Dave Camwell, saxophonist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I began my musical forays in grade 4 with choir, guitar, and piano, and then in grade 7 with clarinet. While I still play piano and clarinet, my performing talents are solely on the saxophone. When I began band in junior high, I had to excel on clarinet for a year before being offered the chance to play sax, so I worked hard and graduated to the saxophone for eighth grade jazz band. I am grateful to my inspiring junior high band teacher Kevin Willms, and my gifted first teacher Richard Harding. I still remember a band-room poster of a saxophonist silhouetted against a night-time city backdrop, with flames coming from the bell; my 13-year-old self knew that an exciting musical future lay waiting for me with the saxophone!

In high school through my undergraduate studies, I played sax constantly, studied privately and in combos, taught lessons, and became a first-call saxophonist in the Calgary area. The 1990s were a halcyon time for the musical scene in Calgary, and I gigged multiple times a week in various settings, while practicing diligently to further improve my skills. During my Master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado, I focused intensely on developing my abilities in both classical and jazz, planning for a doctoral degree that would make me competitive for a future university position. In 2005, I was indeed offered a position in saxophone and jazz at Simpson College in Iowa, where I taught for 12 years. In 2017, I won my current position as Professor of Saxophone and the Director of Jazz Studies at Troy University in Alabama.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

In many ways I’ve been incredibly lucky and feel that any of my challenges are laughable when compared to those that so many in the world deal with every day, such as poverty, systemic racism, lack of healthcare, and of course, now COVID-19. I would add, however, that I have experienced a challenge that actually masked an incredible opportunity: in 2017, I was denied a promotion to Full Professor. I took this pretty badly, but the silver lining was that I began looking for employment in other universities. As it turned out, three months later I won a position at a much larger university (Troy University in Alabama) that was a significantly better fit for me. I feel that if I had been granted the promotion from my previous employer, the chances that I would have applied for my current position in Alabama were low. It has proven to be a great change, with myself being awarded early-tenure status after just three years, and my wife winning a tenure-track position as well at the same institution. In my case, the fact that something so very good came out of a challenging and unexpected event in my career is something I continue to reflect upon.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m proud of all my recordings, but I would list ‘Second Wind’ and a live jazz album I recorded (Live at the Beat-Niq) in 2000 as ones at the top of the list. Both of these CDs captured some magic with wonderful players, and my memories of the creative process for both remain strong.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I try to be a well-rounded musician, but I think I do well channelling my inner-Nigel Kennedy with Baroque ornamentation. I love playing fast minor key baroque music; it’s so invigorating!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Teaching my students is often inspiring, watching them learn pieces that I also performed in my earlier years. Helping them make strong musical choices, while coupled with excellent technique certainly keeps me motivated to improve as well when it’s my turn to perform. I also like to bring new works to light, and have led consortiums that have successfully created new works for the instrument that have proven very popular. It’s one thing to commission a new work, and then have very few people play it; I’m proud that my consortiums have resulted in oft-played works: ‘Tachycardia’ by Marc Mellits, ‘Concerto After Mendelssohn’ by David Canfield, and ‘Conversations with Matisse’ by Robert W. Smith. It’s inspiring to play new music that is well-received.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Sometimes logistical choices govern what pieces to play, and other times it’s a simple as choosing a piece that I’ve been wanting to perform for years but have not got to it yet. I try to find balance in my programmes in terms of types of pieces, including transcriptions, works for saxophone and new pieces. It’s also a thrill to play with larger chamber groups, and with my talented oboist wife Jillian Camwell.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Large concert halls are typically always a thrill to play in. I recently performed in the spectacular Legacy Hall on the Columbus State University (GA) campus. I’m also partial to the Saenger Theatre in Pensacola, FL, and the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, IA.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think interaction is key. Speaking before pieces to explain the musical and emotional arc of a composition can be very helpful. I also think great media content (video) presented in a modern and hip way is very important.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As an audience member, I still remember a Lara St. John recital in Des Moines, IA that was simply stunning. As a performer, playing an outdoor concert in Taiwan with the Xplorium! Ensemble is a fantastic memory; it was absolutely pouring with rain but the packed crowd just took out their umbrellas and stayed anyway! It was a wonderfully supportive audience.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I define success by being respected by my peers, being able to make a living performing and teaching music, presenting a variety of recitals and concertos in a season, as well as making high quality audio and video recordings.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Musicians need to be technically solid, artistically interesting, unfailingly hard working and promotionally savvy.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to be a Full Professor who is still engaged with my students and loves going to work every day.

What is your present state of mind?

Focused and confident in my music and myself. Disappointed and upset with our country’s current leadership. We should be led by our brightest minds, not our worst instincts.


Saxophonist Dave Camwell has received wide acclaim for his brilliant technique, poetic expression and innovative programming, with a repertoire that ranges from Baroque to contemporary to jazz.

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