An Interview with Professional Musician, Ryan Janus

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Professional Musician, Ryan Janus

Talent, persistence and entrepreneurial drive combine to create a music career

Ryan Janus 'confesses' that the saxophone is his favorite of the five instruments he plays (the others are clarinet, oboe, bassoon and flute). He is living proof one can earn a living as a professional musician – he's never once had to resort to using his bachelor's degree in mathematics as a 'fall-back.' But it does come in handy when he is working on Mensa puzzles.

Ryan earned a bachelor's degree in music performance, specializing in the saxophone, as well as the BA in mathematics from Hope College in Michigan, where he received a full-ride scholarship. As part of his experience at Hope College, he was able to study abroad in Vienna, Austria, for a semester. He graduated summa cum laude and was the winner of the school's Outstanding Senior Artist Award. With two degrees as well as a graduate scholarship and accompanying fellowship in hand, Ryan headed for the University of South Florida for his graduate degree in music/jazz studies.

While earning his master's degree, Ryan was part of both the Busch Gardens International Show Band and the Walt Disney World Main Street Band. When he completed his degree in 2000, he headed back to Hope College to join the music department staff. Today, he is wrapping up five years as a music professor at alma mater to take on a new challenge playing with the Air Force Band in Colorado.

In addition to his 'day job' as a college professor, Ryan seeks out freelance performance opportunities. He has performed with orchestras, national musical theater touring companies, jazz bands and cover bands (i.e. bands that play at weddings, conventions, and the like). In addition, he has worked on high-profile jazz/commercial projects for icons such as Barry Manilow, The Temptations, Bob Newhart, Shirley Jones, Marvin Stamm, Randy Brecker, Kenny Wheeler and Manhattan Transfer.

While he always had music in his life, Ryan didn't get serious about it until college, he tells "I worried that my love for music would wane if I had to make a living at it."

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your performing arts education.

I went to Hope College and received a Bachelor's in music in performance (saxophone specialty) as well as a BA in mathematics. I was there on scholarship, as I was at University of South Florida where I received my master's in music.

When did your interest in music start? How did you decide to pursue degrees in both music & mathematics?

I've always played music. My first "informal" training began at the age of four, when a babysitter showed me how to play the theme songs to E.T., Superman, and Star Wars on a little toy organ we had in the family room.

I've always had music in my life, though I didn't get serious about it until well into college. I didn't want to study it at first because I worried that my love for music would wane if I had to make a living at it. My father was actually instrumental (pardon the pun) in alleviating that fear. He asked me once, "When your brain wanders, where does it go? That's what you should be doing, ideally." From then on, it was settled.

The mathematics degree was obtained simply because I love math so much. I suppose one could call it a 'fall-back' degree in case music didn't work out, but I never saw it that way. Besides, I've never had to fall back yet. My wife will tell you that I sit and do brainteasers, Mensa puzzles and math problems for fun. Ironic, isn't it? Music is my career, and math is my hobby.

You have a master's degree in music. When is it a good time to go after a graduate/advanced degree?

The stock answer, of course, is "when you're ready." I went right from one degree program to the next, but not because I felt this was the best course of action. I'm what you'd call a late bloomer, so I didn't have any decent prospects lined up straight out of college. Another degree program served to buy me some time as well as to make more connections.

The real reason to pursue a master's (or Doctorate) degree in music is if you want to teach at a college. I taught at Hope College for five years straight out of my master's program, which is unusual. I've always felt odd never having left school. I feel that a college music teacher should not just be a competent musician, but also a seasoned professional, someone who's 'been around the block,' so to speak.

The new job with the Air Force Band will be the first time I've left academia since Kindergarten. I might at some point go back to college teaching. But I'd return as a seasoned pro, not as someone barely older than my students.

Tell us about your experience with your semester abroad at the Konservatorium der Stadt Wien, Vienna, Austria. Would you recommend other music/performing arts students study abroad?

There are few things I could recommend more highly than studying abroad. Besides being the best way to learn a language, being in a foreign country is an education in itself. I learned a lot about patience, humility, open-mindedness and many other virtues in the process of trying to fit into another culture.

So many of the students who go to Hope live within an hour of the school, marry other people who live within an hour of school, have kids who go to Hope, and so forth. To break the chain, as well as to 'get people out of the house,' Hope College vigorously pushes study-abroad programs on their students. One of my roommates, Tony Bull, was about to do two semesters abroad, one in Hungary, on in Vienna. It took about 30 seconds to convince me to join him. As it so happens, the conservatory is literally right across the street from the American institute and has a special program for us. Lucky me, because it would have been a very hard music school to get into otherwise.

