Interview with jazz pianist Ryan Murphy
Dave: Hi there and welcome to the YouTube channel of The School Feedback Guitar, I’m doing a bunch of interviews and everything...This is my guest today, Ryan Murphy. A wonderful, wonderful jazz pianist and an incredible programmer. It’s been my pleasure to know for ....what?—two or three years, now?
Ryan: I think it has been.
Two or three years, yeah. We’re office buddies in a sense, you know, he works across the hall for... Service Direct?
Service Direct, yeah.
Yeah, great to be with you, Dave.
Yeah, thanks. Thanks so much for coming in.
Sure, it’s my pleasure.
I guess I’d like to start today with something that I’ve noticed about you in particular and, what I’ve noticed is that you’re constantly able to pick new things up from scratch. Like, I’m constantly amazed about this. Like you....you’re like “I’m going to create a new program” and ... next thing I know is like you’re “I’m going to learn how to play trumpet.” [laughter] You know? I mean, you were walking around playing trumpet the other day. I thought that was...I just got a total kick out of that! I’m curious to know, that process for starting something new, starting from complete scratch, whatever: is that a process that you’ve had to work on, or is it something that’s always come natural to you? I’m super-curious about that!
I think it something I’ve had to work on, I think it’s something we always have to work on, you know? I actually would say that I have a lot of things that are in my comfort zone and I’m just all ready, always go explore even if I haven’t ...like done that particular instrument. Like, I’m playful with instruments. So, I’m going to pick up an instrument and try it. It didn’t used to be that way, I used to be like, piano was my thing and then, like....”Oh, guitar!”. I couldn’t do that because I just saw this guy do it and he did way better; my fingers don’t do that. I had to pass that phobia, or whatever. But I still have things that are like outside of my comfort zone maybe, where I see other that throw a party and fifty people come and, it’s awesome and I’m like “Wow, how did he do that?” [laughter] So, everyone’s got their different comfort zone, you know? But for me, music is like a great outlet to be just like playful, and explore and not really care like... if it’s perfect, you know?
Yeah, yeah. I think a lot of beginners kind of worry about that. In particular they worry about it like “Oh, it’s not going to be...it’s not perfect!”
You know, I’m curious. Like, you know, if...if...okay like if there's a beginner who is watching this, and let’s hope there is....right? You know...
[laughter]. What sort of advice would you give the person who’s like...totally...like obsessed with it being perfect, you know: “IT HAS TO BE, you know, ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!” and everything, and like, they’re just starting from scratch, you know? It’s a hard thing.
Well, this is especially true if you’re playing with people. That you actually owe it to the people you’re playing with to not care too much if you sound perfect. Because if he sees that—because you’re like worried about yourself being perfect, then you’re going to change the whole vibe, whereas, music is just about expression. It’s just a group of people getting together and expressing themselves, so... If you make it all about you and your own concept of perfect, then you’re like seizing the flow and keeping it from happening, whereas if you just let it go, like...the mistake you make—someone else might say “Man, I dug what you did there!”, you know? I’ve had that happen before. Where something that I thought sounded terrible, someone else thought that was the best thing ever.
Wild. So, like the mistakes, are not necessarily bad is what you’re saying.
Yeah. I mean...well, first of all, other than—like, the fact that it’s a mistake only exists in your head.
[laughter] I know what you mean, yeah!
I mean, maybe that’s only strictly true for improvisation like, obviously if you’re playing Mozart or, whatever you’re like “Ah, it said SI” and you played the SI-sharp, you could argue that that’s objectively a wrong note. But, even then, like I question... like, why we take just a strict view of music that was... just because it was written down long ago? I mean, when Mozart was alive, he was a great improviser. And if he had hit that SI-sharp, by accident, then he probably would have made into a diminished cord going into the minor. He would of done...
[laughter] Yeah, it’s a funny thing. I think a lot of people don’t really see mistakes in that way. I personally feel they’re chances. You know, it took me a long time to come to terms with the how beautiful mistakes can be. You know, I spent a lot of my time doing that same sort of same thing. You know, where I was kind of holding back on mistakes and everything. But I just kind of let go and just let it rip.
You know, I watched a video last night and it was like this Stanford Business School teacher was talking and it was called...it was called “Think fast, talk smart” and it was exactly about this: it was about not worrying about it, not trying to be perfect and getting over your idea of mistakes, so that you can actually be there with the people that you’re there with, and actually be yourself and be spontaneous. And it was cool. He had everyone play a game and the game was: stand up and just point to things and shout that they are something that they there. So like, you look at the piano and you say: ‘Clarinet!’, you look at the wall and you say “Ceiling!”, you look at Dave and you say: “Surely!"
