After graduating from USC Thornton School of Music’s Studio/Jazz Guitar program in 2009, alumnus Ryan Lerman began recording his own music while working as a touring and session musician for artists including Joshua Radin, A Fine Frenzy, Vanessa Carlton and Ben Folds.
Now, just five years later, Lerman has found himself on an even larger stage. He’s currently the music director and guitarist for GRAMMY Award-winning artist John Legend’s “All of Me” tour. The tour — which features Legend performing stripped-down, acoustic versions of his songs accompanied by Lerman and a string quartet — includes string arrangements composed by Lerman.
“Once you get out of school, nobody is going to tell you to practice or make a record,” said Lerman. “So much of life as a musician is being self-driven and finding a way to stay motivated, inspired and disciplined.”
Lerman credits USC Thornton’s diverse offerings for exposing him to all facets of the music industry and helping him grow as a musician.
“I had been writing and recording my own music before starting at USC,” Lerman said. “But there’s no substitute for a stimulating environment where you’re exposed to so many different people and possibilities – the classical side of things, arranging, orchestration, everything.”
Lerman chose USC Thornton because he desired a strong university environment that also had a comprehensive music school. USC provided the best opportunity for Lerman to study music while having a traditional college experience.
“At USC, you’re given an opportunity to develop different skill sets and different ways to make a living as a musician,” said Lerman. “You never know what you’re going to end up using after you graduate.”
Friendships made with classmates and other musicians at USC were instrumental for Lerman, as they allowed him to find meaningful gigs after graduating.
“I don’t think there’s any set formula for maintaining a career in music,” Lerman said. “I’m always trying to focus on how I can add to what other people are doing.”
When longtime collaborator Ben Folds recommended Lerman to Legend, Lerman knew that he had to find a way to stand out. Taking the audition package as an opportunity to showcase his arranging skills, Lerman wrote, recorded and mixed an overture for string quartet inspired by Legend’s performances, and sent it in with his audition materials. The overture ended up landing Lerman the gig and the piece is now included as the opening to each show on Legend’s tour.
In addition to his work with Legend, Lerman also works as a guitarist for GRAMMY Award-winning singer Michael Bublé. When it comes to balancing two international tours and playing nightly to sold-out crowds while pursuing his own musical endeavors, the Los Angeles native says perspective is key to maintaining balance in his busy schedule.
“It’s easy to get worn down when you’re traveling every day and your schedule’s always changing,” Lerman said. “But, on the other hand, that’s also what keeps things fresh. Going from project to project, I’m never doing the same thing for too long, which is one of the things I’m most grateful for.”
For the most part, Lerman’s ability to stay busy has had a great deal to do with what he describes as goal-setting, ritual and luck.
“I think the more clearly you’re able define what it is that you want, the easier it is to figure out how to get there,” Lerman said. “Being able to make a living from playing music is such a gift, and I’m always trying to remain cognizant of that. I never take it for granted.”