David Niethamer quieted the musicians with a final graceful stroke of his baton, ending the University of Richmond Wind Ensemble’s April 15 concert and his 17 years as the group’s conductor.
When asked why he decided to retire, Niethamer chuckled and replied: “Well, I’m an old guy! My wife and I have vague plans to travel more. I’m still going to teach clarinet [at UR], but the band has a constant time commitment.”
Niethamer began teaching clarinet students at UR in 1979, shortly after joining the Richmond Symphony.
“I have always been committed to teaching,” he said. “I think it is important for musicians to be involved in that kind of activity to generate a love for the art form that you work in professionally.”
In 2002, Niethamer retired from the Richmond Symphony to spend more time with his daughter. Soon after, he was asked to lead UR's Wind Ensemble.
“He’s a wonderful conductor, great friend and amazing player,” said Gene Anderson, professor of music, emeritus. Anderson is also a community member of the ensemble and its former conductor.
“The secret to his success is that he takes students as they are and takes them to as good as they can be in the time they have here. That is a marvelous thing.”
Niethamer’s time at UR has left an overwhelmingly positive impact on his students, as band members and clarinet students alike attested to his kind heart and humorous nature.
“I think he’s very empathetic,” said sophomore Annabelle Chung, a band member and one of Niethamer’s clarinet students. “He definitely pushes you to try your hardest, but not in an intimidating way. He’s the nicest instructor I’ve ever had.”
Senior Christopher Cotter, who has been in Niethamer’s band for four years, said, “A lot of us [joined the ensemble] because we loved being there with him.”
Niethamer became infamous among his students for spontaneously sharing jokes and anecdotes during his classes and practices.
“He made a lot of dad jokes,” Cotter said, “so I thought he was really funny.”
Music department chair Jeffrey Riehl described Niethamer as having “a wickedly dry sense of humor that students appreciate.”
Because of Niethamer's clever quips and sweet disposition, his students were especially forthcoming with their fondest memories.
“He took the time to meet my mother and grandmother after the concert,” junior Charity Yeyeodu said. "And he said he would probably come back for band concerts in the future. So he’s not gone forever, which is awesome.”
Angie Hilliker, a biology professor and past member of the ensemble, recalled a concert that was especially meaningful to her.
“My birthday always ends up falling on the fall concert,” Hilliker said. “He once had the band playing happy birthday instead of the first song, which was very sweet.”
Hilliker is just one of the Richmond community members who have joined university students over the years in the ensemble. She said the large number of community members in the band spoke to how good a conductor Niethamer was.
Niethamer’s own love for music developed at a young age.
“I’ve been playing the clarinet since the fourth grade -- back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I think," he said.
Niethamer described how his father’s passion for music fostered his interest. His father played the saxophone and introduced Niethamer to the clarinet. They went to see symphonies and concerts together, which Niethamer remembers fondly.
“I think I really got ‘the bug’ when I went to a region band concert at my high school in ninth grade,” Niethamer said. “I heard how great that sounded, and that was it for me. I was going to be a music major no matter what.”
Having gained conducting experience through Lebanon Valley College and with high school bands, Niethamer explained that conducting UR’s ensemble was not entirely foreign to him.
Niethamer selected his favorite pieces for his final Wind Ensemble concert on April 15. The closing piece was especially significant.
“The ‘Variations on a Korean Folk Song’ was a piece I played the first time I passed an audition to get into a regional band festival in Pennsylvania,” Niethamer said. “It was a brand-new piece then in the 1960s, and I thought it was the greatest piece I had ever heard.”
When asked for parting advice for students, Niethamer said, “An exposure to music makes you a better person and improves your quality of life immeasurably, even if it distracts you for a couple of hours.
“To all you UR students out there," he playfully announced, cupping his hands around his mouth, "Continue participating in music!”
Next year, a new conductor, Steve Barton, will direct the Wind Ensemble, but Niethamer will continue to teach clarinet at UR.
“David has been incredibly dedicated to our students and to our department,” Riehl said. “We are sorry to see him retire, but he has well earned a long and comfortable retirement.”
Contact contributor Daniel Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.