In his typical witty fashion, Ray Sprague explains with a smile that he'll be "riding off into the sunrise--not the sunset!" as he retires from teaching at Davidson College.
With time on his hands following 12 years as Professor of Music and Choral Director at Davidson, Sprague plans to dust off his chops on the tennis court, the golf course and the piano keyboard. He'll also spend more time communing with nature in his beloved Colorado. Beyond that, he said, "Probably something I've never thought of will happen. It's an adventure!"
Serendipity has worked nicely for him thus far, so he's betting the streak might continue.
Raised in the small New Hampshire town of Hillsboro--known primarily as the birthplace of President Franklin Pierce--Sprague was eager for a larger stage and life off the farm. He enrolled at Williams College, and gained a lifelong admiration there for liberal arts studies. Williams also nurtured his love of choral music. Sprague had begun singing in school choirs in junior high, and sang in high school and with two choirs at Williams.
He envisioned a career teaching music and coaching sports at a private school, and did just that in his first job, which was at the Albuquerque Boys Academy in New Mexico. That experience instilled in him a desire to teach at a collegiate level, which drove him back to school for the required graduate degree. Sprague earned a master's degree at the University of New Mexico, and enrolled at the University of Colorado in musicology to earn a doctoral degree. He focused on the academic side of the profession for his first year, but was uncomfortable about the "publish or perish" imperative of collegiate teaching. So he pursued instead a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, which allowed him to focus on performance rather than publication. "Though I loved studying music, I loved performance more," he explained.
He taught and directed choirs at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., for seven years, then at the University of New Orleans for 14 more. He decided to leave New Orleans in part to escape a faculty colleague who imposed ideas about choral singing that he couldn't accept. He applied for an advertised position at Davidson on a whim before he knew much at all about the college, and was surprised when he was invited for an interview. That sent him to collegiate guide books, and he was impressed at what he found in them. "I got nervous looking at the student SAT scores and realizing most of them were brighter than me!" he recalled.
His first three years at Davidson were spent in the music department's section of Cunningham Fine Arts Building. But the college had committed to renovate the former College Union building for the music program, and Sprague had the pleasant opportunity of offering advice about its design, and then teaching in the new Sloan Music Center for his final few years at Davidson.
When he came to Davidson Sprague inherited two vocal ensembles--the Chamber Singers and the Concert Choir. The smaller Chamber Singers provided talented students with more challenging work. But Chamber Singers who also wanted to perform with the Concert Choir were faced with four rehearsals per week -- two for each ensemble -- and that was a disincentive for some students concerned about finding enough time for study.
To address the situation, Sprague proposed an expanded Concert Choir of singers and orchestral players. The new Concert Choir would tackle large-scale classical pieces that neither college ensemble was large enough to stage, and provide student singers the opportunity to perform with an orchestra. Because it could accommodate almost 100 singers, the Concert Choir also had room for talented faculty and community singers who wanted to join.
As it has evolved since its founding in 2007, the Concert Choir rehearses weekly for the duration of a semester, totaling about 15 rehearsals. Paid members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and professional soloists then join the singers for a single public performance in Duke Family Performance Hall.
The Concert Choir has filled the hall since that time with 10 of the grandest classical choral pieces of all time, beginning with Handel's "Messiah." They have also performed Brahm's "Requiem," Mozart's "Requiem," Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem," Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna" and Haydn's "Creation."
"It's been my responsibility and delight to show the singers something they haven't seen before," he said. "We could sing the Messiah every year, and the audience and musicians would enjoy it. But I'm foremost a teacher, and have sought to give them new and challenging musical experiences."
For his swan song, Sprague selected Bach's technically difficult "B-Minor Mass" as this spring's offering. "It's a very difficult piece, normally done at a professional or conservatory level," Sprague said. "But I've always loved it, and it's been on my bucket list for a long time. It's an incredible piece for the singers."
Sprague asserts that the experiment with a Concert Choir has been a success. Davidson "civilian" choristers enjoy the contact with students, and by rejoining the chorus every year community members provide consistent talent and continuity for each semester's piece.
Sprague is thankful to the college administration for programmatic and financial support for the Concert Choir. He's satisfied that Davidson's choral program has been improved through his efforts, and is optimistic that the trend will continue. "One reason I'm retiring is so that we can get someone with lots of energy to pick up the torch and run with it," he said. "I think I've built a good program here, and hope someone can take it further."
But some of his most memorable moments as Davidson's choral leader have come through performances with the student-only ensembles. The Chorale took a holiday performance trip to Prague, Salzburg and Vienna in 2010-11, and the Chamber Singers and Concert Choir were part of a large chorus that Sprague directed in Carnegie Hall in 2006. He also enjoyed winter break performance trips with the Chamber Singers. "Colleagues at other schools are always shocked to hear that we conducted those trips without chaperones," he noted. "But with the Honor Code, and our students, we never had a problem." One of his fondest retirement dreams would be leading a group of choral alumni on a performance trip to Europe.
Davidson got a "two-fer" in hiring Sprague because his spouse, Kathie Turner, had a doctoral degree in communication studies, and became founding professor of the college's communication studies program. Turner also shares her husband's love of singing, and performs with the Concert Choir. The two have also collaborated on presentations at academic conferences. One concerned the use of popular music in the television show "Miami Vice," and another discussed the use of classical music in television advertisements.
Sprague's musical tastes are eclectic, and not limited to the classical works he most often teaches and performs. He loves the rock music that was the soundtrack of his early adult years, and says Harry Chapin's blend of beautiful tunes and dark, personal lyrics always stirs his soul. His iPod playlists include extensive cuts from the group Yes.
"Anything that moves you to think and feel has potential to be great music," Sprague said. But he's not sure that includes rap and hip-hop. "I understand the visceral appeal, but it seems to me to desensitize the listener. I need something with a little more intellectual meat on the bones."
On the other hand, he admits, "In every era there was music that made people uncomfortable. Beethoven made people uncomfortable! Maybe I just don't understand it."
He said his job as a teacher has been helping students understand the cultural, historical and musical context of classical music. He said, "All music is about human beings, and I don't think the emotions and concerns of the species have changed much throughout history. In class I try to help students examine how a composer's music makes them feel, and the technical musical form used to create that feeling."
Experience in the classroom has taught him that a little outrageous behavior goes a long way toward capturing the attention of students. Religiously wearing cowboy boots has helped in that regard. Sprague began wearing boots as a graduate student in Colorado, and found they kept his feet dry in New Orleans's frequent rain storms. He has a pair of black boots to wear in performance with his tuxedo, and a closet at home that holds 15 pairs from which he can choose.
Sprague says he will miss the classroom as dearly as the conductor's podium. He has loved teaching, and says he still spends two or three hours preparing for each class. "A big part of learning to be a better teacher has been learning what not to teach," he said. "There's just so much out there that you can't possibly fit it into a single semester, and students can't possibly absorb it all. You're constantly paring down, continually trying to refine what you want students to learn. I look back at my early lectures and they seem terribly cluttered. No wonder students sometimes didn't get the point!"
He's been surprised and humbled recently over the fuss people are making about his retirement. The recent Bach performance in Duke Family Performance Hall concluded with an onstage tribute to him, and members of the chorus several days later staged a surprise party. "I was just another teacher at Davidson having fun doing their job," he said. "What a great place to be!"