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Title: Professor of Music
Best Office Artifact: 20-year-old drawing by his daughter
Do everything like it is both the first time and the last time. That is the attitude Professor James Ripley brings into every rehearsal, performance, and class.
Professor Ripley has been at Carthage for more than 18 years, serving as the Director of Instrumental Music Activities at Carthage, as well as conductor of the Wind Orchestra, Concert Band, and chamber winds group AMATI.
An international conductor and arranger of symphonic and wind pieces, Professor Ripley is also the principal guest conductor of the Sakuyo Wind Orchestra at Sakuyo University in Kurashiki, Japan, and President-Elect of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles.
We asked Professor Ripley about his musical background, Carthage’s instrumental music program, and how he uses his international experiences to guide his musicians.
How did you get started with music?
The simple answer to the question is that it was through church music. As a really young person, I became enthralled with the sounds of the organ and the different kinds of congregational hymns that we were experiencing, especially during Lent. It just was very moving. Even though my family was very musical, it wasn’t something we had particularly in my house. It was pretty much through church music that I started connecting to music.
The thing that was the most important in the long run was a class I took in high school called Adventures in Listening. One of the pieces that was in that class was a piano piece by Henry Cowell called “The Banshee.” It’s played on the inside of the piano and is a very unusual sounding piece. It’s meant to depict the Irish personage that comes from the netherworld to the living world to escort people to their next experience in life, be it heaven or hell. As the banshee moves from the plane of the dead to the plane of the living, it is excruciating to the person and so they would wail. Over time, my experience as a musician has been very involved with new music, contemporary music, and music of an unusual nature that makes a dramatic impact. That one piece comes to me now as the most important piece that I ever became involved with. I actually did my doctoral dissertation work on that piece plus others of the same sort and an arrangement for band. The reason I am the band director and not the orchestra director is because I really love modern music.
How has your conducting experience in Japan and around the world influenced your conducting and teaching?
The most important thing to realize is that there are a lot of commonalities. When we travel as a group or as I conduct, having music as a unifier is more important than the distinctions. But there are some differences. What has helped me the most is a better sense of time. We studied this in our 2010 J-Term study tour that was built around sacred space and sound. The idea is that everything has a particular place to be. Japan is a very orderly society and that shows in many different ways, including the music. Things have a very particular place to be and space — silence — has a very important place to be. You see that in their gardens, the placement of things in their artwork, and in their music. When I started conducting there, I noticed their sense of time was much better than mine. I needed to up my game to help them with things. The funny thing is that it wasn’t rhythmically complicated music, it was just simply keeping really good time.
I have been able to share from that experience the idea of music being created as an organic sensibility, so that every time you start to play a piece, it’s like everything happens for the first time. One note leads to the next. The path may deviate from something you have done before.
The tradition is more of a replication kind of process: In order to do the music, you do it in a certain way and you do it correctly so that it is lacking imperfections, but you’re really replicating something. That deviation from the norm is difficult because it’s unexpected. Music is largely fresh when it is unexpected and when the idea is growing from nothing, rather than simply replicating something.
I think we brought that to our students here as well — how we think about music making, and looking at something that will be different every time we sit down to do it. If it is exactly the same, why do it? That’s a recording and you can buy a recording. Live music changes.
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“…every time you start to play a piece, it’s like everything happens for the first time. One note leads to the next. The path may deviate from something you have done before.”
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How has the music program evolved during your time as a professor?
The depth of the ability and commitment within the students is much greater. We had some wonderful students when I first got here. They were a small set who were leaders for the future, but the depth within any of the student groups wasn’t very strong. But there were some leaders and they made a difference.
If there is anything that I am the most proud of, it is something I don’t have a direct hand in anymore, and that’s the development of the orchestra. The fact of coming into the instrumental side and trying to make that work, and then to actually have that happen now and to see how that group has developed and flourished is huge. To the outsider that is something they would notice the most is that group is so solid and wonderful on its own.
Throughout the College, the depth of the student body is a lot stronger. We have always said that we have great students, and that is the case. Now we have more great students. The instrumental side has really flourished here. When I got here, we had a solid program, but it was mostly focused on the choral program. The first band tour we had happened when I was here and the international trips came later.
How do you balance directing multiple ensembles?
The simple part is that the curriculum for any program is the music and knowing a lot of different pieces. You can provide the kind of experience the students need largely by just knowing the right pieces to play with the right groups.
The harder part is making the different personalities click. We have a lot of different groups on the instrumental side. Whether an oboe player is playing in the Philharmonic, the Wind Orchestra, Concert Band, or playing a different instrument in Pep Band, every group has a little different feel. It can be difficult to make everybody feel connected within each particular group if they are doing lots of groups or to also make people feel as if their contribution is valuable within different groups. I rely on the music a lot to make it work and that’s largely where I hope the students find the attractiveness as well. The time of being in a group for social reasons, I hope, ends in high school. By the time you’re in college, you’re doing this because of the music and not the social aspect.
What advice do you have for new or prospective musicians?
We have a philosophy in the way that we approach Wind Orchestra that is taken from a Japanese phrase called “Ichi-go ichi-e”: For the first time and the last time. When you walk in the door, you are coming in to do it for the very first time, but you are also coming in with the idea that this could be the last time that you actually get to do it, so everything counts. I think that within any student’s experience there’s a sense of “I’m in a developmental process and this is the next day, so I really don’t need to do that.” People could look at the experience and think “Wow! This is the first time I get to play this piece,” and “Oh my, I will never get to play this piece again so I better make this count.” That’s the approach that we like to advocate for the students and in the band as they work on things. It has its best payoff when the seniors leave because if the seniors have really subscribed to this, they are OK with leaving. Every day has been like their last day.
What is your favorite class to teach?
Since I have to pick one, I’ll say Instrumental Conducting and Techniques (MUS 3100). It is the class that allows me to be the most helpful to the students. It’s kind of like a mini senior project. They have to use their ear training skills, their music theory skills, and their musicianship. I help them put it all together as they move from one side of the music stand to another. We have a lot of fun in there.
People ask me “What’s your instrument?” and while I played tuba, I haven’t really played professionally for a significant amount of time. All my degrees are in conducting and when I sit down to practice, I practice conducting. When I study music, I study scores so I do not really play an instrument. It’s a funny question — “What do you play?” I play the baton.
What are some hobbies that some students may not think you do?
It won’t be the baseball and sports as the students know that, even though that is a large part outside of music. I do like sailing. My son has a sailboat and we have recently gotten into it as a family. It is a lot of fun.
— Interview by William Dowell ’22; Photography by Jenna Link ’22