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Classical Meets Hip Hop
Eric Ryan Costenbader, who is classically trained in the piano and is also drawn to hip hop music, infused the two genres to create a theme song for Zona Zoo.
Eric Ryan Costenbader makes the point that he does not look like the typical classically trained pianist, and he is also quick to emphasize that this is inconsequential to him.
Yet people may see his stylistically disheveled hair, cap turned backward, slightly baggy pants, the tattoo on the top of his right hand and his well-worn Lacoste sneakers and immediately typecast him.
But Costenbader, a University of Arizona junior in the School of Music, has an extensive musical background and family history. And, just recently, he composed the Zona Zoo theme song.
In his youth Costenbader trained with Cecilia Brauer, who has performed the piano with The Metropolitan Opera for decades. An advanced player at an early age, he was a member of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra in New York for four years prior to attending the UA and has performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
His father performed at the Madison Square Garden and his grandfather played once alongside Louis Armstrong.
"I love music and music is me," said New York-born Costenbader.
Some of his favorite musicians and composers are Chopin, Rachmaninov and Beethoven and, in contemporary times, Dr. Dre, Pink Floyd and Billy Joel.
In music, Costenbader said he is drawn to the "mood and the moment" as a performer.
Then there is the piano. "It's so beautiful – the tonality of the piano," he said. "I fell back in love with the piano when I was 16 or 17. It's the rhythm and the tone."
"We rep the Zona Zoo"
But there is something about hip hop music that also captures Costenbader's interest. Currently, he is on a path toward becoming a producer who merges his training as a pianist with his love for hip hop.
And Costenbader got what would ultimately become his first broad-based release doing such after a chance meeting in 2006.
Costenbader opted to attend the UA because he admired its academic programs, opting to study business before auditioning to study piano at the music school. But he also chose to attend the UA because he admired the basketball team.
During his freshman year, he attended Bear Down Camp, a program the Associated Students of the UA, puts on for incoming freshman.
There, he met ASUA president Tommy Bruce and Charles Wollin, ASUA's media and communications director. Shortly thereafter, Costenbader was approached about composing a song for Zona Zoo.
Tucson hip hop and rap artists Nick Nice and S.A.G.E. perform the song, which include the reverberation of the lyrics, "We rep the Zona Zoo/ We wear the Red and Blue."
Costenbader opted to have a somewhat soft introduction before moving the composition into a lively dance beat. "I was changing it up," he said. "I want people to feel it."
After numerous revisions, the group settled on the current version, which has been used in Zona Zoo television, the program's promotional video and during warm ups before athletic games.
"We want the song to be playing on people's iPods and for people to identify with it," Wollin said, adding that the song has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of athletics fans.
"You can identify with the song. That, for some people, is a big deal," said Wollin, also a UA Honors College student studying theater arts.
"The anthem is fantastic. It's a little gem of a song, and it creates unity," Wollin said. "You can tell he really loves his craft and it's a pleasure and honor to have the song be part of Zona Zoo."
From the UA to the Music Industry
Costenbader said that while he recognizes that the hip hop and popular music industries have recently began sampling classical sounds, that he admires few contemporary artists.
The problem, he said, is that the majority of mainstream musicians have not mastered the skill, technique or theory behind classical music and its instruments, opting instead to synthesize their sounds.
Hence his reason for wanting to break into the industry.
Wiley Ross, the recording studio coordinator in the UA School of Music, said he does not doubt that Costenbader will be successful.
"Generally, he comes in with an idea and needs help fleshing it out," said Ross, who has spent about one year working with Costenbader to help hone his skills and to produce a few recordings.
"He's still learning the ropes as far as creating the beats," Ross said.
"I've enjoyed working with him because, in a sense, it's different and challenging," he added, noting that it is a rarity that a student merges genres in a way Costenbader said. "He has good ideas and seems to take pride in what he does."
Costenbader, who will spend the summer interning for the New York-based MiaMindMusic promotion and marketing agency, said music is his life.
"I love my music and my ideas. I can't imagine doing anything else," he said, adding that his intention is to bring true "musicality" to the mainstream. That is to say, Costenbader intends to work with musical artists in a way that regards and respects the tonality, the rhythm and notes of both genres.
And about that tattoo he has – it the logo for Steinway & Sons, a major producer of pianos. It's a tribute to the instrument, which he trained on as a child and continues to do so as a UA student. He also said the tattoo relfects his commitment to his profession.