Richard Sherman, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s Rita and Dunbar VanDerveer Symphony Principal Chair for Flute, is a self-described “romantic-pragmatic.”
“I think anyone who is an artist lives life with their head in the clouds as we run mostly on creativity and imagination,” Sherman said. “However, I am also very practical. Somehow, those two things can and do coexist.”
Sherman began to personify the oxymoron in 1993, then a self-described “reluctant academic who needed job security” for the sake of his family. Sherman, leaving the Rochester Philharmonic behind, had just arrived in East Lansing to become a professor of flute at Michigan State University, where he was “practically forced into realizing” two things can be true at the same time.
“I came to understand teaching and playing go hand in hand — they are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “When I left a full-time orchestra to teach, I really just changed the ratio of each. I didn’t have to forgo being one for the other.”
In the 27 years to follow, Sherman would influence generations of flutists and instructors, with graduates holding positions at the University of South Carolina, Missouri State University, the University of Southern Mississippi and Wright State University, among others. Because the university is “incredibly supportive,” Sherman would continue to pursue his own music, releasing six solo flute recordings. And he would be recognized for the balance in-between. In January 2020, Sherman was awarded the William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award.
“It is very rewarding, as a capstone of my academic career, to be recognized in this fashion,” Sherman said. “Frank Sinatra always talked about how he did it his way, and I feel like this is a sign from my university that I was doing good work that aligned with my own values, yet also contributed to the school and to the country.”
William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award winners are honored for a “comprehensive and sustained record of scholarly excellence in research and/or creative activities, instruction and outreach.” Each department making nominations for the award has its own detailed criteria and methods for nomination, but all nominations are based on teaching, advising, research, publications, art exhibitions, concert performances, committee work, public service or a combination of aforementioned activities. Final selections are then made by an “All-University Awards Committee” appointed by the Michigan State University’s president.
“It’s very humbling and gratifying to be recognized by your peers,” he said.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sherman said the acknowledgement hasn’t prompted him to rest on his laurels. In fact, he feels the opposite — a motivation sparked by the needs of his students.
“There are days I struggle as much as anybody else, but the one thing I have been trying to do through all of this is just show up,” Sherman said. “I want to demonstrate a consistency and a touchstone for my students that proves we are all in this together and furthermore, to show them that the arts matter more than ever.”
It’s hard to stand in that belief when, Sherman said, so many are fighting the tedium of repetition, when the things his students have always had the freedom to do are suddenly arrested. But he can’t subscribe to the idea that the world won’t return to normal one day — maybe even better than before.
“I think we have to stay strong and hold the line for the sake of all art in the world,” he said. “Once the dust clears, we could see a resurgence or even a renaissance for the appreciation of the arts from live music to dance. I really believe that.”
The “centerpiece of my musical life,” he said, is Chautauqua. It’s where the values he instills in his students were instilled in him.
“I always know I can get a major dose of the symphonic literature over eight weeks every summer,” Sherman said. “It’s both stimulating and challenging.”
Sherman was a student in the Music School Festival Orchestra in 1979, the very first summer festival he ever attended. Although he had to clean dishes in the Bellinger Hall cafeteria to make ends meet, Sherman said he remembers that summer fondly; vividly, too.
One moment stands out in particular: It was toward the end of the summer and Sherman was sitting on the bleachers outside the Amphitheater, listening to the CSO’s rendition of Ottorino Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome.” It was nearly sunset and the Miller Bell Tower was ringing in the distance.
“At that moment, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is the best summer job in the world,’” he said. “That was where it started, on the bleachers of an Amp long gone.”
That was where it started — a nearly three-decade long tradition. Sherman came back to the Institution in 1980, where he played with the CSO for the first time. Sherman has since appeared as a guest orchestral flutist with the Chicago, Detroit and Toronto Symphonies, as well as an extended engagement as principal flute of the Rochester Philharmonic, which began in 1984.
But when it comes down to it, Sherman said he has “always had a heart for teaching” along the way. During his summers with the CSO, Sherman is the winds and percussion chair at Chautauqua’s School of Music and frequently hosts both student and community flute master classes. This summer, he joined fellow woodwinds musicians for Week Six’s Into the Music with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.
“In the end, I think what we do as musicians and as teachers is all relational — it’s to serve other people,” he said. “That matters to me.”
It hasn’t been easy, but career is a piece of cake compared to raising kids. Sherman has raised three girls, three more accolades to add to a growing list he doesn’t plan to cut short any time soon.
“I guess my greatest accomplishment is always trying to be the best musician and person in the moment I am in and continuing to grow from there,” Sherman said. “I think our greatest moments in life can never be one thing. They say the measure of a career is its longevity. Well, I’m still here.”