Q&A with Isac Ryu, double bass

This week we sat down with Double Bassist Isac Ryu, a former student who went on to become a Kaplan Fellow at the Festival. We talked about life, inspiration, and the joys of a life in music. Now you can explore all this and more in our interview series with a handful of Bowdoin’s most talented and hard-working students. This is a rare opportunity to get to know the people behind all of the wonderful music we present each summer.

Ryu was born in Seoul and began his musical studies at the Seoul National University, where he was principal bassist of the Symphony Orchestra during his junior and senior years. He also performed with the Bucheon Philharmonic Orchestra, Korean Chamber Orchestra and many other representative orchestras in Korea as a guest musician. After college he completed his military service as a principal bassist of the Korea National Police Orchestra. He moved to the U.S. in 2011 and pursued a Master of Music degree at The Juilliard School.

Isac finished his Professional Performance Certificate at Lynn University last year. He is presently an Artist Diploma candidate at Robert McDuffie Center for Strings under the guidance of Prof. Kurt Muroki and Prof. Peter Lloyd.

BIMF: What is your earliest musical memory?

Isac: I remember that my father used to take me to a jazz club called Janus, which was a block away from my house. I think I was probably around five or so. I do not recall the tunes that I listened to. What I remember is the awkward feeling of sitting on a bar stool, the smell of cigarettes, and fragments of images like a small stage packed with musicians or a young lady singing in front of a microphone. One night I asked my father what “that weird shaped guitar” was, and he told me it was a bass. I guess that was the first time I saw a bass.

BIMF: What is the best advice you have ever received from an instructor?

Isac: When I was at Lynn University, FL, I used to play for David Cole who was the cello teacher at the school. He was a true mentor for me. One day, I played a piece for him and I didn’t like how I had started it. So I was trying to make up for that throughout the whole piece and things just got worse and worse. I am pretty sure many people have had similar experiences. When I looked at Mr. Cole after I finished playing, he seemed to know what I thought, and what I felt while I was playing. He said, “Isac, you played it really well but music is not about us. It is never about little Isac playing the bass beautifully on the stage. It is much greater than that. It is not about Schubert or Mozart either. Whenever you play music, think about the universe. Think about something so great that you cannot measure how big it is, instead of thinking of what you have to do. Let the music take care of itself. You are merely a small part of great music. So is your pianist, so is the audience. When you start playing, it is all about just the music itself.” That piece of wisdom completely changed who I am as a musician.

We often think about our own life too much and it distracts from true musicianship. We think about our career, reputation, or how much a gig pays; by these means, our egos take over the music and the music making. That is not the way I want to make music. Since the day that Mr. Cole told me that, I’ve always wanted to be a selfless, devoted musician, and work with such musicians. Music making then becomes happier, stress-free, and real.

Another great piece of advice would be, “Two hours of Scales and Arpeggios everyday!!” said by the great bass master, Peter Lloyd.

BIMF: What is one highlight you had with the Festival?

Isac: There were so many wonderful performances and many fun times. I would say one of the many things that I loved about the Festival was the staff members and all of the work they did. When a good performance occurs, we see musicians and we remember the music. However, not a single performance is done without people who are working behind the scenes to make it all happen. I really think a performance is one big project from planning and preparation to advertisement, from rehearsing to stage management and then finally performance. Everyone involved gives just as much as the performers, not only physically but also in spirit. The staff at the Festival gave such good energy with their love of music that they ensured all of the concerts were fabulous experiences. I didn’t answer the question, did I? How about I say the staff was the highlight of the Festival?

BIMF: What is it that makes creating chamber music so special?

Isac: The whole process of performing chamber music, from rehearsal to performance, is an intimate interaction between people. This kind of intimacy between musicians is something that you could never get when you are in a large ensemble or playing a solo piece. When I play chamber music, I enjoy working very closely with a person or a group of people. I get to know them through the music. Whether you’ve known your partners for years or you’ve only just met, through chamber music you are able to get to know your colleagues on a very intimate level. It’s as if you already had 30 hours of conversation about your lives over numerous dinners together. It’s interesting and fascinating.

BIMF: You were a student before becoming a Kaplan Fellow, how did those two experiences compare?

Isac: My daily schedule was, in large part, the same. It was my environment that differed. First, you get to play with faculty members and mostly with other Kaplan Fellows. Just like our esteemed faculty members, my colleagues in the Kaplan Fellowship Program were such inspiring young musicians. Just working with them taught me a great deal. Also, as a Kaplan Fellow, you are given more opportunities to perform. If you are ready, there are a plethora of opportunities to seize.

BIMF: What is it like working with Festival faculty member Kurt Muroki, Director of the Kaplan Fellowship Program?

Isac: One of the things he most frequently says is, “Have fun with it!” He is indeed a very optimistic person and through his optimism, he has taught me that music is joy, and there is no reason to suffer. He is a very compassionate teacher. He is someone who cares about each student and wishes for them to grow as a musician.

BIMF: What does it mean to you to have a student sponsor?

Isac: Now we are talking about Ms. Pat Brown! What a delightful person to be around! I’m not sure whether or not I can fully describe our relationship because of how long I’ve known her and what good friends we’ve become. You don’t just “describe” your friendships, do you? She has now been my sponsor for two years in a row. I still remember the night I met her for the first time at one of the parties after a Friday concert. She is as charming as they come. We have quite a few things in common such as having lived in New York and a passion for traveling. Every time I see her, she smiles at me, and it makes me tremendously happy.

No one will be able to rival how special she is to me. She comes to every performance of mine, and her presence alone gives me so much support. Each year, I perform at Thorton Oaks, where she lives, and it is a pleasure to make music for a person who supports you that much. I am fortunate enough to have had Ms. Brown as my sponsor for as long as I’ve been at BIMF. The student sponsor program has afforded me her life-long friendship. For this, I am eternally grateful.

BIMF: If you could have a dinner party with three people, either living or dead, who would they be?

Isac: If I had to choose only three people, they would be Janis Joplin, Pina Bausch, and Arthur Rimbaud.

BIMF: If you had won the Powerball, what would you have done with the money?

Isac: I think it is too much money to even imagine! I would buy a couple of basses and bows, a bottle or two of really good scotch, and I’d move into a nice apartment. Maybe buy a car? Oh, and my laptop’s pretty old. I would like a new laptop. I’d give some to my family. I’d want to save some money, too! Only because I was never able to really save any money. I would donate the rest. I am really bad at managing money so it would be wasted (it would either sit in my bank account or disappear for no reason) if I kept it. There are people who could use it for good.

BIMF: What advice would you offer to an aspiring musician?

Isac: Never stop growing! When we focus on goals and accomplishments we sometimes lose focus of being part of an art in which growth should never stop. I think we are perpetually in the process of becoming better musicians, because there are no concrete ends to being a good musician. Kurt Muroki once said, “A musician should always be the best musician as he or she can possibly be”.

Check back soon for more student interviews…