Organist Ryan Jackson was the inaugural recipient of The Tecumseh Sherman Rogers Graduating Award in 2006. The award, consisting of a $25,000 prize, is given to a graduating student of the Faculty of Music who is deemed to have the greatest potential to make an important contribution to the field of music.
Ryan has been active as a recitalist, church organist, and now choral conductor since his graduation in 2006. A well-decorated performer, he notably won the Royal Canadian College of Organists’ National Organ Playing Competition, the SICM Osborne Organ Competition, and was a prizewinner in the 2008 Fort Wayne National Organ Playing Competition.
After his graduation from the Faculty of Music he moved to the United States for further study, first to Yale University for his Master of Music and then to The Juilliard School for his Doctor of Musical Arts. Shortly after completing his doctorate, Ryan was appointed William S. Perper Director of Music and Fine Arts Ministries at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, after a competitive and international application process. Prior to this appointment, he served in the music programs at Christ Church United Methodist on Park Avenue; the University Church at Yale; and Metropolitan United Church in Toronto.
A multifaceted musician, Ryan is also an accomplished choral conductor and administrator. He currently leads the choirs at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, including the professional Chamber Choir, and directs the year-round concert series presented by the church.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Rogers Graduating Award we caught up with Ryan. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where did you go after you graduated?
My first stop was at Yale University where I did my Master’s degree and as I started to get through the second year of my program I started thinking, “What am I going to do now?” Part of me thought that I would take a break from school, because at that point I had been in it for six years straight. A couple of years before then I had been in a national competition in Canada and one of the adjudicators was the head of the organ department at Juilliard. He and I had kept in touch since that competition and he took me out for lunch and made the case for staying in school and applying for my DMA. I then got into Juilliard and moved to New York City in 2008.
During my last year I was again at that crossroads of “What am I going to do? If I graduate and don’t have a job, I’ll have to leave the country.” Out of nowhere this job opened at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in the city and I thought I would take this long shot, thinking they were probably looking for someone more experienced than I was. To my surprise I kept advancing through the various stages of the application process and before I knew it, I was one of the finalists and they offered me the job, which I’ve been doing ever since.
You don’t really know where the opportunities are going to lead you and you don’t know when the door is going to open or when it will appear. I have been very fortunate that it has been clear to me, just at the right time when I needed it to be, of what to do and where to go.
Did you have any specific plans when you won the award?
It went a long way and ended up supporting me through my time at Yale and Juilliard. I ended up using the last bit of it to go on a study trip through northern Germany – organized by [Faculty of Music organ instructor] Patricia and William Wright. It was an amazing gift and I was grateful so many times over the course of those years that those funds were there so that I was able to focus on what I went down [to the United States] to do. I was able to spend my time practicing or applying for competitions or jobs, and able to just say yes when the opportunity to go to Juilliard came along. It allowed me to pursue the opportunities without the worry that so many of us feel as artists and musicians.
The organ is a special instrument in that it is very connected to its physical space. Is there one that sticks out in your experience?
For us organ nerds there are many pinnacles of organ building that are famous throughout the world. One of the most famous is Notre Dame in Paris, I was able to go to a few concerts there and was even able to go into the loft and watch the organist play. That still sticks out to me as an incredible moment - hearing that instrument in that room. If you took out the Notre Dame organ and put it in Walter Hall it is no longer the same instrument. It is one with the room in which its installed and that makes the organ unique in that you have to travel to it to experience it.
Another of the most famous organs in the world is at Yale University in Woolsey Hall. That organ is one of the greatest romantic organs in the world and one of the largest. I was really lucky while I was there to get to play it regularly and performed several concerts on it.
Do you have a favourite Canadian organ?
When I was at the Faculty, I was the Associate Music Director of Metropolitan United Church and that has the largest pipe organ in Canada. I loved it, it’s just a treasure box of sounds. It has 130 stops, which means 130 different sounds. It’s like playing a whole orchestra and that’s what I loved about that instrument, whatever you could possibly imagine that instrument could do it. To this day I feel so lucky I got to spend basically limitless time on such an amazing instrument. It opened my mind to what is possible.
You have to wear a lot of different hats, as a recitalist, church organist, and choral director. How do you find balance between them?
That is a constant adventure, at times I find myself achieving different balances. Basically, throughout all of school my main focus was organ performance, I wanted to be a concert organist and I wanted to be a church organist. So, I poured all of my energy into that and thrived during school on that alone time in the practice room or at a church.
My role now has become focused on conducting and artistic direction. I love collaborating with people and inspiring people to get on the same page with an artistic vision for a piece. Voice has always been another passion of mine: getting voices to blend; getting people to sing in tune; and getting to the heart of the text we’re expressing has become very much the main thrust of what I do now. As well, there are the administrative aspects of my position, choosing repertoire and in my case building a concert series.
I have an assistant organist who does a lot of the playing, which frees me up to focus on my conducting. I do still play in church, play concerts, and some teaching, it’s a multifaceted career. As I’ve gotten older the collaborative aspects of music making has become more and more important to me. Building community and co-sculpting a musical expression with other people has become what I really love to do.
In the midst of COVID-19 we’ve all had to pivot to digital. How has this affected you?
It has been a very steep learning curve. Of course, we can’t do communal music making which is so much of what my job is as Music Director. In our particular case, the church has moved to online worship services that are pre-recorded. Musically, we’ve been doing a couple of different things: virtual solos where I accompany a singer with side-by-side video; using archival concert and worship material; and virtual choir, which has been the most advanced thing we’ve done. I’ve had to learn, very quickly, some fairly advanced editing skills for audio and video. At first it was overwhelming, but now that I’ve been learning more about it, I’m enjoying discovering a new skill and a new way for us to make music together.
Did you have any concerts that you were looking forward to that were cancelled?
Before this happened, I was working on an exciting project that was a piano four-hands arrangement of the Verdi Requiem for our 2020 Lent concert. I worked with this amazing piano duo on a piano four-hands arrangement of Brahms’ Requiem last season and wanted to do another piece with them while we are able to collaborate. I arranged the Verdi from the orchestral score and I had an amazing time making friends with that music. We literally had the first rehearsal and then everything was shut down. I was very disappointed about it at first, but now it gives me another year to look forward to it.
Do you have any advice for this year’s award winners?
We all go through these periods where it feels like you’re in the desert, “Where is my opportunity? What am I supposed to do with myself?” The opportunity comes at the right time and you can’t always know it beforehand, so just have faith that the right door will come at the right time and you’ll know what to do. Of course, people tried to tell me that all along too and it didn’t stop me from worrying, but, as you get a little bit more experience and you go along you learn to trust that the door will open, and don’t be afraid to go for it.