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Interview with Ryan Marvel, April 2018
Interview with Ryan Marvel, image 1
Ryan Marvel’s Reflecting Forward took top honors as “2017 Album of the Year” from both Whisperings Solo Piano Radio and SoloPiano.com. The album blew me away when I reviewed it because not only was the music exceptionally beautiful, the emotions expressed were so powerful. I met Ryan at the Whisperings All-Star Concert and Awards in March of 2018 in Kirkland, WA and wanted to do an interview to talk about the music and to get to know him a little better. This candid interview is both fascinating and inspiring. Enjoy!

KP: Hi Ryan! Are you still basking in the glow of winning the 2017 Whisperings’ Album of the Year for Reflecting Forward?

RM: So good to talk with you, Kathy. Thank you. And…I still don’t think it has fully hit me. It was such an emotional evening…I wish I could go back and re-live each moment. I can’t quite remember what I said after winning the award! I am extremely grateful, and very humbled to have been recognized amongst such amazing fellow artists. Yes…definitely floating still.

KP: In addition to creating the Album of the Year, your performance at the All-Star Awards Concert was one of the most moving performances I’ve ever experienced. Your introductory comments really drew everyone in, and then the music was so emotionally intense. I can’t wait to see you perform a whole concert!

RM: Thank you…that piece, “Apology,” holds very deep meaning for me. The entire album is certainly very personal, and it requires a lot of emotional energy to get into that vulnerable place. But that has been an important part of this collection, and it has been overwhelming to hear how it is resonating with people.

KP: One of the things that was so exceptional about your performance was the honesty of both your words and your music. That was an incredibly brave thing to do. Was it difficult?
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Click on album covers above to
go to Kathy's reviews.
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RM: I think the challenge in that particular moment is trying to craft words and a performance – six minutes in total – by opening up your heart to people you’ve never met, and at the same time not completely come out of the blue. I credit the performers and speakers on stage before and after me for setting that table, truly. It allowed me to feel comfortable. I really wanted to be honest and open and tell what the piece was about. But once I felt good about what I would say, I was at peace and just let the moment take over…the playing is always easy for me, I lose myself.

KP: I didn’t know it until the end of the concert, but your parents were sitting in front of me. Your mom recognized my name as one who reviewed your album and we both shed some tears at the end of the concert! What made that little incident even more intriguing was that after breakfast at the hotel that morning, a gentleman was having trouble with his key card for the door to the hotel hallway, so I helped him. It turned out he was your dad (I didn’t know that either until he turned around when I was talking to your mom!). Your parents were in the room next to Pam Asberry and me! I hope we didn’t keep them awake Saturday night with our laughter!

RM: Ok, that is funny! And I love that you got to meet them in that moment at the concert; they are wonderful people. They have always been there…at every recital, celebration, heartache and learning experience. My mom gives me inspiration as a fellow artist and writer – her poem appears in the front left panel of the album – and Dad is one of the most genuine, loving and funny humans you will ever meet. I’m very blessed by an amazing family.

KP: I love your mom’s poem in the album! Quite a few artists in the new age and classical crossover genres create music to be healing for listeners, but it seems that in your case, composing the music for Reflecting Forward was healing for the composer. Is that true?

RM: It absolutely was. I don’t know that I had intent or even the idea that it would come to that…I just turned to the piano to see what would come out. Looking back I can absolutely see that I was seeking healing, but I don’t know that I could have verbalized that at the time. Once the first trickle found its way through, the dam broke and the water came rushing. Don’t misunderstand – a lot of pain and personal anguish brought me to the place of creating this music. But once the music was writing itself, it flowed. And yes…I have found healing – repeatedly – in not only writing and performing it, but also hearing from others what it has meant to them.

KP: Can you explain a bit about what Reflecting Forward is about?

