Since he was seven years old, when he picked up his first clarinet, James Walker has been a passionate musician. Practicing every day, playing along with famous jazz musician Benny Goodman, and composing his earliest pieces made him the best young clarinetist in Milwaukee nine years later. He had planned to become an aeronautical engineer, but, in his words, "the clarinet took over."
As time passed, Walker played a variety of instruments just for the sake of learning them and moved toward composing and conducting. "As a conductor you have to be familiar with all the instruments," he noted. At 19, he was given his first competition band, a huge achievement for such a young age. He recently attended the 50th reunion of this band, finding most of its members still musically active. This early start to his career marks the very tip of a massive iceberg.
When he was 22, Walker moved east, and founded the Harvard Wind Ensemble in 1963. He worked for 10 years at Harvard, conducting the Freshman Glee Club and Harvard Chorus, as well as conducting the Chautauqua School of Music Symphony and at the New England Conservatory. It was during this time that Walker met Geneseo's current president Christopher Dahl, then a student. "He went on to sing all four years with the Harvard Glee Club, is a very good baritone and still loves to sing with the Geneseo Festival Chorus!"
Walker's career in the Geneseo music department began 36 years ago, when he set out to develop a modest orchestra. He recommended starting a string quartet to "teach, coach, and play as principles of the orchestra." Through his own hard work and passion for music, he has instilled the same sense of dedication in his students for decades.
Geneseo currently has a substantial orchestra and wind ensemble, and according to Walker, "the level at which they play has gone up in all areas of performance."
For a liberal arts school, such standards are rare and commendable. As the conductor pointed out, students cannot play for eight hours a day as they would in a conservatory. With physics exams and history papers, students have to strike a balance. Even so, from the teacher's perspective, "the performance level is very high." Sophomore Doug Cairns, a bassist in the orchestra, said, "Rehearsals are difficult, but they have to be to perform at the caliber we do."
In addition to the commitment of the conductor and his students, Walker noted that support from the administration allows Geneseo's music program to be out of traditional proportion to the school's size. Such whole-hearted dedication from all sides of the department led to its first large tour of China last May. After months spent planning dozens of details, arranging free time for faculty, and raising $41,000, the orchestra left for China two days after Commencement. Walker conducted the band at the Central Conservatory of Bejing and on the Great Wall of China.
In the 10 days the group was in China (or 12, depending on one's time zone perspective), they were led but not controlled by tour guides. Contrary to his expectations, Walker found that they were free to travel anywhere, and thus visited most of the major tourist sites in northern China. He was struck by the cultural differences everywhere he went. "The dishes were adventurous and diverse," he said, and the city traffic, though seemingly chaotic, was surprisingly functional. "The tour of China was an amazing experience," Cairns said, "and it was a thrill to share time with Dr. Walker outside of the classroom setting." The orchestra hopes to return to China in three years to explore the southern region.
This year, Walker has temporarily set aside conducting the Geneseo Symphonic Orchestra and Wind Ensemble to take a sabbatical to compose five new original pieces. He is "thinking up all sorts of diabolical pieces" for hours each day, he said. According to Walker, the art of composing requires as much creativity as it does self-criticism. As difficult as creating music can be, he said that throwing things out of a composition is the most important and challenging part of the process. "It's fun to hear a piece come into existence. It's a joy to sit down in concert and know that it is your song they're playing."
On Dec. 31, Walker will experience that pleasure with his piece "The Electric Alice," which will be premiered by the Dale Warland Singers. Another of his pieces will air on National Public Radio and PBS. Walker wrote this composition five years ago, and is honored not only that it has been recognized, but that it is being remembered so many years later.
James Walker is as accomplished as he is passionate, with an outstanding string of achievements and visible excitement in his eyes when talking about the music that reflects where these achievements came from.