Associate Tabernacle Choir Director Donald Ripplinger knows all about timing in music. But the timing referred to in a recent Church News interview had nothing to do with notes, measures or rhythms. It was about knowing when it's time to end one stage of life and move on to another.
After serving 20 years with one of the world's most highly acclaimed choirs, it is time, he said, to step down from the conductor's podium in the Tabernacle. He will do that Jan. 7, after he directs the choir in its weekly network broadcast, "Music and the Spoken Word."Brother Ripplinger, 68, began his affiliation with the Tabernacle Choir in 1975 on a part-time basis. "I had just been offered a position at BYU in the choral music education program," he said. "At the same time, President N. Eldon Tanner (then of the First Presidency) called me into his office and told me that I was to be associate director of the Tabernacle Choir. That call came out of the blue. But I think every person in the Church who is involved in choral music has aspirations at some time to be part of the Tabernacle Choir. I was no different in that regard. My acquaintance with Jerry (Jerold Ottley, Tabernacle Choir director) had been limited. We had spoken three or four times.
"In every responsibility I've had, I've always felt that if I could make a contribution and have an impact in some way that would be positive and significant in the lives of the people involved that's all I could ask," he said. "I've always known there would come a time to step aside and let someone else take over. The time has come for me to move aside and let Jerry and Craig Jessop (the other associate director) move the choir forward to the next level. The only thing I hope is that in the period of time I've spent with the choir I've made a contribution that is significant."
According to those who have been associated with Brother Ripplinger, he, indeed, has made a significant contribution. "Don's total contribution to the Tabernacle Choir is not known to the general public," Brother Ottley said. "His behind-the-scenes work and support have been a major shaping force in the choir's life, especially since he joined the staff full-time as associate director and administrative assistant five years ago. He has a special ability to cut through non-essential elements to the heart of a problem or project. Those of us close to the inner workings of the organization have felt his influence dramatically on a daily basis. One could not wish for a more loyal and cooperative colleague. He has become a dear friend who will be greatly missed, personally and professionally."
Expected to be in the audience on Jan. 7 for Brother Ripplinger's final turn conducting the choir broadcast, which originates in the Tabernacle at 9:30 a.m. (MST), are hundreds of people he has directed, including former members of the Tabernacle Choir and students he taught in public schools and universities during a 37-year-career as a music educator.
Also in the audience will be members of Brother Ripplinger's family. His wife, Myra, and their seven children and their families, for whom the Tabernacle Choir has been very much a part of their lives. Sister Ripplinger and four of their children have sung in the choir during his tenure as associate director: Jane R. Fjelsted and Shannon R. Shepherd are still members of the choir. Cary Ripplinger and Hilton Ripplinger are former members of the choir.
"Our other three children, were they close by, also would qualify musically to be members of the choir," Brother Ripplinger said. They are Rex Ripplinger and Lynne R. Smith, both of whom live in Roosevelt, Utah, and Curtis Ripplinger, who lives in Denver, Colo.
Music has always been a big part of the Ripplingers' home. "Myra has often said that she wonders if I had been a math teacher if our kids would be involved in math," he said. An accomplished pianist, he gave each child piano lessons for a year when he or she turned 10. "After that, if they wanted to continue with piano or another instrument, we would have them study with a different teacher," he said. "They all sing and have piano facility, and each plays at least one additional instrument. We have two violinists, a violist, a cellist, two French horn players and a trombonist."
He said while they aren't any sort of "Traveling Ripplinger Family Singers," some family members occasionally perform together, mostly in their wards or at other special functions. "We often involve our children's spouses, who are all musical. Two of them have degrees in music."
Brother Ripplinger can't remember when music wasn't part of his life, from the time he was growing up one of nine children in Ogden, Utah. "I had piano lessons when I was a boy," he said. "Dad sang in the ward choir and would take me with him to practice. I was involved in music in school, though it may not have been dominant part of my education.
"It was probably on my mission to Canada that I determined I would like to have some involvement in music. That decision was probably prompted by a call from the mission president to serve as the accompanist for a quartet that toured the mission, which had its headquarters in Toronto. I don't think I articulated it to myself at that time, but as I look back on that, and my elementary, junior high school and high school music experiences, each one just seemed to build upon the one prior to it. The decision finally came my first year at Weber College (now Weber State University). I was certainly old enough to decide. I was 23 before I even started to go to college, having served two years in the military and two years on a mission before I enrolled."
