Soprano Saxophone, Renaissance Music, and Freelancing with Susan Fancher

by Jenny Maclay

Date Posted: February 19, 2018

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Interview conducted by Jenny Maclay

You are an advocate for new music, having recently premiered and commissioned several new works for the saxophone. Why do you believe it is important to promote new music?

Susan Fancher: Working with composers is how we build a better repertoire for our future. And it is thrilling to be part of the creative process. It’s challenging and stretches me as a saxophonist and as an artist. Music is not something that’s finished; it’s a living, breathing thing. I love playing the best pieces from our standard classical repertoire, more now than ever before in fact, but my main work over the past two decades has been creating new music. I am very happy and proud that some of the pieces I have had a hand in bringing to life have been taken on and performed by other saxophonists.

You have published several transcriptions of works by Josquin Desprez. What inspired your interest in Franco-Flemish music of the Renaissance?

SF: When I was a graduate student in saxophone at Northwestern, I took a seminar course in Renaissance Music with Professor Theodore Karp, author of the Karp Dictionary of Music. We studied many composers from that time, but focused in particular on the music of Josquin Desprez. After listening to a recording of Desprez’s stunning motet Ave Maria in class, I commented on how gorgeous it was and asked whether he thought it might work as a saxophone quartet. I half expected Professor Karp to laugh at the suggestion, but instead he replied enthusiastically, “Why not?!” So, I made the transcription, which is now published by Lemoine as a part of Claude Delangle’s series. When I was a member of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, my colleagues in that group also fell in love with the piece and asked if I’d make more transcriptions for us to play. The result was an entire CD of music by Josquin Desprez performed by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet (the ASQ members at that time were Susan Fancher, Russ Carere, Stephen Rosenthal and Harry Fackelman). Sadly, that CD was given only a small pressing and is no longer available. It is a truly beautiful CD recording.

You have commissioned many concertos for the soprano saxophone. What qualities of the soprano make it a vehicle for large-scale solo works?

SF: I do indeed find the soprano saxophone to be a particularly beautiful concerto instrument. The tone of the soprano fits in so well with the orchestral instruments, because it is a bit lighter than the other saxes. But honestly, the reason I have chosen to champion soprano saxophone concertos is because that particular saxophone is my personal favorite. From my years performing in quartets, I have developed a particularly beautiful (if I may say so myself) tone on the soprano. The alto saxophone has many terrific concertos to play. Thanks in no small part to James Houlik, so does the tenor. The soprano saxophone has only a few concertos, so I decided to work on adding to that repertoire. Plus, playing concertos is another awesome challenge. I hope someone else out there will decide to build on the small repertoire of concertos for baritone saxophone!

You are a great supporter of the saxophone quartet. From an educational perspective, what are the benefits of small ensemble playing experience?

SF: It is impossible to overstate the benefit of playing in small ensembles for young (or older) musicians. It requires the ability to listen to other parts while playing your own, improves tuning and tone, blend and balance. Also, it’s easy to get out and perform, since small groups are so portable. Performing is so good for our playing, and after all, it is the point of all this work we do!

What suggestions do you have for band directors or other musicians who want to form a saxophone quartet?

SF: The AATB Voxman beginning quartet books are a great place to start. Band directors can take their saxophone section, pull out the best four players, and voilà they’ve got a quartet. If the director plays saxophone, he or she can play along with the top three students. There are some very good AATB quartets in both classical and jazz styles. If the school or a student happens to own a soprano and there is a strong enough player to handle the instrument, they can dig into the vast repertoire for SATB quartets. The biggest issue for band directors will probably be when to meet. School schedules are so rigid and full. Jazz ensembles are already generally held before the regular school day. If a director can manage to get the four players to be able to stay after school once a week to meet, that may be their best option. Directors, unfortunately, will most likely be given no compensation for this extra work, but it will greatly improve the playing of their saxophone sections.

What are your favorite arrangements or pieces for saxophone quartets?

