Ryan Shookman Digitiv Podcast Interview Header

The Panda Pianist

Only a select few can claim they are Juilliard trained pianists. It’s unlikely any can claim they are as philanthropic or generous with their time as Ryan Shookman. Not only does he prioritize his friends and family, but his charities, GiGi’s Playhouse and St. Francis Neighborhood Center.


Ryan is a classically trained pianist who has traveled the world sharing his musical gifts. From teaching to happy hour events throughout Baltimore, you’ll find him spreading music and joy wherever he goes.

Keep an eye out for his upcoming events as you’ll want to attend at least one Happy Hour with Ryan to experience the magic.

Ryan Shookman Performing

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Brittany Brown 0:00
It’s The Digitiv Podcast with Rob and Brittany and today we have Ryan Shookman, who is a classically trained pianist from Juilliard, and he shares how music has changed his life as well as the lives of others. Check out this clip from our episode,

Ryan Shookman 0:13
I always feel that it’s my honor and obligation to share those cards with anyone I can. (Piano Diddy)

Brittany Brown 0:26
Now, let’s jump in (Intro Music)

Rob Winters 0:36
Thanks for tuning in. Today we are joined by Ryan Shookman, a professional pianist who is located here in Baltimore, Maryland, and one of our personal friends. Ryan, thanks for joining us today.

Ryan Shookman 0:49
Yes, thank you guys so much.

Rob Winters 0:51
I’m going to jump right to kind of the the question at hand here. How did you get started in music?

Ryan Shookman 0:57
Well, my mother was a piano teacher. And she plays beautifully. And so I grew up with it in the living room, hearing it, and then I took some lessons with her and I loved it. But then of course, you know, it’s your mother. And she’s also telling me to clean my room. So the practicing part wasn’t the strongest. So then I went to her teacher, Penny Foster. And she was amazing. And I knew right away that, you know, I wanted to be a pianist. I mean, I just loved it.

Rob Winters 1:27
And how old were you when you kind of knew that that’s where you wanted to go in life?

Ryan Shookman 1:32
Little, probably four or five?

Rob Winters 1:34
Okay, that’s really impressive, because most of us were like in our mid 30s, and we still don’t know what we want to be.

Ryan Shookman 1:40
I know, I’m very, very fortunate. It’s very easy and rewarding for me.

Brittany Brown 1:45
Okay, so if you’re talking four or five years old, when the hell did you start playing piano?

Ryan Shookman 1:50
Oh, like four or five?

Brittany Brown 1:52
So I just automatically knew right off the bat.

Ryan Shookman 1:55
Yes. Yeah.

Brittany Brown 1:56
Gosh, that’s amazing.

Ryan Shookman 1:58
Once I had the teacher, Penny, show me, you know, a note is a key and made that connection. Then I was just so excited. I wanted to play everything.

Rob Winters 2:07
Brittany, that was a really fair question, because for a second, I thought he was gonna be like, I just fell out of the womb, and there was a piano right there. And I just rolled right up to it.

Brittany Brown 2:16
I mean, it kind of seems that way. But I mean, you know,

Ryan Shookman 2:18
I know. Well, I definitely I was still sucking my thumb, but also playing piano. So I guess I was in that young age.

Rob Winters 2:25
As long as you had one hand for you. We’re good to go.

Brittany Brown 2:28
You were always talented. I love it. We know that you went to Juilliard. You see it in movies, how awful it is to try and get in and like how hard they are on you. Talk to us about how you got into Juilliard. And what that journey looked like.

Ryan Shookman 2:41
Oh, yeah, it’s very intense. So when you are applying to music conservatory it’s there’s pretty much kind of like the ivy League’s there’s a set of the top like 10 in the country. And you kind of go on the circuit. We spend a week you know, in Boston, two weeks in New York, San Francisco, wherever, you know, where Cleveland, even has the Institute of Music and they plan it so you can attend all those now the repertoire that they demand is nuts. I mean, you have a full Beethoven sonata Bach, Prelude And Fugue, a Chopin etude, over 10 minute Romantic era piece and over 10 minute, 20th century piece. And so basically are giving like a recital that’s about an hour and 20 minutes of all memorized repertoire. It’s like hundreds of pages. And then what happens is, it’s somewhat nerve wracking because you start out well a, it’s terrifying, because you’re like, Oh, my goodness, I mean, the pressure is nuts. And then you perform. And then if you’re invited back, you perform again, then if you’re invited back, you take a theory test. And then in the last round, you still don’t even know if you’re accepted, but you made it to the last round, and then you have to wait to find out until later. And basically, the way it works is one of the piano professors at any of these places, they pick the students that they want. And so it’s like they decide, okay, in my studio, I have these six pianist, or these nine pianist, and I have room for one more, and I feel a bond with this artist. And so yeah, but it’s pretty crazy. I mean, it’s definitely everyone is their nerves are shot to shit. And everyone’s in it together, whether the dancers and you know, the actors, everyone’s all in a terrified mode, but it kind of gives you the base and foundation of what it’s going to be like, at a conservatory. Because the whole thing is terrifying.

