By Michael Nova
Finding Your Own Road To Success Takes Time
Jordan Rudess is arguably one of the greatest rock keyboardists of all time. He has been a member of music groups Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment since 1997 and is also known for his solo work. Jordan also founded the Wizdom Music software company, creating new musical interfaces and new and innovative ways of creating sound with computers. Jordan was kind enough to spend a little time with us and answers some of our questions about how he became successful in the music industry. Here’s our interview with Jordan Rudess…
Jordan, you were classically trained and went to Julliard at age nine for classical piano, but then in your teenage years your passion turned to progressive rock and synthesizers. What was that transition like for you to make during that period?
I was a very serious classical music student, but at the same time during my childhood, I enjoyed improvising and playing popular songs from shows and movies. While I was at Julliard, all of those activities were very much on the sidelines of the classical study. Improvising and playing non-classical music was looked at like a little fun thing that I had the ability to do, as long as it didn’t distract from the serious music!
When I turned 18, I heard “Tarkus,” by Emerson Lake and Palmer for the first time, and it was a very powerful moment in my personal history. It showed me the power that keyboards could have and how one could incorporate classical harmonies and rhythms in a rock context. It was then that I realized that my interest in music outside of the strict classical world was more than just something that would just get hidden in a Julliard practice room.
What challenges did you face in making the switch musically?
The first thing I had to do was to was to accept that people who were not classical musicians were not a lower life form. Growing up at Julliard is an elite and in many ways a positive training ground, but it’s easy to have your perspective skewed by living in that world. So it wasn’t so much the musical change that was the hard part; it was the social part!!
How did your family and teachers react when you told them this, and how did you deal with that reaction?
This was a huge deal. My family members, who are not musicians and had invested a lot of time and money, did not understand my desire to get away from Julliard.
My teachers were bewildered as well. All the advice from them was to continue, and that I would surely emerge early as a top US classical pianist. Not what I wanted to do at that point in my life.
It was time for me to break out of there and experiment and find my way!
Can you tell us about finding your way on this road? What challenges did you face?
The main problem was that at the time I left Julliard around 1975, there were not the kind of musical programs there are nowadays that support people who want to learn synthesis and recording technology.
There really was no clear path to go down, so I was very much on my own! Luckily one of the things that helped me is that my first synthesizer, a Mini Moog, was all analog, and although I could not understand the technical terms for all the parameters on the control panel, all I had to do was to turn knobs and listen carefully for the effect that it would bring.
One of my first bands after Julliard was a total space electronic music band called Complex, with Sal Gallina (one of the people behind the original lyrics and WX7 wind controller) and Joseph Lyons (a former Julliard instructor turned Cromulizer player). We would improvise on late-night college radio shows and play house concerts. No money, but a really educational experience for me! In many ways this was a tough time, and there was no guidance.
How long did this period last, and how did you finally find your way?
The period of moving through a lot of changes, experiments and odd situations lasted for at least a decade. Everything from playing piano in restaurants and bars to joining a local band in Maryland (Apricot Brandy) to working for a company called Enhanced Technology as a musical consultant filled my time. I would say that when I finally met my wife Danielle, things started to become more positively directed towards my eventual success.
We realized that my move out of Juilliard and the lifestyle I had resulted in an ongoing struggle to really find a way to fit in with the world around me, now that I wasn’t pursuing classical music!
My first big step on the new path was to join Korg, the makers of electronic musical instruments. I joined them as a product specialist in 1988. Joining them put in a world where people started to discover what I do. I would attend all the big music conventions and always perform, and not only meet people, but also get magazine coverage from places like Keyboard magazine.
Personally, when I was starting off in music, the hardest thing for me was finding bandmates and/or people to work with that I clicked with. Was this difficult for you, and how did you deal with that?
The first door that opened in the rock world was with guitarist Vinnie Moore. It was an important step in my career. Vinnie had a lot of success as an instrumental guitar virtuoso. Meeting him and playing on the Time Odyssey album really exposed me to the world that I would eventually become a large part of. At this point, things were a bit easier to navigate, and possibilities started to open up. Playing with Jan Hammer, Tony Williams, and the Paul Winter Consort all helped along the path.
So then in the 1980s, you were invited by Bleu Ocean to perform on the song “Bring the Boys Back Home” as a drummer, but producer Bob Ezrin thought you weren’t right for the project. Was that a big letdown, and how did you feel about it?