Soon after he returned home from his mission, he met Myra Fowler, a sister's friend, who was singing in a college choir. "Myra and I had our first date in March 1950; we married in September," he said.
At Weber, he decided he wanted to be involved in music as a teacher. He attended Weber College and Brigham Young University. After he received a bachelor's degree from BYU, he and his family moved to Beaver, Utah, where he taught briefly before moving to the Salt Lake area, where he taught eight years at Salt Lake's Olympus Junior High, and an additional eight years at Skyline High School. In the meantime, he received a master's degree and doctorate from the University of Utah.
During his career, he has been a guest conductor and clinician throughout the nation. He was associate professor of music, choral director, chairman of the graduate music faculty and director of music education at the University of Wisconsin-Steven's Point from 1970-1975.
For 15 years, Brother Ripplinger continued with his full-time work at BYU while serving as the choir's associate director. In 1990, he became the first associate director to serve full-time with the choir; he also became the organization's administrative assistant.
He figures some 14,000 students have been under his direction during his career as an educator in public schools and at universities where he has taught. With the Tabernacle Choir's policy of its members retiring after 20 years or upon reaching age 60, he figures several hundred more have been under his direction. He has a phenomenal memory for those who have been under his baton. He was in a store recently when a man approached him and asked, "Do you remember me?" Brother Ripplinger responded, "Certainly," and called him by name. "You were a 7th grader in Beaver, and I taught you trumpet and brought you to Provo and had you play for Dick Ballou because you had special ability."
Brother Ripplinger said, "It's funny how the memory came, just like that. I hadn't seen him since 1954. I remember most names, but those students change so much. I remember them on the third row as a student in junior high or high school, or in college. All of a sudden, it's 20, 30, 40 or 50 years later and they're totally different. You have to have a feeling of pride when you see students who have done well. There are a number who are directing college, high school and junior high school choirs. You feel the same about others who have gone on and been successful in other areas."
For his final turn conducting the Tabernacle Choir as associate director, Brother Ripplinger will have some former students seated not only in the audience behind him but also before him in the choir loft.
"I've known Don for nearly 30 years, first as my high school choral teacher, then as fellow composer and arranger, and now associate conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," said Thomas L. Durham, a professor of music at BYU.
"As a high school student in Don Ripplinger's concert choir, I could not wait to get to rehearsal. I knew I would be filled with the spirit when singing masterworks selected by someone as musical and capable as Don."
Brother Durham observed, "There are certain pieces in the choral repertoire that almost belong to Don – he has made them his own. When he conducts these pieces, I feel that no one understands the musical content better than he."
Tabernacle Choir member Ruth Stoddard met Brother Ripplinger when she was about 15. "My brother had him as a teacher in high school," she said. "I always looked forward to my senior year because he would then be my teacher. My senior year was his last year of teaching high school. He would always tell us to open our sound
just like a huge pipe organ.' On our graduation night, our Concert Choir sang for the ceremony. Afterward, several of my friends and I metDr. Ripp' in the hall. He gave each of us a hug and then said that he was so proud of us because we sounded like a "well-tuned pipe organ.' Little did I know that years later I would have the privilege of singing under his expert direction, accompanied by one of the world's greatest pipe organs. He will always be an inspiration to me."
He has been an inspiration for others as well. He has a drawer full of letters from throughout the world from people who have been touched by his work with the choir. He spoke of certain tours, such as to Eastern Europe and Russia in 1991, where people's tears have expressed what words could not. "I walked off the stage in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow," he said. "One of the women who was a caretaker backstage looked at me with tears in her eyes. She pointed to her heart and in very broken English said, `Your choir is from heaven. Those were angels singing.' Those kinds of experiences just come one after another, whether we're here in Salt Lake City or on tour.
"An old sea captain, who said he was a confirmed atheist, came to a broadcast a while ago with his daughter. He loved the choir. He had never heard the choir in person. After the broadcast he was reduced to tears. He couldn't even talk. He just shook hands and said, `Thank you.' "
Brother Ripplinger recognizes the choir for what it is – 325 individuals who serve as missionaries. "I've been convinced for years that the choir is an Elias – it's a forerunner," he said. "The mission of the choir is to go ahead and prepare the way and soften people's hearts, to open doors. People who are then ready will be prepared to hear the gospel when it comes. And even if they don't they've had a positive experience, and they're much more open to anything that is Church-related than they would have been prior to listening to the choir."