The spring semester was over. Students had moved off campus and results for final exams had come in. The Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Music, however, still had some major news they needed to announce. Dr. Gary Ciepluch, director of bands, leader of CWRU Symphonic Winds and University Circle Wind Ensemble (Wind Ensemble), founder of the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony (CYWS) in conjunction with the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) and associate professor at CWRU for 28 years, was retiring.
The email went out on July 13, twelve days after Ciepluch’s actual retirement, which took effect on July 1. It was sent from Dr. David J. Rothenberg, associate professor and chair of the Department of Music, to all students in the music department, as well as all students who had participated in a music department led ensemble, a group that includes many from CIM and non-music majors at CWRU. And it came as a massive shock to this community of music students in and around Cleveland, who opened up their email that morning to find a message from the head of the music department with the simple subject line “Ciepluch Retirement.”
Perhaps it was because Ciepluch had considered retirement so often in previous years, without anything ever coming to fruition. Perhaps it was because the announcement came after the academic year was over, after most students had already moved on to their summer homes, jobs and internships. Or perhaps it was because Ciepluch was so invested, so passionate about what he did, that it seemed impossible for him to ever leave. But for whatever reason, for most of Ciepluch’s students, it was a surprise and a disappointment to hear that he had retired and would not be returning for the fall semester.
Ciepluch had been considering retirement for about eight years before he and his wife Marion finally took the plunge this summer, moving permanently into their family home overlooking Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. When speaking about the rumors “that always go through the music department,” Sophia Senderak, fourth-year music major and French horn player said, “at a certain point, you just stop expecting anything concrete to happen…. I was almost expecting another email, saying ‘just kidding!’”
When asked about his decision to retire, however, Ciepluch said, “Every year it was more and more imminent that it was coming… When it turned out that Marion decided, you know what, it’s time to live in our house. I was excited that someone was willing to make a decision.”
The moment his wife retired from teaching for good was the moment he knew it was time to finally retire, too.
“She followed me to six places throughout our life, Case being the last,” Ciepluch said. “And I always joked, you know, when you’re ready to go home, it’s my turn to follow you. So that kind of set the wheels in motion.”
The reason there was no announcement to the students at the end of the academic year was because at that point, Ciepluch himself hadn’t announced his retirement, to the university or to anyone else.
“Even in June,” Ciepluch said, “I was thinking, you know, maybe. We have until June 30 to sign our contracts. The main thing was that at the end of the year I had three major events going on: I had my auditions for the Youth Wind Symphony…I had this big concert on May 21 with Ryan Anthony, and we had our twelfth trip to Europe, our International Concert Tour [with CWYS]. And it got to the point where I didn’t want those events to be about me.”
Ciepluch ultimately announced his retirement at the end of June, first privately to his staff at the end of the CYWS’ 12th Annual International Concert Tour, after their farewell dinner. Then almost immediately after that, he told the university via an international phone call.
What’s Next for the Music Department?
The first question on many students’ minds after hearing about Ciepluch’s retirement in July was about the future of the two ensembles Ciepluch led, CWRU Symphonic Winds and Wind Ensemble.
Dr. Rothenberg confirmed that Dr. Ryan Scherber, who took charge of CWRU Symphonic Winds during Ciepluch’s semester-long sabbatical in the fall of 2015, would be directing the band again in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017. Because Scherber has already led the band, Rothenberg commented, “He has the experience…. There’s not really another faculty member who would have been able to take that on given all the other responsibilities.”
Though the music department has CWRU Symphonic Winds covered Wind Ensemble—the more popular of the two bands—will be unavailable to students in the upcoming academic year, and perhaps for a few years after that.
According to Rothenberg, it’s the joint nature of the program that makes it difficult to find a replacement director for Wind Ensemble. In addition to being one of the more popular bands at CWRU, Wind Ensemble was also the biggest single ensemble composed of both CIM and CWRU students.
Because the program was led in collaboration with CIM, Rothenberg noted, “It would really take some time and effort and joint work to hire someone for that. There was no way to make it work for the coming year with Dr. Ciepluch’s retirement.”
“It’s more of a bummer than an issue,” Senderak commented, explaining that participation in the Wind Ensemble is not a required part of a music major’s education. But, she continued, “it’s sad to see the program go, because it’s good to connect with CIM students.”
Rothenberg agrees that the interaction between CIM and CWRU students is one of the strengths of the CWRU music program, but says that despite losing Wind Ensemble, there are still many ways in which the two groups of students can learn from each other. Music history and music theory classes, as well as a couple of studio classes, are still comprised of both CIM and CWRU students. Some ensembles still exist for them to play together, as well.
Though the music department hopes to hire new professors within the next couple of years that will find a way to bring their own interests and passions to students, finding a replacement for Dr. Ciepluch is undeniably impossible. Not only because of the day to day duties he performed that now need to fulfilled by other members of the faculty, but because of the programs he built and the developments he enacted within the department over the course of his time at CWRU.
“When someone’s been a member of the faculty for 20 plus years,” Rothenberg said, “it’s always difficult to find a successor, to find someone to fill his shoes.”
Even with the difficulties they will face when it comes to maintaining the programs Ciepluch built, the music department is undoubtedly united, in spite of distance, specialty or even employment status. Though Rothenberg and Ciepluch were questioned independently about what they hope to see the music department achieve in the next few years, they both said the exact same thing.
