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On Being Pigeonholed

Most of us have been “pigeonholed,” or creatively typecast at some point in our lives.  For all I know, it’s human nature to reduce another person to a particular thing, so we can better identify them.  Yes, it’s lazy.  But it’s awfully convenient.

“You’re the girl who plays the jazz saxophone.”
“Yes, but I’m also the girl who can build your website.”

 “Aren’t you the fellow who writes mystery short stories?”
“I do.  But I’m also a published poet.”

“I just love the songs you write for children’s voices.”
“Have you heard any of my adult choir music?”

It’s not uncommon for creative people to be pigeonholed by those we work for, or by those who purchase our creative product.  Hey, if you’re a specialist focused on one creative “thing,” being labeled isn’t necessarily all that bad. These days they call that “branding.”

But what if you do more than one thing? What if you are actually good at doing more than one thing?  What if all anybody knows about you is that you write killer pop songs, but you can also write awesome choral motets? What if you get loads of work as a session bass player, and nobody knows you also play in the local symphony? (I literally knew just such a bass player in Nashville.)

Over the course of my career, I’ve written and produced a lot of different kinds of recorded and printed music.  But clients often limited their understanding of my work to a single thing, and not take the time to consider I did other things, too.

The late Zola Levitt was a brilliant Bible scholar and a client of mine in the late 1980s.  Zola had no idea that I wrote any kind of music other than the pseudo Russian-Jewish music I created for his syndicated TV show.  He was, in fact, somewhat surprised that a blonde-haired Gentile could write music that was so convincingly “Jewish.”

In Nashville, on the heels of producing two of the most successful Christian pop recordings of the early 1990s, one of which was a Dove Award-winning Album of the Year, I met with Christian record executives who would not take me seriously as a producer because I was that guy who wrote choir music.

There are choir directors who only know me for arranging “Jesus Paid It All,” and others who think of me only as the co-writer of “I Have Seen the Light.”  They may have no idea that I also wrote multiple CCM radio hits, or some 500 other choral pieces.

Other folks know me for my musical theater work, and are unaware that I wrote radio jingles and industrial film scores for more than a decade.

This is just the way things can be in the creative world.  It certainly isn’t unique to me.  Maybe it’s happened to you, as well.  (It can even be fun to see the surprise on a person’s face when they learn that the guy who wrote “Jesus Will Still Be There” also wrote the original Taco Bueno jingle.)

So why write about being pigeonholed now?

In the near future, I’ll be releasing a collection of songs that will surprise pretty much everybody. For one thing, I’m doing all the lead singing.  (And that alone is worth the price of admission into the Freak Show Tent.)  Also, these songs don’t fit neatly in any pre-conceived mold folks might have of me, no matter what that mold may be.  I predict there will be a lot of head scratching and thoughts of, “Where did this come from?”  I’ll be okay with that response, so long as it doesn’t escalate to, “Robert really should see professional help.”

The songs stretch over a thirty-year span of my writing life. They were all too quirky, too smart aleck, or too ironic for radio.  They weren’t what CCM artists were looking for.  And they sure aren’t what Praise & Worship artists want to sing.  But I always liked these songs, and are among my personal favorites. And though they are something of an odd lot, as we brought them together I began to see a recurring theme: the unexplainable, upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God and how nutty it must sound to the world at large.

It might explain a lot if you know that the title cut on the project is called “Sounds Crazy.”  That’s right.  The project is Robert Sterling – “Sounds Crazy.”

(Go ahead.  Make your jokes.  I know it’s an easy set-up.)

Like I said, I expect this project will surprise a lot of people.  I just hope it surprises them in a good way, and doesn’t prompt a string of well-intended interventions.  Regardless, I gotta put the songs out there, if for no other reason than to let my kids and my grandkids know what I was thinking about all those years.  I’ll write more about this project in the coming weeks here at this blog and on Facebook. But now, you’ve been forewarned.

So what about you? Ever been pigeonholed? If you have, take heart.  It happens to most of us.  Just keep doing your best work, and stretch your creative wings however and whenever you can.  Then enjoy the look of surprise on people’s faces when they discover you are so much more than they ever knew.





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