Volume 26 Issue 2 - October 2020

thewholenote

Following the Goldberg trail from Gould to Lang Lang; Measha Brueggergosman and Edwin Huizinga on face to face collaboration in strange times; diggings into dance as FFDN keeps live alive; "Classical unicorn?" - Luke Welch reflects on life as a Black classical pianist; Debashis Sinha's adventures in sound art; choral lessons from Skagit Valley; and the 21st annual WholeNote Blue Pages (part 1 of 3) in print and online. Here now. And, yes, still in print, with distribution starting Thursday October 1.

Reflections

Life as a

“Classical Unicorn”

LUKE WELCH

From an early age, I was quick to realize that there were not

(m)any other young Black pianists who were learning how to

play classical music – at least that I had ever met. I was around

seven years old at elementary school when I was first introduced to

the instrument; at that point I was already able to play some of the

choir music and other popular tunes that the school’s music teacher,

Mr. Gibson, had taught us. After receiving significant encouragement

from Mr. Gibson and others who had heard me play for fun, my

parents decided to purchase a piano and enroll me in piano lessons. At

the time, none of us had any idea or preference of what style of music

I would – or should – learn in these lessons.

Fast forward a couple of decades and nothing has changed, really.

No growth of the sport, no catering to a wider audience. So which is

the chicken and which the egg? i.e. Is there a lack of interest in classical

music within the Black community because it is so underrepresented

at the highest levels/”misunderstood music”/etc., or is the

lack of representation yet another form of systemic discouragement

towards some groups of society?

I was first introduced to classical music in my earliest piano lessons,

and have always loved everything the genre has to offer – a seemingly

endless expanse of amazing music spanning hundreds of years,

providing those who choose to play it a parallel range of technical,

musical and ideological challenges. My appreciation fully blossomed

after my first classical recital at the Polish Consulate in Toronto, and

has never diminished. No matter how many hours of practice, there

will always be more work to do and new heights to reach. Delving

into the diverse works of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti could by

themselves cost a lifetime of exploration, let alone engaging into the

oeuvres of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and beyond. As

“musically gifted” as I was told I was when I was young, there were

so many other pianists who seemed to be light years ahead of what I

thought I could ever achieve. My goal became to improve and become

the best version of my musical self that I could be

While I was committed to my own improvements, and those my

piano teachers laid out for me, I was often met with equal confusion,

resentment, discouragement, and sometimes straight-up disdain from

others around me: I don’t “look” the part of a classical musician, nor

do I talk as such (whatever that means). I can also “talk the talk”, as

many of my colleagues tend to do seemingly at all times; however, I

don’t feel it is necessary to prove my credentials in every discussion. I

have also often been told - especially during my time living abroad –

to perhaps switch my musical focus to something “more in my lane”,

such as jazz music. I have even been stopped from entering a concert

venue in which I was the performer until I was able to convince the

unidentified individual (thankfully not the concert promoter!) to

actually look at the advertising poster to confirm that I should even

be allowed inside the building. In another instance I was questioned,

while at a music store looking for recordings of pieces I was intending

to prepare and perform, as to whether the music I sought was actually

for me. Once I stated that I, too, am a classically trained musician,

the look of shock was followed by the comment, “Wow, you definitely

can’t judge a book by its cover!”

The amount of restraint it took to not lose my temper in that

moment took every fibre of my being. I remember discussing the

situation with my father shortly afterwards, and was even more

disheartened to hear his sincere, yet candidly matter-of-fact

response: “Well, son, get used to it.” Unfortunately, he was 100

percent correct.

During all of my academic years, from elementary school through

university, I did not encounter a single other Black pianist: not only

in my own schools, but also in competitions, professional performances,

piano masterclasses, or any other musical environment. It

was not something I dwelt on at the time. I was so preoccupied with

building my own career and completing my education that I didn’t

have the time to be as cognizant as I probably should have been. I only

tended to notice the imbalance when people would bring it up to me

in conversation as they were meeting me for the first time at my own

performances.

Once the proverbial light bulb finally went off in my head, I realized

the stakes were going to be much higher than simply accomplishing

great feats at the instrument and making a name for myself. I also

came to understand and appreciate that I represented a community

within an already marginalized community: a Black classical musician

(see: unicorn) immersed in a fraternity already pigeon-holed as being

on the fringes of mainstream. Not only was it – and still is – of paramount

importance to be at my best on stage, but it was imperative to

remain aware that the lights, camera and attention would not necessarily

stop for me just because the performance was over.

I do not care to theorize whether, or how, my ethnicity impacts my

career opportunities. Not only would viewing all of my experiences

through this coloured lens prove to be exhausting, but it would also

be disingenuous to accuse others of racial bias in every instance. That

being said, there is no doubt these systemic racial disparities continue

to exist – as evidenced by the significant lack of diversity throughout

academic and practical classical institutions. It is exceptionally difficult

to prove such theories, and one cannot accuse others of these

biases directly without being labelled as confrontational, potentially

jeopardizing future opportunities. I instead use these inherent

challenges as a means to overcome. I believe that quality will always

succeed. So as long as I continue to prepare well, push myself to be a

better musician tomorrow than I am today, maintain a respectful attitude,

and appreciate the incredible support from everyone around me

and those who have contributed to my career, the rest will take care

of itself.

I make no secret – diving even deeper into the seemingly infinite

pool of classical music, travelling the world, seeing new places,

ASHLEY MARDUS

thewholenote.com October 2020 | 21

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