An Interview with Ramon Ricker: Musician and Music Issues

Aug 26, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Ramon Ricker is Professor Emeritus of Saxophone, Interim Director of the Institute for Music Leadership, and Senior Associate Dean for Professional Studies (retired) at the Eastman School of Music.  As a senior administrator at Eastman, he was instrumental in shaping Eastman’s Institute for Music Leadership and its many initiatives including the Arts Leadership Program and its courses in entrepreneurship, careers, leadership, performance, contemporary orchestral issues, and musician’s injury prevention and rehabilitation; its Center for Music Innovation and Engagement, which helps student inventions and ideas become realities; the Office of Careers and Professional Development; and the Orchestra Musician Forum with its website Polyphonic.org and the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research.

Ray holds a bachelor’s degree in clarinet from the University of Denver, a master’s degree in woodwind performance from Michigan State University, and a doctorate in music education and clarinet from the Eastman School. He joined the Eastman faculty in 1971 in a part-time position and became full-time in 1973. He was chair of the Department of Winds, Brass, and Percussion from 1989 to 1998 and chair of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media from 2000-2001. His relationship with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra first began as a clarinet soloist in 1972, and he won a position as a member of the clarinet section a year later. From 1997-2005 he served on the RPO’s Board of Directors.

Throughout his career Ray has enjoyed performing a wide variety of music on both clarinet and saxophone that has included both classical and jazz. This is reflected in the careers of his students who have taken diverse paths. Some are successful public school music teachers while others comprise a diverse who’s who in the professional saxophone world that includes positions in Broadway pit orchestras and military bands as well as traveling road bands (Basie, Herman, Rich), small jazz groups (Corea, Hubbard) and pop and contemporary ensembles (Steely Dan and Philip Glass). His student jazz group Saxology won DB Awards from Downbeat Magazine every time it entered—best collegiate small group three times and outstanding performance twice.Of the 139 saxophone students in Ray’s studio during his tenure, 46 currently hold college saxophone teaching positions.

An endorsing artist for Conn-Selmer instruments, he has written books on jazz improvisation and saxophone technique, and contracted and performed on hundreds of television commercials and program themes that have aired on NBC, ABC, Cinemax, HBO, and Arts and Entertainment. His latest book, Lessons From a Street-Wise Professor: What You Won’t Learn at Most Music Schools, was honored as a finalist in the Business: Entrepreneurship and Small Business category of the 2012 USA Best Book Awards, sponsored by USA Book News.

1) First of all, what got you interested in music?

I first started piano lessons at around age five or six. My mother taught lessons in our home and it was natural for her to give them to me too. It was low pressure—just having fun. I read music but played mainly by ear.  I wasn’t a child prodigy by any means. I just played little tunes in the book that we used. When I began clarinet at about age 10, I took to it very well. When you are good at something and have positive experiences it spurs you on to work even more at it. That’s what happened to me. I practiced and received positive feedback and attention. By the time I was a high school junior I new I wanted to make music a career.

2) How do you remain fresh and vital after all these years?

The great thing about music is that it’s possible to build a career around your individual strengths and interests. The operative word here is “career” as opposed to “job.” As I say in my book, “A career is the pursuit of a lifelong ambition or the general course of progression toward lifelong goals,” as opposed to a job “that is an activity through which an individual can earn money. It is a regular activity in exchange for payment.” A career is not just about making money. It is a piece of the puzzle that makes you, you. Sorry for the lofty talk here, but if you can have an inspiring and rewarding career, you will never be bored. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do that.

3) How do you personally go about teaching composing and arranging? What are the basic skills?

Well, I’ve never taught composition or arranging, but I do have many published works out there, and was fortunate to be able to study with Rayburn Wright, a renowned Eastman professor. To me there are two major elements at play here. First you have to hear something in your head, and secondly you have to have some skills to translate what you hear onto paper, for others to play. Exposure to and critical listening to music is a must. The more you can figure out, on your own, what is going on in the music you are drawn to, the deeper you can get into it. It boils down to developing vocabulary. The more music you experience and understand, the more sophisticated your method of musical communication can be. But don’t wait until you think you are 100% ready to say something. You’ll never start. Get some music down on paper and then fine-tune and edit–learn by doing.

4) Clarinet vs. Saxophone—what are the good elements of each and which would you encourage a beginning student to study or master?