[laughter] ‘Surely’! He must be joking about this! [laughter]
Exactly. So you have this whole... like, room-auditorium full of Stanford students like, pointing at things and shouting insanely that... It’s a good way to just get passed this idea. You’re not going to be perfect! That’s not what humans are...
Exactly, man. Exactly! Well, with regards to what it’s like for you when you learn a new instrument and you know, like for trumpet, for example. I know this is kind of old news for you, you’re kind of jumping in and being like “What’s it like?”, “What’s this instrument all about?” and everything...I don’t know if you can elucidate a little bit what that process is like for you: if it’s like a big experimentation? Do you do a lot of research? I’m super curious about that!
I probably do not that much research. It is a lot of just playing. And it’s a lot of...like, you can already play every instrument, right? The question is just how...what sounds can you make? And sounds are you likely to accidentally make, how fast can you play? So, you can always slow it down to a pace where you can play. Where...in my case, I couldn’t play like a scale on a trumpet but I could play one note on a trumpet and as long as I kept that one note, it’s like: “Okay, that’s an okay note” but once I start fluttering around with different notes, I would mess it up. So, for me, a part of music too is...in part of learning one new instrument is allowing myself to slow down. Waay slower than you would think. To where it’s just super slow motion and it almost becomes a meditation.
And it also becomes like a paradigm shift because it’s not trying to sound like someone who was playing a song professionally, it’s way slower than that. So it becomes like a trance, or something.
So you go slow, you go really, really super slow and just take your time with it?
Really slow and take my time, yeah.
Okay. So, like in you’ve done this with clarinet, you’ve done it with trumpet; I assume you do it with piano...
And I assume you do it like, with like other pursuits and everything, like, programming and everything.
Forgive me if I’m assuming here but, if you have a language that you’re trying to learn, your like: “Okay, let’s take this really super slow”, would that be an accurate like way to say it?
Yeah, I mean...so, talking it slow, either you have to take it slow or you have to accept a lot of mistakes. You know? And there is a spectrum there. You can move fast and be rowdy and accept a lot of mistakes, or you can go slow and trancy and make some nice sound you’re going for.
And then in time, you can combine them into having your cake and eating it too.
Right! Well, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back with the second half of our interview with Mr. Ryan Murphy.
Welcome back to the YouTube channel of the School Feedback Guitar. My guest today is Ryan Murphy. Excellent, excellent Jazz pianist and classical pianist, I would have to say.
Yeah, absolutely and wonderful programmer, as well, works for Service Direct and...all around great guy! Really love Ryan a lot [laughter]. I wanted to take some time to talk about the details of how you approach specific problems. You know? Or...windows of opportunity for learning, how about that?
In terms of like, practicing music or learning an instrument?
Yeah, in terms of practicing music. And, let’s say for instance that you’re having a problem with rhythm. You know? How would you attack that? How would you get used to it and master it on your own? I’m super curious about that.
Sure. Well, I mean, it depends what problem with rhythm, you know? But everybody who tries to pick up an instrument has the issue I think,-- and I know I did—of ...you heard somebody play something and it sounded so cool and it grooved so hard, and you tried to do it and you just can’t quite get it. And that’s partially dexterity, you know, and you have to just practice the dexterity and that’s partially in your head and also in your body—about what is that rhythm.
What is that rhythm?
What is the rhythm that they’re playing, you know? And so...but just over the years, like evolving to where you can play more sophisticated rhythms and like have a groove, I think –really going down to fundamentals— playing with the metrum, as I said earlier, playing really, really slow.
Do you start off slow, or do you usually start off at a specific tempo or somewhere in between? Like a song tempo, or slow tempo, or...
You know, it depends, I don’t...It depends what I’m trying to do. But, yeah, a lot of times when you say that someone has a rhythm problem, something they’re trying to master rhythmically—it’s something where they want to do it a little faster than they can yet. And they need to slow it down a lot more than they think they need to. And then their brain actually needs to understand that like let’s say the rhythm was bum-t-d-bum-bum-t-dam-t-dam or something, you know? And that’s fast or whatever. So, your brain has to realize: bum-t-d-bum-bum-t-dam-t-dam what if it was a really slow: bum---t---d---bum---bum---t---dam---t---dam?
Aha. I kind of feel that. If you can play a tempo...like play a rhythm like that... at a very wide range of tempos it’s...I feel like you have more mastery over it.
I mean, do you feel that way too?