Brittany Brown 4:25
Do you have to be like recommended to be able to try out for this or what do you How does that process work?

Ryan Shookman 4:30
Well, you send like a preliminary application and that has a recorded and then from there, they choose to invite you to the live auditions, kind of like those TV shows, like the voice and stuff.

Brittany Brown 4:43
Okay, interesting. A little bit more classy, I think then the voice but you know, yeah, that’s

Rob Winters 4:49
A little more cutthroat, right?

Ryan Shookman 4:52
Yeah. Yes. Very, very cutthroat. I mean, it’s not a it’s hard to find friends in your same genre because the Also your competitors. And for me, I’ve never really been competitive with anyone else only myself. So it’s like if somebody sucked, I mean, it’s like, sorry, sucks to be you but if they did great, I’m like, oh, good for you, but it doesn’t directly affect me. So I think that might love for music and for learning and experiencing and sharing. It kept me strong through that competitive nature,

Rob Winters 5:24
Actually, because you just mentioned it, it made me think of this. And I’m kind of thinking of Brittany’s question, because we do, at least for the two of us, neither of us went to this type of college experience. Did you see any of that where, you know, maybe there were some of these other artists where they kind of threw somebody under the bus or backstabbing to tear somebody down to ensure that they got ahead?

Ryan Shookman 5:46
Yes, all the time, I would reward myself I would try to practice eight hours a night, Sunday through Thursday,

Rob Winters 5:52
Eight hours a night?

Ryan Shookman 5:54

Rob Winters 5:55
Oh, my God.

Ryan Shookman 5:56
After your classes eight hours, still felt like I was behind. And there just wasn’t enough time. But I found out for my like ADHD self, I get a six pack of beer. And I’d be like, Okay, Ryan, you’re gonna memorize these 12 pages. And then you can open your beer after the 12 pages and have a break. And so then I would run around, I got caught in the dance studio, like dancing, pretending. But then I’d get my energy from you know, people, and then I’d go back for my next little intense session with my reward. But you definitely saw people there were these girls that stole my music out of my practice room once and that was not fun, and not nice, just things like that. Or, you know, we had like negative criticism, where you were supposed to say how you were gonna perform something better than the person who just played it

Rob Winters 6:45
Oh. Interesting.

Ryan Shookman 6:46
So I think the ultimate goal of a conservatory is if you can make it through there, then you can make it in the industry. But unfortunately, a lot of people at least like once a year somebody OD’d or jumped off the building, which is super sad, but it’s just that sort of intensity. The hard thing about music is one thing if you go to medical school, and it’s like, okay, well, I’m pre med, and then I go to the medical school, there’s not like a personal sort of sensitivity to the subject, because it’s all very black and white. And it’s boring medicine stuff, whereas music or the arts, you have a personal attachment. And so emotionally, it makes it is extremely rewarding, but also at other times, it makes it difficult to have that strength when it’s like you’re personally being you know, it’s like your soul is being judged.

Brittany Brown 7:35
Gosh, that’s kind of crazy to think about. I never thought of it that way. But what do you see, going to Juilliard? How did you benefit from doing that path versus doing something else?

Ryan Shookman 7:43
The professors are brilliant and super smart. And it also gives you that credentials and knowing that I could survive and learn from some of the best in the world, you know, which then like open the doors to studying in France, and continuing my education that way, which was super cool, because it was just, you know, the experiences that sort of caliber, it puts you into a small bracket. And also it’s because of it’s so intense. I mean, I had a friend who I was directing a musical at Georgetown Law School, and this was not too long ago. And when I had the orchestra pit people come one of my friends with violinists that I went to school with, and I’m like, what are you doing here? Are you and she’s like, I’m a student. This is law school. It’s so much easier than conservatory. And I was like, Oh, well, good to know. But at least he was able to still perform. Yeah, so I think pushing yourself to that sort of level. That’s, you know, small bracket is what gives the benefit. Also you have bragging rights. That’s always helpful.