I would encourage a beginning student to study the instrument that they are drawn to. For a young student whose hands are small the clarinet has this “problem” of covering the holes and “the break” when going to the higher register. The saxophone has holes that are too large to be covered by a human’s fingers so a plateau system is used. Great, that makes the saxophone “easier to play” for a beginner, but things have a way of evening out.  I suppose some instruments are more difficult to play than others, but in reality at the highest levels of performance, everything is difficult.

Personally, I prefer to play “classical” music on clarinet and jazz on saxophone. It’s what I was brought up doing.

5) Music theory and transposition- in this day of electronics and computers- how integral are these two skills?

They are still very important. If you are playing tenor saxophone and someone hands you an alto part to play you can’t fire up the computer to bail you out. You have to know to move everything up a P4. Students should also be comfortable reading bass clef (if they normally read treble clef.) When I was studying flute I would play the Bach Cello Suites by reading from the score (which was written in bass clef).

6) For 8 summers, you performed and assisted in Germany. What are the challenges that a musician faces in another country (other than language)?

When you work in another country you have to be mindful of the customs and traditions of that country. I always have tried to really get into the culture of where ever I have traveled. If you are willing to adapt the mindset of your hosts, you will connect with them. You will make friends and be asked back.

The first time I taught a workshop in France I prepared as best I could by brushing up on my high school French. I got by, but I realized that to really be effective I’d have to be more comfortable with the language, so when I returned to the U.S. I found a tutor and set up weekly lessons. I was asked back the following year and this time I had to do evaluations of the students in their final exams. I was able to write comments in French. That interest in learning the language kept me going to the point that a couple of years later I was invited to a conference in France that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the invention of the saxophone. I delivered a paper in French and played a recital. In Germany most young persons speak some English, so knowledge of German is not so critical. But again, you will connect with your hosts if you make an attempt at the language.

7) How versatile do musicians have to be today? How many different forms or types of music do they have to be able to perform?

Versatility and adaptability are the keys to success in music. The more styles with which you are familiar the more options you have, and that boils down to the more employable you are.

8) Let’s talk jazz and improvisation. How difficult is it to actually teach improvisation and to do it well?

In the past 50 years the study of jazz improvisation has moved from the clubs and into the educational curriculum. What was once thought of as a mystical talent that jazz musicians had is now recognized as very teachable. The good news is that virtually the entire history of jazz has been recorded and is accessible. Improvising is like speaking a language, and if the speaker is to be believed, the most important element is the proper accent (read: style). If a student takes the Charlie Parker Omnibook, for example, and learns the transcriptions solely by reading them as notated, the result will not sound like jazz–guaranteed. But if he/she listens to the recording and tries to emulate the phrasing and nuance of the soloist and uses the book as an aid or better yet learns the solo by ear, the result will be a much more believable jazz style.

The second part of your question, “teaching it well.” We all know that there are are good and bad teachers just like there are good and bad plumbers or stockbrokers. What interested students must do is to find a teacher who improvises. It’s also useful if they have some piano skills, no matter what their primary instrument is. This way they can demonstrate just more than a single line.

9) Now- orchestral performance- what are the instructional issues and the problems in pedagogy?

I’m not the right person to answer this question even though I have played in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for 40 years and led several jazz groups at the Eastman School. But I would guess that a good college or university conductor would try to teach or convey good instrumental techniques that are transferrable to other similar pieces.  For example, the interpretation of a Mozart symphony is different than one by Mahler. While still in college very few students will have the opportunity to play all the Beethoven symphonies, (just to use them as an example), but maybe that’s not a bad thing. If the student has played one, say number 6, the Pastoral, lots of transferrable experiences are here to transfer to other Beethoven symphonies and other music from that period.

10) You have a book ” Lessons from a Street Wise Professor- What You Won’t Learn at Most Music Schools “. What prompted that book and what would musicians find in it?

The book is a compilation of things I’ve learned by being an active professional musician playing a wide variety of music for over 50 years. Very early on I realized that it takes more than being an excellent performer and knowing something about music to be successful. It takes entrepreneurial thinking and over the years I tried to impart that in my students and to my class Entrepreneurial Thinking. So, my book is a summation of what I’ve learned over the past 50–some years as a professional. Young professionals will probably learn much of this material by in their first 5-10 years in the business, but why wait and travel down some blind alleys. It’s my hope that my book will help students bridge the Ivory Tower and the Real World, and find success in the music world.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

Well, you didn’t ask me what instrument brands I play or what my mouthpiece/reed setups are for saxophone and clarinet.  Thanks for that. Nice talking with you.

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