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April 10, 2014IM -
Genghis Barbie’s sense of fun leaves audiences smiling, while their virtuosity leaves them speechless.
When you hear the words “French horn” and “quartet,” a few things probably spring to mind. You might see four serious-looking Germans onstage in tuxedos, sitting down to offer some variation of the “here-we-go-a-hunting” songs that the instrument is fatally and forever associated with. Or, you might reach back to the 5th grade school trip, and the horn section of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, bleating out the Wolf’s brooding theme. Chances are you don’t think of Queen, Madonna, or Lady Gaga. And you certainly don’t think of bright magenta instruments.
Genghis Barbie, all members of Local 802 (New York City), will erase every horn stereotype from your mind, with unapologetic glamour and genre-busting fun. And most importantly, with serious talent—their resumes feature a stellar line-up, from the New York Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra, to appearances in Carnegie Hall, on Broadway, and even with Local 802 member David Byrne. The standard paradigm for classical musicians is to focus intently on honing skills, while competing for a very limited number of professional opportunities. Genghis Barbie took a different route—they looked at what they loved to do, and created opportunities to meet their passion.
I sat down with the four core members of Genghis Barbie to find out a little more about their entrepreneurial artistry. In addition to core members (left to right in photo) Danielle Kuhlmann (aka “Velvet Barbie”), Alana Vegter (aka “Freedom Barbie”), Rachel Drehmann (aka “Attila the Horn”), and Leelanee Sterrett (aka “Cosmic Barbie”), there are two additional Barbies who fill in when scheduling conflicts arise. Laura Weiner (aka “Alpine Barbie”) and Wei Ping Chou (aka “Sunshine Barbie”). Chou can be heard on Genghis Barbie’s recordings as well.
IM: So how did Genghis Barbie come about, and what is the GB vision? And what’s up with the name?
Kuhlmann: Genghis Barbie is a completely self-generated and self-propelled artistic adventure created by four friends. It was incepted during the recession, which I think is one of the more interesting things about the group. We were all young freelance horn players in New York, and when the recession hit, there wasn’t much work to go around. We were forced to create our own opportunities and projects so that we could continue to feel fulfilled and excited about music! We also had a lot of free time! I wonder if we could have given the kind of attention it takes to create an ensemble had it not been for our empty calendars!
GB doesn’t necessarily have a clear-cut mission statement. This is partially because we are all individuals who are growing and evolving, and our musical, personal, and professional goals are ever-changing. Our ultimate goal has remained the same from day one: we want to have as much fun as we possibly can playing music we love, at the highest level. We always have a blast together, and it’s amazing to work, travel, and make music with your best friends.
The name Genghis Barbie was coined many years ago when my dad saw his friend’s young daughter’s art project. She played with Barbies, and probably had just learned about Genghis Khan, and she created a comic strip character called “Genghis Barbie.” My dad, being a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, decided that it would be an awesome name for a rock band, and for my whole life, he always claimed to have “the best band name of all time.” Naturally when the group was formed, I suggested the name, and we never looked back. It’s hard to imagine the group as anything else! It was a perfect fit! (My dad has now officially/unofficially bequeathed the name to us).
IM: In the last few years, we’ve seen bankruptcies, lockouts, and cutbacks affect the professional orchestra field—which is already extremely competitive as a career path! Given the landscape today, what career advice would you give young orchestral players who are finishing college and entering the workplace?
Kuhlmann: One thing that we’ve learned from creating and sustaining our own group is that it’s not only about finding the opportunities that are available to you, but actually discovering what it is that you want to create as an artist. People everywhere are hungry for honest, generous art. They want to feel the dedication and passion we pour into what we do, and there is no better way to communicate that than through a unique, self-generated endeavor. We no longer exist in a world where someone else is necessarily going to hand you a job in the arts just because you went to school, worked hard, and earned it. I think one of the main reasons why Genghis Barbie has been a success is because there are no gimmicks or marketing tricks that aren’t 100% genuine reflections of who we are as individuals and as a unit. People look at our colored bells, our costumes, or our goofy videos as some kind of niche marketing, but it really should be seen as a group of friends having an extraordinarily good time doing something they have each worked incredibly hard on individually and together! We couldn’t sell the idea and the product without complete honesty, and I think that’s why it’s so easy for us to “market” ourselves. It’s so important to truly love and believe in what you’re doing, because otherwise, you’ll never be able or willing to put as much work into it as it takes to succeed!
