UNION — A local high school senior lives his life to hone and practice his God-given musical talent.
Ryan West, 17, is currently a senior at Union County High School. He has a tote bag which reads “Music is life.” For West, this is an understatement. He plays banjo, ukelele, drum set, snare drum, guitar, bass guitar, piano, marimba, and djembe, all of which — with the exception of snare drum which West said is very technique-oriented — he originally learned by teaching himself.
“Every year, he asks for a musical instrument for Christmas,” said Ryan’s mother, Tammy West. “He taught himself to play every one of these. I just think it is absolutely amazing talent — definitely a gift from God. He can play any instrument you put in front of him.”
“Whatever instrument is needed for an ensemble, I’ll play,” Ryan said.
As a fifth grader, Ryan watched a presentation to recruit students to participate in band when they reached sixth grade. Ryan’s brother, Davey, was drum captain at Union County High School, and Ryan knew he wanted to play drums as well. Ryan went on to be part of the UCHS Marching Band pit crew as a mallet player, and in eighth grade he became part of the drumline, eventually playing center snare. Of all the instruments Ryan plays, he said learning percussion for marching band was the most difficult.
“You can’t teach yourself or pick up techniques such as the angle of the sticks or whether to initiate from your hand, wrist or arm,” Ryan said.
UCHS Band Director Matt Chastain said he has watched Ryan grow and mature — both musically and as a person — over the past three years. West participates in the school’s marching band, concert band, indoor percussion ensemble and wind ensemble.
“Ryan is an exceptionally talented individual,” Chastain said.
One Christmas, Ryan asked for a drum set as a gift. This prompted his dad, Gene, to build a building behind the family’s house where Ryan often practiced his drums. He also invited friends and fellow musicians to the building where they practiced together, forming several Christian rock bands including Pierce the Darkness and Favorable Year.
Ryan also became a fill-in musician at New Life Baptist Church, playing piano and drums. While at band camp one year, then-drum major Blake Fowler taught Ryan how to play the theme from the Super Mario Bros. Nintendo game on piano.
“Then, I started staying up nights figuring out tunes off commercials on a really old keyboard,” Ryan said. “It drove me crazy.”
West then asked for a new keyboard for Christmas that year.
Another year, he received a piano as a Christmas gift. After playing self-taught for two or three years, he began taking lessons from Suzy Smith.
“Even though Ryan didn’t begin piano until middle school, he is very advanced in his playing,” Smith said, adding that he is diligent in his practice efforts and serves as a good role model for other students.
“It’s unusual for him to be in the house and not be playing because he doesn’t walk by that piano without sitting down and playing something,” Tammy added.
When West began playing at recitals, he was unaware that pieces and performances were categorized by levels of difficulty. He skipped the Difficult and Very Difficult levels, going straight into Advanced and Very Advanced.
While playing at New Life, Ryan began to learn music theory from Carol Dizbon, and he said her teaching has helped him more than anything.
“If you understand the instrument, you can learn to play songs on your own,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if you can really teach yourself music theory.”
Ryan also played at other churches including Full Gospel Tabernacle of God, where he played in the church’s praise band. He later became part of the praise band at Lakeside Baptist Church where he played alongside several friends his age. He has also played at Oakbrook Community Church, Grace United Methodist Church, Browns Creek Baptist Church, and Tabernacle Baptist Church. He has also played in bands at the Uniquely Union Festival and the K.I.C.K. summer camp for the past two summers.
Chastain added that Ryan remains an avid student of composition and music theory.
“Though our school does not yet offer a music theory course, he has sought the help of his GT (gifted and talented) Music teacher, local professors and me in order to expand his knowledge,” Chastain said. “I cannot stress enough that he has a strong desire to learn and grow as a musician. He is the kind of student that is always looking for ways to improve.”
Ryan’s GT Music teacher, Leigha Pace, echoed praises of West’s work in music.
“I have been a music educator for 15 years in three different southeastern states, and Ryan is the most outstanding music student I have ever experienced,” Pace said. “His skill and talent is advanced.”
West’s talent does not stop with performance, however, as he is also skilled in writing and arranging music.
“Ryan has arranged music for us on many occasions for sacred as well as secular music,” Pace said. “He is able to shift music styles and genres appropriately and play them legitimately. His promptness and Finale skills have helped us throughout the year when we need an arrangement of music. And he has perfect pitch.”
Ryan said he enjoys learning music by ear most of all.
“To me, it’s a lot more interesting and easier to get into it when I know I did it on my own,” he said. “Not that it’s bad to learn from lessons, but learning by ear is like figuring out a puzzle — and it makes it easier for me to remember. Sheet music is harder to remember.”
Ryan was voted by his fellow students as “Class of 2014 Most Talented.”
Ryan naturally wants to concentrate on music studies in college, majoring in music education with an emphasis in percussion and specialized time in piano. He has narrowed down his school choices to North Greenville University and the University of South Carolina.
Ryan West is the son of Gene and Tammy West and the grandson of Maurice and Mary Hyder, Wade and Sadie Wilson, and the late Grady and Nellie West. He has two brothers, Jake and Davey.