I was OK with that. It’s kind of a laugh at this point. I was not a drummer after all!! Bleu Ocean was a buddy of mine, and he invited me to hang out. Great memories.
And after the release of your solo album, Listen, you were voted “Best New Talent” in Keyboard magazine, which gained you much notice in the industry, and you faced a choice of either joining Dream Theater or The Dixie Dregs in 1994. Why did you choose the Dixie Dregs?
At that point in my life, I had many things already going. The Dream Theater offer was so great, but they were still a new band and not that secure. At that point in my life, my wife and I had a new baby; I had a cool job with Kurzweil Music Systems and also this possibility of taking an offer from the Dregs. I looked at all the parameters and decided to go down that route.
And then in 1997, you were again invited to join Dream Theater, and this time you accepted. What changed to make you accept?
After rejecting the Dream Theater offer, I ended up being asked to participate on a project that Mike Portnoy was putting together. It was called Liquid Tension Experiment and also featured Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci and bassist Tony Levin. After recording two very successful albums with that group, the guys came to me again and asked me if at that point I would consider joining again. The rest is history!!!
So what led you to starting your own software company, Wizdom Music, in 2010?
I’ve always had a great interest in sound and cool ways to achieve it. That’s what got me interested in synthesizers. I’m extremely sensitive to sound and enjoy thinking about creative ways to create it!
My passion for that led me to experiment with Multitouch. One of the first experiments was on the original iPhone. I would sit around and play with it, dreaming of what kind of control you could create for sound.
In those days, the iTunes app store was new, and there were a lot of cool people bringing their new creative ideas to the platform. I kept my eyes on the store, and the creators and ended up reaching out to programmer Kevin Chartier. He was doing some very cool stuff on iOS and I asked him if he wanted to partner with me to build an app based on some ideas I had and some tech he had. He said yes, and then a year later MorphWiz was born.
And what challenges did you face in forming the company and getting it to become profitable?
I had a good start with that company. The first year after creating MorphWiz we won the Billboard best music app award! It’s become harder these days actually, because the app store as everyone knows is very crowded with all the big companies participating in the space. Luckily I got in early, so when I realize an app, like my latest GeoShred for iPad, it gets noticed! Many people release apps and they get thrown into a huge pile with all the other daily releases, and that is very difficult!
Were there any setbacks, and how did you handle them?
My main challenge in life was the period between leaving Juilliard and then finding Korg. Certainly there were fun times and things that get chalked up to experience, but it was due to a lot of drive and passion for music that I continued to do what I love and fight through the challenges that I was faced with.
Was it difficult for you in making the transition from being a musician to becoming a businessman?
I’m not a businessman, but I certainly dabble in that space out of necessity. I’m a musician and a people person, and with those things in mind, I have been able to forge productive relationships which have led to interesting business opportunities.
When it comes to the phrase that our website was built on, “Fall down seven times, rise up eight,” what is your philosophy of about overcoming challenges in life?
I found success in always doing what I love to do. Finding something that you are passionate about is really important. If you care deeply about something then there is very little that will stop you along the way.
It didn’t matter to me if I was playing in a crappy bar or restaurant. I always loved music, focused on it, and moved forward. There was the craft and the joy in doing it that was so important and fulfilling to me.
One of the other keys to success that I see and understand more and more in life is that one should always do their best job, no matter what they are asked to do. You never know how one thing will lead to another or who you will meet in any situation.
If you are a barista in a coffee shop as a temp job, and it doesn’t seem to pertain to your real interest, I would say that the best thing to do would be to be your best and make the best impression on everyone that you come in contact with. Take care of yourself mentally and physically, so you can think clearly and generate positive energy around you. If people enjoy being around you and benefit from it, they will want to support you on your path to the top!
So what are you doing now?
I’m on tour with Dream Theater all over the USA. We are currently touring with our Rock Opera “The Astonishing.”
I’m also working on a major update for my app GeoShred to enable it to have a complete MIDI implementation.
I’m also very involved with VR and looking into creative and business opportunities for Dream Theater and Wizdom Music in that space.
And how can people follow you?
Jordan may have had difficulty finding his way early on, but he found that by experimenting on his own, he was able to find where he fit in within the music world. It is that journey–that all of us must take to figure out where we fit in–that is often the hardest journey in our lives, but if we are patient and open to experimentation, we can find our place. Even if we need to fall down seven times while searching, we can still rise up eight.
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