by Alejandra Molina
photography by Adam Omernik
The life of a working musician can be an emotional roller coaster. Searching for gigs to make ends meet or securing a record deal that will lead you to the top is the dream of every musician, but is rarely attainable. For guitarist Michael Ryan, however, his experience in the music industry is anything but that. His standard set of gigs, his own record label and a wide variety of musical associations are helping him reach fame and stability in the music business.
Ryan’s fame is not the kind that will have the paparazzi running after him for a picture or lead to a concert played in front of 30,000 audience members. His scene is more intimate, one of a “troubadour,” as he likes to describe himself. He says a “troubadour,” is an accurate description of a modern-day minstrel who is a singer and songwriter with an ancient soul. Indeed, he sees himself as a singer and performer of the Renaissance, expressing his musical ideals in small venues with small, intimate groups. “I like that kind of intimate connection with my audience,” he says. Ryan plays in a large number of gigs and performs for a total of 70,000 audience members each year. Because he plays for small audiences, Ryan knows that he has loyal fans who will support him no matter where he plays.
Playing Spanish classical pieces, Irish folk songs, light blues and his original work on his Esteve guitar, Ryan sets the romantic ambiance to the pre-show dinner at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, where he plays three days a week, twice a day. “Every place I play in is different,” he says. “People are going to be there to listen; loyal fans will be there.”
The Candlelight Pavilion is a high-class dinner theater where families can go and have a formal dinner and watch a musical after their meal. While they are eating, Ryan plays his guitar, and people usually set aside their meals to watch him play. After every piece, Ryan gently bows his head in appreciation of the audience’s applause. To Ryan, his audience is a very important aspect of his musical career. “When you play music, you feel a harmony with the audience,” he says. “We’re all sharing this experience together.” His traditional last piece of the evening, “Malaguena,” sets the energetic mood of the audience for the remainder of the night at the Pavilion. Ryan’s energy and passion for playing the guitar is shown in this piece, which has a more upbeat tone than his previous pieces at the dinner. The audience is awed by the way his fingers deftly strum the strings.
Ryan’s solo performances garnered enough popularity to convince the Pavilion to host him as a regular to perform for the pre-show dinners. Then while playing for the Pavilion, Ryan wanted to put on his own concert, so he asked a couple of his friends to perform with him in these headliner concerts Who would have known that Ryan’s friends were the famous Ron Powell and Ken Soderland, who played with him at his concert, along with the other six members of his ensemble.
An encore performance of the Michael Ryan and Friends Concert was held in the University of La Verne’s Founders Hall proving that Ryan excels in every aspect of performing. Whether he is with his large ensemble, as he was in the concert, or by himself in the Candlelight Pavilion, Ryan’s talent is unmatched. The atmosphere of this concert was different from that of the Pavilion. It showed that Ryan is capable of livening up an audience with a more upbeat tone and the wide variety of music that he plays. From rock ‘n’ roll to romantic ballads, his ensemble used a variety of instruments: the harmonica, flute, acoustic and electric guitar and the piano.
Since January 2002, Ryan has performed four concerts with his ensemble. Aside from practicing with his group, performing in concerts and playing in the Pavilion, Ryan plays every Wednesday night at Casa de Salsa with Soderland. His other gigs consist of playing for the Claremont Colleges, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca and various wedding parties. This is the life of a working musician, a life that Ryan loves no matter how busy he is. “I like to keep myself busy. It feels like I’m accomplishing things in life,” he says. And his dedication to his hectic schedule has paid off. For six years, Ryan has had his own record label with the help of two friends, Adam Kaplan and Jayne Robertson. Kaplan and Ryan wrote the music, while Robertson created the Villa Loba music label. Ryan’s “Romance” CD, one of four CDs in his name, has sold more than 40,000 copies, making him a member of the Grammy organization, an accomplishment in which he takes great pride. As a member, he has the opportunity to vote for Grammy nominees and is invited to functions, parties and viewings of new films. Also, through this program, he is able to network with other people in the recording industry. Ryan markets many of his CDs through his Web site: www.michaelryanmusic.com. The Web site goes directly to the CD Baby Company, which handles the selling of his CDs. His music is also sold at www.amazon.com.
Selling CDs and performing at gigs are not the only tasks that occupy Ryan’s time. He also works five days a week, teaching guitar classes at the University of La Verne. Though teaching was not one of his top priorities, it is now, as his students show enthusiasm toward his classes. “I was thinking I’d perform; I really didn’t have a focus in teaching,” he says. “But the students show a lot of interest.”The intimacy and small community of La Verne is one of the reasons Ryan decided to teach at the University. “I liked the University of La Verne because it is a small college; everyone seemed to be very happy,” he recalls of his alma mater. Ryan graduated from ULV in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in guitar performance. “I’ve had students take his guitar classes; he really passes down his knowledge to them,” says Reed Gratz, professor of music, who is a member of Ryan’s ensemble. Gratz has known Ryan for 26 years. The two met when Ryan graduated from ULV and became a faculty member.
While at ULV, Ryan met Jim Fahringer, a man who inspired him to pursue his musical career. Fahringer is now the conductor/director for the Claremont Symphony Orchestra. When Ryan attended ULV, Fahringer was the chairman of the music department and his music professor. Ryan also took voice lessons from Fahringer’s wife Delphine. “Both of them were very supporting and inspiring,” he says. “He was a very inspirational fellow; he had so much passion for music.” Ryan recalls the help he received from Fahringer in a guitar recital his senior year. “He made it seem so easy. It was a successful recital,” he says. Ryan also had chamber singing experience while he attended the University. He toured for three weeks with the chamber singers in Canada and throughout the West Coast, singing for churches and high schools. Fahringer’s passion for music is similar to Ryan’s, who for 37 years now, has been pursuing his musical career.
“It just fascinated me,” Ryan says. “Almost every aspect of music, I have interest in.” Music is his life, and he likes the fame that comes along with it. “If I had more fame, I’d be OK with that,” he says. But it is not the fame that motivates him to keep playing the guitar; it is his passion that keeps him going. “He mentions fame playfully, but he wouldn’t mind more,” says his new wife Tracy Governatori. “He truly cares about his audience. It’s not a job; he enjoys what he is doing.”
“When you play music, it feels good. It’s expressive and created,” Ryan says. “It serves as a creative release, and it is fun to do.” Ryan first picked up a guitar to play rock ‘n’ roll and folk but later gained a passion for classical guitar. “Classical guitar has different melodies going on at the same time. A lot of things are happening,” he says. “He’s collective; he plays classical music, Latin music and has his own compositions,” Gratz says. “He’s wrapped up in his own music.”
Ryan is currently looking forward to playing in Bretten, Germany this summer, where he was invited to perform in the 499th Peter Paul Renaissance Festival for four days. “The whole town goes back to the Renaissance era,” Ryan says. “It’s a very exciting event.” Ryan has traveled to Europe four times for various summer performances, playing in different jazz clubs in Germany and Switzerland. “It’s extra money,” he says of his touring experiences. So far, Ryan is pleased with his music career and with the way everything is going in his life. “I am very satisfied. If more comes, I am ready for it,” he says.