I mean I... I kind of feel like— I spent a lot of years, like when I was in college studying music and playing Jazz, I played with so many great players, and I played with people who I felt like: “Man, they have more dexterity” or “they’re like more alert” to like play at these fast tempos and not screw up. And for me, like, I could play like...pretty... I’ve got pretty good rhythm, you know, but I felt like I kept kind of falling off, a little bit.
I think a lot of beginners have that same kind of feeling; How did you fix that?
Well...the funny thing is I stopped worrying about it and I started playing kind of slower and steadier and over the years, I went back and looked at it and I could play it really, really fast! It kind of snuck up on me. I don’t –that’s all I can really remember about the process. I did have —you know— a few session, a few—couple-hour-long practice sessions where I would have the metrum slow and I would play and I’d bump it up and I play, and I bump it up and I play...So I did do some of that. But it wasn’t a whole lot of that, I feel like. Really, I feel like by not worrying about it too much and by allowing myself to get as slow as I needed to, over time of just continuing to play, suddenly I look at myself and: “Oh, now I can do that!” "Now I’m one of those people"...and those, those are interesting.
Did you feel like you built your dexterity with your fingers in the same manner, or was it different, at all?
I mean, yeah, I think it’s kind of part of the same thing, you know?
I think...One thing I’ve noticed—and I’ve noticed that not just with music but also with like, drawing. So...
I try to draw sometimes. I feel really so [inaudible] [14:55] But I see people who draw and the finish product looks great! But one thing that always gets me is I see them kind of skirling at the beginning and I’m like: “Oh, I would never do that!”, “Oh, they’re making a mistake!” I see them like, coloring through something or they do something jag and I’m like: “Uuhh!” and in fact they don’t have any barrier there. They’re like...they don’t care. They know what they’re doing and they’re in the moment. And so, what I would...for myself when I’m drawing I would be also of conscious considering it a mistake. They’re just going for it! And so, their hand is going to get that dexterity that comes from not being an erudite.
So, not caring quite as much, like kind of letting go of that and just jumping into the moment and relaxing into your technique . Would you think that would be the...?
Yeah, absolutely, so... like on the piano, I mean, I used to be a little uptight about like “Well, I want to have a velvety sound, I want everything to be perfect; I want all my notes to just sound...so” And I would hear other people would sometimes [imitating very fast tempo] and they go super fast and it wouldn’t necessarily be the perfect notes I would chose but, I couldn’t even like compel my hand to do that because I just disagreed with that, or something. But later on, when I didn’t have that preconception or obsession that it always has to be this one way, I could do that! And it would let my body and my hands into that...into a different space where... like a faster dexterity became a possibility.
Wild....wild, wild, wild, wild! It was...like letting go a little bit, kind of jumping into it. Yeah, awesome! [laughter]
It is awesome. I think just the process of learning music is really awesome! And I think finding people to do it with—really—to me, is like...
I’ve found out that people learn quicker when they find friends to play with. You know, I like to call them guitar buddies and just “Hey, find a couple of guitar bodies!” you know, I...as a teacher, I’m one... kind of guitar buddy, all right?
But I find that people learn faster when they have friends who play guitar and they’re just kind of constantly hanging around and doing that. I mean, do you agree? Disagree at all? You think like... that helps?
Oh, yeah. There is a night and day difference.
A night and day difference! I think people who...well, that’s true with anything, but definitely with music. You find people who are also into doing it and who are down to share that, and, everybody that you share that with, they’re going to have a different approach to it, and you’re going to pick something different up from them. You know? So...
Mhm, hmhm. Well, we’re getting to be about that time here, and I just wanted to kind of give you a chance to address, to consider this as a chance to like kind of address a bunch of beginners, just like starting guitar or anything from scratch, for the first time. What one piece of advice would you want to give to them?
I would say just: “Go at your own pace and stick with it!” And it’s just like...playing music is the most rewarding thing you can do with your life—I feel like to me—I mean there is a million great things to do with your life, but music...you know, no matter what style you’re trying to play, or who you look up to, musically—just go for it!
Right! Oh, man. Cool! Well Ryan, thanks so much for hanging out and let me pester you with these questions.
Yeah, Dave, I’m really glad you called me.
Yeah, man, it’s an honor to hear how you approach music. Yeah, but that is the end, thank you for tuning into the interview. Of course, it’s a YouTube channel so, of course, I’m going to ask you to subscribe: “Please, subscribe” But I’m going to be doing a ton of interviews so...from many musicians and—as well as beginner alike, total complete beginners who have made guitar a part of their lives before. So, feel free to subscribe, there’s going to be a ton of great content coming. Thanks again, and I guess I will catch you the next time.