It’s a slog. You think you’re going to get rich and famous right away and with little effort. That’s ridiculous. It will take a hundred times as long and take five hundred times as much work as you want to believe.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barron Ryan.
Pianist, composer, author and recording artist Barron Ryan endeavors to fill the void of funk, pop, and country-inspired classical music. Smithsonian Magazine recognized him as a Top 10 Innovator for his capacity to communicate a story through music. Using the lyrics from a songwriter who died six years before Barron was born, Barron composed a love song, Honey, If It Wasn’t for You; the story of that song is the basis for his first book.
Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?
Most six year-olds don’t present their own piano recitals, but that didn’t stop me. With a professional pianist as a father and a music teacher as a mother, I was steeped in music from the time I was born.
So once I had a couple years of piano lessons under my belt, it was high time to start demonstrating my skills. Programs were written with crayon on construction paper. Aisles were created by arranging pens on the living room carpet. A spotlight was set up by clamping my father’s work light onto my mother’s coffee table.
My stage was set for a career in music. But I had a bit of growing up to do before turning pro.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
“I have thirteen year-old students with more repertoire than you.” If you hear this as an aspiring master’s degree candidate, it’s not a good sign.
I had been playing classical piano for a long time, but didn’t get serious about it until my junior year of high school. I knew I was behind my competition to get into elite music conservatories, but hoped that my work ethic and convincing musicality would persuade at least one professor to take me on. This was not to be.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that rejection was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to realize that I couldn’t use what I thought was the conventional career path for a concert pianist. Instead, I’d have to blaze my own trail.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Do your research. There’s a lot more to life as an artist than meets the eye, so iIt’s important to find out what that entails as early as possible.
So find someone who’s doing what you’d like to do, and ask difficult questions. ‘How did you turn your art from a hobby into a career?’ ‘What did you have to give up to make that happen?’ ‘What are the challenges involved that nobody else may know about?’
Doing what you love for a living is wonderful, but it comes at a cost. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be for the challenges that will inevitably come.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
My dad has easily been my biggest musical influence. I grew up listening to him practice, perform, and teach hundreds of piano students; I took piano lessons from him for thirteen years; and now we perform together in concerts across the country. Much of my ability to create and listen well comes from him.
So when I created an album of my favorite jazz pianists’ solos, I learned one of Dad’s arrangements as a way to honor him. He’s given me a sterling example of how to approach music with energy and diligence, share its joy with an audience, and most importantly, treat others with dignity and respect. If anyone has had a profound impact on my musical life, it’s Donald Ryan.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?
Music can bring beauty even to the deepest sorrow. It raises our spirits when they’re cast down, and comforts us when we mourn. Music offers hope, because it implicitly reminds us that there is still goodness in the world.
That’s the sort of music I strive to make, and I’m about to premiere a composition with high hopes of fulfilling that goal. My new musical work was commissioned in commemoration of an important but terrible event in my hometown’s history: the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The travesty saw citizens of Tulsa, OK turn their racial animus toward their neighbors, resulting in the burning of an entire neighborhood, the murder of dozens (or more) innocent victims, and the destruction of countless lives.
How does one bring beauty into such sorrow? First, by understanding. The first segment of my composition expresses grief with incisive poignance, showing listeners that their pain is felt. The middle segment offers a prayer, asking for peace despite the existence of such evil. The last segment is triumphant, showing the promise of what we can strive toward.
The name of this new composition is There Arises Light (in the Darkness), and it premieres on the very ground of Tulsa’s 1921 massacre in September of 2023.
Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
I struggled for a long time with why my work was worthwhile. If you asked me why I made music when I first started (at age 4), I might have said, “So people will clap for me.” In high school, the response might have been, “Because it’s fun.” A few years later: “So the audience feels good.” I was nearly there, but not quite.
If all went as planned, why would the audience feel better after I presented my work? It’s because they felt understood. They felt cared for. They felt loved.
As Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote (in my favorite quote below), beauty is an expression of love. Once I realized that, I became determined to discover and present whatever beauty I was most uniquely positioned for. It doesn’t matter if it’s composing a piece of music, singing a song, or writing a book. I just want the world to be more beautiful.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
Even though my life’s work is to present beauty to the world, far more beauty has been returned to me. I recently published my first book, called Honey, If It Wasn’t for You, and it came about only because a close friend trusted me to share it.
After two years of friendship, my friend, Linda, opened up to me about her late husband, Don. Don knew he would die earlier than most because of a genetic disease, but decided to get married, become a professional songwriter, and live to the fullest anyway. But Don’s life did end earlier than most, and he left boxes of his song lyrics behind.
Linda wondered, would I want to look in Don’s boxes? I did want to look at them, and ultimately put words to song lyrics that Don had written about his wife.
How many people would Linda entrust with this information? Still more than that, to whom would she give her blessing to share this intimate story and song with the world? I’m still in disbelief to have been privileged with this honor. The person who has most been impacted by my cause is me.
Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?
1. Express gratitude. Recognize the gifts you’ve received, and thank the giver.
2. Present the beauty you’re uniquely positioned for. You don’t need to make music or write books to offer beauty to the world. The best gifts come from those we’re closest to. What can you give to those closest to you?
3. Repeat. Don’t expect anything in return, either when you express gratitude or when you offer a gift. But you may be surprised by how full life can become when you’re thankful.
Why do you think music in particular has the power to create social change and create a positive impact on humanity?
Music is amazing because it conveys beauty across languages, cultures, and time. It speaks to an innate essence which we all share, and helps us all feel a little more gratitude. And I believe that the more gratitude we feel, the better off we’ll all be.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?
1. It’s a slog. You think you’re going to get rich and famous right away and with little effort. That’s ridiculous. It will take a hundred times as long and take five hundred times as much work as you want to believe.
2. Think like a comic. Stand-up comedians have one goal: to make whoever is sitting in the audience laugh. Your goal should be similar, but instead of laughter, you want to evoke awe. People of all backgrounds and musical experience should feel a sense of wonder because of your work. How you do that is the hard part, but this next lesson should help.
3. Tell a story. People will find anything interesting if they hear a good enough story about it. So start practicing now. You’ll be terrible at first, but that’s okay. Learn from great storytellers and from your own mistakes, and you’ll be able to connect most any audience to the music you really want to make.
4. People will support you. Once you start getting good at evoking awe and telling stories, your followers will want to join the adventure. Give them the chance to come along, and when you need extra help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
5. Be grateful. Life is full of frustrations, and you’ll be tempted to become bitter. Don’t. Find reasons to give thanks. Music may be good for the world, but gratitude is even better.
You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
How much better would the world be if we shared our ideas? If the creations of artists are good for the world, what if we didn’t put limits on how the world could use them?
That’s the basis behind my choice not to copyright my work. To the degree that people will benefit from my creative output, I want them to use it. I hope that more artists will do the same.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
“Beauty is never ‘necessary,’ ‘functional,’ or ‘useful,’ and when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love.”
These words by Fr. Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World transformed my perspective of life. In our modern world, beauty doesn’t make sense. It takes extra effort, can’t be measured effectively, and always costs more money. So what’s the point?
The point is love. Beauty exists to show someone else that you care. In that light, I can hardly think of anything more worthwhile.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
For a long time, I told people that I wanted to become the Yo-Yo Ma of the piano. Yo-Yo plays classical music masterfully, but he’s not limited to that style. He also plays bluegrass, traditional Chinese music, and whatever you want to call his collaboration with Bobby McFerrin.
I state that goal less often now that I’ve articulated my own mission statement, but I still use Yo-Yo Ma as a worthy model. My whole approach to a creative career has been an effort to reverse engineer what he’s done. Would he appreciate how I’ve done? I’d love to ask.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!