Sterrett: We all need to be better, more outspoken advocates for our art. There is a reason that we all got into music, decided to study it seriously, and are now trying to make careers in this field. Can you articulate that reason clearly and convincingly to a stranger on the street? I think we all need to have a compelling personal statement to share with anyone who asks what we do and why. It can, of course, evolve over time, but you simply have to have some way of expressing to others why what you do is meaningful. Your passion can, and must, be contagious. Be an example to the world of the value music brings into our lives.
IM: You have a very distinctive artistic profile—not only with what you play, but how you present it. How would you describe your artistic identity, and how did it develop?
Drehmann: The group developed initially because we were all good friends. From a musical perspective, Genghis Barbie was our outlet to play whatever we wanted and play it however we felt like. We really weren’t concerned whether people would like it or approve of it from a classical standpoint. That wasn’t our goal—we just wanted to have fun. We decided to start a Facebook page, and soon after, released our first YouTube video, Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.” We knew a great photographer, Spencer Lloyd, and decided to have fun with some photos (our name is Genghis Barbie after all!). We realized there was no limit to what we could do as long as we were having fun. We first decided on the Genghis Barbie image to make ourselves out as these French horn warrior women, which, in a way, we are, as strong and independent New York City ladies. During the photo shoot we came up with our alter egos: Velvet Barbie, Freedom Barbie, Cosmic Barbie, Sunshine Barbie, and Attila the Horn. I mean, why not? Since then, I think we have actually toned it down a bit, but it remains that Genghis Barbie is where we all come to have fun, make our own choices, and be ourselves. We try to let our concerts, master classes, recordings, and YouTube videos reflect this. We honestly just want to spread our love for music and our joy in playing music with each other.
IM: What is the mission of Genghis Barbie, and how did you all determine that?
Vegter: The mission of Genghis Barbie is to provide a musical experience for our listeners of the highest quality and that is innovative, exciting, and memorable. We hope that our love of playing with one another shines through and becomes infectious to our listeners, inspiring them to get out there and do whatever they truly love to do. This mission has remained steadfast since our inception; we believe in GB whole-heartedly!
IM: What are your goals for Genghis Barbie in the long term, and what should we be aware of?
Vegter: Our fourth studio album is entitled Amp It Up!, and we are extremely excited to put it out into the world. We think it’s some of our best stuff yet and has enormous breadth in repertoire ranging from Imogen Heap to Dolly Parton [of Local 257 (Nashville, TN)] to Jean Sibelius. It’s everything a listener could ever dream of hearing! Seriously, though, we’re amped to share it, so please check it out. This year we continue to tour and plan for the future. We are hoping to record a fifth album next year entitled 2 Legit 2 Quit, our first album of all classical arrangements. If anyone out there reading this thinks that this concept is as worthy as we do and wants to be a part of it and help make it happen, by all means send us a shout! All our projects have been made possible with a healthy dose of collaborations from friends and GB enthusiasts, and we welcome new arrangers and ideas. Our long-term goals include supporting one another through our personal music endeavors, while continuing to provide exciting and innovative performances as Genghis Barbie for as long as our listeners are still into it. We hope to continue to spread the love as long as we can!
IM: Has Mattel made a Genghis Barbie yet?
Sterrett: LOL! I guess they haven’t yet. But they should! A horn-playing Barbie would be incredible, but any sort of musician doll would be welcome. I’m imagining “Carnegie Hall Debut Barbie,” and she could play violin or piano or any number of collectible mini-instruments. Her accessories could be a classy evening gown or tux, a Barbie-sized playbill, and a nice bouquet of roses for the standing ovation. Plus, your purchase comes with an MP3 download of a famous concerto or recital piece. It would be really powerful to see this symbol of pop culture, especially one so directed at girls, representing the arts as something worth celebrating and aspiring to. In the meantime, I suppose that will just continue to be our job as the living, breathing Genghis Barbie!
IM: Did your schooling/training help you in becoming more entrepreneurial, and what advice would you give to other musicians wanting to start their own ensembles?
