Behind the Korg Kronos keyboard, Greg Phillinganes steps into character. Striking Gospel chords, he becomes the happy parishioner. Then he leans and laughs to play country music and turns the Music Den into a honkytonk. Through some mellow staccato chords, he transforms into a reggae singer with dark sunglasses and an imaginary spliff. Becoming a character when you perform, he says, “lets you convey what you want without the nerves of your real self.”

Phillinganes joined Stevie Wonder’s band at 19 and has worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and more recently Bruno Mars and Kanye West. Through a collaboration between School of Performance, Music Den and FCAD Talks series, the Detroit-born artist and music director visited Ryerson for a rare masterclass and lecture. He regaled students, faculty and industry members with tales of his life in music, from going shopping with a disguised Michael Jackson, to playing in a Pompeii coliseum with Pink Floyd singer and guitarist David Gilmour in 2016.

However, above all of his success, years of playing, and extraordinary experiences Phillinganes said the lessons he wants to get across are about authenticity and humility.

“Always remain humble,” he told the audience. “You’ll be down as sure as you’ll be up. And when you’re down, that’s when you find out what you’re made of. Anybody can do up, it’s the valleys where you’ll find what you’re about.”

Phillinganes playing piano

The Stevie Wonder studio sessions, directing Michael Jackson’s Bad tour, and now working on Justin Timberlake’s new album are fun highlights to discuss. But Phillinganes opened up to the audience, admitting that since the David Gilmour tour, work has been slower, a stress compounded with the arrival of twins 21 months ago. “Don’t get it twisted. My life hasn’t consisted of one amazing thing after another,” he said. “There’s been a lot of shit in between.”

Radio promoter and Music Den steering committee member Dale Peters agrees. “He nailed it — humility. That’s a skill all to itself. You still build that the same way today as you would have 20 years ago with strategy, time, and patience.”

Peters is sometimes surprised to get thank you emails instead of ungrateful replies for the critiques he provides to submissions. “If you’re authentic, then great music will come from you,” Peters said. The key is to accept yourself, take the hits, and come back with a better connection to people.

Someone is never an artist more than they are a human being, Phillinganes said. “It’s really not about the music, it’s about the life that you live and the impact you have on others through your music.”