The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is Bryan Tyler.
Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.
As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.
The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They’re teachers. They’re activists. They’re volunteers. They’re community leaders. And they’re artists.
They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.
We’re joined today by Bryan Tyler, a classical musician and instructor. Thanks for joining us, Bryan.
Thank you, Kyle, for having me.
Bryan, why don’t you start by telling us more about your background.
Like you said, I’m a classical musician. I play the violin and the viola. My emphasis when I went to school was on the viola. But as I’ve become a teacher — an instructor — after school, I’ve started to teach violin a lot.
But when I grew up, classical music was never really something that seemed to be in the cards for me, because the community that I grew up in didn’t really have a strong appreciation for it. I didn’t have any musicians in my family, per se. I had one family member — a cousin — that was taking piano lessons and also the saxophone. But it just didn’t seem like it was going to be something that would be the most obvious for me.
But I know that I loved music. I sang in the choir when I was in elementary school. And I was interested in being with other friends and being creative.
And I realized that I wanted to play a string instrument. I saw the other kids having fun. And so, I decided, well, let me go ahead and try it.
And so, I went up to the orchestra teacher. And she looked at my hand and she said, “Well, you will play the viola.” And I had no idea what that was, but I said I’ll go ahead and try it.
And from the moment that I — basically from the moment that I started playing, I knew that that’s really something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And I was about 10 years old then. Financially, I wasn’t able to take private lessons when I started out. It was something that seemed to be a luxury and something that I didn’t really have much, again, awareness and knowledge about — my family didn’t really know a lot about.
My father worked for Greyhound for a few decades. And so, he drove buses. And my mom, she worked several different types of jobs to make ends meet. My parents didn’t go to college and graduate from college, but they did the best that they could to provide for myself and my siblings. I had six siblings growing up, so–
Were you the first of you and your siblings to graduate from college?
I was, yes. And I’m number six out of seven, so it was a pretty big achievement for me. My father and my mother both wanted their children to be better off than they were able to be. And they wanted the best for them. That was really the most important thing.
And a part of this American dream that we’ve grown accustomed to talking about is getting the education, following that path, and being a successful adult. And I’m so happy that I’ve had that opportunity. And I have a younger brother about 10 years younger than me, so I try to encourage him to finish college and aspire whatever it is that he has in his heart.
And in terms of my ethnic background, my mother is Mexican-American. And my father, as I recall– as I sometimes have fun calling — or, yeah, saying — is black and white. He is mostly black, but he has a little bit of– he’s biracial, so he’s part white.
And percentage– at what percentage? I’m not quite sure. But I know that he definitely does not look like every other black person that I see or every other white person I see. And so, I myself–
Does he see himself as a black man or–
Yes, he does.
Yeah, he does?
Mhm. He grew up– you know, he was born in the ’40s. And so, he grew up at a time when there was segregation. And he went to all-black schools and–
Did your father grow up in Texas?
Yes. Yeah, and so, I have a lot of family in Texas. And it’s pretty hard to get out of Texas. You drive 13 or 14 hours and you’re still in Texas.
And when I was growing up, I didn’t look like all of the other kids, but I didn’t really think about it so much. I knew that I was different. And what mattered to me was just being able to connect. That’s been an important part of my experience is just being able to connect with other people and share my passions, like the music.
So, I mean, you come from a multicultural background, but I think it’s also worth mentioning that you’re openly gay.
Did your background present any particular challenges for you in your career? And how did it shape your music?
Given that I wasn’t from a musical family and that I didn’t receive the pedigree– I didn’t have the pedigree to, basically, have a career in music. I mean, many students start when they’re five years old or something around that time. And I started when I was 10. And there are definitely people that start later on.
That’s considered late for a classical musician, by the way. And there are many people that still have careers, but it makes it much more challenging– and particularly the fact that I didn’t have lessons to start out. I would go to the orchestra class in middle school, and I would remember I would just play for fun.
