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The Lasting Benefits of Musical Training, An Interview with Baltimore Ravens Kicker Justin Tucker

Mark Lortz | October 2019

    Research has shown studying music at an early age teaches a child focus, organizational skills, determination and discipline and improves self-esteem, self-confidence, fine motor skills and coordination. That has proven true for Justin Tucker, placekicker for the National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens. With a 90.1% record in field goals, he is the most accurate placekicker in NFL history. He was also the first NFL kicker to produce six seasons with 30-plus field goals. In addition, he has an NFL-record seven games with multiple 50-plus-yard field goals, and kicked a franchise record 61-yard game-winning field goal.

    Tucker attributes a portion of his success to musical training at a young age, which he says has given him the focus, concentration, discipline and self-confidence necessary to achieve record-setting success in football. He also credits his approach to achieving excellence, managing performance anxiety, and preparing for a game or musical performance to his strong, early musical background. He started playing trumpet in middle school and eventually majored in music, earning a recording technology degree with a concentration in vocal performance from the University of Texas at Austin. Although football is his primary career, he also still performs, having trained to sing opera in seven different languages. He has sung on Baltimore television commercials, performed Ave Maria and O Holy Night at the Catholic Charities Christmas Festival at the Baltimore Basilica (2015-16), and has appeared on the 2018 CBS show Most Valuable Performer, singing Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria and winning the competition.

Justin Tucker sings while visiting the Baltimore School For The Arts, where he made a $50,000 donation from his winnings on the CBS show Most Valuable Performer. Photo by Shawn Hubbard.

How did you get started in music?
    I have always had a great affinity for music across a variety of genres. I had my first formal introduction to music with the Hill Country Middle School Symphonic Band. I played the trumpet, and that was my introduction to the classical world of music and the technical side of music. One of my favorite things about music is that it can mean many different things to so many different people. Two people hearing the same piece might have to different perspectives on it. At the same time there’s the technical, detailed part that goes into creating or performing a piece of music. Combining those two worlds – the subjectivity and the objectivity – opens up both the left and right brain.

Did anybody inspire your involvement with music?

    In sixth grade, we were required to pick one of three fine arts and one of three music courses – band, orchestra or choir. I thought the sound of the trumpet was cool, and after playing around with it for a bit, I decided to jump into that world and see what happened. I thought about it as more of checking a box at the time. Because I was twelve years old, I had no idea what I liked to do or wanted to do later in life. I’m glad I did join band and play the trumpet because I found out I appreciated that style of music and the detail-oriented, methodical preparation that goes into performing a piece at the highest level of one’s ability.

Did you take private lessons?
    I did. I was really fortunate to have parents who supported me and my two sisters in everything we did. They said, “If you’re going to do this, you might as well do it really well, and we’re going to help you.” Those experiences playing the trumpet, taking private lessons, and getting on the football field taught me so much about preparation, practice, hard work, and paying attention to the littlest details that make your performance that much better. At the end of the day, what really matters is the performance – the final presentation of what you’ve been working so hard for. I gained an appreciation for all of that from band and from learning how to kick footballs.

photo by Shawn Hubbard

Do you think your musical focus helped you with your football focus?

    Oh, absolutely. The lessons that I learned in middle school about focus, determination, practice, training, and hard work, along with keeping your composure and performing at the highest of your ability came through music and football.

Did you ever have performance anxiety?
    There are two types of people: those who admit to being nervous or scared sometimes and those who are lying. Even in my eighth NFL season I still get butterflies whenever I line up a kick, whether in practice or on game days. The key is to acknowledge that I might be a little bit scared or nervous, but those feelings are not going to affect what I am physically doing at the present moment in time. Maintaining my technique through those 1.3 seconds between the snap of the ball and the hold and the kick is all that matters.
    Courage is overcoming your fear to complete the task at hand. Acknowledge that something makes you feel a certain way, and then understand that your feelings, whether they are bad or good, don’t matter. All that matters is the task at hand and achieving what you have worked so hard for.  Focus on the action, not the consequence or any of the stuff around the action. If you miss a kick or miss something in a performance, go back to the process – the steps to doing something correctly – and, more often than not, things will end up working out for you.

photo by Phil Hoffman

Being a kicker and being a musician are solitary activities, because they require you to practice by yourself. Do you see any relationship between the two?