The clarinet teacher, one of the best in the world, was absolutely amazing. Plus, Vienna has such a history of music that just being in the city helped me to be a better musician. Being home to Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler, the Strauss family, Schoenberg, etc., music is probably Vienna's biggest tourist attraction. I saw amazing operas, ballets, and concerts almost every night (most for less than $5). Vienna could be the best city in the world for music lovers.

You landed several scholarships and honors during the course of your education. How important are these honors to you personally, and to your career? What should music students expect when applying for scholarships?

The scholarships I've won have definitely helped me financially. I graduated from a master's program completely debt-free. As far as having helped my career, that's harder to say. People see my resume when I apply for jobs, and I'm sure their eyes pass over those awards. For a music job, though, the only question that matters is "How well do you play?"

If students want a music scholarship, they need to be flexible. Besides playing a solo at a high level, many scholarship auditions have sight-reading and theory components. If the student also plays jazz, that's even better. That's reality.

How did you choose the schools you attended?

That's very simple. I went where the money was. Hope College and USF offered me the best financial deals. One might say I should have gone to a place like Julliard or Eastman to give myself every advantage, but if I also have to get a job to pay for school while I'm attending, how much practicing will I do? You will become the best player you can be if you go to the school which affords you the most time to practice. That means not having to have a job while you're in school, which means go to the school which will give you the best financial deal possible.

I also recommend smaller schools over bigger schools. Bigger schools train specialists, while smaller schools train their musicians to be more diverse. (This is not true of every big and small school, of course, but is generally true). Unfortunately, our society doesn't reward specialists. For every Pavarotti you hear, there are thousands of struggling would-be opera stars. However, if you can not only sing opera, but also pop, gospel, Broadway and country, you give yourself an advantage. If you can also play the piano, teach and conduct your chances of making a good living in music increase dramatically.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your education in music/performing arts?

Sometimes I wish I had a crystal ball so I could have seen into my own future. That way, I would have been much more serious in junior high and high school. I almost cry when I think of all the hours I wasted in front of video games as an adolescent. Really, though, I wouldn't change a thing. The mistakes I've made have been the best learning experiences for me. Everything I've done, good and bad, have gone into shaping the person I am today.

How can prospective music/performing arts students assess their skill and aptitude?

The easiest way to do this would be to visit a college or colleges you want to attend. Hang out with the freshman and sophomore students on your instrument, and listen to how they play and what they can do. If you can't do everything they can do ... learn, and preferably with the help of a private instructor. Music is fairly competitive, so you'll want to strive to be near the top of your class.

What factors should prospective music/performing arts students consider when choosing a school? Are there different considerations for those who know they want to specialize in a certain area?

Besides what I've said above, there are in fact additional considerations. You never want to go to a school that is not accredited, or a school that has a bad music program, no matter how much money they give you. One of the best ways to learn is to surround yourself with people who are better than you. This is one of the advantages of the big school, though good small schools still have large pools of good musicians. Some have said that you should find your favorite teacher first, and then simply go to his/her school. This is good advice, but hard to follow. It's difficult to know what your teacher is going to be like, even if you've had one lesson with him while visiting the school. Forty years ago, there used to be only a handful of schools in the country with good jazz programs, another handful that had good composition programs, etc. This is no longer true today; the field has leveled considerably. Shoot for the best school you can, but strike a balance between Best School and Best Financial Package.

What are considered some of the most respected and prestigious music/performing arts schools, departments or programs?

That depends on the program. For classical music, people still flock to Julliard, Peabody, and Eastman. For composition, there's Indiana, Michigan, Eastman, and University of Illinois. The most prestigious jazz programs are North Texas, Miami, Northern Colorado, and Manhattan. These are just my opinions, and I'm sure other musicians would debate my choices.

I still stick to what I said before, however. There are many great schools in many different programs all over the country. The best teacher really does matter, too. For example, the best (classical) saxophone teachers in the country aren't at any of the "high-brow" conservatories, but at the Big Ten schools!

Does school choice make a difference in landing a good job?

In my case, it did. My connection to Hope as a student helped me land my first teaching job there. It's often the case at both big and small schools that many alumni end up teaching there. For K-12 teachers, I suppose the label of "Eastman" or "University of Michigan" will turn some heads, but there is a shortage of music teachers all over the U.S. If you want a job, you can get one, assuming you've attended an accredited music education program and have gotten decent grades. For a playing job, like orchestras, touring bands, and military bands, the school matters not at all. Again, the only important question is, "How well do you play?"