And I played in the church. We went to– eventually went to a pretty small church with many minorities, racial minorities. And everybody knew each other’s business. I don’t think there was a stranger, anybody– there was somebody that would walk in and nobody would know. Everybody seemed to know each other. And they were very friendly.
And I remember just telling the pastor, “You know what? I’d like to play.” Because I loved playing. And I would get up there, and who knows whether I was in tune or whether I was perfect or not. But they didn’t really care. They just loved that I– I had a getting attitude and that I wanted to be able to share what I was doing. And so, that was something very special for me.
So your first encounter with classical music, was that at your church?
No, it was in the orchestra program.
And like I said, without having the lessons– I mean, I had orchestra class. My dad would tell me, you know, I pay– I pay for you to have– I pay taxes for you to go to school. And so, it didn’t really make sense to him. He was a little old-fashioned, I guess you could say. I don’t know–
–how to think of it. But it just wasn’t a part of our culture to know that you had to go to do lessons in order to become– like, that was an option or something that you should do. And they were just trying to make ends meet, really.
So in terms of the classical music, though, I remember first going to an orchestra concert in elementary school with the– I lived in Houston, in the Houston area. And we went to an orchestra concert, and we went to go see “The Carnival of the Animals.”
And it’s a great introductory piece of music where you hear different instruments that are in the orchestra play solos. And they represent different animals. So, for example, the cello represents the swan. And the bass represents, I believe, the elephant.
And so, I remember hearing it. And the swan’s considered, like, one of the most beautiful pieces of music and very vocal. And I remember holding my ear– holding my hands to my ears and thinking this music is so boring!
Because I had no appreciation for it. I didn’t really know how to relate to it.
But it’s amazing how joining around my peers, seeing my peers enjoying that experience and that they’ve already been– especially the successful people that I knew of, they were playing in the orchestra. And so, I wanted to be a part of that.
And so, fortunately, I was. And even though my background was different than theirs, I was able to join along. And, in music, really there are very few borders and boundaries, other than a measure– a bar line.
You know, that’s really– there’s not much that separates people. Everybody works towards a common goal. And you share the melody. You share responsibilities. And so, I learned a lot from playing in the orchestra.
I think that’s probably a reaction that a lot of kids get when they’re first exposed to classical music. What type of music did you prefer when you were growing up?
You know, I didn’t know exactly what to– like, they didn’t have the iPod, you know, when I was growing up. They didn’t really have– we had the radio. I mean, I sound old, but we had the radio.
And okay, I would wake up– there were some mornings I would wake up, and they had this show on VH1 called “Pop-Up Video.” And I loved it, because they would have all this information about the song. So I would say it was, like– I don’t know. It was something, kind of pop music, like, world pop music. I think that was probably about it. I didn’t really have very sophisticated tastes or know really what to listen to.
So, you know, I was pretty lucky growing up, because I was exposed to music at a young age. And I grew up more on rock music. I liked Pearl Jam. I liked The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Really, I think I inherited a lot my tastes from my dad.
But my parents, they encouraged me to go to– go into orchestra and into band. So I started playing the violin in fourth grade and the trumpet in fifth grade. But I was pretty fortunate, because the public schools that I went to, they actually supported their music programs. And it was affordable for our family to rent the instruments. And they had dedicated professional instructors. But not all kids are that lucky. So what was the quality of your program when you were growing up?
It was terrific. I remember we had– we had an orchestra program that was probably, I would say, probably about 60 kids, which is huge.
Yeah, that’s a lot.
And maybe there were more. Maybe there were more. But in Texas, everything– you know how they say everything’s big? So it was a pretty big area that I grew up in. And I moved around a decent amount.
But I just remember that the area that I grew up in, I was able to connect through the orchestra program, through some other activities. I was able to connect and feel like I belonged. And so, that was a very important part of my growing up. And without those opportunities, I don’t know where I would have ended up.
