Hearing the Heartbeat of Music: An Interview with Renowned Fiddle Player Ryan Joseph

Celebrated fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Joseph is just one of the amazing instructors at the Brad Schoener MusicMan Camp. Born just outside Pittsburgh, this Pennsylvania native moved to Nashville in 2007 to pursue his dream of music performance. Ryan Joseph currently tours with country music legend Alan Jackson, and has performed, toured, or recorded with artists including Billy Ray Cyrus, Laura Bell Bundy, Zac Brown, Carrie Underwood, and more. We sat down with Ryan Joseph to talk about his connections to Musicman Camp and his lifelong love of music. 

Q: How did you get involved with music & performance?

A: My grandfather played the violin. I remember vividly sitting on my grandfather’s lap and holding his hand as he would draw the bow across the strings when I was less than a year old. He started me on the violin when I was three, and passed away when I was four. My family all played; I grew up in a family band and also started on classical Suzuki lessons. That’s a method that’s a hybrid in my opinion because it’s based in classical music, but about learning it by ear before associating it with the notes on the page. It’s the best of all worlds in a lot of ways.

Q: How have the arts shaped/impacted your life?

A: It’s been my whole life. For me, music and family are synonymous. They’re just the same thing; everybody in my family was involved in it in some way. However, they all did it as a hobby and I wanted to do it as a career, so I took the next step. Some of them didn’t quite get the fact that you can do music as a career. It really has been my whole life. When someone asks me, “What are your hobbies?” I say, “I don’t really have one, except for music.” My hobby is my career is my passion is my love. It’s what I eat, breathe, and consume. I have two little girls at home, one that’s seven weeks old and the other two and a half years old. My wife’s in music too, and just getting to see them grow up and learn, you can see that music is just in them. They match pitch easily, they pick up on rhythms, grooves, whatever it is. 

Music is just something that is in my blood, so to speak. It’s not just something that’s impacted me, it’s something that I am. And that’s not to say that I expect the students to feel the same way. I’m probably kind of an extreme case, and I hope that maybe that extremity I have helps someone to enjoy a tune or a style, or help someone understand music a little bit more. I don’t expect them to turn into me, I just want to give them as much opportunity to open their eyes to things that they can decide whether they like or not. 

Q: How were you introduced to MusicMan Camp?

A: I’ve been playing my whole life, and went to undergrad school for Music Education. At the end of my tenure there, my father passed away from a heart attack. He couldn’t wait to retire, and he would always tell me “Do something you love, because I can’t wait until I’m 65 and I can retire.” 

I’m originally from Pittsburgh, PA but I’ve always had a dream to go to Nashville. Alan Jackson, the country artist, was the first record that I ever bought with my own money. My biggest full-time gig since I’ve been in Nashville is with him. I’ve been playing with Alan for the past 11 years. I also kept going with my studies, got my doctorate, and I am now the Coordinator of Strings at Belmont University in Nashville. 

With all of those different things, I also do clinician work at Eastman Music Company. They had me at a clinic–I don’t remember where it was–and Jen Schoener happened to be there. She came up to me, and I think this is year six that I’ve been here, including virtual MusicMan Camp a few years ago. These people are so great, and I just have this true desire to make this community have as many real, authentic experiences in music as possible. I believe in that so I keep coming back, and they’re kind enough to keep asking me back. 

Q: What’s your favorite part of MusicMan Camp?

A: There’s so many great things, but I would probably say it’s something that both is and is not music-related: the comradery that is present among the faculty and the students. The joy that you can feel and the desire that the faculty has to make it better every single year, and to constantly not be satisfied with where it is makes it so special. They don’t look at it just as, “This went really well,” they follow it up with, “What else can we do to make a deeper impact on somebody.” I would say that the community that’s here, the people who are here, the way that they teach, the way that they lead, and also the individual impact that I see in students is amazing. 