Drehmann: I think we would all agree that our schooling/training had a huge influence on us as young musicians. We all developed relationships with friends and colleagues that have continued to grow throughout our careers. One of the most important things our education had to offer was our peers, and realizing that these people are creative, interesting, and may have something different to offer artistically. It’s so great to learn from each other and, later in life, continue to collaborate. As far as teaching me to become an entrepreneur, I can’t really say that my schooling prepared me for that in a business sense, although my teachers taught me how to build my product and have a strong foundation for what I have to offer as a musician and horn player. I didn’t seek out any business classes in my education. Everything I have learned for myself, and Genghis Barbie, has come out of the necessity and desire to become more independent and in control of the business side of the group. I’ve learned from friends who are lawyers, business professionals, legalzoom.com, and many good old Google searches! Up to this point, Genghis Barbie has run the business and artistic side of things entirely ourselves. This has given us the ultimate freedom to do whatever we want and make decisions as we go. The most important advice I would give to anyone starting their own ensemble is to ask questions and learn so you can make educated choices early on that will set you up to grow the way you want.
Sterrett: I never thought that I would have any desire to be “entrepreneurial” with regards to music, but that all changed with Genghis Barbie. I care so deeply about this group and believe absolutely that we are making the world a better place. It was this strength of belief that sparked my own interest in learning how to better promote and market our product, which allows us to ultimately share this incredibly joyful thing with more and more people (which is the real goal here). So for someone wanting to start their own venture, make sure you have a project that you can throw your whole heart and soul behind! It’s your own conviction that ultimately pushes you to learn more and find the tools you need. Like Rachel said, the resources are out there, you just need to start (and keep) asking questions.
IM: On your site, Leelanee urges musicians to “seek out engaging and creative ways to reach audiences beyond the traditional concert hall.” What are some of the ways Genghis Barbie is doing that?
Sterrett: We have a large presence on social media and YouTube, which has helped us reach a lot of young people. I think what we do—and the way we present it accessibly online—can be very aspirational for kids starting out in band or orchestra, who maybe don’t yet really realize the scope of what can be achieved in music. We love that young musicians hear our stuff and become excited and proud to be studying music. And we hope that this enthusiasm will keep them curious and engaged in seeking out more musical experiences.
In general, we try to resist labels for our group like “classical crossover,” which is why our self-description (“NYC’s leading post post-feminist feminist all-female pop horn experience”) is a bit outlandish and meant to be tongue-in-cheek. We’re just a group of friends who love playing music that means something to us, and our audience is whoever wants to enjoy that experience along with us.
We started out by playing shows in bars and whatever venues would have us. We’ve appeared in an NYC-wide Battle of the Bands, auditioned for America’s Got Talent, and recorded some tracks with Brooklyn-based electro-rock duo French Horn Rebellion, which may even someday see the light of day. We really believe that the music you love is worth sharing and celebrating, no matter what genre. To that effect, we were thrilled to collaborate last spring with the talented baritone Andrew Wilkowske in a totally unique recital called Guns N’ Rosenkavalier, which was essentially a mash-up of art song and rock song (think excerpts from Schubert’s Winterreise sung in vernacular English and accompanied by electric guitar, presented alongside “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” in full operatic voice and backed by horn quartet). It was one of those rare collaborations where the end result was crazier and more exhilarating than we could have imagined, and it also brought in an incredibly diverse audience from all over the spectrum of musical tastes.
IM: You’ve had some successful business partnerships/sponsorships, such as with Dieter Otto horns. How did those come about, and how do such partnerships play a role in your success?
Drehmann: We first partnered with a shop called Siegfried’s Call in Beacon New York. I met the owner, Scott Bacon, at Kendall Bett’s Horn Camp in college. We hadn’t been in touch in a while, but he had just moved back to the states from apprenticing in Germany and opened his shop right about when Genghis Barbie was getting started. He needed a little help with exposure, and he helped us by working on our instruments, as well as supplying us with new products he was starting to import through his shop. It remains a great partnership where we really work hard to make the relationship worthwhile for all of us.
Through his connections, we have had our very own Genghis Barbie mute made by Ion Balu, JoyKey spit valves on our horns, and even started a partnership with Dieter Otto horns and had a hands-on experience making a horn for each Barbie. We chose to play Dieter Otto horns first and foremost because we all love playing them, but we were also drawn to Martin Ecker, the owner and builder, who is so passionate and excited about what he does. The moment he met us, he had ideas about what he could do for us and our horns. We really clicked, and we were able to choose the models and details we wanted for each horn, including our signature painted colored bells (which was Martin’s idea!). These partnerships have helped in our success and theirs as well. We all love what we do, come up with new ideas, and then actually execute them! Across the board, we have chosen our partnerships wisely and they have all really grown with us as a group. If we had simply chosen the first opportunities that came our way, we might not be as happy as we are now. Instead, we stayed true to ourselves and really found lasting relationships that fit into our Genghis Barbie vision
IM: What types of community service/educational work is Genghis Barbie engaged with?
