Ralph Peterson Jr.: the living legacy of an art form
Ralph Peterson Jr. is a renowned American jazz musician and a full-time professor at the Berklee School of Music. I met Ralph at our Taekwondo school in 2005. Both of us still practice regularly at O'Malley Tae Kwon Do Center. Ralph often volunteers his time to teach drumming to children during Summer and Winter camps at the TKD school. All the kids thoroughly enjoyed Ralph's teaching very much. I remember seeing their faces pressed up against the school's window waiting for Ralph to arrive with this truck full of drum sets and equipment.
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Ralph believes that it's his responsibility to pass his knowledge to the next generation. Passing down his knowledge is the way for Ralph to preserve the traditions he loves.
"In order to keep a gift, you have to be willing to give it away." - Ralph Peterson Jr.
Before Ralph's appointment at Berklee, he had taught in The Juilliard School, Princeton University, Long Island University and the Manhattan School of Music, etc. Coming to Berklee helps Ralph consolidate his passion into a full time job to fully focus on teaching, not commuting.
In the 2-part interview with Ralph, we covered topics from his experience performing with Brian Lynch at the Sochi Olympics, to his POV on Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule as evidence of extraordinary achievement (particularly in music), to the most common questions students have asked Ralph, and the most uncommon questions that haven't been asked enough.
Ralph not only speaks to the teaching but also the learning of music (yes, he still considers himself as a student of music).
"In order to study other musicians, you have to think farther than one generation to get inside their brains and understand where they are coming from." - Ralph Peterson Jr.
Speaking from his experience, Ralph has apprenticed under some of the greatest jazz musicians of our time including Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Elvin Jones, and Walter Davis. It is also important to study some of the less known drummers who may not be household names as part of the continuum of our music history. "Once you understand this process, you will have a better sense of what the possibilities are going forward. If not, you can 'bump into' things by accident, and you might even become popular." Ralph says, "What's most important to me is to help my students sustain a 30-year career in music, not just releasing a single record."
Today, students are simultaneously equipped with the most resources but also the biggest liabilities. Ralph speaks to a time where cassette tapes were considered advanced technology. While many student walk around campus with 100GB hard drives possessing over 80,000 records, Ralph doesn't have nearly as many records:"I'm not a record collector. But the ones I know, I know them better than most people."
Admittedly, pursuing a career in music is almost never easy. In search of a shared voice among musicians for their inspirations and struggles, Ralph opened up about how he freed himself from an addiction to crack cocaine in Part 2 of our conversation. Ralph has been drug-free for over 19 years.
There are many takeaways for musicians and non-musicians in this interview. Ralph has been active in the music industry for over 30 years. As a music teacher and student, he believes that:"You have to identify your gift, your bliss, and start to build a career on top of it. As time changes, you also have to adapt and learn how to keep your knowledge and skills relevant." Ralph was able to redefine his brand and what success means to him as he continues to grow and learn from his journey.
Ralph wants to be a musician's musician:
"If you honestly play music, then people will feel it. If you play music to people - when they change, your music will have to change."
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Part 1 Show Notes (Times Are Approximate):
- Growing up in Pleasantville, NJ, where Ralph was first introduced to playing drums [4:30]
- Performing with Brian Lynch at Sochi Olympics [7:30]
- Ralph's point of view on the 10,000-hour rule by Malcolm Gladwell [11:30]
- "Find your bliss, find your purpose" inspired by Deepak Chopra [13:30]
- Ralph's 'superpower', a gift beyond your doing [14:00]
- How to bring your asset & your advantage to training [18:30]
- How I first encountered jazz music in the U.S. [22:30]
- Ralph helps demystifies the perception of jazz musicians [24:00]
- Studying jazz in the 80s (and now) are incredibly unique experiences - influences from doers who teachers such Branford Marsalis and Sean Jones and Terry Lyne Carrington [27:00]
- Why the economics of being a jazz musician compels us today? [28:30]
- Ralph speaks to her daughter's success as a musician [30:30]
- Ralph speaks to "the responsibility of filling the void for the generation before me" [31:00]
- In search of a shared voice among musicians for their inspirations but also struggles [34:00]
- The living legacy of an art form [37:00]
- What are some of the common questions from Ralph's students? [39:00]
- Ralph's mission to prepare his students for a 30-year career and keep them current in the industry [43:30]
- What are the counterintuitive questions students haven't asked enough but Ralph really want them to (ask)? [44:30]
- Singing the solo is a way to learn the music vocabulary. [47:30]
Part 2 Show Notes (Times Are Approximate):
- How to stay relevant as a musician [4:40]
- What you need to know about the nature of the record business [6:45]
- Redefining what success means to Ralph [8:15]
- Technology as the great equalizer and why should you own your own label? [9:15]
- Counterintuitive fact: How much is the cost of marketing/publicizing records? [11:45]
- Being comfortable with the musician you are [13:45]
- What contributes to good marketing for musicians (and others)? [14:45]
- Ralph wants to be the musician's musician [17:45]
- The musician the art vs. the musical the populist [20:15]
- What would you say to your 20-year old self? [21:45]
- Ralph opens up about overcoming addiction [23:15]
- Do not undersell yourself. [28:45]
- The student that will change music forever. [31:15]
- It's about progress, forward motion - and not about perfection [32:45]
- Recovery is about self love. [35:00]
- Why did Ralph pick up trumpet in addition to drumming? [36:45]