You know, I imagine that a lot of parents are pretty skeptical when they hear their kid say that they want to study music–
–especially in college. Were your parents supportive of your music interests?
They were. My father, again, the emphasis was on education. And so, as long as I was applying myself in my studies, that was what mattered the most to him. The music, I don’t know if he– I mean, I think he saw it as an option for the extra curriculars.
I think it evolved or it turned into something that was somewhat surprising to him, in terms of me wanting to go to school for it for college and wanting to be a musician. But they always supported me the best that they could.
It is an expensive career field to go into, because you have the cost of lessons. You have the cost of the instruments, which instruments are so expensive. Instruments for professionals are basically the same price as a car, if not more expensive.
And so, there was a lot of– there were a lot of unknowns. But my parents always supported me and have been proud of me in my playing.
And it’s great to have that type of support.
In your field, you really need that kind of support.
Yeah, it’s true. And, I mean, I hear different things from other– my peers. And I know that it’s not the most lucrative job field, obviously. And there are articles that will say that, you know, what are the least valuables to earn? And they’ll list careers in the arts.
But, you know, I know that I’m a very well-rounded individual. And the other classmates that I went to school with, I know that they have something that’s invaluable. You know, we know how to connect with people. We know how to listen to others.
Listening is huge, in terms of interpersonal relations. And these skills, you develop them early on. It makes a big impact, in terms of your life skills.
For me, I felt like I was able to interact with others better. I grew up in an area where it was easy to stay– to be kind of like a homebody. And so, my mother and father, they are comfortable staying at home. I feel like they’ve always been comfortable staying at home.
We would be– would go on trips every now and then. But home life was huge, you know? We would cook together or we would– dad would watch sports or I would watch Lifetime with my mom, or something like that. But home life was huge.
Yeah. And you had a very large family, too.
Yeah, I did. I mean, I grew up with– I grew up with three of my other siblings, basically. The other ones had already grown up before I was born.
So they were already off on their own. But yeah, I mean, to have a big family like that, it’s definitely unique.
Where did you go for undergrad, again?
I went to the University of Houston for my undergrad. I didn’t realize that the application deadlines were what they were. I didn’t know whether musicians that were going into– like, studying violin or viola for college.
And so, I missed the deadline dates. I thought, well, I was hearing everyone else applying for schools in February or something. So I was like, okay, I’ll apply to Juilliard in February. And, of course, their application deadline was December 1. And so, I missed everything.
And my parents were so out of the loop, because they didn’t– they didn’t really have all of the red tape and all of the hurdles to go through when they finished high school, or when they finished what they– you know, their level of study. So it was easy for me to make some mistakes, in terms of applications for school.
But I’m just so thankful that my instructor– my viola instructor, Mr. Wheeler– he was incredible. We ended up meeting in high school. And I was just very fortunate to make that connection. And through him, I was able to take lessons and start to prepare for a career in music.
So it sounds like you had a lot of mentors along the way.
Yes, yes. And that’s one of the important things for me. I do believe that we stand on the shoulders of others. And it takes a village.
Can you expand on that a little bit?
Yeah. So, for many of us, we have those people in our lives along the way that help to guide us in the direction that we end up going and– from my sister teaching my how to read when I was really young before most of the other kids would read, or my debate coach in high school, or Mr. Wheeler, who I mentioned earlier. They were important people that made a big impact on my life.
And without them, I just wouldn’t be in the same place. I know that I– without Mr. Wheeler, I probably wouldn’t be in Boston. Without a lot of these people that have been there for me, a lot of the opportunities that I’ve had just would not be there. There’s a lot to take for– that’s easy to take for granted. And so, I have to thank– thank my lucky stars.
But, you know, also the internet was very helpful for me, because being someone that is now openly gay– I was not when I was in high school. And having the rise of the social media at that time in the, let’s say, in the early 2000– 2000s, or turn of the century– the second turn of the century or whatever you want to call it– having those forums to get to know other people and share your experiences, it helped so much, because I felt like I was alone.
