This is a story about why I came to care so much about everyone participating in music…
Growing up, my family had a century-old grand piano in the basement of the octagon house my father built. The legs were more ornate than a beam of the Notre Dame. The logo was swirling and the signature of the man who built it was etched on to the middle C key. It was gorgeous. And daunting. And loomed over our basement.
I would occasionally sit down at it and try to hammer out a simple melody. My sister taught me a bit of The Entertainer by Scott Joplin and Chop Sticks. My brother taught me a bit of Van Halen’s Jump and Axel F, the theme song to Beverly Hills Cop. I loved playing these tunes. And I learned them by pure muscle memory. But the songs they taught me is where my music education ended. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing on the piano and had no way to figure it out. And as a kid, I suppose I didn’t actively ask for more music education. Or seek out books that could have helped.
At some point, when I was very young – probably around 6 years old – my brother joined a punk & new wave band and played keyboard. The band would come over to the house to rehearse. When they would take a break and head upstairs for a snack, my friends and I would sneak up to their instruments and pretend like we were playing them. We would mimic their movements and actions and sing “Last Train to Clarksville”. We thought we were cool. And that was the closest I would get to playing music for 10 years.
As I got older, my brother left for college and I was raised by my sister and Mom primarily. My sister was a fantastic athlete and I did have a strong desire to play baseball (my grandpa had also been an incredible baseball player) and my beloved St. Louis Cardinals were the envy of every kid around. So eventually I was put on to the local baseball team. I was terrible at it. I actually went an entire season without a single base hit. In my second season, I got two hits (both off of the same pitcher) and it felt like I was Stan Musial. My teammates were mostly nice to me but I gave up after two years. At that point, I was growing like a weed so we decided to try basketball. Michael Jordan was in his prime and I was enamored by his incredible abilities. Plus, I was the tallest kid in my class so it made sense. But again, I was terrible. I don’t recall specifics but I’m quite sure I didn’t score a point in a game for several seasons. I was tall and thin and uncoordinated. Goofy. Destined for a career in sports, I was not. Granted, I did learn some valuable lessons – teamwork, how and when to be aggressive when it’s necessary, etc. But I entered high school and was much more of a nerd than an athlete. But for years, I never touched a single musical instrument. I kept playing basketball.
Finally at age 15 as a freshman in high school, fate decided to intervene. I went over to a friend’s house and he had a guitar sitting by his bed. I was curious about it as I had never touched one. I distinctly remember we had the radio on and Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of Landslide was on. I plucked away at the strings and had the melody figured out by the time the song was over. I was kind of stunned. I never had a single inkling that I had an ear for music or any kind of talent until that moment. I thought to myself – I wonder if that’s normal to be able to pick out that melody having never played a guitar before. My friend assured me it wasn’t. I left his house thinking, “yep, that’s it. I’m buying a guitar.”
But first I had to save enough money to buy one. I don’t even recall what I did at the time to make money (I believe I didn’t work my first job – food service at Six Flags – until I was 16). Perhaps chores around the house. Mowing the lawn, which I had previously loathed, and suddenly didn’t seem like such a bad way to earn a guitar. Little by little, I saved it up, went to my new favorite place – a guitar shop in downtown St. Louis where I eyed countless rigs I’d never be able to afford – and bought a cheap Alvarez guitar along with a Beginner’s Guitar book.
I went home and began plucking away at the strings. Diligently following the booklet’s instructions on technique, chord formations and finger placements. And I played. And played. And played. For hours. Skipping my homework. Late in to the night. Probably terribly at first. My parents were sweet for not banning me to the basement. But little by little, I got to be decent. Then a magical thing happened.
3 of my best friends, none of whom played any instrument the previous year, also picked up instruments. First it was my good friend Jason who also picked up a guitar about the same time I did. Then my neighbor Josh heard we were playing guitar. His stepdad had a bass guitar in the house so he borrowed it and started playing. And then Jason’s brother heard we were thinking about starting a band and had a keyboard lying around. He started learning to play it and writing lyrics. He didn’t have the best voice but before we knew it, we were writing songs with 2 guitars, a bass, a drum machine, keyboard and a vocalist. None of us knew what we were doing. But there we were playing together and writing songs. It was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment for me to learn and grow as a musician. I still have a few tapes from that band and while they sound a little rough, I’m proud of what we wrote considering we had all been playing music for just a few months. It was synchronicity. Fate had intervened.
In high school, we didn’t have a music class and since I was really new to playing music, getting into the school band didn’t even seem like a possibility. No one ever approached me about it and I had no idea how to read notes so it never really crossed my mind.
