You may already know his music. From the wonderful theme songs and scores behind TV series like Sex and the City and Gimme a Break, to his anthems for ABC Sports, HBO, and ESPN, Bob Christianson has left his indelible mark on modern culture. Chances are you’ve hummed along to music from one of his more than 2,000 commercials and numerous film scores. Or maybe you saw him on Broadway conducting Godspell or as conductor and keyboardist for the Saturday Night Live band.
This December, PBS will broadcast Christianson’s latest work, A Christmas Carol—The Concert, as a 90-minute special, which was taped this summer in Chicago by PBS station WTTW. It’s big, even by his standards. It required assembling a symphony orchestra with a rock band at its core, a large chorus, vocalists who can act, and a narrator to present the story, a retelling of the classic tale.
Making Music magazine talked to him about his career, and the twists and turns that brought him to where he is today, and to see what advice he might have for aspiring songwriters.
Why did you become a musician?
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper changed my life. Listening to it, I realized that rock and pop music could be more. The whole album had a concept: a beginning, middle, and end. At that point music picked me. I had to go into it. And, I had some catching up to do. I started playing in bands, got into music school, and I’m not going to lie, I worked hard. It’s the hours in the practice room that prepare you.
What courses did you take in music school?
I was an organ major on a career path to become a music teacher. I took every composition course I could get, but I learned just as much about music from the people I played with. We played a lot of gigs, learned a lot of music, and even produced a rock opera. You can learn an awful lot by doing.
How did you break into the business?
I was accompanying singers in cabaret acts down in the Village, when I was spotted by musical director Steve Reinhardt. He asked me if I wanted to sub for the second chair keyboard part in the Broadway musical The Magic Show. Of course I said yes … and I found out that the guy I was subbing for was Paul Shaffer! Paul was a big help to me early in my career.
Lots of little breaks led to other breaks. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time, but it always has to do with a friend or an acquaintance. You just have to be ready and available. It’s not always the guy with the most talent who gets the gig. People want to work with people who are prepared and show up on time.
Do you practice every day?
You have to keep your chops up. Writing depends on your ability to play what you hear. And in this business, you have to create fast. So yes, I practice scales, and depending on what I’m working on, I’ll work on passages or repertoire. It’s hard to find the time, but you have to do it. You also need to keep up to speed on the technical side of the music business—the gear and software.
How do you continue to learn?
The Broadway community has a saying, “When a Broadway musical stops moving, it’s like a shark. It dies.” It’s all about learning. That’s the fun part for me. I’m not a whiz kid performer. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. When I was a studio musician, working with some of the best musicians in the world, I was never the smartest guy in the room. “Oh, My God,” I thought, “I’m a fraud.” No matter how much you practice, you can never learn enough. I have to work at my craft. A Christmas Carol is the culmination of everything I’ve learned so far. It’s my best work to date, but I hope to keep getting better.
What is your normal day like?
I spend a lot of time staying in touch with clients and contacts, working on getting work. Then, when I get a project, that’s pretty much all I have time for. It’s not like it was before. There used to be lots of big studios in New York, with lots of musicians playing on big sessions. Now, it seems like most of the projects are done with samples. Virtual instruments have gotten very good. If you arrange well and bring in a few key instrumentalists, you can create some amazing things. Clients have come to expect it. And expect to get it delivered quickly.
Is there a difference between writing for a client and for your projects?
Works for hire have a special place on my desk. I always try to do my absolute best, until it’s beat out of me. But as an artist, I can’t be anybody but myself. I’m going to do stuff that’s me.
And apparently that “stuff” is pretty large, if you look at A Christmas Carol.
To me the orchestra is the epitome of ensemble, of what music can do. When you add a rhythm section it brings it up another notch. Add a choir even more. Lead singers. It’s a huge sound. Orchestra concerts need to be events. I wanted to create something that orchestras would enjoy playing, and that would bring in new audiences. It’s not a play, a film, or a musical, it’s a hybrid—a dramatic concert. And most importantly it makes you feel something.
When A Christmas Carol premiered in Baltimore two years ago, I had no idea how it was going to be received. Most of the people coming into the theater had never been there before. It was a total family show, and you could have heard a pin drop during the performance. They loved hearing the story told this way. No one was more surprised than me. That’s when I knew I had to get this thing on TV. I love orchestras. It’s my passion, my mission. If we can get these new audiences to get used to coming, that’s my goal.
Do you have any tips for aspiring songwriters?
Most songwriters will tell you the same thing. When good songs come, you just have to let them flow right through you. Put the whole song down first, and edit later. Never edit yourself while something is coming out!
Taxi [an independent artist and repertoire company] can help. They have a service where pros will evaluate a song. You can also join writers groups. BMI has the Musical Theatre Workshop—a great place to learn about musical theatre structure. But, probably the best advice I can give to a beginning songwriter is to find other people to write with. Learn by doing. And always try to do it with people who are a little better at it than you are.
Be true to who you are and don’t try to sound like somebody else. Don’t let anybody try to change you. You’ll have a more authentic life. I know it might not sound like it, but it really is a good time to be a musician.
This article is from our November-December 2013 issue.