I didn’t know other gay people. And through having something where I was able to not feel nervous or ashamed, I was able to connect with other people and be honest about parts of myself that I felt were not welcome. And so, I had some people that have been really instrumental. And I even met my husband online. You know, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking online, but the Internet has made a huge impact for me.
So let’s move forward to present day. You’re now an instructor of varying ages. First of all, is it a challenge to work with kids from different stages of development?
Fortunately, I’ve been teaching for over a decade, and I feel old for saying that. But even a decade is not really that long, when you think about it. I feel very privileged to be able to teach to being with. As a musician, it’s not always a given that you’ll end up with work or with the opportunity to use that knowledge and be able to share it with others on a daily basis like I’m able to.
And so, regardless of their age, it’s always– it’s always something that I have a joy of doing. And so, I don’t really think of it too much as being the challenge, more so the opportunity to get to learn how to help other people learn.
And so, I work primarily with students that are in elementary school, but I also have students that are in high school or that are– professionals that are in their 40s or 50s. And for each of them, it’s amazing to get to help them advance to the next level. And I– it took a while to develop a studio of students, but now it’s something that I– you know, this is my career.
[BRYAN PLAYING VIOLA]
My goal was to be in an orchestra– play in an orchestra. And it still is. And my side goal is to have a studio of students, which I do have. So I’m very thankful and very grateful to be able to have the teaching and to still– I do perform. So I’m very grateful for all of the opportunities that I have to be able to share music with other people.
You teach at several schools, right?
Mhm. Yeah, I teach at several schools in the Boston area. And I run an after-school program for lessons. And it’s very strong here, the arts programs in– around this city. I know that there are definitely places where they don’t have the after-school lessons as an opportunity, but around the city, there are definitely programs and extension programs that help to provide the opportunity for students, regardless of their socioeconomic background. And it’s something that is a great model for the rest of the country.
You also work at the Chinese– what is it? What are they called?
Mhm, the Chinese Cultural Connection.
Chinese Cultural Connection.
Yep. So I work in a few different areas, particularly in Chinatown in Boston. And I teach at a daycare in the mornings. And so, I teach kinder music, as well as some violin. And the–
Can you explain what kinder music is?
Yeah, kinder music– I mean, I say kinder music as, like, a general term. I never went to school for kinder music. But it’s, basically, an extension of my ability to play music for others and knowing music well. I’ve developed a repertoire of songs that– traditional songs that kids sing.
And I’ve been able to learn some of the songs that are traditional in Mandarin. And so, it’s a bilingual daycare, so they learn– they learn Mandarin and English. And so–
So you’ve actually learned from the students.
Yep. I’ve learned from the students, yep. It’s been great. And by the way, the Chinese Cultural Connection, it’s just an example of my connection with the Asian community. Because I grew up around a large Asian community back in Texas. You may not expect that in Texas, but there was definitely a large Asian community. Houston, in particular, is a very diverse place.
And so, many Asian families know the value of studying an instrument, studying the violin. And so, they have their children study at a very early age. And so, that was something that I really admired. And I made many friends in the Asian community.
And so, I felt like when I moved out here to Boston, that I knew that I could connect with the Asian community and have opportunities to help bring music lessons to families. And with the Chinese Cultural Connection, what’s great about it is that I teach in– like I said, I teach in various areas. Some are less economically able to manage the cost of the high cost of the lessons.
And so, I do kind of a crowdfunding model at one of the schools. And it just makes the opportunity available– more available to that community, that particular community. And so, I’m very proud of being able to have that opportunity to give back.
It seems that orchestral music, in general, has a pretty high barrier to entry, because of the cost of the instrument and the cost of lessons. How important do you think it is to make it more accessible?
I do think it is an important issue, because the arts are an important outlet. They’re an important area of life where we have the opportunity to tell stories, to learn, and to learn to think differently, and to think outside of the box.
