March 9, 2009 - New Orleans, LA

Ryan Rice, Flutist & Pilot, Double Lives, Double Passions

We ran into flutist Ryan Rice in the Crescent City and sat down for chicory coffee and piping hot beignets at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, after he won the principal flute audition for Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO). LPO is the only musician owned and collaboratively managed professional symphony in the United States.

 

Currently principal flutist of Boise Philharmonic, Rice has a unique track record behind him of not only working in orchestras but also flying planes. Only days before the Louisiana audition, Rice was called for a job as a center air traffic controller at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) base in Fort Worth, Texas. Rice is turning 31 later this year, which is also the cutoff age for beginning training as an FAA professional. He now finds himself at a crossroads and has to make a major life decision: Will he choose to continue a life as an orchestral player, or commit to the FAA?

Notes: So, can you describe the crossroad you're at in this moment?

The crossroad is almost incomprehensible, and I am in this moment being confronted with having to make a life-altering decision. I'm certain that there are many things that I can't foresee in the future of either career and what's more is that I know there is no way possible to make this decision with "all the information" because there is no such thing in this case. The picture seems to vary each time I look at it. The things that remain the same are:

• That music would be a lot of fun and a great lifestyle,
• But! the government job in the FAA would be solid and stable work with a large salary, great benefits, and a healthy retirement (which is, for me, the impetus for even considering a career outside music)

Notes: Tell us a little more about your double life as a pilot. A passion for flying planes runs in the family, right?

I have been around airplanes all of my life. Some of my earliest memories involve airplanes. My dad flies for a living and my mother was an air traffic controller for many years before switching to the management side of the FAA - she held positions such as Tower Chief, Quality Assurance Training Specialist, etc, so she was still on the airport. I am fascinated by airplanes and am one of those pilots that believes that there is no smell better in the entire world than the smell of jet fuel being burned!

I currently have my Commercial Pilot's License and am Instrument and Multi-engine rated with just more than 600 hours of flying time logged. This past summer I got my CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) and gave up a summer opera festival in hopes of expanding the aviation side of my life through teaching. My life in aviation thus far has yet to consist of any professional flying.

Growing up, I KNEW that I was going to be a pilot. As a joke, my dad got me an application for Delta Airlines that sat in my log book (which I got at age 11) until it was lost a few years later - looking back while writing this I recognize that watching dad come in the front door with a log book he was going to present to me is a comparable memory to my mom walking in with that first new flute that I had tried in the store the day before. We'd always say that we should fill out the application acknowledging that I was too young for employment, but was on my way and request pictures of their "big jets" during my wait.

Notes: What kind of training and job expectations are required to be an air traffic controller? Tell us a little more about the profession.

ATC (Air Traffic Control) has been a difficult nut to crack for about the last 20 years. I'm not sure of all the details, but the story goes like this: Back in 1981, there was a massive nationwide controller strike. President Reagan decided that rather than give in, he'd fire all the people that went on strike and hire new controllers. There was a massive hiring spree and as a result not many vacancies over the last 25 years. Here we are in the present day with many of those hirees choosing or being forced due to age to retire. Now we're at a point again where along with the growing amount of traffic in the skies over our country, there is a huge push to replace these retiring controllers. Many programs are under discussion and some have been implemented over the past few years, but one thing that is new is an open invitation for applicants "off the street" - meaning no prior aviation experience of any kind is required to apply.

Training to become a controller starts out the same and then becomes very specific for the position to which you've been assigned. Everyone goes through some sort of initial training at the FAA Acadamy in Oklahoma City, OK. The length of stay depends on what kind of program you were in, if any, before your arrival at the Acadamy (there are college programs geared towards ATC) but the majority of new hires will stay in OKC for about 3 months receiving this initial training. Afterwards you go off to your assigned station - I was a little shocked to find out that I get ONE moving day between my time at OKC and the beginning of my training in Ft. Worth - to begin what is essentially your on the job training. This is where the differences vary. As a VERY brief and basic description of the field of ATC, there are three different kinds of ATC positions

• Tower: These controllers issue clearances, direct the flow of airplanes on the ground via taxi instructions, and issue instructions and clearances for takeoffs and landings.
• Approach/Departure: These controllers are the guys that get the airplanes in and out of an airport's airspace
• ARTCC, aka Center: These controllers (the position to which I have been accepted) are the people that direct the flow of traffic while the aircraft are at altitude and cruising across the country. There are only 20 Center facilities for the entire country which gives you an idea of the volume of aircraft and amount of square miles (expressed in hundred of thousands) for which each Center is responsible 24/7.

I have been accepted to ZFW, the identifier for Ft. Worth Center, which is in very close proximity to the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. Getting back to the training, once at ZFW, I'll begin the lengthy process of getting checked out in various duties. I'm not certain of the exact process and each facility is different, but I'm currently under the impression that it will take approximately 4 to 6 years to get fully certified on everything there is to do as a Center controller at ZFW.

