Pain is Part of the Process

Tulsa-based pianist Barron Ryan combines classical, jazz and improvisation, but he’s paid a physical price.

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Photo by Daniel Folkers

It’s a cliche, I guess – the idea that any artists who choose to go where their art takes them are, as a part of the package, destined to suffer both pain and rejection. And, like most cliches, it’s usually true.

Take Barron Ryan, for instance, a young Tulsa-based pianist who seems poised on the edge of a major breakthrough. His two CDs, The Masters’ Apprentice and Classical with Attitude (both available at barronryan.com), were, he says, actually inspired by rejection.

And then there was the pain, protracted and physical, which not only held up the recording of The Masters’ Apprentice for well over a year, but also could’ve put an end to his performing career.

After majoring in piano performance at the University of Oklahoma, “I had my heart set on going to some famous conservatory because I thought that’s what you needed to do to become a performing pianist,” Ryan says. “So I applied to Juilliard, Eastman, the Manhattan School of Music, the Mannes School of Music in New York. When I didn’t get an audition at any of them, I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m not too good at classical music.’”

At about that time, however, Ryan won the Oklahoma Israel Exchange’s 2011 Young Artists Competition, which sent him on a concert tour of Israel, where he was to perform classical programs.

“I didn’t want to play what I’d just gotten rejected for, so I came up with the concept of playing classical music that had jazz or ragtime influences already in it, like [compositions of] George Gershwin or William Bolcom,” he says. “I thought that was pretty cool because I was playing different music, and even if, at the time, I wasn’t as technically proficient as some of the other pianists my age, they couldn’t play rhythmic music like I could. I had the feel for blues, ragtime and jazz.

“So I picked some classical music that had jazz influences. But after I’d picked all of that music I was interested in learning, I still had some more program to fill [for the concerts]. Then, I realized I could go the other way. Instead of taking classical music that had ragtime or jazz influences in it, I could take jazz or ragtime music and make it somewhat classical by writing it down, codifying it and then re-performing it with those exact notes for probably the only other time since it had been originally recorded.”

The concerts were a success, and Ryan ended up using the first approach on his debut disc, 2013’s Classical with Attitude. Four years later, along came The Masters’ Apprentice, in which he pursued his second idea of re-creating songs that were originally improvised. As he points out, “Both of my first two albums were inspired by the rejections I got [from the conservatories], then the requirement to perform a full, classical concert program in Israel.”

He certainly didn’t cut himself any slack when he chose what he wanted to play on The Masters’ Apprentice. Selections include such complex jazz renditions as Fats Waller’s “California Shout,” Oscar Peterson’s “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Blues Etude,” and Art Tatum’s 1933 recording of “Tiger Rag.” The years between the release of this disc and Classical with Attitude speak convincingly about the overwhelming amount of time Ryan needed to get the songs right.

“To do a jazz transcription, you listen to a recording that was likely improvised and write down the notes as sheet music,” Ryan says. “I didn’t take a careful record of how long that took me, but I think for ‘Blues Etude,’ which is a 5-minute tune of moderate difficulty, I spent probably 25 or 30 hours transcribing it. There are 42 minutes worth of music [on The Masters’ Apprentice], and some of it is more difficult than that, so that would be 240-250 hours just to write the music down. Then I had to learn to play it, which took probably three to four times that.”

That’s when the pain came. He worked on re-creating Tatum’s “Tiger Rag,” a version he describes as “terribly difficult,” at a point he says, laughingly, “wasn’t the really, really hard part – just the really hard part.”

“On that tune, the quarter-note equals 360 beats per minute, so that means my left hand is traveling back and forth about a foot and a half at a rate of six times per second,” Ryan says. “To strike a black key – any of the keys are narrow enough, but the black keys are narrower than the whites – at that rate and play with any accuracy is just almost impossible.

“I didn’t know how to break it down. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just tense my arm, then I’ll learn it, and relax, and it’ll be fine.’ As we know now, that was a grave mistake.”

Indeed it was. Tensing up his arm led to tenosynovitis, a painful condition involving an inflamed tendon that takes months to heal properly. For Ryan, it took even longer than that.

“I got a shot for it the first time, and it felt great, so after four months I thought, ‘OK, I should be good to go now.’ So I tested it in practice and re-injured it.”

He ended up having to lay off most practices for a year and a half.

“There’s no telling how long you have to have the condition without it healing for it to become chronic,” Ryan says. “It’s certainly possible that would’ve happened if it hadn’t healed.”

But it did heal, and Ryan dodged what could’ve been a career-ending affliction. What’s more, he seems to have gotten “Tiger Rag” down, as documented in a remarkable YouTube video.

Ryan, however, begs to differ.

“Honestly, I’m still working on it,” he says.

These days, he’s appearing in concert around the country as a solo artist and with his father, noted pianist Donald Ryan. At this writing, he also prepared for a showcase in Nashville that came about through his association with his manager, legendary Tulsa-based impresario Jim Halsey.

In addition, Ryan has started putting songs together for his third disc, which, as he explains it, represents a natural progression.

“I grew up as a classical pianist, and I didn’t start improvising very much until I got into the jazz band at OU,” he says. “Growing up, I’d listened to Oscar Peterson and all these great pianists, but I didn’t know how to replicate the sounds that they produced. I was much more competent at reading, particularly at internalizing, the music that had already been written and then re-performing it. It was frustrating for me to try to improvise at a level that satisfied me because I knew what the greatest improvisers sounded like.

“This [The Masters’ Apprentice] was my attempt to start bridging that gap and be able to start improvising. At least, once I did this I could learn how these masters created the music they did, and then I could start applying that knowledge to my own music.

“You always have to start with the skills that you have and then incrementally add to them. So this improved my ability to listen, it improved my jazz vocabulary, and now, on the next record, I’ll have all of my own arrangements, applying the lessons I learned from The Masters’ Apprentice to pop tunes from the last five decades.”

For a preview of that disc, check out his YouTube performance of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” It provides compelling evidence that Barron Ryan may one day be held in the same kind of esteem as those jazz greats he, sometimes painfully but always diligently, apprenticed.

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