Is this Jazz? Work and Art, part 3

To help shine a light on the lives of working musicians, I’ve been interviewing my peers about performing and balancing their lives to make the music happen, and asking if they see a difference between playing for art’s sake or as a job.

For this final article I talked to percussionist Ryan Kowal, a fantastic Providence-based improvisor and composer with whom I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate on multiple occasions. I’ve always found a kindred spirit in Ryan because we both have full-time jobs on top of our lives in music, so I was excited to hear his thoughts on balancing the two and get more insight into his personal journey.

Ben Shaw (Motif): How long have you been performing? 

Ryan Kowal: In junior high I was involved in a community jazz band with students and adults that would play out a few times a year, and I’ve been actively playing with different groups ever since, usually in the New England area. I lived in Boston for a few years and got involved with a group of musicians there that I still perform with.

BS: How often do you play out and with how many different ensembles?

RK: On average, once or twice a month. Since I am not relying on gigs to make a living, I am able to be selective about which performances I want to play. There is a revolving group of musicians that I play with most often (probably 20 to 30 people) and most of my gigs are permutations of that. It’s nice because we all get to catch up and have a good time when performing. We aren’t worried about jumping from gig to gig, learning covers and trying to search out the next opportunity. Not relying on making a living from performing takes a lot of the stress out of it, so we can just relax and put forward a great gig. It is great to have a community of musicians around me that I know I can rely on.

BS: Did you consider trying to do music full time?

RK: I did, but the reality of a full time musician is different than what people think it is, as you have illustrated in the earlier articles in this series. Every full-time musician I know, as well as many of the larger name national acts that I know of, have to supplement their income with something other than performing and writing. Many teach, which I am not really interested in. Outside of music, I am an auditor with a public accounting firm.

BS: Do you regret not pursuing it?

RK: Nope! I get to play with the musicians I want, the music I want, and the gigs that I want. I am not relying on it for making a living, I don’t have the stress that comes from that. For me, it is purely a joyful thing. I don’t have to sacrifice anything artistically in service of a paycheck.

BS: How do you balance work and family life with still continuing a creative practice?

RK: It is definitely a challenge. I don’t have as much time as I would like to compose and practice, but having commitments outside of music keeps my mind fresh and ensures that the time that I do have to put toward it will be productive. With a limited timeframe, I have to be focused and can get a lot done. Also, since all my deadlines are self imposed, I get to enjoy the time I get at my instrument without any looming end dates.

BS: What’s should people consider if they’re thinking about working a full-time job while still playing?

RK: Be aware that you won’t have as much time to put toward your craft. There will be times it will have to take a back-burner while other commitments are satisfied, but that being said, you will have full artistic freedom. You will be able to create exactly what you want with no guidelines. It is definitely rewarding to be able to make and perform exactly what you want. There is a tradeoff between creative sacrifice and time sacrifice, but I’ll choose creative freedom every time.

BS: Lastly, what’s one thing you wish people knew about when they see live music?

RK: Just to remember that what you are seeing in a performance represents hundreds or thousands of hours practicing, rehearsing and writing. There is much more that goes on behind the scenes than most people think. When I am performing, I am doing it to share the culmination of all that work with people. I want people to enjoy it, or at least expose them to something new or interesting.

For more information on Ryan visit ryankowal.com

Ben Shaw is a local composer, performer, and writer. Find him at benjaminshawmusic.com