(Side note: in my one and only music class in elementary school we had a few singing lessons and I distinctly remember the teacher looking over at me and scolding me, “Ryan, you’re not even singing.” Meaning I suppose that I was more like talking instead of hitting notes. I had no clue how to sing and instead of attempting to you know, actually teach me, I guess they thought it was better to shame/humiliate me. It worked. I never tried again for years.)
There was one guitar class that I took my senior year in high school but that was mostly catered to beginners, people who had never even picked up a guitar. By then I had been playing for a couple of years and was strumming pretty well – even if I didn’t totally know what I was doing. But it was fun.
When I got to college, music was an afterthought. There were no music programs there. No school band (that I was aware of). No way to learn more about music theory. Luckily in my dorm room one day I was strumming on the guitar and a guy who lived on my floor popped his head in the door. “Mind if I jam with you?” he asked, saxophone in his hand. “Not at all.” Within minutes, we were jamming and writing tunes. He had just ran into another guitar player who was writing his own songs and said the 3 of us should get together. We did and a couple of weeks later, we had a band. Soul Shoes. We played outdoors a couple of times and eventually were approached by a drummer and bass player. Voila. Complete band. Finally I was playing gigs! I still had no idea what I was doing. But they put up with me and I was writing melodies and improvising and coming up with chord progressions. And having the time of my life.
I was lucky enough to play with those guys for about 4 years and then with that same lead singer/songwriter for another 6 years in Baltimore, MD. I will ALWAYS cherish those times. Writing music is what I love to do the most and I wrote more in those 10 years than I ever had before.
But still – no formal education in music. I just told people I “learned by ear” and was “self-taught” and wore it like a badge. And I still do. I think if you can play in a band without any education whatsoever, you have a pretty amazing talent that should be celebrated. My brother is in the exact same boat and we share that sentiment. I love being self-taught. However, there will always be some missing pieces.
Fast forward 10 more years and fate intervened again.
I was in a stale relationship. I didn’t realize it at the time. Because sometimes when you are in the middle of a situation, you’re not able to see it from a distance. You have no perspective. But I was just coasting. I wasn’t super unhappy. But I was struggling with my career – I had become a freelancer who wasn’t making much money, which was putting even more pressure on said relationship. And was not wild about what I was doing. I thought getting out from having a boss would cure what ailed me. And it did help a little. But I still was not passionate about what I was doing. I was stuck. Not sure what to do.
One day on a bike ride home from a nearby yoga class, I was pulling into my driveway. I was probably going 1 or 2 mph at best. I had taken one hand off the handlebars to reach into my pocket to grab my garage door opener. The other hand had a paper bag wrapped around the handle (with an acai bowl in it). As I took one more pedal, the hand that was still on the handle slipped off. The handlebars did a 180 and I was thrown forward. The handlebars hit the ground perpendicular to the ground and I landed right on top of them directly on my abdomen. The pain was intense. I fell to the ground. I think I blacked out for a moment. I was lying in the middle of the road in front of my house and there was nothing I could do. I heard a truck coming up behind me but I couldn’t move. Thankfully he saw me, pulled over and got out to help. I had also somehow gotten my phone out of my pocket and uttered some words to my sig o to come out and help. The two of them helped me crawl to the sidewalk. They asked me how intense the pain was and I said it was an 8 out of 10. They threw me in a car and raced to the hospital.
The doctor put me under, cut me open and had to repair my tissue, my intestines and bowels. I had done significant damage to my innards. I would have to stay in the hospital for 5 days.
On about the 4th day after being pretty exhausted by being in a bed and having hospital food and having a catheter pulled on and off, I was not feeling super hot. Some of the nurses had gotten to know me and knew I played guitar. They said there was a music therapist who came in occasionally and the next time she was there, they would send her in. Maybe I could play guitar with her.
I don’t know if it was the drugs they had just pushed into my veins or my realization that I was having a magical moment but the moment the music therapist walked in the door and began to sing and play for me, I realized she was an angel. I did play guitar and she sang and I fell in love. Yes she was young and cute and sang amazingly and that didn’t hurt. But I also couldn’t believe how great I felt afterwards. Just an hour earlier I had been in a terrible mood and now I was over the moon. The music and my newfound friend, the angel, had had an incredible effect on me.
That night I began to think about how much the music positively affected my mood. And I heard the therapist sing for a neighbor of mine who she works with often. The effects were profound.
