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When Playing Is How You Breathe

Faculty Profile: Ali Ryerson

Ali Ryerson performs at a concert in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.

by Timothy Deenihan

Ali Ryerson doesn’t remember where she was or what she was doing, but she remembers the realization itself with perfect clarity. She had been playing the piano since she was 5 and the flute since she was 8. By the time she was 11, she was teaching both instruments, as well as guitar. And it occurred to her, without equivocation, that music—and the flute in particular—was not a hobby, not something she did. It was a part of her, like breathing. It would be her life.

faculty_ali_ryerson2“I just loved it,” Ryerson says. Even over the telephone, one can hear the silken joy in her voice. The memory plainly inspires her afresh. “I loved it, loved it, loved it,” she says.

To say that music is in her blood would be cliché if it were not so patently the case. Her father was a studio musician in New York City; his discipline and dedication to his art made him the mentor and model of her life in music. He worked in a studio all day long. Then, when he was home, “if he wasn’t sleeping or eating, he was practicing,” Ryerson recalls. “He showed me there’s no trickery when it comes to being a good musician.”

In short, it doesn’t matter if you love your work—it’s still long, hard work.

In addition to Ryerson’s own schedule of lessons and practice, she taught music all through school, eventually becoming a full-time musician at 20. She played live and in the studio, recorded jazz and built a distinguished classical career not only in performance, but as a composer as well. One might even call her “internationally known.” The Sacred Heart University adjunct professor only recently returned from Japan, where she performed in a quartet at the oldest jazz club in Tokyo and appeared before two sold-out houses as guest soloist with the Japan Jazz Flute Big Band, a company modeled after a band she built here some 14 years ago. Next May, Ryerson is scheduled to appear as a guest artist at the International Festival of Flutists in Lima, Peru, and then to perform and offer a master class at the Galway Flute Festival in Switzerland in July.

She keeps a schedule few could match, between travel, studio time and teaching obligations, in addition to her own gigs and, of course, the discipline of practicing every day. “My father ended every conversation with ‘and don’t forget to practice,’” she says, but it’s evident the reminder wasn’t necessary. When she speaks of being on stage with the band, she’s as giddy as if she’s speaking of her first date with her high-school crush.

That’s the allure of playing jazz: every date is a first date. Ryerson will talk of the thrill of not knowing where it will go and wondering if they can trust each other, and she will tell you all the things that could go wrong and still be caught in the magic of making something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

She often teaches young musicians whose parents are eager to know if their son or daughter should pursue the art. “I always tell them: ‘If he has to.’ Meaning, nothing else will make their child happy.”

The advice is not intended to drive anyone out of the arts. Rather, it is intended to help newcomers understand this is not a life that will make sense to most people. It’s some kind of paradox, where the very best are the ones good enough to let go; where strict discipline is the only way to liberty; where intense sacrifice is the key to immeasurable riches; and the courage to risk getting it wrong is the only way you’ll ever get it right.

That is what beauty is, really, isn’t it? That paradox? That something more? That part you can’t explain, that you can only feel; that whatever-it-is you cannot define and yet surely cannot deny? Find it once, and it changes you forever.

It’s a punishing exchange, though, and it can take its toll. “I’ve seen a lot of musicians get burned out. The audience is enthralled, but you look at the players…” She doesn’t finish the observation. She doesn’t need to.

“Except, not in jazz,” she says. “I can’t think of any jazz musician I’ve known who is burned out. There’s a freedom. There’s camaraderie and conversations. It’s always fresh. It’s always new.”

And again, more than her words, the unmistakable joy in her voice lets you know: when you follow your heart, every single day you’re 11 again and in love with the world.

Watch a clip from Ryerson’s performance with the Japan Jazz Flute Big Band in November.