Rob Winters 8:41
So speaking of which, so you I believe, if I recall, right, you told me you used to tour and had you know, a manager and kind of that rigorous schedule. And what kind of took you away from that or you know, what stopped appealing about that part of the musical world.

Ryan Shookman 8:59
And fortunately, for you know, classical musicians, the clientele that go to concert halls are mainly affluent people who can tend to be somewhat pretentious sometimes, but other times super lovely. But when you’re in that sort of world, I started to lose my identity a little bit, because you never knew you were more like a symbol as opposed to a person. I don’t know if symbols of right word, but you’re more the performance is what’s the most important. So your well being is not and then you also have to unfortunately, you’re somewhat trained to be whatever the benefactors want you to be. So if you’re, I’m a gay man, obviously. And so it’s like your sexuality or your age you you need to let them sort of believe that whatever they want to believe, since they’re the ones who are funding the program, and so not being true to my identity is what definitely was the biggest turnoff, and so I just got drunk all the time. So I was like, well, this isn’t the healthiest for my mental or physical self. Yeah, I kind of left that sort of world and decided I’m only going to do what I love in sharing music, and then that will be my path I take. So it’s wherever it leads me, that’s where it goes, I try different projects, different ideas, different concerts, and to combine the gift of music with whatever in the world needs it. So to sort of find that bridge to connect that. And so that’s where my goal is now, which is much more authentic and pure to who I am. So yeah,

Rob Winters 10:30
I like that. I think that’s great. And there is that age old adage that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. So not that every day feels that way. But you know, maybe a little bit more so than in the past?

Ryan Shookman 10:40
Yes. Oh, for sure. Yeah, I don’t think I mean, I have a million Quote, unquote, jobs, but all of them you know, I love whether it’s me teaching or playing at the church, or playing a concert or playing at the bar is always I can’t really complain when you I’ve managed to combine all the things I liked into my current career, which is amazing.

Brittany Brown 11:00
You’re doing all of these things. I know that you’re teaching you have like some you’re playing at churches you play at the bar. And also the summer you went on this amazing adventure, where you were in Europe playing. So can you talk to us a little bit about how that came to fruition?

Ryan Shookman 11:14
Okay, so I am one of those people who just learned through life, you just got to go directly to the source. I’ve always wanted to play on a river cruise, because the idea of playing you know, artists while you’re sailing by where they are from, to me is super cool. And one of my favorite sort of ways to perform is educationally so the majority of people do not aren’t capable. It’s not their fault. They’re just not capable of really understanding how to listen to classical music. And so throughout any concert I do, I try to add images or, you know, I’m huge into telling the story in the music, you know, like what is actually happening? And so I’m like, Okay, well, I can do all this on a river cruise. So how do I get a hold of river cruise people? My mom’s cousin runs a travel industry in San Diego. And so I’m like, How can I get a hold of river cruise line that would like this idea. If they don’t like the idea, then it’s like, well, you know exactly where I started. So it was, you know, could only move up I guess they liked the idea and then offered this cruise on the Danube, which was amazing. I brought my classical cellist friend Katie chambers. And she, her and I came up with a program. Where are we you know, when we were leaving Hungary, we played Hungarian music, and then by like Franz Liszt could die and different Hungarian composers. And then we went into Austria. And so we had Mozart Sound of Music. Then we went into Germany, and we have Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. And so it was just really was pretty amazing. Each of the concerts, I spoke a bit to try to, again, educate people how to listen. So my whole goal was okay, at the end of this, they can sort of decipher what the difference is between a Hungarian style. And then Mozart and Beethoven, like, here are the differences between the different countries and times to sort of train their ear to relate to the music. It was amazing. And then we started in Spain, and then play to at some pub at like midnight, you end up meeting a lot of people in life, I mean, especially for artists, we meet so many people that are international. So the chances we know somebody, somewhere are pretty high in foreign places. And so one thing that drives our careers is our reputation. And so as long as your reputation is good with those people, then usually you can figure out something to do gig wise somewhere else, or at least that’s what I do.

Rob Winters 13:31
And actually because I kind of followed your river cruise slash adventures off of the boat over the summer, and you and your friend, she’s a cellist, is that correct?

