the things that… and also it’s changed in terms of the, we are now breaking into the mainstream. We see soloists playing with major orchestras, quartets playing with major orchestras, winning Grammies, I mean it’s just so exciting, and so wonderful. I guess the one thing that I would like to see, more of that. I mean it’s still an anomaly, it’s not commonplace, and I would love to see it be easier for that to happen. But boy, it’s much more prevalent than it used to be, and that’s exciting.
Debra Richtmeyer: And now, when I play with orchestras, they’re not surprised that a saxophone can sound good. They’ve heard a good saxophone before, this isn’t the first time, and that’s exciting.
Barry Cockcroft: So what are some things that haven’t changed?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well we’re not fully accepted, and we’re not… we can’t get a job playing in an orchestra because we’re still marginalised because of the repertoire, and that hasn’t changed. That we still are a bit of marginalised in the classical world.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think that’s something actually to aspire to? I mean, it’s essentially a type of ensemble that itself hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Is it something that we should be aspiring to, or is the saxophone making its own mark in its own domain?
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah, and I didn’t… I did not mean that we should be aspiring to being a regular person in the orchestra. I think we are making our own mark, and we are creating a path that is a new thing, especially the saxophone quartet, but even soloists. And that’s what’s really exciting now, I think, that we are seeing a new path, a new breed of entrepreneurs on saxophone going out there and that has changed.
Debra Richtmeyer: Is it as common as a violinist making a path? No, but it’s exciting, and people are excited by it, because the saxophone can do so many different things, and different styles, and so many of the players out there are versatile in many different styles. I mean you yourself, your music encompasses so many different styles, and that’s… and demands that of the player, and that’s wonderful.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, you mentioned your book is coming out. How long do we have to wait with bated breath until it’s available?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well, I turned it in to them in March, and I was hoping that I’d get some feedback from them this summer, but they’re working on another project that I can’t mention for a different person. But he promised me that in August that he’d put me on the front burner, and that we would have it in hand for the North American Saxophone Alliance National Conference in March, if not before.
Barry Cockcroft: Great, well that’ll be a perfect place for it to launch of course.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, where else can we find more information about your activities? Do you have a favourite social platform, or website that you like to keep everyone updated?
Debra Richtmeyer: Oh, I’m a dinosaur in that regard. I’m just… There’s just only so many hours in the day and I’m terrible about keeping up with that kind of thing. So I generally will post things on Facebook that are coming up, but my website is basically my IllinoisSaxophoneStudio.com, that’s at Illinois, and my own personal website, which I’m going to be starting now because of this book, and having videos on there and all kinds of stuff, that is yet to come, but hopefully soon.
Barry Cockcroft: So you’re going to have support material for the book on your website.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: Great. Fantastic.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, finally, you’ve made an enormous and sustained contribution to the saxophone over many decades, what is something that you would love to do going into the future?
Debra Richtmeyer: Well that still remains to be seen. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and when I have a little bit more time to just kind of let that creativity flow, it’s definitely going to be something creative. I thought it would be fun, when I’ve been doing some improvising and I get done I think, “Man, I wish I could have recorded that and written that down.” It would be fun to write some of my own music. That would be fun, something that I don’t know if it will happen, but that would be fun. Like what you do, that would be fun. So that’s something that’s in the back of my mind.
Barry Cockcroft: Debra, thank you so much for our conversation this evening.
Debra Richtmeyer: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: And I look very much forward to seeing you next time, perhaps in a bar.
Debra Richtmeyer: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: But certainly on the International Saxophone Committee at some point.
Debra Richtmeyer: In Japan, perhaps.
Barry Cockcroft: Great, thanks Debra.
Debra Richtmeyer: Okay, take care. Bye-bye.