“I’d like us to continue to see us draw the excellent students that we’re getting,” Rothenberg said. “I’m hoping to see us grow into the Maltz Performing Arts Center. As we get used to the space, I’m hoping we’ll have some more ambitious programs over there…. I’d like to see our facilities match our program.”
Ciepluch, similarly, said he hoped that the university remained invested both in the present undergraduate population and in continuing to attract prospective music majors. Priority number one, though, is really to “embrace the new performing arts center.”
I hope that the university and the music department look at this building and understand they have one of the greatest gifts in the world right there,” Ciepluch said. “We finally have a home that can just be such a great model of musical excellence and attraction.”
Making Music with Ciepluch
Both students and faculty remember Ciepluch as a man who was not only extraordinarily passionate about the making of music, but also dedicated to his students above all else. Senderak and second-year master’s student Zach Myones recall Ciepluch’s distinct conducting style from their time in his ensembles.
“He’s very big on getting the feeling of the music right as opposed to just the notes,” Senderak said. She continued, laughing a little, “He always takes breaks. He’ll tell us some story about something that maybe is related or maybe not so related.”
“I have a really funny memory from when he was conducting Symphonic Winds on a Latin piece about four years ago,” Myones said. “He got so into the music that he started doing a salsa dance on the podium while still conducting.”
This type of anecdote is typical of Ciepluch. It’s clear from his students’ recollections of him that he was not simply a conductor of music, but also a passionate musician and creator in and of himself.
When asked about what drew him to music in the first place, he said, “Unless you do it … it’s almost like saying, ‘What is love?’ Could you describe love? When you’re playing with a group of people and everything comes together, it’s a feeling inside that you cannot describe…. I think that’s why people know that even though the chances of making a living in the arts aren’t great, it’s such an attraction that they’re willing to give it a shot.”
Having taught at CWRU and in Cleveland for 28 years, Ciepluch was surrounded by a community of former and current students, all of whom remember him not only as a conductor, but also as a professor, a boss and an artistic confidant. Ciepluch was their teacher, yes, but also their travel companion, their advisor and their friend.
Those CYWS staff members, the ones who were the first ones to hear that Dr. Ciepluch was retiring—they were almost all former students, musicians who had themselves been in CYWS in high school, at CWRU as undergraduates or in the CWRU graduate music education program. In some cases, they were even students at all three institutions, people Ciepluch had known going on 10 or more years.
“I’ve had 12,000 students,” he continued, “and I’ve got a story for every one of them. Do you have, like, a million hours?”
For as many stories as Dr. Ciepluch has about his students, however, they each have at least one more about him. In the week after his retirement, Ciepluch received over 2,000 emails from former students all over the country, each reflecting on their time at CWYS, CIM or CWRU, or as Dr. Ciepluch puts it, “Our time together.”
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I’m still not through all of them. I’m trying to go through a hundred a day cause it takes hours—of people just, just … it was really cool.”
When he wasn’t conducting ensembles or teaching classes, Ciepluch spent most of his time in the music department organizing concerts.
From the annual triple threat concert in Severance Hall that included CWRU Symphonic Winds, the Wind Ensemble and Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony, to the annual “Windi and Jazzi” concert put on in the winter and featuring popular music, costumes and musical jokes, none of Ciepluch’s endeavors ever failed to surpass expectations. And that’s not even taking into account the international concerts Ciepluch performed with the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony over the course of 12 years of travel in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
In addition to working with musicians at CWRU and in Cleveland, Ciepluch also frequently invited guest soloists, guest conductors and guest composers to make their own music, often showcasing their performances in the world-renowned Severance Hall. One such event took place this past May—the “big concert,” Ciepluch mentioned—with Ryan Anthony, a former CIM student and now Principal Trumpet of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Anthony, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2012, later started the Ryan Anthony Foundation in 2014, a non-profit organization founded to manage and support a series of concerts and events called “Cancer Blows.”
If you ask if the “Cancer Blows” concert was his favorite, however, you’ll get the same answer every time. It always comes back down to the music. To the people.
“Everybody always says, ‘What’s the best band you’ve ever conducted?’” Ciepluch said. “It’s the band I’m with right now…. Living in the moment is what makes music so special, because that’s what music is, you’re living, you’re creating art in the moment. And once it’s done, it’s done, and you can reflect and you can enjoy and you can listen, but it’s not even close to the making of music. And you can’t do that without people.”
The Next Step
When asked if he thinks his retirement will truly hit him when the school year starts back up again, Ciepluch said, “It has hit me every day…. There’s nothing I love more than being on the podium and conducting…. The concert for Ryan, for example, those are things I knew once I would leave I would never get back…. So yes, I think about it every single day, with every emotion you can imagine: happy, sad, fondness, regret.”
So what’s next for Ciepluch?
“For many many years I haven’t really been able to see my kids as much as I want because I’m in town,” he said. “I’ve got one in Texas and one in Los Angeles, and we just had our first granddaughter in May, so this’ll give us the freedom now to do things that we haven’t been able to do since I started teaching when I was 22 years old.”
In addition to spending time with his family, Ciepluch plans on traveling, doing projects around the house and guest conducting.
Ultimately, he said, “We have a beautiful, beautiful home here, overlooking Lake Michigan, and for the last eight years, it’s sat empty most of the time. So just to sit down and catch our breath, I think that’s what we’re most excited about.”