Drehmann and Vegter: In NYC, we have played several benefit concerts at a community center called Harlem Holistic, raising money for their Pouncing Tigers martial arts programs for kids. In addition, we have appeared at the Special Music School (a public school for gifted young musicians) in partnership with an organization called YouthWorks where we worked alongside young composers. The project concluded with a concert in which we performed their works. Incidentally, this further culminated in the group recording one of the participating 5th grader’s compositions on our lullaby album, Genghis Baby: Songs for Noa. In addition, our tours and residencies always include a master class or coaching component. We absolutely love teaching and we’ve worked with musicians of all ages, from elementary school beginners to adult amateurs.
IM: So you auditioned for America’s Got Talent—and didn’t get through, which amazes me! What was that process like? I know it’s not called “America’s Got Artistry,” but still, was it weird to watch a dog act or a snake handler get through? Is our talent as “classical” artists less obvious in the popular sphere? And does Genghis Barbie encounter that challenge much?
Kuhlmann: After our unsuccessful stint on AGT, my mind raced around the artistic implications of it all. This group, which represents the highest levels of music education and performance in the classical field, was deemed “torture to listen to” by Howard Stern (*insert rant about lack of talent here…*). We weren’t bothered much by this criticism, vitriolic as it was, because we are all confident performers and, of course, took into account the intelligence level of the program and its hosts. (We also, incidentally, had our group’s solo debut in Carnegie Hall just a few weeks later …)
What bothered me the most about our performance was that we were “buzzed” off after mere seconds. The first judge’s buzzer sounded within the first five seconds of our performance, with the others following soon after. All in all, I think we got through about 20 to 25 seconds of music. I understand that this is a television show, but what really struck me about it was, not only did the judges decide that they hated us within seconds, they also decided that we were terrible. And not only was this considered acceptable; it was being celebrated. Not only on this particular show, but in shows, newspapers, blogs, and Facebook pages across America. My shock and awe of this realization prompted a deep spiral of thought directed at what I, and classical musicians (or artists of any kind), do. I realized: most people don’t understand what I do. Most people couldn’t care less about what I do. The thing that I pour my entire being into day and night can be seen as obscure, abstract, and bewildering.
I started to think: Does what I do matter? Do we need French horns and symphony orchestras? Or is it okay for millions of people to sit on their couches at night, or in front of their computer screens, and take in what the higher powers of media and entertainment have concocted for their enjoyment? There is an obviousness to pop culture that is appealing to the masses. Much like fast food or candy, pop culture goes down easy. It provides us with simple carnal pleasures. It caters to our desires to be inundated with love, sadness, excitement, and/or heartbreak, without having to experience any of it firsthand. But there is so much to be valued in individualism. There is so much untapped creativity lost with every stroke of a midi keyboard in a pop song, and I think that continuing to challenge ourselves and others in the more intellectual and abstract artistic pursuits is incredibly vital!
IM: Many women brass players in the past had to fight for gender equality in the workplace, and overcome a lot of prejudices. How do the “bra burners” of feminism—at least in the music world—react to the Barbies’ image, which is more Heidi Klum than Gloria Steinem? Have you had any criticism on embracing your femininity, and how do you respond to it?
Kuhlmann: We’ve faced a fair amount of criticism since the beginning, usually from people who haven’t heard any of our music. Our image was criticized, especially early on, but we have always stood by the fact that we are true to our own sense of style and personality. We would never don an outfit solely for shock value. The truth is, we are young, fashionable ladies who love to dress up! If someone is unwilling, in the name of sexual or gender discrimination, to listen to us based solely on what we look like, I think they might want to take a look at their own choices. Anyone who sees and hears us live is left with the impression of dedicated musicians having a blast, doing something really earnest. What could be more inspiring?
All of this being said, we recognize that the world, and the music world, wasn’t [in the past] (and in some places, still isn’t) as accepting of female brass players as it is now, and we feel fortunate not to have had to deal with much discrimination in our careers. We have great respect for those female musicians—some of whom have joined the Barbies in performance, on occasion—who played a role in leveling the playing field that allows us to simply be ourselves and let the music and playing speak for itself!
This story is by Michael Manley, a contract administrator in the AFM Electronic Media Services Division in Los Angeles. He is a former vice president of the Theatre Musicians Association, and has enjoyed many years playing French horn professionally.