By Lisa Redmond
LOWELL -- UMass Lowell professor Gena Greher grew up in Queens, N.Y. and attended the High School of Performing Arts, so it's not so surprising that fame has found her. In a music career that has included writing jingles, rubbing elbows with music greats like Aretha Franklin and Chubby Checker, and becoming an author, Greher, UMass Lowell's coordinator of music education, has been named the 2014 Nancy Donahue Endowed Professor of the Arts. This professorship was established in 2009 by Lowell philanthropists Nancy and Richard Donahue through a $500,000 endowment to help promote music, art and theater education based at UMass Lowell.
Q: What is your reaction to being chosen for this prestigious professorship?
A: It's such an incredible honor. Needless to say, I was completely caught off guard. When Jacquie Moloney, our executive vice chancellor, called me with the news, I was speechless. I must admit that following in the footsteps of the previous recipients, who are all so talented and accomplished, is a bit daunting.
Q: One of your goals is to invite musicians for concerts and workshops. What type of musicians and who do you have lined up?
A: I'm hesitant to name names at the moment, because I don't want to jinx anything, but I'm looking to bring in folks who are fairly well known who straddle both the classical traditions of orchestral string music as well as alternative styles of playing and musical genres one wouldn't typically associate with orchestral string playing. All of the folks I'm thinking about are committed to working with and educating the next generation of musicians.
Q: How do you plan to grow the UMass Lowell String Project?
A: When I took over as director of the String Project and Lowell Youth Orchestra in 2011 from Kay Roberts, I discovered the incredible impact this organization had on the kids, their parents and the Greater Lowell community. Now that we have re-worked the organizational structure and I'm no longer dealing with the day-to-day operations and fundraising, I'm thinking about long-term sustainability of the project, so I'm focusing on how we might attract more string players to our undergraduate and graduate programs.
Q: Why did you choose to work at UMass Lowell?
A: The first thing that attracted me was that the job description was describing me and my areas of interest: general music, world music and music technology. The second thing that was appealing was the fact that Lowell was a diverse, urban community.
Q: Are you from a musical family?
A: My mother was a violin prodigy and met my dad in an orchestra where she was the soloist and he was in the French horn section. They were teens at the time. Among her various gigs, she played with Tommy Dorsey when he had an all-female string ensemble performing with him, and then eventually worked at Radio City Music Hall while I was growing up. She played violin on the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." My dad played with Xavier Cugat when he got out of the Army and eventually settled into working on Broadway for many years.
Q: Why not work as a professional musician?
A: When I was going through college, there was only the traditional classical focus on studying music. I wasn't aware of the various alternative musical directions one could go in, even as a violinist. As a kid growing up, I saw playing in an orchestra as a bit limiting, in that you do the same thing night after night. Perhaps I might have even been rebelling against "the family business" or maybe it was because I always had this fantasy of putting music to film and I wanted to explore that.
Q: Can you explain your passion of combining music and technology?
A: It started in college with an electronic-music class, which morphed into my wanting to be a sound engineer. I thought if someone could pay me to play with sound and work with incredibly talented musicians and singers, that could be a cool way to earn a living. ...Technology is now front and center in the work I am doing here at UMass Lowell with the interdisciplinary class I'm teaching, with Jesse Heines from computer science in our "Sound Thinking" general-ed class combining computing and music.
Q: Can you explain your outreach project, "SoundScapes," and how it benefits children with autism and spectrum disorder?
A: Our project seeks to harness music technology for the purpose of developing face-to-face socialization skills in a population of students whose ability to misread social cues is well documented.
Our SoundScape project seeks to address the social challenges experienced by those with ASD by providing participants with the opportunity to meet others and practice effective communication and successful interactions, and potentially form rewarding friendships through the students' inherent interest in music and technology.
Q: What awards have you won with your jingles?
A: I won a Clio Award, which is the advertising equivalent of the Oscars, for the music for Atari's Dig Dug commercial. This was one of Atari's first video games. I won numerous Big Apple awards for Swissair Radio and Sony's Full Color Sound. I've won Mobius, Addy & Effie awards for Diet Coke, Mastercard, Lipton Tea, Johnson and Johnson. In addition I've worked on Miller Beer, Burger King, American Express, Lego, Barbie, Fisher-Price, Johnson & Johnson, Eastern Airlines, Ragu, Maybelline and Cover-Girl. I got to work with Aretha Franklin, Ashford and Simpson, Patti Austin, Michael Bolton, The Brecker Brothers, Felix Cavalieri, Chubby Checker, The David Letterman Band, Melissa Manchester, George Michael, Aaron Neville, Phoebe Snow, Luther Vandross, Harold Wheeler, their agents and managers.
Q: Why give that up to go into education?
A: When I started out in advertising, original jingles and music were central to advertising and it was a very creative and fun process for me.
We were creating music, doing sound design and brainstorming ideas. As the industry moved away from original music to searching for existing songs to buy the rights for, it started to become less of a creative endeavor for me. ... I was ready for a change and looking for something that at the end of the day I could feel good about.