RM: The album is a musical journey through healing. I had a very personally challenging year in 2017, and I turned to the piano to help me through that time. I wasn’t trying to create an album…I needed to play what I was feeling in the moment. I tried to live into the emotion I was feeling - pain, shame, anger, sadness, hope – and let that develop the music. Through that I was able to find renewal, redemption and rebirth. In some ways, the album ended up being a soundtrack to my last year. I have said many times that this is not a sad album…it is a human album. The emotions on display, while very personal, have certainly resonated with many. It might sound strange, but I am grateful – and stronger – to have experienced this creative healing.

KP: Did you compose the pieces in any specific order?

RM: No…I generally compose many at the same time. On this album, it was a challenge to keep up with what was coming out of my heart and fingers so I tried not to think, just write. I compose at the piano in real time, with no notes or manuscript. I record my sessions, talk to myself on the recording, and then fine tune ideas from there. Nothing is written down until after the album is recorded. Now, I will say that the order is very intentional and once I had recorded all of the pieces, (also out of order) it was very clear to me what the order would be. It is designed to go through the year as I experienced it. Each individual piece could be pulled out, but if you listen to the complete album in order, you should hear the emotional arc.

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Ryan introducing "Apology" in Kirkland, WA 3/4/18.
KP: How long of a period of time did it take to compose the album?

RM: Not long…there was never that ‘struggle’ piece that usually presents itself at least once on albums. I compose at all hours of the night, so it would be hard to boil it down to days. And sometimes I would take a week off to reflect and “write” away from the piano during walks, time with family or a respite at the beach. I would say, as a project, I was actively working on it from late April to late June last year.

KP: The companion songbook has ten of the fourteen pieces from the album. Do you plan to do sheet music for the other four pieces?

RM: Yes! I released Vol. 1 in November of last year, and the other four are in the works now. I should have them released within the next few months.
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Click on book covers to go to
Kathy's reviews.

KP: The piece “Conflict” has a really interesting sound that might be difficult to explain in sheet music. How did you mute the strings for parts of the piece?

RM: Yeah, I have been trying to figure out how to notate that one! I love the different sounds our instrument can make and wanted to utilize the dampened string sound intentionally in this composition. “Conflict” is about the inner struggle of not facing my truth and also looking too much at other’s words…and navigating what to act upon. It was early on in the year, and I felt like I wasn’t always my full self – so I wanted to write a piece representative of that by not always using the full piano sound. So by taking my palm and pressing it (gently) down on the strings, just enough to stop them from resonating completely, you can achieve this percussive plunking (super technical term) that, with the sustain pedal down, creates quite a texture against the normal piano sound.

KP: I love your “technical term”!!! Have you started your next album?

RM: Yes. Sketches only. I am working on some new originals right now, as well as planning for another holiday album. I am always writing in my head. As of now, nothing is taking shape as the premise or theme of the albums as of yet. I am sure it will hit me at 3:30 AM at some point!

KP: It seems like it could be a little scary to do a follow-up to such an amazing album. Are you going to do something completely different from Reflecting Forward?

RM: Great question. I quipped recently that my next album would be Happy, Happy, Joy Joy! to be the antidote to an album with such deep emotion. Ha! But hey, we all identify with those emotions. That said – it will be a challenge to follow it up. I think it is important as artists to write as the mood strikes and not force…we have all been there, and usually it doesn’t create the masterpiece we are striving for. Coming off of this album and the way it is being received, I am taken by the idea of telling our stories, which I spoke about in Kirkland. I want to continue to do that…and when the next chapter comes, I will let it come out.

KP: Wise words! Let’s talk a bit about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

RM: I was born in Denver, CO. Grew up mostly in the west (Colorado and Montana) and graduated high school in Durango, CO. I lived in Minnesota and Phoenix for several years, and then moved back home to the mountains in 2005. I have lived in Fort Collins since then.

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KP: When did you start playing the piano? How long did you take lessons?

