Studio Visit: Debra Richtmeyer
Studio Visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Here, a chat with Debra Richtmeyer. A professor of saxophone at the University of Illinois School of Music, she co-organized and co-hosted the North American Saxophone Alliance biennial conference that ended Saturday on campus.
Q: When did you start playing saxophone?
A: I started playing in fourth grade. My parents were both band directors, and my father was director of bands at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He brought me a curved soprano sax. It's unusual to start on a soprano sax, but I was 10 and small and it was an instant fit. I loved it immediately. I enjoyed it so much that it became the focal point of my free time from then on.
Q: How long did you play soprano sax?
A: For two years, then I switched to alto sax in sixth grade so I could play in band. I play them all — alto, soprano, tenor and bari. I played for 20 years backing entertainers like Bob Hope, Natalie Cole, the Mills Brothers, the Lettermen, Doc Severinsen, Seals and Crofts, Sammy Davis Jr. and others.
Q: Were you teaching at the same time?
A: Part of that time was when I was a student at Northwestern. As a student, I also played for three years for the Chicago Bears Jazz Band. That was really a lot of fun. I played backup for entertainers when I was in college and when I was teaching at the University of North Texas.
Q: I noticed you taught for 10 years there.
A: Yes, and I've been here for 23 years. Since 1991.
Q: Do you like it?
A: I love it here. I have the most amazing students. I'm blessed. They come from all over the country and from Korea, Scotland, Taiwan, Germany and Russia. So when you're working with great talent and great people, it just makes your job so fulfilling.
Q: Are you married? Is your husband a musician too?
A: Yes. He's a mathematician. He teaches at Heartland Community College, and we have an 11-year-old, Alex.
Q: Do you teach classical and jazz saxophone?
A: I concentrate on classical. That makes the most sense for me. That's always been my strongest suit. I'm best known in the classical world.
Q: Do you solo a lot with orchestras?
A: Yes, and last summer, I was one of the featured concerto soloists at the World Saxophone Congress. That had four concertos, and I played at the closing gala. I was the first woman to play a solo concerto at the World Saxophone Congress, in the early '90s.
Q: Are there many female saxophonists out there?
A: It's primarily male-dominated, but more and more women are entering the profession now. But it's still dominated by men.
A: History, tradition. I don't know exactly why, but history and tradition kind of perpetuate themselves. There are really not that many female classical saxophonists. There are now several female saxophonists teaching at American universities — some are former students of mine. It's become more common. I would say 20 percent of my students are female. As far as I know, I'm the only female saxophonist to give a master class at a World Saxophone Congress. In 2015, I'll perform at the Singapore Saxophone Symposium and at the World Saxophone Congress in Strasbourg, France.
Q: What do you like best about the sax?
A: I like it because it's so versatile. You can play soft or you can play loud. You can change the colors; there are so many different colors to the saxophone. You can play it lyrically, like the voice or the violin. And yet at the same time, you can do all kinds of contemporary, extended techniques.
Contemporary composers love the saxophone because we're able to do many things sonically and we're willing to try new things because we don't have the hundreds of years of repertoire. I like to express from the heart through the instrument, and the saxophone really lends itself to that. And it's fun.