Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Justin Tucker

In the upcoming NEA Arts issue, we look at art in unexpected places, such as how the arts are part of the NFL game day experience in more ways than you might realize. In the issue, we focus on the the Baltimore Ravens, a team named after an Edgar Allan Poe poem. For the Ravens, the presence of the arts goes beyond, say, just the design of the stadium or the performance of the marching band—it also includes the players, such as Ravens kicker Justin Tucker. Outside of his skill on the field (a Pro Bowler in 2013), Tucker also has a degree in music and an operatic vocal range (which he utilized recently in Royal Farm commercials). We talked with Tucker to find out more about the dichotomy of being a professional athlete and an artist.

NEA: When did you first become interested in music?

JUSTIN TUCKER: I really first got interested in music on a little bit of a deeper level maybe around sixth or seventh grade. I joined the middle school band. I thought it was something where I would just go through the motions and get a fine arts credit. But I was playing the trumpet, and I really took a liking to the technical aspect of classical music and how each and every note of a single piece was more important than the last. There's this blend of the technical side of things and the creative side of things that I was just really drawn to. It started with playing the trumpet in my middle school band, and then it eventually evolved into writing my own beats and doing my own electronic compositions. Then that turned into me and one of my college teammates dropping a mix tape and singing opera all at the same time.

NEA: That's quite a leap from electronic music to opera.

TUCKER: Yeah. We're kind of all over the place.

NEA: So you continued studying music in college?

TUCKER: Going into college, I made a decision after about a year that I wanted to go to class and feel like I wasn’t in school. So I started working towards getting myself into the music school. The University of Texas Butler School of Music is a very serious place of study. I had to train just to try out, just to have an audition. I figured, well, I might as well just sing my heart out and see what happens. I did, and I got in. Part of my degree requirements from that point forward was to take a couple of more semesters of voice lessons. The guy who I took these private instructions from, Nikita Storojev, had this really interesting way of—I wouldn't even say teaching. It was more like coaching. He was an ex-professional athlete himself. So he had a very interesting way of coaching me that was probably different than with a lot of his students. It was really intense. It was hard. I learned a lot, and I gained even more of an appreciation for fine arts through those voice lessons.

NEA: So at the same time you were getting your music degree you were also playing football?

TUCKER: Definitely. I never had a choice in my mind. When I signed my letter of intent to go to the University of Texas, I was going there to play football and then get a degree. It was in that order. I'd probably advise students to get their degree first, because you never know what will happen in life later. But I kind of put all my eggs in a football basket pretty early on.

NEA: How do your fellow players react to your interest in music either in college or with the Ravens?

TUCKER: Well, you'd be surprised. A lot more guys have an appreciation for fine arts and things outside of just strapping on the pads and the helmets and knocking heads. The guys have so many varying interests outside of just football. A lot of guys do have an interest in music—albeit different styles. In our locker room, you can hear anything from '80s rock, '80s pop rock, funk, country music (both old and new), and just straight rap music. We've got quite the variety in our locker room alone. But when I have gotten up in front of the team to sing a couple of times—I think probably the first time there were more surprised looks on a lot of my teammates faces, like, “Wow, this dude is singing opera, and he's not doing it as a joke.”

NEA: We talked recently with the actor Jason Segel, who was an athlete in high school. He talked about how playing basketball influenced his acting as well, because the whole concept of group interplay works for both acting and for basketball. Do you see any kind of influence from playing football in your music or a place where the two meet?

TUCKER: I definitely do. I think one commonality between kicking a football and putting yourself into a piece of music is you have to have an attention to detail. And also you have to find a balance between finding that attention to detail and being fluid with the situation. On a football field anything can happen in the span of 1.3 seconds—that’s the time between a snap, a hold, and a kick for me. And then in a piece of music, there's the creative, emotional side to performing. So I think that's one commonality is finding the balance between the attention to detail and the fluidity of the moment.

NEA: Do you perform music for others either professionally or just for fun?

TUCKER: I don't really do any performing outside of kicking a ball on the football field. I treat those moments as my performances, if you will. I wouldn't say I've been putting the fine arts side of things on the backburner, but I have been putting a lot more emphasis on trying to kick a ball straight because that's what's paying the bills. But this holiday season, right around Christmas time, I'm going to be performing for a benefit for Catholic Charities.

NEA: Why do you think art matters?

TUCKER: Man, where do I even start? I think art is the imperfectly perfect or perfectly imperfect way of self-expression. Art has helped shape me in a way that is maybe unique, but I've also got to go and put my own form of art out there for the world to see. 

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