With You Every Step: Susan Fancher

What inspired you to be involved in music and play the saxophone? 

Even as a small child, I sang all the time...just making stuff up. My older sister took piano lessons, and Mom signed me up for piano at age 7. In my area, band directors introduced band instruments in 4th grade and I was smitten by the idea of playing music in a group with others! I had to choose between saxophone and trombone, since there were instruments available for free from an aunt and uncle who had them sitting in a closet. I chose saxophone. 

Over time I’ve drawn inspiration form many people and experiences. ALL of my music teachers from grade school through college-level teachers. Fellow students at Northwestern and in Bordeaux. Faculty colleagues at all the places I've taught (U of Buffalo, Duke University, Wake Forest University, UNC Greensboro). My pianist collaborators everywhere I've lived, currently collaborating with the incredible Ināra Zandmane.   

Above all, I am inspired by music and the desire to communicate with the audience through my music. 

What is it like pursuing music as a career? 

Everyone knows it takes countless hours to play an instrument at a high level...you never get as good as you can imagine getting, so this is truly endless work. Sometimes it feels like a chore and a burden, but when you work through those times you come out on the other side a better player. Musicians develop the discipline it takes to tackle a difficult task, break it apart, and conquer it. That translates to every other aspect of life! Many employers, in fact, love to hire musicians for exactly this reason.  We work hard and are determined! 

Musicians work all the time in many different ways: organizing performances, practicing, performing, teaching, traveling, commissioning, recording, staying connected with other musicians and presenters, keeping up on new repertoire and products, and all that goes into those activities. I love all of this work, so it feels more like a pursuit than work, most of the time. There's an old saying that goes something like, "If you love your work, you'll never work a day of your life." 


Did you at any time consider doing something else other than music? 

I have never considered not making music, but I have definitely considered doing something else as my income-producing job. After Northwestern for my undergrad, I spent a year studying in Bordeaux, France. After that, I worked in an insurance company, then attended grad school in math with the plan to become a gigging math professor.   

Some incredible luck brought once-in-a-lifetime opportunities my way, so I ended up leaving the math field to pursue life as a saxophone performer. I now continue to perform, as well as teach. I'm living a very interesting life, but I know that had I stayed on the path to becoming a gigging math professor that would also be a very interesting life!  There are so many different paths each life can take and so many different ways to continue making music throughout one's life! 

Honestly, if you love making music, there isn't really anything that can keep you from doing it! 

It sounds like you’ve really worked hard to stay open minded throughout your career. That’s not always easy... 

Realizing opportunities is absolutely key. Be open to opportunities that present themselves. Be willing to take a risk. You never know where something will lead!  Be kind to everyone, always; the music world is small! Opportunity gets you nowhere if you aren't prepared to excel, so work hard to play at your highest level. Go to concerts.  Listen to all kinds of music.  Create opportunities for yourself and for others. The things you try to do won't always work out, but somehow that energy you put out into the world creates opportunities for you. 

Take me, for exampleI'm from a small, rural farming community in upstate NY.  Music has taken me all around the world and given me experiences beyond my wildest dreams. I could talk for hours about the places I've been and the people I've met. My good luck is truly humbling. Here are just a few: 

I learned of an opening in the Rollin' Phones Saxophone Quartet based in Stockholm during my time as a grad student in math at Northwestern in 1990. I applied and became the soprano saxophonist with that group, so my husband (Mark Engebretson...also a saxophonist, as well as a composer) and I moved to Stockholm. Then a couple years later, we learned that the Vienna Saxophone Quartet was looking for TWO saxophonists (soprano and baritone), so we moved to Vienna so that both of us could join that group.  Six years later, I learned of an opening for soprano saxophonist with the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, based in Buffalo, NY, about one hour from where I grew up and where I still have lots of family. I auditioned and was invited to join the group, so we moved to Buffalo.  Five years later, we moved to Greensboro, NC, where Mark is on faculty at UNCG, and together with Bob Faub and Steve Stusek we formed the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet. I've been teaching saxophone at Duke University for the past 14 years. 

So you see, some opportunities just land in your lap and others you create yourself. 

You’ve already shared so much, but do you have any other advice for young musicians today? 

Play music you love. Listen to music and attend concerts. Meet other musicians and composers and conductors and concert organizers of all kinds. Enjoy the journey!  Don't compare yourself with others. There will always be greater and lesser players than you!  Just do what you love to do! Be honest. It's great to make money as a musician, but it's great to play music, regardless of what you do to make money. 

Meet Sue's Student Partner, Millie!

Read about Millie's journey as she just begins on saxophone.

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