On a high note: Zionsville resident Rick Graef soars to the top in music and sailing career


For Zionsville resident Rick Graef, every day is a chance for a new adventure.

Graef has played the French horn with the Indianapolis Symphony orchestra for 32 years and is a previous winner of the ISO’s Patch Leadership Award and Alice Akins Award.

Rick has been playing french horn with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for 32 years. (Photos courtesy of Rick Graef)

Not only has he made his way as a professional musician, but he also makes waves in his sailing career.

Most recently, Graef competed in a nine-day transpacific race from Los Angeles to Hawaii. He trained all year in California, and his team won first in its class and second overall.

Graef was reared in the suburbs of Chicago before moving to Upstate New York to study at the Ithaca College School of Music. His parents were professional flute players, and music has been part of his life for as long as he can remember.

“I was exposed to live music from a very young age,” Graef said. “I started on the piano, but once I was in fifth grade and able to, I began to play the French horn.”

Graef also participated in junior sailboat races as a child and worked as a lifeguard at sailing beaches to earn money during the summer. He became a certified windsurfing instructor and has participated in an array of races ever since.

“My dad bought a sailboat when I was 8, and we lived near Lake Michigan,” Graef said. “Once I learned how to drive the boat, my dad never got it back. I got involved in everything I could.”

While attending college, Graef earded his first professional music job as the co-principal French Horn player with the Natal Philharmonic Orchestra in Durban, South Africa.

“I spent a little over a year playing in South Africa,” Graef said. “The ability to travel out of the country gave me a musical experience that is hard for young musicians to come by.”

When Graef returned to Ithaca in the middle of his senior year, he earned a job playing third horn for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in Tennessee. During that time, he graduated magna cum laude in Music Performance from Ithaca. He has also been named an Outstanding Young alumnus at Ithaca College.

Graef went on to play in the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra for two years before moving to Indianapolis to play with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

“Indianapolis has one of the top orchestras in the country,” Graef said.  I have auditioned for a few others, but I am comfortable and happy where I am.”

Graef moved to Zionsville in 1997 after getting to know the town through his time with the ISO.

“My family attended church in Zionsville, and we fell in love with the village atmosphere and community here,” Graef said. “My wife Sandy and I wanted to raise our children here. We bought a house, and I have been here ever since.”

Rick Graef racing toward the finish line in a 2021 Trans-Pacific race

Graef has participated in many international sailboat races and four transpacific races.

“Once my kids grew up and moved out, I was excited to participate in longer races and take time off from music to travel for them,” Graef said.

Graef said his recent transpacific race was “monumental.”

“There are several races on my bucket list, but the most recent one was quite a feat,” Graef said. “We beat some of the top names in sailboat racing. I loved everything about this race. I had a great crew.”

When Graef has a day off, he can be found rehearsing for his next musical performance or working at his small business, RG Sails, a sailboat repair company. He also is running for an at-large seat on the Zionsville Town Council.

“I started my small business in 2020 when COVID hit and the orchestra was not performing as much,” Graef said. “I also enjoy spending time at Eagle Creek, where I am the commodore of the sailing club.”

Graef said the best part about what he does is that each day offers something new.

“Every day is different, whether it is a different piece of beautiful music or a different boat and weather,” Graef said. “I have always said how much money I made was less important than enjoying what I do. Working with different people and programs and seeing each audience respond is a unique experience. It keeps me young and keeps me enjoying life.”


The Graef file

  • Pets: Graef owns a rescue puppy named Suzie Q and often fosters dogs
  • Favorite place to visit in Zionsville: Friendly Tavern
  • Favorite place to travel: Florida Keys
  • Best body of water for sailing: Pacific Ocean
  • Favorite place to perform: Musikverein in Vienna, Austria.
  • Family: “I have two kids who both graduated from Zionsville Community High School. My wife, Sandy Graef, passed away from breast cancer in 2008.”