Regarding job expectations, I would say that some very important ones are probably not that different from being a musician:

• Concentration for extended periods of time
• Ability to think and react clearly and reasonably under stress
• Ability to improvise if necessary

The only expectation that comes to mind as different between the two fields is the ability to visualize and work well with 3-D concepts. Also, controllers are required to undergo physicals every year and are not allowed to control aircraft without one. In some cases the loss of a medical would mean collecting disability and in others it would mean a transfer to a management position, relief of duty and/or firing. There is also a 6-month drug screening as well as random drug testing, which makes perfect sense.

Notes: When did you pick up the flute, and what are some of the highlights of your musical life?

Flute playing starting for me in the 7th grade. When I started the new school that year, they didn't have a band or band director. I desperately didn't want to sing in the choir for whatever reason, and when they started the band, I knew this was my out. I remember so clearly going home and calling my dad to tell him the news. I told him that a band was starting at school and I wanted to play the drums or the clarinet.

Being really excited about the idea of playing either of those instruments, I was disappointed when my dad suggested that I try the flute first because we already had one of those that he had played when he was young. This was a Bundy flute that I can remember my dad getting out only about two or three times during my childhood before he mentioned it to me on this day. This Bundy, on top of being a terrible flute, was in amazing disrepair. It's no wonder that in my first sectional ever (which I couldn't make and wound up being in a one on one after-school session with the band director they hired) I heard the words, "Well, the tone ... it kinda sucks." I can get a decent sound out of it now but only if I don't involve the mechanism and leave all the keys open! I currently play a hand made gold Powell with silver mechanism and the life I've had between the two flutes has been quite the whirlwind!

Sometime around the 9th or 10th grade I realized that I may one day be pretty serious about pursuing music as a livelihood. This was solidified more and more over the next few years as I began taking private lessons with the flutists in the Shreveport Symphony, playing in the Shreveport Youth Symphony and generally becoming more and more surrounded by music. I guess this all came to a head when in my senior year of high school some recruiters came to the school for a visit. The flute instructor was among them. After listening to the band for a few minutes, the flutist, Alan Zoloth, took me into the band director's office and unofficially offered me a full scholarship to study with him as a music major at LA Tech. This was the death of the plan I had had since I could remember before the LA Tech option which was to go the local college where my dad lived, get a degree in electronic engineering and begin hunting for an airline pilot job immediately afterwards. At this point I should probably also mention that my parents' divorce also made a huge difference in all this. I wound up living with my mom who, before becoming an air traffic controller, had received her undergraduate degree in piano performance and was in the midst of her master's in piano and organ at LSU before quitting to work for the government.

Flying was only something I did on the weekends with my dad when I was able to visit and the weather was good enough to fly. Dad was also a pianist, but self-taught and only played by ear. Not just your average ear but Chopin, Schubert, Mozart and more frequently boogy-woogy and stride piano style stuff. Getting back to beginning my music education, two weeks before LA Tech started, Zoloth called me to tell me that he had got a job elsewhere and wouldn't be at LA Tech when I got there. Somehow, the plan was formulated to call the school down the road, Northeast Louisiana University at the time, now named the University of Louisiana at Monroe where I had attended some summer flute camps and separately a couple of summer band camps. The director of bands there, Steven Pederson, and flute instructor, Sandra Lunte rushed and scrounged to get me whatever scholarship they could and get me enrolled for school that was going to start in less than a month! This turned out to be life-shaping!

Pederson and Lunte are two of my most prized possessions in my musical education. Dr. Lunte was super-energetic and focused as a teacher. While with her at ULM, I won several masterclass competitions at the MidSouth and NFA conventions. I also won 1st place in the MidSouth Young Artist competition. She was adamant about sending off as many tapes as possible for competitions, classes and festivals and even went to the great length of recruiting her husband to help make recordings for her students - this is before the school had ANY kind of recording equipment and did I mention that the school orchestra on a good day had A cello? (It's a completely different school today, a far cry better than when I was there from ‘96 to ‘00!)

One of the summer classes I was accepted to between my sophomore and junior year was Ransom Wilson's class in Connecticut. I had no idea who he was going to the class, just another tape Lunte had me send off. I was amazed after hearing him teach the first piece on the first day. Later that same morning, I listened to him coach someone on the Bach B minor sonata and at that point I was so floored that I knew I HAD to study with him! I remember talking to him at the break that day and telling him that even though it was still a couple of years away for me, I'd like to talk to him about getting an MM at Yale. I also remember him saying something to the effect of "Okay, sure." and then turning away to find someone else to talk to so as not to be bothered by some kid he hadn't even heard play yet. The next day was my first chance to play and I played the Mozart concerto in G. During the break after I played, he came to find me and say, "So...we should talk about Yale."

