Alumni Profile: Ruslan Sirota '03

By 
Adam Renn Olenn

Ruslan Sirota
Ruslan Sirota

“It wasn’t until we were sitting in the seats that I realized we could actually win,” says Ruslan Sirota ’03 of his experience at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Both his composition and production work on Stanley Clarke’s album, The Stanley Clarke Band, had put him in the running for a statuette. “It was a good record, and I felt really lucky to win,” says Sirota, who acknowledges that luck has played a prominent role in many key moments in his life.

Sirota displayed an early aptitude for music. “When I was six,” he says, “I came home from school one day and there was a piano in my house. That changed everything, because I had access to an instrument all the time. I didn’t have any training, but I learned things by ear.”

Sirota recommends learning by ear first. “You develop a relationship with music that can never be taken away,” he says. “Whatever tools you acquire through training will only enrich that.”

 

Soviet-Style

He soon began rigorous classical lessons Soviet-style. “But at that time,” he says, “there was this musical rebel who had been banished from all of the classical institutions as both a student and a teacher. He dressed weird, wrote anti-Soviet songs, and listened to a lot of American music. My dad sent me to him because he knew I had something unconventional in me.

“After my classical lessons, we would go to the park next to the school and sit on the ground with his battery-powered keyboards. He would set up a drum pattern and have me make things up, or he’d play an accompaniment and have me improvise a melody. That was my introduction to freedom.”

When he was nine, Sirota’s family moved to Israel. There he was introduced to jazz while continuing his classical studies. He joined a student band that recorded and toured throughout the country. When Berklee came to Israel on the World Scholarship Tour, Sirota auditioned. “It was crazy!” he says. “They usually mail you an answer, but they took me outside the room and offered me a scholarship to the Five-Week Summer Performance program.”

When he arrived at Berklee, Sirota was blown away. “I stepped into an elevator and who’s standing next to me but Gary Burton, who played with Chick Corea. Back then I was completely obsessed with Chick.” Sirota introduced himself and gave Burton his demo cassette. The next day, Burton invited Sirota to meet. “I was 15 years old and hanging out with Gary Burton. That day was like a fairy tale.”

Sirota subsequently applied to Berklee and won a four-year, full-tuition scholarship. But even with a scholarship, expenses outstripped his family’s ability to support him. Sirota had another fairy-tale moment. Burton recalls, Sirota was an “excellent student, and as sometimes happens, he found himself halfway through the program and running out of money. During my years at Berklee, I occasionally became aware of a promising student who was faced with the likelihood of having to give it all up and go home. So I decided to offer to personally provide the funding for his room and board so he could finish at Berklee.” Burton, who has helped other students, says, “[They] deserve a chance to make it, and the industry deserves to have their talent added to the music community.”

Sirota says Berklee prepared him well for the music business. One key lesson was to free himself from artistic gridlock. “My roommate took me to a jam session my first night in Boston. I was full of myself since I had gotten this scholarship, and they wiped the floor with me.”

“I kind of got depressed,” he says. “I froze up until I started playing r&b and gospel. That was a salvation for me, because I was a rookie. I didn’t have all these expectations.” Soon Sirota was playing r&b and gospel three nights a week as the house pianist at Wally’s.

Through that gig Sirota met the musical director for Brian McKnight’s band and was offered a job, which led to a position in Stanley Clarke’s group and a move to Los Angeles. The nights at Wally’s paid other dividends as well, teaching Sirota how to be free and creative while remaining polished and professional. “It’s having the highest level of integrity for your content combined with a needed carelessness, a necessary lightness, so you don’t pressure yourself too much, because then you won’t play freely.”

 

Overdoing It

Sirota says he learned to find this balance from his musical mentors and heroes. “You have to overdo the responsibility, then overdo the freedom, and get a sense for what it feels like when it’s right.

“It’s tricky,” he says, “especially when you’re recording. “You must learn to listen to yourself objectively. It helps to talk to your heroes about how they felt about their own recordings. [Listeners] have this sense that every note was inevitable on classic records, but that’s not the case.”

Sirota has been encouraged to find his own equilibrium in Stanley Clarke’s band. “One of the great things about working with Stanley is that he trusts everyone he hires.” Sirota’s recent Grammy win shows that trust is well placed, and buoyed by that success, he is supporting A-list artists among a variety of genres—from jazz heavyweights Dennis Chambers, Marcus Miller, and Chick Corea to pop stars like Seal, Ne-Yo, and Josh Groban, with whom he will soon go on tour. Additionally, he is performing in support of his own debut album and preparing to record a second—and keeping it all in balance.