This year in particular, there’s been a new effort to have individual sessions with each student. Al Chez is taking all of the woodwinds one at a time and I’m taking all of the strings. There are students who keep coming in–even some of the repeat folks who wouldn’t say two words–who you could really see open up even after our 20 minutes. Especially post-Covid, the fact that music really does help us to communicate is so important. A lot of the kids at this age don’t really have any experience having a conversation with somebody who’s not in their house. There are just so many powerful things about music and MusicMan that I love.

Q: Any words of encouragement for aspiring musicians?

A: Anything is possible, and that’s both for aspiring musicians and for aspiring anything. That’s my main message to folks, because if you would have asked me when I was younger, “What do you want to do for a career,” it’s exactly what I’m doing now. The folks that I’ve gotten to play with–Alan Jackson for me was my Elvis growing up–and the way that that all occurred was incredible. I moved to Nashville not really knowing anybody who was in a position that could help me, but it just happened. 

When somebody told me “no,” I just didn’t listen because I really wanted to do this. If you want to be a musician or do something in music, just know that people are going to tell you that you can’t do it. If you really want to do it, keep going. Be a realist; if you want to be like me you have to understand that it’s a business too. It’s an art and a business, so you also have to know how to sell what you’re doing, which is never talked about. If you don’t want to do it as a business or a career, then you don’t have to worry about that part. You can just join in and enjoy it for the value that music has. 

The biggest thing that I would say though is a piece of advice that a friend of mine gave recently that impacted me. He said, “Make as many friends in your field as you can,” which I think goes for any field as well as music. Typically, it’s my friends who hire me. He also said, “the worst thing that can happen if you make a lot of friends in the field that you want to be in is that you have more friends.” And honestly, what’s the worst that could happen? They might not be the lynchpin to get you to where your ultimate goal is, but you’re going to have another friend. And be genuine in your friendships; don’t approach a friendship thinking, “I’m going to be friends with Joe because Joe can get me this.” No, be friends with Joe because he’s Joe and you like him. Maybe you admire Joe and want to be in the field that Joe’s in, but your first object should be to get to know Joe organically. 

The way I got the Alan Jackson gig is that I asked a person that I admired when I moved to Nashville for a lesson. His name is Kenny Sears and I just adore him; he’s just fabulous. I went for a lesson and he said, “I can’t show you anything, but I’ll keep you in mind if I ever hear anything.” Fast-forward three years later, and that’s when it happened. And he could have showed me plenty, he’s an amazing fiddle player and I actually get to play with him regularly now at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. But yes, that’s my advice. 

Q: What does “uniting community through music” mean to you?

A: I think I probably covered some of this already but, like I said, music and family are synonymous to me. Music brings people together, it brings families together from my experience. Therefore, if you want to widen that umbrella a bit and take it outside just your family to your community, it can do the same thing for the community. Music can heal. It can heal, it can make you think, it can make you feel so many different emotions. It’s funny; when tragedy happens, a lot of times people flock to music. Before I came here, a dear friend of our family passed away, and I went up to play at the funeral. The music, not me, but the music, healed in a way. 

I think music is very powerful, and the biggest challenge that I see in the way that music is taught today is that it’s nowhere near front-of-mind. Kids get the notes on the page, they see the black dots, they play it wrong, they start thinking “This isn’t right, this doesn’t sound good, I’m a terrible person, etc.” It’s just a ripple effect. However, if we start by saying that music can heal and by allowing our hearts and our ears to guide us, it would be so much better. Of course music’s hard and playing an instrument is hard, but you can’t just focus on the difficulties and technicalities in the early years. If nothing else, what I did is study those types of things and work those things out in very small fragments of time so you don’t get overwhelmed and burnt out, but then listen to things that you like. 

Listening to music is in my opinion just as powerful, if not a more powerful practice, than sitting and playing scales and exercises. Listen. Why? Because you can feel the heart, you can feel the things that build community. You need that early on and you need to know what makes you tick. You can’t only focus on technique and all of the rigors of whatever instrument you’re playing because you’ll lose the heart of it, and the heart is what builds community.

To learn more about Ryan Joseph, check out his website: 

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