SF: Ah, this is hard to answer. There are many excellent pieces. Some pieces that come to mind immediately are Gavin Bryars’ Alaric I or II, Ben Johnston’s O Waly, Waly and Iannis Xenakis’ XAS. All three are difficult works for very advanced college or professional-level quartets and, especially the Xenakis, not suitable for many audiences. More accessible pieces that come to mind are Jonas Forsell’s gorgeous arrangement of Poulenc’s Suite Française, Michael Torke’s May, June and July, Steven Bryant’s Rise, and Thierry Escaich’s Tango Virtuoso. Again, I hesitate to give a list here for fear of not mentioning so many other excellent works, but these are all really terrific works.

Can you please tell us about freelancing? What are the difficulties of having a different job each day?

SF: Freelancing is a very dynamic career, always changing. It is fun to brainstorm interesting new projects. After the brainstorming, one then must choose the projects that are the most compelling, but also doable. It’s sort of a balancing act between dreaming and reality. Then comes the hard work and perseverance required to bring projects to fruition. It can be fun and exciting, but also terribly frustrating at times. It requires tremendous organizational skills and the willingness to do a lot of hard work for very little pay. It gives me the luxury, but also the responsibility of choosing my own repertoire, most of the time. I am constantly re-evaluating my repertoire to make sure it is engaging for me, as well as my audience. At this stage of my career, I am more particular about the projects I choose than I was back in my twenties. I think it was important to follow every opportunity that came my way at that stage, but now I have stronger opinions about what I enjoy playing and what I don’t. As for the difficulties of having a different job each day, well, all I can say is choose a calendar system that works for you, keep it absolutely up to date at all times and remember to look at it every day!

With such a busy schedule of performing and teaching, what do you do to make sure your playing is consistent and at its highest level?

SF: Like exercising or eating well, it takes discipline and time. You can find time for the things that matter most to you. No matter how busy life gets, I do my best to get in at least a little practice time as close to every day as possible. At the very least, I will spend a half hour playing through my reeds and doing warmups, including long tones with vibrato and scales with and without articulation. I have learned that the few minutes between teaching lessons or before I have to leave for a gig can add up to a lot of time. Even a ten minute warmup beats none! When I get a break between performances, I do give myself a few days off. When you’re playing all the time and living under performance pressure, playing can become a grind and lose its joy, so these breaks help me recover my love and passion for playing music. It is, however, easier to stay in shape than get in shape, so I rarely take more than a few days off.

Who are your favorite composers?

SF: Ah, hard to say! I have very eclectic tastes. As noted before, I love the music of the Renaissance, in particular Josquin Desprez. I also love Dvorak and Mahler, as well as Berg and Schoenberg. I’m a big fan of Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. Also, Sting and anything played by Anne-Sophie Mutter. I love jazz and am a huge fan of Michael Brecker and all the great saxophone players I grew up listening to, like Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley and Phil Woods. When I need to take a break and do something “normal,” ie. non-music related, like when I painted my living room, I put on what they call classic rock now. I was a kid when this stuff came around the first time…

How did you begin playing the saxophone?

SF: I was nine years old, which is when kids in New York State start beginning band. My aunt had a sax lying around in a closet and my uncle had a trombone, so I was given a choice between sax and trombone, since we could get our hands on those instruments for free. I chose saxophone, because the name sounded cool. I had no idea what it was! But when I saw it, it was definitely love at first sight, with all those beautiful shiny keys. I had already studied piano for two years and played recorder at school, so I quickly became good at the saxophone. I was very, very lucky to go to a public school with an excellent music program that offered lessons for free during the school day. These programs are sadly becoming rarer and rarer.

In addition to saxophone, what hobbies do you enjoy?

SF: Life as a freelance musician, practicing, performing, teaching, constantly organizing events and so on, does not leave one with much time for anything else, but I do enjoy reading, watching movies, walking and biking.

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