The Musical Journey of Ryan Murphy
They say it takes a village to raise a child. It is also true that it takes a whole community to raise a musician. The small town of Newtown, Connecticut, recently marked by tragedy, was an idyllic place to grow up and proved to be fertile soil for the mind of a musician. Ryan T. Murphy, associate conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, attributes much of the success in his musical career to the mentorship of good music teachers.
“I feel like Newtown was where I was meant to grow up. I was put into contact with a lot of people who would help me along my musical journey,” says Ryan.
Before he was five years old, Ryan would come home from church and begin plunking on the piano, mimicking the songs that he learned to sing in Sunday School. Without the aid of formal training or sheet music, Ryan could re-create the peppy pieces by ear. Seeing his latent ability, his mother promptly enrolled him in music lessons with a qualified piano teacher.
Before the pint-sized pianist’s palms were large enough to stretch the breadth of an octave, he became the pianist for his Sunday School. This position is usually reserved for adult accompanists.
At the same time, Ryan joined an Episcopal boys’ choir. It was a rigorous program; the Episcopal Boys’ Choir didn’t coddle its choir members.
“My first day in the choir we did The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Lassus, which is a serious, hefty piece,” Ryan remembers. “We were singing Handel’s Messiah by age 11. The boys’ choir introduced me to a lot of great music at a very young age.”
It was here that Ryan was first exposed to the highest and best of the musical tradition. The Episcopal Boys’ Choir was instrumental in putting Ryan on the path to becoming a serious musician.
Ryan’s high school choral teacher also challenged him and gave him opportunities to stretch. Once, Ryan’s high school conductor wasn’t able to make a concert, and Ryan, as the choir’s student president, was given the baton, with all of its literal and metaphorical authority and attending pressure.
“It wasn’t a huge gig, but when he gave me the baton and the responsibility to conduct, he showed a lot of trust in me. That trust was really key for me at that age,” says Ryan.
Ryan also played in the orchestra in high school drama productions. His senior year, he decided he wanted to know what it felt like outside of the pit, in the public eye and under the limelight. He made plans to audition for a part on stage
That year, the high school theater was producing Grease. Ryan decided that for this, his first attempt at performing, he would just try to be one of the extras. Instead, the director cast Ryan as Danny Zuko, the hip-jiving, solo-singing, center-stage protagonist of the play.
“When I saw my role, my jaw hit the floor. I was shocked, and I was scared to death. I’d never acted or been on stage before,” Ryan says. “But I’ve learned since that things like that are really good to get you out of your comfort zone and to prove to yourself you can do things you never thought you could do. In that respect, it gave me confidence and paid off later.”
Somewhere in the Murphys’ closet there is surviving video of Ryan as Danny Zuko, but after all these years he still hasn’t brought himself to watch his performance.
After high school, he continued to be a musical chameleon, and with a group of like-minded musician friends, he started a rock band called “The Current,” that covered rock classics from groups like Led Zeppelin, REM, and The Doors.
The confidence garnered from performing on stage for Grease and in The Current paid large dividends. Ryan was only 19-years-old when he left his home, continent, and culture to go to Paris as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for two years. There, he learned to love the French people and to speak the language. Ryan is still fluent in French.
Upon returning from France, he enrolled at Brigham Young University, where he majored in piano performance and minored in organ performance. He also sang in the concert choir under Mack Wilberg, then a professor of choral music and now music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was at BYU that Ryan met his wife, Jennifer.
“Mack Wilberg is responsible for me and my wife getting together. She was a soprano and I was a tenor in his choir. We give him credit for our relationship,” Ryan chuckles.
As Ryan was completing his doctorate at Boston University, it was his wife who encouraged him to try out for the position as associate music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“I almost didn’t apply for the job. I thought I was too young and too fresh out of school to be qualified. But my wife assured me that it couldn’t hurt to try. So I did,” Ryan says. “My wife is always right.”
The audition was in a series of phases. The last part of the audition was to do a rehearsal with the Choir.
“It was one of the most terrifying experiences in my entire life,” Ryan reminisces. “It’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, after all.”
He said a simple prayer: “Heavenly Father, if I’m not the one you want directing this choir, that’s fine. But could you please help me not to embarrass myself in front of everyone? I just want to do my best.”
He did, of course, get the job. Sometimes Ryan is still incredulous. “Sometimes I still ask myself, ‘How did I get here?’”
In the spring of each year, one of Ryan’s main responsibilities is to conduct the Temple Square Chorale, the training ensemble for applicants to the Choir. That training culminates in a concert which usually includes a choral masterwork—Poulenc’s Gloria and Fauré’s Requiem have been recent selections—and other lighter pieces as time on the program permits. Ryan also runs an in-service program for current Choir members usually held in the fall. The balance of the year Ryan’s schedule is full with his associate music director duties of rehearsals, conducting his share of Music & the Spoken Word broadcasts, and writing many new arrangements for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.