Ryan James Dirlam

What Would Life Be Without Change?

What Would Life Be Without Change?


By Dr. Marchéta Williams, Director Visual and Performing Arts

CHANGE, TO MAKE different, in some particular way. Change to give a different position, course, or direction. Change, to undergo transformation. 

Change is often accompanied by new. In the case of Madera, new school, new teachers, and new to Madera. 

Madera Unified has been undergoing big changes for some time now. A new high school, new middle school and many new teachers to fill positions in those schools.

Ryan James Dirlam, new music teacher at the new Matilda Torres High School, has been a part of one of those changes. He is known as Ryan. What’s in a name? In Ryan’s family, all the men have the middle name James, with their first name beginning with R and the last name Dirlam. Pretty cool, I thought. FYI, he has never used the initials “RJ.” Ryan’s family, originally from Mountain View, decided to move to Santa Maria, “Right after they saw the piano moving during an earthquake.”

I asked Ryan how he got involved in music. “Music was a huge part of the household.” His parents met at Cal Poly, where they were both members of the “Polyphonics Choir.” “They started talking to one another at a Disneyland Concert. That’s why Disneyland has always been a huge part of my life. They both played guitar, my mom played piano.” Ryan’s mother minored in music and was able to secure a position as an elementary music teacher at the school where Ryan attended, and became his general music teacher.

Students often become involved in music through school, church or both. Students join band for all types of reasons but Ryan joined the band (different music teacher) in 4th grade because he was told by his band teacher that clarinet reeds came in “chocolate flavor.” He played for only a month, due to an inattentive band teacher.

Through Ryan’s involvement in Youth Band at his church, “Figured out percussion was fun,” having studied briefly with professional percussionist, Curt Bisquera, little did he know at the time. By the way, noted percussionist, Curt Bisquera, has played with such greats as Paula Abdul, Celine Dion, Elton John, Mick Jagger, soundtracks for “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Despicable Me”, and others. “Being around a great percussionist, I picked up a lot from him without him necessarily telling me what to do.”

Playing percussion sparked a love for percussion for Ryan, “A natural understanding, how to create grooves. That changed everything for me.” From there, he began private drum set lessons, joined the school band again in seventh grade, became drum major in 8th grade and a member of the drumline in high school.

More changes continued for Ryan, in 10th grade. Through an acquaintance of his father, Ryan was given an opportunity to play in the San Luis Obispo Wind Orchestra, where he was exposed to advanced literature, and learned much from the percussion section leader. Later taking private lessons from that percussion section leader, he received a scholarship which he used to purchase percussion equipment.

In the spirit of “Change” always being a constant, Ryan was to experience other changes his junior and senior year of high school. Through a series of circumstances, he lost his band director. This ultimately led to his mother accepting the substitute band director position, at his high school, his senior year. I should mention, she was cajoled by Ryan, a pretty extraordinary feat, taking into account that she had never been a member of a band. She was however a cheerleader so she had at least seen a band, on a football field. Together they ran the program. Ryan realized, “If I can help run this band as a high school senior, I can run a band in the future, with training.”

By the way, his mother is currently the band director at one of the newer high schools in that district. She checks in with Ryan regularly, sees him at the state music conferences, and is very happy with Ryan’s current situation in Madera.

Ryan’s high school program was about 50 band students in a high school of 2400 students. He believes that the band program was small because the music program was not highly valued in the area. “You can’t have a strong high school program unless you have a strong middle school program. And you can’t have a strong middle school program if you don’t have the solid foundation of an elementary program. If anything is lacking in there, you’re going to have a weak house every time.” Go Madera! We have all of that in place?

Ryan graduated from Fresno State and became a band director. He began his teaching career in Firebaugh, built the music program there to include: 4-12 grade music which led to two levels of band, choir, percussion ensemble, high school music theory, and Mariachi. Although building the program was challenging, he made one promise to his students that first year. “Every year you give to the band program, it will be better than the year before. What was really cool was to be there for eight years and every year to see the district and the program all progressing. There were no regressions. We started at 435 students one teacher, to four teachers, 1200 students, a first Superior Rating and a Unanimous Superior rating for Wind Ensemble both in 2021. He counts this as his biggest accomplishment as a music teacher thus far. 

I guess I should mention, Ryan currently has five former students studying Music Education at Fresno State. Not bad for a music teacher, early in his career. “It is crazy to think, if I had not taken that job, nine years ago, those five students might not have found band and gone on to teach Music Ed., and to go on to teach whatever students they are going to make an impact on.”

Favorite part of the job?

“I always really enjoyed the feeling on a bus, right after we did a show. There’s this feeling of accomplishment and group like achievement to where you know, all of these hours you put in class, all of these hours you put in after school, the drama that came from the season, the great things that happened along the way, you have this sense of pride, once you’re done with it. You got back on the bus, whether or not you did well with an award, you know that you had a good show that was better than last week’s. We beat our own score from last week and that’s what mattered. We improved from our prior selves. When kids are happy about that accomplishment and being a better version of themselves than they were earlier, that feels like I’ve done everything. That feels like, we’re making you (the kids) into good people. And that’s a skill you can take on with you in life, whether you do music or not. Even if you didn’t get the promotion, even if you didn’t get the job, you know that you are a better version of yourself now than you were last week. And that’s the big win.”


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