And we develop the child’s brain. Children are able to sing at a very early age, versus doing math– the higher level math and the higher level academics. Those come much– many of them come later, but from very early on, kids can play music.
And so, I think it’s important– regardless of their economic background– that kids have the opportunity to study music. Because it allows them opportunities like I have had, to be able to go beyond what might have been the most obvious career path. And it gives them options, whether or not it be in music. And they’re able to keep themself active. That’s very important. There are so many different distractions, these days especially. And to have something where they can be constructive, and work together, and learn interpersonal skills, and to listen from a very early age, it’s really helpful.
Did you consider studying or going into a different profession?
I mean, I used to want to be an author.
That was my– before I realized I wanted to be a musician, I thought, well, it’s either a fireman or an author.
And the fireman thing sounded a little bit too scary for me. So I thought, well, let me– I love writing. I used to love writing and reading. And now all I do is type– type and read my phone.
But, yeah, I’ve had moments where I thought, well, is this the career for me? But for all of those moments, I have students that– you know, they come to me each lesson and they’re excited to get to see me. And I’m excited to get to see them.
And I know that there are days when I feel awful and– not many, fortunately, but there are days where I feel awful or sick or something like that, and I come in and teach, and I feel better.
And playing in the orchestra, also, the orchestra there’s a– like you said, there’s a high bar for entry into it. And it can be very challenging, but I know that I put a lot into this. I’ve played the viola for over 20 years now. And I haven’t come all this way to give it up.
I know that I still have more to learn. I still have more to do with what I have. And I study with a member of the Boston Symphony. And so, I’m very, very happy that I have the opportunity to continue to develop my craft.
Do you have a lot of friends in Boston that also play music?
I have a decent amount, because I went to grad school here. I went to Boston Conservatory, and I made connections there. I would say that that’s one of the other things that’s important is it’s just the– taking the opportunities, connect, making connections when you can. That has been very helpful for me, because without those connections, it would have been much more challenging to continue to aspire and to have opportunities to perform.
Have you ever tried to write any music of your own?
When I was younger, I would use MIDI, which is Musical Instrument Digital Interface. And I had a friend that would use it as well. And, basically, you can compose on the computer. And you can print out your compositions.
That’s like video game music, right?
Yeah. Well, I guess now it is, yeah.
Old-school video games.
I know that my calling has always been towards performance. And so, I don’t really dabble too much with compositions. I let the experts do that.
Every now and then, I have to do something special for my students. Like, I have a student that wants to play Maroon 5 on violin. He’s dying to play “Animals.” And so, I have to make up some kind of arrangement for him so that he can play along with the recording. And it’s fun. It’s fun to get to do creative things like that.
So, Bryan, what advice would you give to people who might be interested in pursuing a passion, such as music?
I would say that it’s important to take all of the opportunities that you can, studying with a professional, and having the practice regimen. That’s one of the more challenging things, but you develop fluency with it.
And I remember asking myself, what do I have to lose by taking as many opportunities as I could? And I would always say, I don’t have anything to lose.
So I would just say, take advantage of the opportunities that you have and make connections. And most importantly, have fun with what you do every day. And if you love it, it will never feel like it’s a burden or it’s something that you could do without. If you love it, you’ll want to have it as a part of your life.
Well, Bryan, thanks so much for joining us today.
I think that this a really important topic, especially for aspiring musicians, aspiring artists, people who want to pursue their passions in a creative way and actually find a way to be able to do that professionally.
So, one last thing, Bryan. If people wanted to visit your website, where can they find it?
Well, it’s a website largely for my students, but I think it shows you the level of teaching, the breadth of what I do. It’s BryanTyler.org. It’s B-R-Y-A-N T-Y-L-E-R dot org.
Thanks so much for joining us, Bryan. It was a real pleasure having you on.
Thank you so much, Kyle.
I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting facebook.com/convowithkyle and twitter.com/convowithkyle. I’d love to hear from you.