Interview with Ryan LittleFrom baseball to the big leagues at the Naples Philharmonic, this young talent has hit it out of the park
By Rachel Watkins
At the ripe age of three days old, Naples Philharmonic Principal Horn, Ryan Little was already attending his first concert. His father was soloing with the U.S. Air Force Concert Band at the Sylvan Theater in Washington, D.C., and it was a show that simply couldn’t be missed. And, now, having just graduated from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University with his Master’s degree in 2017, the precocious young musician is already playing in the big leagues.
With professional musician parents, people might say that music is in his blood. But, Ryan would tell you that this is not exactly true. For him, it’s a combination of having been exposed to lots of music growing up—plus a LOT of hard work, practicing, and musical research.
We recently chatted with the impressive young musician, who also gave us the scoop on a special concert at Artis-Naples on April 28.
Why did you choose Northwestern University for your undergraduate studies?
Gail Williams is the main reason. She is one of the best musicians and brass pedagogues in the world, and I was lucky to study with her and Jonathan Boen (Lyric Opera of Chicago) for four years there. Also, the strength in general of the Northwestern brass studios helped bring me up to a level that got me to where I am. Not to mention, having the opportunity to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago every week was pretty life-changing!
And, why Rice University for your Master’s degree?
I knew I wanted to be an orchestral horn player, and Bill VerMeulen, principal horn of the Houston Symphony is the horn guru who I thought would help me the most after studying at Northwestern. An incredible number of his students win full-time professional gigs!
" When you're on stage with that orchestra, you know exactly what the plan is and you know exactly what's going to happen— you nail it every time. "
What’s life like after living in Texas?
I miss Houston! Being in the South was definitely a very different experience from Chicago and Washington, D.C., but I love having sunny, warm winters in Houston. Now, I’m lucky to have them in Naples, too. The food scene in Houston was absolutely incredible, though. But, either way, Houston and Naples both have warm, welcoming people who are sooooooo friendly!
How is it different being on stage as a student at Rice versus as a professional?
Big differences! When you perform on stage with Rice’s Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra, you've had about a month to prepare for one concert. Most of the time, the repertoire of that concert is brand-new for everyone on stage—since everyone is relatively young and just starting their careers. So, it’s a level playing field. Having the chance to really dig in to the music three times a week with Larry Rachleff (Professor of Orchestral Conducting and Music Director) at the helm gives you the opportunity to perfect every single detail of every piece you're performing. Not to mention, when playing in a section with eight other driven horn students of Bill VerMeulen’s, everyone has the same goal—and we’re working together to sound the best we can and help each other improve as a team. When you're on stage with that orchestra, you know exactly what the plan is and you know exactly what's going to happen—and you nail it every time.
As a professional in Naples, we usually have four or five rehearsals over two to three days in order to prepare for a concert. Quite a difference! I’m one of the newest members of the orchestra, so oftentimes I haven’t performed the works before whereas my colleagues likely have—many, many times. I prepare so much on my own before the first rehearsal, so I have a musical plan to present to my colleagues and to the conductor—so I sound like a seasoned professional rather than a kid right out of school! Also, with so few rehearsals in such a short period of time, the concerts tend to be a little more unpredictable and I definitely have to be 100-percent focused on everything that’s going on around me.
How does it feel to be the youngest principal in the group at Naples Philharmonic?
I might be the youngest principal, but my colleagues treat me the same as everyone else, and expect me to show up and do my job, regardless of my age. It's very funny to be the same age as many of my colleagues’ children! But, in the end, I feel very welcome here and these are definitely some of the friendliest, warmest people I've been around in my career. I feel very lucky to be here.
So, speaking of feeling lucky, how much do think where you are today is luck? And how much is talent?
I do feel like I was very lucky, having musical parents who put me in piano lessons at age 3. Talent wasn’t ingrained, but with two very talented musical parents, I developed an ear and music came a bit easier to me—plus, my parents knew the right teachers and exposed me to so many musical opportunities. I mean, I was constantly hearing my parents teach clarinet lessons in the basement! I was also really lucky to grow up in the Washington, D.C. area, as there was a sophistication of music programs such as the Brass of Peace and American Youth Philharmonic that may not have been available elsewhere.
"I was cut from the varsity team my freshman year in high school—and that was probably the best thing that ever happened to my music career!"
What would you be doing if not music?
I can't really imagine what my life would be like without music! I love to travel, so perhaps I’d be doing some type of international business job. I thought I wanted to be a professional baseball player when I was growing up. But, I was cut from the varsity team my freshman year in high school—and that was probably the best thing that ever happened to my music career!
Any pre-game routines before you get on stage?
Being hydrated all day is super-key, especially for horn players to avoid dry mouth. But, I don’t need to eat a certain number of bananas or anything. If you think too much, it can be a bit unnerving, though, as you have a whole day waiting until an evening concert. I do some meditation and breath work as well as Dr. Don Greene exercises called centering—centering all energy into what you want to do and how you want to sound in your performance. Aside from that, I actually try to treat it like it’s not a big day—it’s like any other day, and I am just going to work and doing my best to serve the music and inspire others.
What’s up next for you?
I was invited to the 2018 Prague Spring International Music Competition from May 8-15. I am so honored as only three American hornists were invited. As horn players, we have less opportunity to go to Europe for solo competitions, so this is really exciting for me. All that to say, on April 28, we are doing a little sneak preview at Artis-Naples of the works I’ll be performing while in Prague. It will be fun!
" I wear the shirts no matter where I am! I’ve even worn them to formal events and weddings "
How did you find out about Coregami?
The summer before I went to Rice, I was at the Tanglewood Music Center and Sean Krissman, principal clarinet of the Houston Grand Opera, was wearing the Gershwin shirt. We were playing concerts in Lenox, Massachusetts outside in the heat of summer and I was so intrigued by the concept of this shirt. But, the Gershwin wasn’t super-practical for me when I didn’t have to wear a bow tie. So, I emailed Kevin to see if he had plans for a regular dress shirt—and, of course, he did! One thing led to the next, and before I knew it, we had developed a partnership program with the Shepherd School with preferred savings on Coregami shirts for students.
Favorite quality about Coregami?
I wear the shirts no matter where I am! I’ve even worn them to formal events and weddings—that I’m not performing at! They are so breathable and flexible, and they look good and are easy to wash. On a hot stage with 100 hot bodies, the one thing you don’t have to worry about is how much you’re sweating through your shirt.