I started my master's at Yale in the Fall of 2000. Being just a kid from a small town in Louisiana that hadn't traveled much at all (No, seriously! It was really bad. I even brought a box of Lipton tea bags when I moved to Connecticut because I thought I wouldn't be able to get tea during the winter on the North East coast! Don't ask.), I spent the majority of my two years there struggling to keep up, not fully understanding what was really required of me and generally "slack-jawed" by the amazing life of simply being a student at Yale. Between my two years there, I was accepted as a student of Mark Sparks at the Aspen Summer music festival. And as if I wasn't enough of a fish out of water, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for flute study in France during my second year at Yale.

Fortunately, Ransom had convinced me to take French for my language requirement at Yale. After realizing I'd be living there next year, my interest in this class grew exponentially overnight! With that realization, also came the decision to attend a full four weeks worth of the Nice Summer Music Academy in France where I studied with Maxence Larrieu, Ransom Wilson, Philippe Bernold and his assistant, and took a weeks worth of solfège from a former professor at the Paris Conservatory. This is coincidentally where I met Dorothy Wu, in whose publication you're reading this article. Living in France was a huge eye opener. I spent one academic year living in Paris taking private lessons with Philippe Pierlot, principal flutist of the French National Orchestra (ONF), and practicing 4 to 6 hours a day, every day! Even with that amount of work, I was struggling so much just to catch up and keep up, as Pierlot was rarely 100% pleased with my week's accomplishments.

Due to the gap between the American and French academic calendars (schools in France hold auditions and enrollment in late August and early September for that same year!) I returned to the US in July with no clear plan or place to be for the ‘03-'04 academic year. This was in part due to my lack of interest in getting a DMA and Ransom's advice that coming back to Yale for an Artist Diploma would be a very expensive endeavor.

That year was without a doubt the hardest thus far as a flutist. I found out about an audition for interim principal flute of the Baton Rouge Symphony a little less than two weeks before the audition. As fate would have it, I decided to take the audition and won my first principal job in an orchestra. That year I also managed to scrounge up about four or five students in Shreveport and was given two sections of Fine Arts Survey to teach for Northwestern State University (ironically the school I had planned to attend to get that engineering degree before becoming a pilot), one section in Natchitoches and the other in Alexandria. If you have a map handy, you'll see very quickly that I just about lived on I-49 that year. I must have averaged about 200 to 500 miles a week on my car depending on the symphony schedule. For the second half of that year I lived in Longview Texas due to some family issues and kept the same schedule incredibly enough.

Doing all of that, I was still unable to make it up to the poverty line and was forced to live at home. Realizing this was no was to achieve my goal of becoming a gainfully-employed flutist, I decided to bite the bullet and get a DMA - and was accepted to Rutgers where I studied with Bart Feller. All during my three years there, I continued to take orchestra auditions and slowly began occasionally advancing. By my third year, I was frequently making it to finals - though I had chosen the auditions very carefully.

My third year at Rutgers, I made it to the finals of the principal audition for the Florida Orchestra. Later that year, I won principal in the Midland Odessa Symphony and Chorale where I was going to make $6,800 a year. This was to be my first contract offered to me that I knew wasn't temporary. Later that summer while playing in a summer opera festival, I heard the news that the Florida Orchestra was suddenly without a principal flutist for the season and I immediately began calling the personnel manager (a position that was in limbo at the time) on a daily basis to find out if I could sub until they found someone to hire since I had made the finals in the last audition. Shortly after starting the season in Midland, Florida finally returned my call with a list of dates asking for which I could sub as guest principal. With Midland only paying under $7k a year, it was not turning out to be the orchestral experience I had envisioned. Florida on the other hand pays about $38k and was exactly how I had imagined a career in music being. I only got to play with them three times and only on pops concerts, but even at that it was enough to give me some direction and desire to get there.

This brings us to this year. Not being certain that I wanted to return to Midland, I took the auditions for the Pacific Symphony and the Boise Philharmonic knowing I had to win one of these jobs in order to get out of Midland. I advanced at the Pacific audition and won the Boise job which I think was a much more appropriate level for me - not to mention it almost tripled the pay from Midland! Boise has been a great place to grow and was just enough over my head that I had plenty to learn, but I wasn't going to be lost or overwhelmed. Always looking for the next step, I decided to take auditions for The President's Own Marine Band, Louisiana Philharmonic, and the Florida Orchestra auditions this spring. I went to the Marine Band audition and didn't advance. Then on the three days I had back in Boise between the Marine and Louisiana Phil auditions, the FAA called me for the first time since April of ‘08 to tell me that I finally had a class date if I still wanted the job. Let me just say that while taking an audition with a life altering question in the front of your mind is apparently possible, it is not preferable!

[Notes checked in with Ryan a few weeks later, and discovered that he's decided to go for the principal flute position in Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. We wish him the best of luck and congratulations for choosing to continue his life as a professional musician!]