Ryan Shookman 13:42

Rob Winters 13:42
You all did an impromptu concert in Barcelona on the street, right?

Ryan Shookman 13:48
Yes, we did that too. Yeah.

Rob Winters 13:51
Which I’m like, that was very cool. Like that would be I mean, if I were a passer by that would be kind of an incredible experience to just walk by not even knowing you all are classically trained. But

Ryan Shookman 14:01
Yes, it’s so fun. Busking is just such a cool thing. It’s always fun. One time I was in, I think Annapolis, and I was doing a show, but the marketing was wasn’t very strong for it. And so I just wheeled out a piano in the corner on West Street and started playing it, like I made more money and had more audience members than the actual concert.

Rob Winters 14:23
That is crazy.

Ryan Shookman 14:24
If you’re willing to share music anywhere, then your options are endless. You have so many doors that are open, you know, which is a cool thing. And so it’s where at some artists, unfortunately, are caught into the ego side of it. So they have to be on a certain stage, big stage in front of so many people and they sort of miss the purity of why they’re doing what they’re doing. And so I feel bad for them for me. I’m like, Well, shit, I’ll play like I said, anywhere for anyone and I love every minute of it.

Brittany Brown 14:55
So that brings me to my next question. I know you perform a lot of private events. What What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened at one?

Rob Winters 15:02
Oh, and now the craziest thing you’ve ever done? They’re different questions.

Ryan Shookman 15:10
They started biting my finger like, Oh, this is adult friendly. I don’t know. Okay, crazy. Maybe Go to the craziest performing situation, I guess. Well, one time I fell off the bench playing at a monastery in the south of France. And that was kind of embarrassing. I had to get to the top of the piano. It was tu long piezz Yes. And you hit the very top key of the piano after this really crazy run. And then you had to take all your weight and hit the very bottom key of the piano. Well, I took all my weight and my fat ass right off the bench and missed note, thankfully, it was only like 700 people, but then I just kneeled there and played that lower. note, I thought I was gonna throw up. I was so embarrassed. But everyone thought I did it on purpose. And it was hilarious.

Rob Winters 15:51
So they laugh or two people react.

Ryan Shookman 15:54
They jumped on their feet. And it was like standing ovation.

Rob Winters 15:58
I love it.

Ryan Shookman 15:59
And I’m like, Oh, my goodness, okay, let me throw up and then I’ll take a bow. But private parties, they’re super fun. I don’t know. They’re all little crazy. Because 99.999% of them, you know, I encourage drinking throughout that, you know, people have their wine or their cocktails and then I play the concert, whatever the concert, we decide together on what it’s going to be. So it can end in like a Broadway sing along, playing Fiddler on the Roof. Or in this like, very deep moment where we’re all crying to some rock. But it’s an experience more than it is like a concert per se. There’s a lot of crazy things that have happened, but I don’t know if I should say any of them just in case somebody listens. Who was one of those people.

Rob Winters 16:41
Yeah, don’t get sued. But you can tell us later off the record, because now I’m intrigued.

Ryan Shookman 16:47
Yeah, there’s definitely been some Yeah. Also, you know, it’s Yeah, between the houses or venues and the clientele. Yes, it’s definitely some stories, but we’ll save that for at the bar.

Rob Winters 17:01
Noted it was speaking of which, for our Baltimore friends, can you share a little bit about what is wine with Ryan?

Ryan Shookman 17:09
Okay, so wine with Ryan or happy hour with Ryan, it’s basically just what I said. So where it’s either at a bar like I do at The Cardinal, and we go on a journey and drink while I’m playing the music and wherever the energy takes us or of house. It’s the experience of having concert, or performance. But we go together, like I couldn’t do one at two in the afternoon and one at eight at night. Because I’d already gone on that wine with Ryan experience with whoever was around me. So a I’d be a little drunk by the later one. But B it’s like, you can’t, you can’t do the same thing twice. You know, it all depends on that energy. So it’s basically an experience so wine with Ryan is an experience where you drink and eat and enjoy. And I get to party with you at the piano. So it’s kind of like a dream job because it combines all the things I love into one situation. So it’s like, okay, we get to have a party, have fun with people love everyone and listen to music.

Rob Winters 18:09
I like it and for those who who are listening. They probably you know, Cardinal probably sounds familiar, because Alice, the owner of cardinals been on twice if they are attending a one of the happy hour events with Ryan, I think they can send you music requests in advance. Is that correct?