What can music/performing arts students applying to schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

All the things I stated regarding earning scholarships (above). Play with a great sound, know your scales, practice sight-reading - all the things your teacher (if he's a good teacher) tells you to do.

One other thing that will help is playing in public as much as you can. Piano students tend to do recitals several times a year, but the rest of the instrumental (and sometimes vocal) world doesn't do enough performing. There are specific skills in performing that are different than simply practicing or playing for your teacher. For many band/orchestra musicians, by the time they get to the nerve-wracking college audition, they've played solo in public a grand total of four times - at solo and ensemble festivals. Playing in public will develop your confidence and give you nerves of steel. This in turn will make you sound better.

How available are student internships and other hands-on music performance experiences?

That depends on the school and its location. Some big schools are stuffed into tiny rural towns, where there are lots of students fighting for a fistful of gigs. Most schools are close enough to a decent-sized urban center that there are probably gigs to be had, if you know where to look. In general, the bigger the city, the more performing experiences that will be available.

In what ways could the music/performing arts education system be changed to better serve society?

First, we simply need more of it. The reason basketball is the most popular sport in the country is because at some point, the majority of the male population has played some type of organized basketball. So, when Jordan jumps from the free-throw line to dunk, or when Larry Bird shoots a 3-point shot from behind the rim, people understand that. Because they've played basketball, they understand the skill, practice and artistry it takes to accomplish something like that.

People often don't go to operas or symphonies because they don't understand them. That's not their fault, though. It's their schools' fault. If more people learned how to play an instrument, there would be an appreciation of good music. This is important because listening to good music (especially classical and jazz) literally makes you smarter. In fact, it's been shown that many types of pop/rock music actually harm a person's intelligence. Most pop/rock music is the intellectual equivalent of junk food. It's okay to have once in a while, but a steady diet of it will rot your brain. We don't like watching bad athletes on TV (in fact, we often yell at them through the TV set), and yet we put up bad music only because we don't know any better.

If people were more educated about music, we'd see a lot less of Britney Spears, Green Day or Garth Brooks. People would start to realize how simple and watered-down this type of music is, and how complex and rich the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and John Coltrane. However, not all pop music is devoid of depth; artists like Sting, Bobby McFerrin, Jimmy Hendrix and Frank Zappa come to mind. People who worry that our standardized test scores are the lowest in the industrialized world should throw out their kids' speed metal CDs and make them listen to Bach.

Second, we as musicians need to drop the barrier between producer and consumer. Most people aren't consumers of good music because they think you need a college education to understand it. This is not true. In fact, a program in Colorado takes students with no prior musical background, and in eight weeks helps them to write their own string quartet or orchestral piece. Musicians themselves are often guilty of perpetuating this nose-in-the-air kind of elitism.

Would-be consumers also think you need to be rich and dress in stuffy formal clothing to attend operas or symphonies. We as musicians need to do a better job of educating the public that this perception is just not so. In fact, you're just as likely to see T-shirt and jeans apparel at an opera these days. A complete season ticket in some orchestras costs less than ONE ticket to a rock concert. For the price of a Hi-Def TV, you can get four box-seat season tickets at the opera. Again, when we as musicians drop the attitude and quit taking ourselves so seriously, there won't be a perceived barrier between us and our audience.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your career and your new position with the Air Force band in Colorado. How did your career unfold to allow you to advance to where you are today?

The Armed Service bands are tailor-made for someone like me. I'm not a specialist, but I do several things very well. They auditioned me on sax, clarinet and flute, and had me read music as well as improvise. There are many brilliant musicians out there who could never do an Armed Services band because they don't have all those specific skills, even though they may be highly gifted in one or two areas. Similarly, I could never play full-time in an orchestra because I don't play flute or clarinet as well as a specialist.

In addition to your work as a music professor, you have performed in professional capacities from orchestras to jazz combos to theater musicals to collaborations with high-profile pop artists. What similarities and differences have you found in your various musical endeavors?

The differences I encounter stem from thinking like a reader vs. thinking like an improviser. For jazz gigs (and some pop gigs) I get to improvise my own music on the spot. These gigs are great, but for me they are sometimes few and far in between. Usually, gigs require lots of reading of music. Being able to translate those black dots into beautiful sounds is the same process, whether it's with Barry Manilow or the Florida Orchestra.

