Pianist Donald Ryan: Versatility in Rhythm

I first saw, but did not meet personally, versatile pianist Donald Ryan at the 2019 West Coast Ragtime Festival. When I learned he was appearing at the Charles Templeton Ragtime and Jazz Festival in Starkville, Mississippi in March, I contacted him and asked to do an interview. Here it is.

BH: You came to the US initially to study music. When, and what led to that decision? What factors made you choose the schools you attended?

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DR: When I was in high school in Trinidad and Tobago I was active in an organization called Youth for Christ. An acquaintance in YFC had seen me play and asked if I’d like him to see if he could interest a college in the US in letting me study there. The next thing I heard from him was that I had been approved for a music scholarship at Oral Roberts University. I got there in August, 1968 as a freshman.

Has music always been a full-time career?

Yes. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to earn a living playing and teaching. After graduating from ORU, I got jobs working in clubs for three hours a day, so I could practice for six. I also did some concerts and musicals, as those opportunities came along. I also was an adjunct professor of piano for about 35 years in addition to giving private lessons. So it’s all been music, but not necessarily playing.

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You and your son Barron perform a variety of music in a variety of venues. When did you begin performing together? Do you have a favorite genre, and if so, which?

The first time we played together in public was when he was in middle school. The school had just acquired a 9-foot Steinway and they wanted to do a dedicatory event. They asked us to do a concert together, which went off well enough that my wife, Sharon, suggested that we play together. The first time we did, on two pianos, he was a freshman in college. After he finished college in 2009 we decided to try to make a go of a two-piano career. Before Covid, we were on a rise. We represented ourselves at the beginning, but after five or so years we engaged Center Productions to book us, and they eventually merged with Siegel Artist Management. We would do about ten concerts a year. Until the restrictions arose, we were getting more concerts. Beginning around March of 2021, we were back, on average, to one concert a month. Now, as people are starting to come back, it is increasing. Also, we each do solo concerts. He’s on an extended tour in the upper Midwest right now. We’ll be much busier starting this fall.

Donald Ryan (seated) and Barron Ryan.
Pianists Donald Ryan (seated) and Barron Ryan. (photo by Nathan Harmon, courtesy www.ryanandryanmusic.com)

When we play together, we do a variety of genres. We both like jazz, so we do rhythmic things, whether it’s improvisation or works by known composers like Gershwin. We both like Rachmaninoff.

If you both have a concert where the sponsor doesn’t specify a particular type of music, will you do a variety?

Yes. We have a couple different programs on our website so prospective hosts can see what we do.

In the ragtime field, do you have a favorite composer—who, and why? Are there any contemporary ragtime composers you like?

I like the classic three—Joplin for his lines, his musicality and groove; James Scott for his effervescence and spark; and Joseph Lamb for his lyricism and expansiveness. Among the contemporary composers I like William Bolcom very much, Frank French, Tom Brier. But I haven’t done anything of Tom’s yet.

It’s not easy!

I watched him and wondered, is two hands all he has?!

Since this is your, as well as my, first time at this festival, did you have an idea of what to expect?

I had some idea, but I didn’t know the depth and wealth of the Templeton collection. I’m looking forward to seeing and learning more about it. I knew Jeff and Anne (Barnhart) and Adam (Swanson), but I had not met TJ (Muller) or Josh (Duffee). I did the Joplin festival for years and I’ve done West Coast.

Anything else about yourself or the music you’d like to add?

I am enjoying playing as much as I ever have. In 2010 I was dissatisfied with my playing. I wasn’t playing the way I really wanted to. I was 60 then. I thought, this is my last chance to get where I want to be. I thought it might take a year. Then it became a three-year project. Then five years. It was getting better all the time but still not to where I wanted. I’m now excited about what I’m doing. So maybe this can serve as encouragement to anyone who’s trying to move up.

You wouldn’t say you were re-inventing yourself, would you? You were trying to explore what other potential you have.

It’s interesting that you mentioned re-inventing. I was trying to re-do my technique, my approach to playing. I changed my touch. It’s changed the way I sound, especially on the faster numbers. I’m actually looking forward to this time of life because after all this time and effort I’m finally getting closer to playing the way that I’ve always dreamed of. So rather than thinking of winding down my career I’m anticipating an upsurge in playing activity. Barron and I do have some anchor engagements spread out over the next couple of seasons and our agents are actively trying to add others. As for solo playing, those opportunities are also increasing and I’m working on programs to submit to presenters. And then there is writing; I’ve done several things for the Ryan & Ryan Piano Duo and have promised to do quite a bit more. Up to now they’ve been arrangements of well-known songs but original works will be coming in time. The same for solo piano efforts. Given enough time and good health I’ll expand the compositions beyond the piano.

Thank you for your time. It was good to finally meet you.

And a pleasure to meet you, too.

Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.

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