     There are plenty of parallels between performing a piece of music and kicking a football in front of thousands of people in the stands and millions more watching television at home. The one I acknowledge the most is the mental aspect of the preparation leading to the performance. That’s always about paying attention to detail, managing your emotions and your surroundings, and making the moment yours.

Did you continue playing trumpet through high school?
    In ninth grade I came to an unexpected crossroads. My football coaches knew that I wanted to play football in fall and play in the concert band or orchestra in the springtime, so neither football nor music would be affected by the other. My football coaches were all supportive, but unfortunately, I needed to be in the music program for the entire academic year and had to choose, so I chose football.

    I got back into music in a much less formal setting later in high school. My soccer teammates and my football teammates would make beats and rap, and that gave me a new appreciation for a completely different style of music and the technical aspects of electronic composition and freestyle rap.

Did you attend the University of Texas because of football?
    Oh, it was absolutely because of football. I was recruited by the University of Texas to kick footballs. After a year and a half of working toward a degree in broadcast journalism, I took my first real journalism class and decided it wasn’t for me. I wanted to earn a degree and knew no matter what I picked there would be some grinding along the way, but I was bored with journalism.
    I loved music, so I started talking to counselors, different folks in the music school, students, and administrators. I asked, “How do I do this? How do I get in?” because it was a conservatory and tough to get into. I was advised to pick a principal instrument and train for six months before auditioning. I took voice lessons through the music school for a semester, because I knew there was no way I would get in as a trumpet player. I hadn’t played since eighth grade, and I was a sophomore in college at this point. Every trumpet major was going to be far ahead of me. With voice, although I started out with a fake-it-until-I-make-it approach, the voice lessons paid off. I figured it out and got in on my first audition.
    I think my admission was given a bit of leniency because I was going to have a concentration in recording technology, so singing and performing wasn’t necessarily the priority. Either way, I am glad I took this path because the professors I had for the different recording technology classes were amazing and opened up a whole new world. I had no idea how much the guy behind the scenes does to make artists shine and to help them reach their fullest potential through analog and digital audio.

How did you balance the rigors of playing college football and being a music major?
    I was burning my candle at both ends for the better part of three to four years. I would be tired and hungry between recording virtuoso musicians at night and then having a 6:00 a.m. summer workout and afternoon kicking practices, all while going to school. I was happy to do it, because I loved what I was doing, whether it was making beats or recording.
    I am glad for the variety of experiences I had in middle school. It helped me figure out what I liked doing. Even the monotonous grinding is worthwhile and satisfying because you are exercising your mind while you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, whether that is a kick in a football game or giving a musical performance.

Do you think you will do something with music after you move on from football?

    I don’t know. Right now I try to take everything one day at a time, and all that stuff will sort itself out. An NFL career does not last long, and the demands of the NFL lifestyle during the season are rigorous. At the present time, if I wasn’t putting 100% into every day, every kick that I take in practice and games, then my chances of extending my career to 12-15 years beyond where I am right now would be diminished. If I am fortunate enough to be able to do this for another 12-15 years, I’ll only be 40 or 45, with a lot of life ahead of me to figure out what I want to do next.

Do you have any advice for a student who wants to participate in sports and music at the same time?
    Get involved in everything you can: singing, dancing, drama, sculpture, football, soccer, baseball, basketball, or anything else. This is my favorite advice to offer to elementary and middle school students, because they have the energy to try everything. When you find out what you really like doing, stick with it and grind through the parts that aren’t sunshine and rainbows, because this is when you learn about yourself and the people around you. To gain that appreciation, I have music and football to thank.