You have expertise on several instruments, including the saxophone, clarinet, oboe, flute and bassoon. Which is your favorite and why?

That depends on my mood. Usually the sax, because it's what I'm best at.

What drove you to learn how to play so many different instruments?

Two things: my personality and money. I've always been a dabbler of sorts; I like to keep my fingers in many different areas. Becoming a woodwind doubler (more than one instrument) is the perfect job for someone like me. Plus, theater companies pay more for doublers. Believe it or not, most shows actually write for doublers. So when you sit in the orchestra pit, you're greeted with a book of music that doesn't say "1st clarinet," but rather "1st Reed (flute, piccolo, clarinet, alto sax)". For each extra instrument the book requires you to play, you make more money. It's not uncommon for me to actually bring home more money per show than the conductor!

What unique challenges and rewards come from working as a professional musician?

I'll never get rich as a musician. It's an accomplishment just to be able to say one is a full-time musician, without having a 'day job.' The hours are erratic: you're usually working when everyone else is out on the town. It can be, although doesn't have to be, competitive to the point of being cutthroat.

The biggest reward is the job itself. It's my vocation and my avocation. Even when I'm not making money at it, I'm still thinking about music almost non-stop. I love my job - therefore it doesn't feel like a job. I would have made a great engineer with my math degree, and I would have made a lot more money. I have the advantage of not having to come home and complain about my job. I rarely take a vacation, because I don't feel like I need a vacation. I'd trade that for the extra money any day.

Who are the biggest inspirations for your career?

Any and all entrepreneurs, especially those of the artistic persuasion. Schools teach us to be employees, not employers or self-employed people. It's the employers and the self-employed who are responsible for most of the progress in the world, though. They're the daring, think-outside-the-box people. Hats off to any entrepreneurs reading this article. Even if you have a day job but also moonlight with other interests (as I'm about to do), I salute you.

What ranks among the favorite achievements that you've completed in your career and why?

My biggest achievements have been when I've felt pleased with my own playing. It doesn't happen often. Like most, I'm my own worst critic. It also helps if my family likes it, though they'll usually tell me they do no matter how bad I sound. Any job/career achievements I obtain along the way are secondary to that on-going goal.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I'd like to branch out into more aspects of music and more aspects of other arts. I want to learn how to dance, paint, act, and sing. I want it all.

Describe a typical week of work for you. What exactly do you do?

I usually teach between three and four classes at Hope, along with 15-20 individual students. The classes vary, but may include Ear Training, Theory, Music Appreciation, or Ensemble Coaching. This may sound like a lot, but really it only adds up to about 25-30 work hours per week. The rest of my time is spent practicing (I still try to get in at least two hours every day) and composing. Since most of these activities are flexible, I can usually come home for lunch, watch the kids while my wife takes a break, and play Mr. Mom on the days she works. Most of my evening work is between the hours of 7-11 p.m. My kids are often in bed by then, so I don't feel like I'm missing out on major chunks of their lives.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?

I have lots of tools. My instruments themselves are insured for the average American's yearly salary. My computer is indispensable, especially when I'm writing marching band music for directors in Texas, Georgia or Pennsylvania. I also use a metronome and a tuner, and usually have one of them on the whole time I'm practicing. My best friend/worst enemy is my tape recorder. Often just listening back to something I played will tell me all I need to know to fix what went wrong.

What professional organizations do you belong to? How can such professional groups help prospective students and recent grads?

The organizations I belong to, the International Association of Jazz Educators and the North American Saxophone Alliance, are great resources for the exchange of information and developing contacts. Membership in a certain organization will never help you get a job, but it can help you do your job better through the information and contacts you receive.

Job Information & Advice

What are the best ways to land a job in the field?

Make your own gig. I lucked out and landed a playing job in an existing organization. There aren't too many of those around. There is lots of work, but you have to think like an entrepreneur. I would suggest taking business classes or talking to small businessmen about how they survive.

What is the current job market in the field? Five-year forecast?

Although TV and the Internet can be wonderful tools, they have done a lot to damage all live entertainment. People don't go out as much as they used to. If the trend towards isolating ourselves continues, the whole entertainment/fine arts industry will be in trouble. I'm guessing that the pendulum will eventually swing the other way, though. People are social creatures.