I think this is a good time to take one step back. About 9 months before this incident happened, I went to a conference called WDS. This conference has been life-changing for me (in about 10 different ways which I’ll talk about later). But at this particular one in 2014, we had listened to a keynote talk about doing what you love to do. The speaker talked eloquently about making your dreams become reality. They spoke of the importance of saying “I do ______” or I am ______” instead of “someday I hope to ________.” They even handed out cards that said “I ________” and encourage us to fill it out. A group of friends and I went to lunch right after the talk and were inspired. I had a close friend who sat next to me and asked me about my dreams. I was shy and hesitant to talk about them. I almost felt embarrassed because I just KNEW deep down that I would never accomplish them. Yes I was a musician and I loved music more than anything. But I didn’t know anything about it. I never studied it. I had never even considered how I could possibly do something with music to make money. It was a hobby. One I loved intensely. But a hobby nonetheless. But she persisted. I dodged the question talking about design (my career at the time). She pushed further. I began to talk about music. She stopped me. “You just lit up there. I haven’t seen you that passionate this whole time. That’s it. Music.”
I felt it too. I did love it and I wanted to share my love with others. But I was shy. And not at all confident in my abilities. Regardless, she pulled it out of me and I wrote down a phrase on the card. I don’t recall the exact verbiage but it was something like, “I will inspire people with music and create and collaborate with them.” But again, I felt bad for writing it down. I knew it would never happen. Not to me. Not in my current relationship. In its current state.
I folded up that card, put it away and didn’t look at it again.
But that night in the hospital, I thought about it. Music therapy. My newfound angel friend is helping others with music. Maybe that could be a possibility. But again, I shrugged it off. Not going to happen. Not in my current relationship. In its current state.
3 weeks later, while still recovering from my surgery I had the conversation with my ex that would end our 10-year relationship. I knew that night it was probably over. And a few months later, it was.
I was on my own. In a pretty dark place. Career objectives had taken a back seat to self-preservation. I was just trying to take care of myself and get to a good place.
The funny thing is, fate intervened again.
I’ve been told that the universe (or God, if you prefer) has a funny way of trying to get you to learn a lesson. If that lesson presents itself, and you ignore it, it will present itself again. And again. And again. Until you see it. It’s like someone knocking on the door over and over. Eventually you have to give in to curiosity and answer it. I was ready to answer it.
My brother, my Dad and I often go to a wonderful place near Death Valley called Cynthia’s. It’s magical in ways that I cannot explain. We hadn’t been in a while but in October of 2015, Cynthia was having a birthday gathering and invited some of her closest friends and we were lucky enough to be guests at this gathering. She mentioned that we should bring our instruments. So I packed my guitar and headed off.
Our first night there, we were all sitting around after an amazing meal and chatting and drinking and I pulled out my guitar. I started strumming songs. Two daughters of a few of the guests (ages probably 6 or 7) were hanging around and were really interested in the guitar. I began showing them how to play and playing songs that they could sing and eventually even let them strum while my hands were on the chords. We were singing and laughing and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Both my father and brother said they hadn’t seen me smile and laugh that much in a LONG time, if ever.
The week after we got home from this trip, as I was pondering how much I had enjoyed interacting with the kids playing guitar, my brother and I were waiting to meet up with our parents at a local restaurant. While we were waiting and chatting, I looked up at a nearby building. It had a few plaques on the wall for the businesses that took residence there. One of the plaques read “Guitars in the Classroom”. I about fell over. I showed my brother and we both freaked out a bit. Guitars in the Classroom??? “I have to contact them,” I said.
And so I did. I sent an email through their website. And never heard anything back. Days went by. Weeks went by. I thought, “maybe that was a nudge to keep going but not necessarily the answer.” So I did. I started thinking more about how I could use music to help others. I started thinking that the end of the relationship that did not allow me to rethink my career was actually the perfect opportunity to do just that.
But the same thoughts/feelings kept creeping back into my head. “I’m not worthy. I’m just a hack. A self-taught guitar player. And just an average one at that.” That was all mostly true, if exaggerated a bit. Then one day it hit me – the reason for the doubt. I had no formal music education. None. Zero. I did not know how to read notes (much less teach others about it). Didn’t understand the different between 4/4 and 6/8, or anything at all beyond what a C, G and E chords looked like on a guitar.
So I decided I would go back to school. Take some classes and see what happened. I didn’t have a plan exactly (and I still don’t quite yet). But at least I would gain some knowledge and gain some confidence in my abilities.
I’m almost 40 and it’s difficult at my age. You don’t learn quite as fast as you do when you’re young. Which is why I’m so passionate about helping kids at a young age engage with music. But playing music can help people of ALL ages. It can heal and be a creative outlet and bond you with others and build confidence. It can relax you and energize you. The ways in which it benefits you are unlimited. And everyone deserves to feel that. Regardless if they have been told they can’t sing or not.
And if you’re curious what I do when I’m not making music, check out Soul & Heart Creative.