RM: I started playing by ear when my older brother John began taking lessons. I was five at that time. I started lessons at 7 and frustrated many a teacher, as I didn’t want to read, I could already play anything by ear. I finally found a teacher who would support both ear-training, arranging and composing as well as reading. I took lessons through my first (and only) year of college, mostly in classical repertoire.

KP: Do you come from a musical family?

RM: My grandmother on my Dad’s side, Frances Smith Marvel, was a fine pianist and musician. She certainly was my inspiration on the piano. I remember many times on the piano together, and she taught me the value of reading, as she could sight-read anything and I was always blown away by that. She, on the other hand, didn’t play by ear much…so we shared our individual talents with one another. My dad played trumpet in high school, my mom played the accordion in marching band. My brother is an amazing singer, and also plays piano quite well. He and I performed together many times at hotels and recitals – wonderful memories for sure.

KP: Do you play other instruments in addition to piano?

RM: I played trumpet throughout high school in marching and symphonic band; I also play a bit of djembe and some other percussion instruments. I would love to eventually learn the guitar and cello.
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Ryan accepting his Album of the Year award at Whisperings 3/4/18.

KP: Do you teach as well?

RM: Yes, I have been teaching for over 20 years. I maintain a full private studio out of my home, comprised mostly of adult students. Some composition, some arranging, some classical.

KP: When did you compose your first piece?

RM: We might have to ask my Mom about that…I remember writing little pieces pretty early on, and I think I performed some of them in recitals. My brother and I wrote a piece for her called “BG’s Babies Brothers Blues” and played the duet at a recital - I think we were 10 and 12? At any rate, arranging started really early and composing was not far behind. I don’t know that I knew I wanted to be a composer for a career until my first year of college, even though I had written several pieces up to that point.

KP: When did you release your first album?

RM: In 2005, I released Left Hand, Right Hand, an exploration of the left brain and right brain in relation to the hands. It is made up of classical, jazz, original arrangements and two compositions.
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KP: Who and/or what are some of your biggest musical influences?

RM: I would say musical theater and going to the symphony as a kid really exposed me to the stage and what it meant to connect with an audience. I have always been very comfortable in front of people…sharing music has always been an absolute joy and honor and thrill. Now I feel like it is sharing a part of myself, and that vulnerability is powerful.

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

RM: Well, the performance and concert in Kirkland is certainly up there! I am always looking for vulnerability and connection in music. I have been blessed to collaborate with so many wonderful musicians in many arenas as choral conductor, pianist, musical director, etc. I have had the opportunity to conduct choirs on pieces I composed, which is always a thrill. Leading congregations of several hundred in singing is powerful. And watching my students perform well is such a poignant feeling. I think for me it is the moment – any moment – that you witness music making a connection in humanity. There is a sense of sacred space, something that is hard to describe in words. Those are the experiences I cherish.

KP: Who are some of your favorite composers?

RM: Brahms. Mozart. Rachmaninoff. Gershwin. Liz Story. Ennio Morricone. Phillip Glass. Arvo Part. Eric Whitacre. Ola Gjielo.

KP: Who are some of your favorite performers?
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RM: Elton John. Barry Manilow. Sting. Billy Joel. Nora Jones.

KP: It sounds like you have a very special relationship with your daughter. Is she musical, too?

RM: She is my light…and my best friend. We do have a pretty special bond. She is a good singer (she can be heard on my Winter album as a seven year old) and loves to dance; she has great pitch and rhythm. We always have music going in the house, and she helps me a lot with my music as an editor – I ask her opinion quite a bit. Her current loves are hanging with friends, YouTube, the ocean and going to Target.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

RM: Time Travel. Tour as a musician across Europe. Have good health for my lifetime.

KP: Thanks, Ryan! I’m really looking forward to having you come and play here in Florence, OR sometime next year!

RM: Kathy, it was such a special moment to finally meet you in Washington after the concert. Your effort and support for pianists around the world is so appreciated. Thank you for this opportunity to chat and I look forward to playing there early in 2019. Thank you.
For more information about Ryan Marvel and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
April 2018