What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

Again, it depends on the job. College professors make between $30-50K a year. Doesn't sound like much, especially when compared to High School teachers (some of whom clear 6 figures), but remember it's also less work. An exact number is hard to pin down, as there are so many part-time professional musicians. The last time I checked (1999), Luciano Pavarotti was the top paid musician in the world. At $42 million, he made more than the Back Street Boys, 'N Sync, and Christina Aguilera combined. The Chicago Symphony, rumored to be the best orchestra in the world, starts out at about $90K a year and goes up from there.

How can the reality of a career as a musician differ from typical expectations?

Don't expect you'll get into a major orchestra, even if you're qualified. There will probably be 50 to 100 other people auditioning, and most of them will also sound great. If you're having a good day, you'll get the job. If not, on to the next audition. Some musicians have had to attend more than 100 auditions before landing a decent-paying job. That's why I suggest you make your own niche rather than try to find an existing niche, one everyone else is trying to fit into.

People think you can make a living off of just playing, but in most cases you just can't. Even Mozart wasn't able to make a living just by playing. Teaching is the most stable source of income, whether it's private or classroom. Composing can be the most lucrative, though also the hardest to break into.

What are some common myths about the music profession?

There's a general tendency to romanticize the profession. Sure my job is great, but it is still a job. There's repetition, for example. The reason concert artists sound so great is that they've played the hard parts of their piece literally thousands of times. There is the making and returning of phone calls for students, gigs and other musicians. A lot of time is spent on the phone 'schmoozing.' Red tape is always involved when setting up a recording session. I think I have the best job in the world, but I still have to treat it as a job or I won't make any money.

There is also the myth that there are no jobs out there, or that you need to be in New York to get them. Any urban center is filled with thousands, maybe millions of people. Many of them want to be entertained. The work is out there, but it's up to us to pluck it out.

Are there specialty computer software programs for the music field? What are they and what do they do?

Finale and Sibelius are the two music notation programs everyone uses. They're like WordPerfect for music, in that they allow you to put your notes on the screen and print them out in publishable quality. There are programs like Pro Tools that can splice and manipulate sound digitally in ways that used to require you to have a whole studio. There are lots of great practice tools out there, everything from an on-line metronome to a canned rhythm section to play along with.

How has the Internet affected the music profession?

It's helped the little guy. Now, without having a major label contract, I can record CDs of studio quality (if I have a few decent microphones and Pro Tools), write books or music and publish them all online. I can have a worldwide audience and people can buy my music literally while I'm sleeping. Plus, I get to keep all the profit, as opposed to 10% if I release my music through a major label or publishing company.

What are some of the contributions music makes to society?

There are parts of your brain you use when playing or listening to music that you rarely use at any other time. This is why we study math well past long division, analyze Shakespeare, memorize dates in history and figure out the speed of sound through different mediums. Even though we may never use these specific bits of knowledge later in life, they serve to exercise your brain. (Think of a weightlifter - he may never be caught in a situation where he has to lift a 200-lb bar off his chest "later in life", but there is no question that resistance training makes you healthier.) The Greeks knew this, Europe knew this from the Middle Ages, and even America knew this right up until the middle of this century when we started cutting back on music education. Becoming an educated person in ancient Greece or the Renaissance meant knowing all your subjects, music included. It wasn't something limited to a talented few, nor was it an extra-curricular frivolity. We're literally letting a part of our brain atrophy if we ignore music and the other fine arts.

Can you offer performance tips for novices?

Like Nike says, "Just Do It." The first time you play will be terrible, but the first time you try anything difficult you usually don't do it right. Be patient with yourself. If you keep practicing, you can't help but improve. Don't compare yourself to those who have many years' experience over you. Rather, just enjoy the journey.

What challenges will be addressed by the music industry in the next five years?

Coping with the Internet. Worldwide record sales have dropped 20% in recent years, due mostly to illegal downloading and CD burning. Every time someone burns or illegally downloads music from a band's first CD, they're helping to insure that there will be no money to make a second CD. As great as the Internet is, it will be very difficult to police this type of activity. We may have to rely on the goodwill of our consumers to obey the law. If current trends continue, though, there will be no music industry inside 20 years.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in music performance?

Don't sell yourself short. You are both a business and the product of your own business. Think like a businessman: advertise; make yourself as visible as possible; develop your product (i.e. practice); and, very important, charge a fair price. If you undercut the competition, you will not be able to make enough money to live and you will give the impression that your product is not worth spending money on. There are 300 million people in this country, and most of them are starving for music. Give it to them!

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