Jonas Bros’ piano player shares secrets of his success

Ryan Liestman plays piano in South America
Ryan Liestman plays piano in South America. One of the definite perks of being a professional musician is getting to travel. But traveling showed him his home is Minnesota, he said. Photo courtesy of Ryan Liestman
Reporter Sabrina Kennelly

Many teens have a desire to be a rock-star: The fame, the screaming fans, and the tight leather pants are just some of the pluses that come with the rock-star dream.

For Twin Cities native Ryan Liestman, 30, of Minneapolis, the dream came true. He’s the piano player for the Jonas Brothers, and fronts two other bands: The Rule and Ocean Grove.

“Music chose me. I knew that I was going to do music (professionally) at a very young age,” Liestman said. “It was a matter of knowing how at that point.”

Ryan began writing his own songs while attending Minnetonka High School and formed a band, The Rule.

“Every Tuesday we would play in Uptown at Famous Dave’s,” Liestman said. “We would play original songs and covers. It eventually became a thing on Tuesdays where there would be a line out the door of 15-year-old kids coming to see our shows.”

Liestman credits his mentor and keyboard instructor, Tommy Barbarella, of Prince’s New Power Generation, with helping him go from being a teen musician to a professional one.

“He opened my mind to a whole new world of ideas … He taught me what I keyboard player could do,” Liestman said.

Barbarella also introduced him to the Jonas Brothers’ manager, Twin Cities native John Fields. That connection, and what he learned when The Rule toured with Cyndi Lauper’s “Body Acoustics” tour in 2006, landed him the role of piano player for the Jonas Brothers, Liestman said.

At first, Liestman wasn’t so comfortable singing in front of thousands of people in amphitheaters every night during “Body Acoustics.”

“Cyndi got me out of my shell. I was in a zone when it came to singing. She got me to realize that I could walk out and use the stage,” Liestman said.

After each show, Cyndi would critique Liestman on what he could improve. “She would tell me: ‘The more you open yourself, the more open the audience is ready to come in,’ ” he said.

By the time he auditioned five years ago for The Jonas Brothers, then an up-and-coming pop group, he was a confident player.

Working for The Jonas Brothers has taught Liestman that being a professional musician is serious business. “For the Jonases we are serving a very specific function. We have to play the music (exactly the same) every time so that they can shine, which is great,” Liestman said. “That’s a fun challenge in itself — being a super tight band — for those dudes that you love out there selling it.”

He’s also learned how fast-paced the entertainment industry can be. Ten minutes before going on live TV, he was told to shorten a 45-second song to 30 seconds. “Suddenly we would have to rearrange everything and come up with a plan; I was thrown into tons of situations like that,” Liestman said. “It wasn’t because of the Jonases. That’s how the entertainment industry is.”

At times the keyboardist would get stressed out from situations such as these, but he learned how to think quickly on his feet. “But (it was) also exciting because it was challenging,” he said.

For five years, Ryan has travelled the world in countries ranging from France to Japan to Mexico while touring with the Jonas Brothers. “Exploring the world has helped me put (in) perspective that (the Twin Cities are) home. Every time I would go off for months at a time, not only was it fun and I was learning, but somehow you become grounded in that way.”

Aspiring teen rock stars may think touring is a glamorous life of never-ending posh hotel rooms and grand tour buses with patent leather seats. But Liestman said the reality is musicians performing constantly with little downtime. “We’ve been playing with each other for years,” he said. “We’ve practically been living with each other for years, stuck in a dressing room.”

While not on tour with the Jonas Brothers, Ryan has been producing music for other musicians. “You don’t have as many reservations when producing because it’s not you,” Liestman said. “You’re helping someone else to do the best that they can. You can explore something that you wouldn’t normally do for yourself.”

During a tour stop in London, Liestman and Jonas Brothers’ drummer, Jack Lawless, decided while drinking in a pub to do something to let out their need for musical creativity. They started their own band — “Ocean Grove” — composed of the members of The Jonas Brothers’ backup band.

Ocean Grove’s music has been well-received by fans, which gave the band a chance to tour across the U.S. last fall.

Even though the crowds are jam-packed with die-hard Jonas Brothers’ teenage girl fans, Ryan has hopes of getting a more diverse fan base. “The challenge is how do we get people who don’t know us to know us?” Liestman asked, proving that even for musicians who’ve made the big time, music never stops being a challenging endeavor.

In the future, Ryan hopes seeing Ocean Grove’s popularity grow, and produce for new artists.