Ryan Shookman 18:24
Oh, yes, people can send me whatever song they want no joke. And as long as I can find the music for it, I’ll play it for them.

Rob Winters 18:31
That’s Amazing.

Ryan Shookman 18:32
which is one of my it’s always been one of my strengths is sight reading. And it’s actually gotten me a lot of jobs. So like when a pianist got sick for my violinists friend, they were looking for somebody who could learn a whole bunch of music last minute. And so again, that sink or swim moment, I would jump jumped on board for that. And then I played in like 16 cities. It was a little crazy, studious, couple of days before the first performance trying to learn it all. But that sort of energy is fun for me. And I also used to play Broadway auditions in New York. And what I would do is sit there and all day long sight read for the singers, their, you know, their pieces for their audition to a show, and you heard a lot of amazing voice, but you never knew what the song was going to be. And sometimes, you know, because of their nerves, they would skip three pages. And I’d be like, oh my goodness, where are you? But then you have to find it. So so as long as there’s music for it, I can play it.

Brittany Brown 19:25
Okay, I have to ask this question. So does it just apply to music? Or do you read books the same way?

Ryan Shookman 19:30
Oh, no, I can’t read a book word.

Brittany Brown 19:34
Well I thought I’d check.

Ryan Shookman 19:36
Yeah, I can’t. It is so difficult for me to read a book. So if I see the word spoon like oh, you know there’s a spoon on the table. My brain will think about every sort of type of spoon color of spoon size a spoon and then I have no idea what I’m even reading.

Brittany Brown 19:54
So it just applies to music, but that is super awesome.

Ryan Shookman 19:57
Just music because there’s so Much like it calms my brain down. Whereas reading a book , like stresses me out.

Brittany Brown 20:07
Takes you on a whole other journey. Yeah.

Ryan Shookman 20:10
I mean, maybe a picture book,

Brittany Brown 20:12
Okay, noted. Okay, so I think we’re gonna wrap up. But you are a very charitable person, I know that you’ve played a lot of events for free. You want to talk a little bit about the causes that you support and why you’re willing to support an event and do it for free to raise money.

Ryan Shookman 20:28
Okay, so one of which is my younger sister is my best friend in the entire world. And she has Down syndrome, even though I call it up syndrome, because it’s not down at all. So she’s been an inspiration of mine forever. I mean, we’re just we are we’re buddies. And so I’m like, How can I use music to sort of help the world of the special needs, which I’ve always been active musically or not. And I found this GiGi’S play house and their play houses around the country. They’re not playhouses, like a theater, but they’re just community centers for people with Down syndrome that are free. And it’s so hard to have Maryland’s pretty good, but like California, it’s difficult. Everything is private, and it’s so expensive. So then all these people, kids and adults who are mentally disabled don’t have that sort of outlet or center or sort of fun. Well, Community Center, I partnered with them came up with a four handed Christmas CD with my mother a few years ago. And then ever since I’d like to when I can do certain concerts to help raise money because now there’s one in Annapolis that opened up and so they’re it’s close by, and so I’ll occasionally go down there. And on Friday nights, they have a dance party, and I highly recommend it to everyone because you will have a blast. No one knows how to party like a bunch of Down syndrome adults. That’s one of my organizations that I like to work with GiGi’s Playhouse, and then another organization is which you guys know, because we’ve been at some events, the St. Francis Community Center, Neighborhood Center, SNFC what they do is I’m so impressed with our friends, Christi and Torben Green because their program that they do, and they dedicate their all day every day to really works, it gives kids an opportunity to break the circle and have the support to change their sort of life in a positive way. And so it provides food for kids and people to help tutor people to help inspire you know, art classes and all these things also completely non for profit. And so since the center has grown so much, that’s the other organization that I really liked since also local anything that it basically helps and so it’s it’s very, I feel so blessed to have so many wonderful cards in my life poker hand cards, music and my sister being two of the strongest ones. I always feel that it’s my honor and obligation to share those cards with anyone I can

Brittany Brown 22:50
I love that and I just want to say thank you so much for being here. Ryan, you are an amazing person. I just have been getting to know you this past year which has been amazing. We do appreciate your time. And if you liked this episode, share it with your friends. Please listen, like and subscribe and we will see you all next week. (Outro Music)

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