How Lizzo’s Changing Our Views of Concert Band
In a country with a flawed view of marching band fanatics and a dwindling devotion to music in public school curriculums, we need artists like Lizzo more than ever.
Written by Tiana Woodard
At my high school, one of our favorite icebreakers to play was “Boyfriend, Girlfriend.” One person would stand with their back to the rest of the crowd, listing qualities in their ideal partner that would weed people out until their perfect match is the last one standing.
Boyfriend, Girlfriend was our go-to icebreaker for so many events that I can barely remember the specifics of times I engaged in it. Except one.
During my senior year, one guy stood at the front of the room and said his perfect type. After listing his preference for girls that were shorter, he made one of his dislikes known to everyone in the cafeteria: “I don’t like girls that are in band.”
Unrestrained laughter filled the large space as a few girls, including me, sunk down in our seats. Games are what they are, games, but it made me come to one serious conclusion: being in band was like finalizing my own social death sentence.
Since holding my older brother’s run-down clarinet in sixth grade, band became an inseparable part of my identity. I took on a difficult piece of music as a new adventure. I perked up at the sight of new, shiny marching shoes. I loved the endless bus rides to marching performances during school holidays.
Along with band itself, the stereotypes, in a sense, became tied to my identity as well. My friends viewed me as the “band geek,” and all of my likes and interests seemed to confirm their suspicions. Most of the guys in my grade flocked to the cheer captains or the drill team officers. Looking back at my baggy drum major uniform and messy hat hair, I couldn’t blame them.
So when I first saw a video of Lizzo whipping out a flute in the middle of her widely praised 2019 BET Awards performance, the band kid in me fangirled a little.
Sure, the artists we see might have a huge, reverberating ensemble backing them up on stage, but seeing a powerful woman holding down the instrumentals on her own with a band instrument — and while twerking! — is a rarity of its own. In a time where interest in music literacy decreases with each generation, artists such as Lizzo who incorporate classical instruments into their music are more important now than ever.
Lizzo, born Melissa Jefferson, has a background rooted in concert and marching band. The Detroit-born, Houston-raised vocal powerhouse’s father gifted her Sasha Flute in middle school — “an open-hole C flute, a Muramatsu, look at the B foot.” While she mentioned during her appearance on Hollywood Medium that she initially thought the instrument was “annoying and dorky,” she grew to love it. Lizzo started as a flautist in her junior high’s marching band and left the University of Houston with a degree in classical flute performance and a self-proclaimed title as the “baddest piccolo in the land.”
With such an extensive background with the instrument, it’s unsurprising that Lizzo inserts flute into a large portion of her discography. We can hear the earliest instances of the artist’s flauting abilities in her 2015 studio album Big Grrrl Small World, but the opening solo on her 2016 single “Coconut Oil” is one of the first times we hear Sasha Flute front and center on any of Lizzo’s works. The UH alumnae displays impeccable air support, calculated phrasing, and musical tapers that only years of professional schooling can teach.
Her jazz lick in “Juice,” quick “Tempo” harmony, and frenzied “Bye Bitch” trills all push society’s preconceived notions of the (stereotypically) classical instrument. When flautists come to mind, we can’t help but think of either a stoic, clad-in-black symphony performer or a marching band member on the fifty-yard line pressing down the keys. But combining flute with blaring bass, boastful bars, and flawless ass-shaking gives band geeks like me a new name.
Lizzo’s gargantuan success has encouraged some celebrities like Trevor Noah and “2 Dope Queens” hosts Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson to ask her for a quick flute lesson. In addition, Sasha Flute’s Instagram account as well as the #FLUTEandSHOOT Twitter hashtag have all brought a different image of the woodwind to the masses.
However, the Cuz I Love You superstar isn’t alone in giving classical instruments a new face. Chicano indie-pop artist Cuco signed up to play trumpet to avoid P.E. and now includes the horn of some of his most iconic songs, such as “Lo Que Siento.”
Despite artists like Lizzo and Cuco manning the stage with band instruments, youth interest in music literacy is on the decline nationwide. The National Assessment of Educational Programs in the Arts reported that exposure to the arts in public schools has dropped steadily since 1997. School districts’ budget cuts to the fine arts and slashing of music education jobs does nothing to improve this reality.
That’s why artists like Lizzo are a blessing. While students might not be able to access music literacy in their classrooms, they can access it through influential artists like her. She’s a game-changer in a lot of ways; she’s rewriting the narrative on body image, self-esteem, and band stereotypes with each step she takes. And she has the influence to pass the baton onto tomorrow’s artists and musicians, who will define a new generation of music in whichever way they’d like.