From Writing Jingles to the College Classroom

Gena Greher in class.
Gena Greher just completed her 14th year at UMass Lowell.

By David Perry

We caught up with Prof. Gena Greher of the Music Department just before summer did.

It was just as she completed her 14th year teaching at UMass Lowell.

Greher, who serves as coordinator of Music Education, lived a full professional life before she arrived on campus. She grew up with award-winning singer-composer Melissa Manchester as a bestie, with musician parents (that’s her mom playing violin in the string section of The Shirelles’”Will you Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and she won a Clio Award (the Oscar of the advertising business) for the music direction for an Atari commercial.

She became an authority on integrating music and the arts into curricula, and in her two decades in the ad business, once helped Aretha Franklin and George Michael sing the praises of Diet Coke. Along the way, Greher earned a doctorate in education at Columbia University and a master’s degree in broadcasting and film from Boston University.

Greher answered some questions about her life in the music business, from working on Super Bowl commercials to the current state of arts education.

Q: As a music educator, do you see a trend to restore arts and music programs and classes cut over recent years?

A. Many districts are supportive of the arts and hire educators who realize the importance of arts education in educating the whole child, such as here in Lowell. At the same time, many schools around the country where students are struggling academically and could most likely benefit from the arts are also the ones decreasing the amount of time devoted to arts education in order to put in place more remediation classes devoted to developing test-taking skills.

As for technology and the arts, there is such great creative potential, but I’m not sure most schools, school districts or music teachers are there yet.  While many schools are investing in new technology, they are mostly focusing on the content delivery aspect of technology rather than its creative possibilities. In addition there are large factions of music teachers who are resistant to technology and holding firm in their beliefs that the traditional large ensemble model of music education is the only “real” approach toward music education.  On a more positive note, many of our UMass Lowell music education grads are getting out in front of technology and advocating for its inclusion in their music programs as a means of helping music stay relevant in the lives of all their students.

Q: You’ve pretty much never been out of the arts, from high school in NYC to the commercial jingle industry to now, sharing your knowledge with students. Is there a favorite musical gig you’ve had, and why?

A. I’m pretty lucky. Producing jingles allowed me to work with some of the most amazingly talented musicians on a daily basis. Becoming music director on the Diet Coke account as a pretty cool gig. It was on this account that I had the opportunity to really push the envelope musically on the international part of the business.  I got to produce tracks that were more like movie scores, which gave me the opportunity to work with some Los Angeles arrangers and record in London and Paris.

The ultimate high point would have to be walking into a recording studio in Detroit where so many of the Motown hits were recorded, to record Aretha Franklin for a Diet Coke Super Bowl spot.

I absolutely love working with the next generation of musicians and educators in my current role, and it’s infinitely more satisfying professionally and emotionally. As with the jingle business, there are some interesting challenges, no two days are ever the same and I get to work with incredibly talented people. It’s energizing to work with college students, helping to guide their creativity, passion and commitment as they begin to develop their teacher identity. And I learn as much from them as they hopefully are learning from me.

Q: When you first got into music and planned to do it for your life’s work, what did you imagine? Performance? Teaching? Production?

A. Definitely production. Growing up my fantasy job was to be the person who put the music and soundtrack together for cartoons. The Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons were my gold standards. My long-term goal was to be a music supervisor for a movie studio. While that never happened, it was pretty much what my role turned out to be in advertising. I got to work on a lot of different types of soundtracks and jingles but that side of the business eventually moved away from creative approaches toward music in favor of simply purchasing song rights. That’s when I started exploring the viability of creating educational technology and realized I needed more education.

Not surprisingly, film/cartoon scoring projects loom large in my work with students. You can completely change a person’s perception of what is happening visually just by changing the soundtrack. Try imagining "Jaws" without that shark’s two-note motif! Films and cartoons make great tangible anchors for composition projects. After stripping off the existing sound you can get students to think analytically about pacing, mood, tone and texture as it relates to the scene and how the music can support what’s happening visually. I’ve done this with all age groups and all types of learners. So I’ve sort of come full circle career-wise.

Q: What was it like working in the jingle business?

A. I began working in advertising in the mid to late '70s as an assistant producer. In the early '80s I moved into music production at Young & Rubicam and eventually worked my way up to music director at Lintas:USA which was part of the Interpublic Group of Companies. In the early '90s I was working as a music producer for several independent music production companies. There was never a dull moment since the turnaround for a fully produced new jingle could often be just a few hours and recording sessions often lasted through the night. It was not uncommon to get home at 6 a.m., kiss my family good morning, shower and head back to the office to present the music.

There were always challenges. I’ve done everything from trying to get a dozen NFL players to perform vocal solos on a Diet Coke rap to directing a bunch of toddlers to sing in a bathtub. We were able to shoot the kids singing live but with the NFL guys I was able to convince the director to pre-record the vocals in a studio rather than live in a hot football stadium. It was the first and only time I worked with a choreographer on a vocal recording. If I produced a track that didn’t require a ton of revisions and didn’t have too many people putting their two cents in, that was my version of success.

Q: Who is your musical idol and why?

A. The violinist in me idolizes Itzhak Perlman and the producer in me idolized Phil Ramone, who was also a violinist in addition to being a renowned recording engineer and producer. Perlman is such an amazing violinist in terms of tone, musicality and depth of emotion. I can listen to different violinists and immediately pick out his playing just by the way his bow hits the string.

And he once gave me his ‘G’ string, which is a lot more innocent than it sounds. After I graduated from college, Perlman was the soloist with a community orchestra my parents and I were performing with. Just before the concert his ‘A’ string broke so I offered up mine. He came over to me at the end of the concert to thank me, and then ripped the ‘G’ string from his violin and handed it to me. How cool is that?

Phil Ramone was an idol of mine because on most of my favorite recordings he was often at the helm, either as a recording engineer or producer. I actually got to work with a lot of Ramone’s protégés, who were the next generation of sound engineers, studio managers and producers, and I learned so much working with them.  In 2008 he was the keynote at the International Art of the Record Production Conference here at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. When I mentioned to Will Moylan that Phil Ramone was my idol, he arranged for me to have a one-on-one conversation with him. That was an incredible experience.