November 13, 2016
Thank you to everyone at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program. I’d like to give special thanks to Adrienne Thompson for helping organize my participation, and to Stanford Thompson for his introduction and friendship.
I’m very appreciative for this particular opportunity, because whenever I work with young, talented, minority students, I inevitably see my former self.
I recently watched a video about the Talent Development Program that featured current students Angela Leeper (bass) and Joseph Brown (cello). Angela said she understands pursuing music is risky busy, and Joseph said he’s planning to attend the University of Michigan or Indiana University. That sounds like what I used to say.
In the year 2000, just like you, I was an enthusiastic senior in high school. I went to hear the Houston Symphony as often as I could. I created chamber groups with my friends, and I dreamed that one day I would be a musician in a great orchestra. Unlike you, I didn’t have the privilege of weekly private lessons, much less lessons with members of a major orchestra. I told my parents that I wanted to become a professional musician. After my mother finished crying, disappointed that I would be wasting a strong mind in pursuit of a career with limited prospects, she and my father agreed to take me to audition at my two top choices for music school. They were the University of Michigan and Indiana University.
Just a few months later, I graduated from high school. We had a graduation party at my house with family and friends. The Indiana University flag flew in our front yard, and everyone was happy to celebrate the moment with me. In front of the group, my uncle asked me what I planned to major in. I said, “Trombone Performance”, and he said, and I quote, “Well, I guess the world has to have some poor people too!” Everybody laughed. I smiled and tried to give the appearance that my ego wasn’t bruised.
Two years later, TDP alum Eric Thompson and I were shopping for apartments in Philadelphia. I was accepted and decided to transfer to the Curtis Institute of Music. As we walked down the streets of inner-city Philadelphia, we passed a struggling saxophonist playing on the corner with his case open. “He’s probably a Curtis graduate!” my dad joked. I didn’t appreciate that at the time.
With some degree of regularity, someone would see me walking down the streets of Philadelphia with my case on my back. “What you got in there?” “I play trombone.” “Oh yeh. You play jazz?” “No, I’m a classical musician.” “Really? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black classical musician, but you can play jazz, right?”
You see, when you’re trying to do something special, something unique, something different, something that people who look like you don’t normally do, you have to listen to this kind of stuff. And you know what? A lot of it is warranted. Most people who pursue classical music don’t make it, and a lot of the ones who make it don’t make it big. Even when you make it to the mountaintop, you have to fight to make sure that the peak is still there for the next generation.
As you all know, we exist in a nation that is still deeply divided by racism and sexism. There are people out there that don’t care if you make it, and even worse, some who hope you don’t. However, there are also people out there cheering for your success and who have committed their lives to making sure you get your chance to live your dreams.
I’m here to tell you that it CAN be done. It HAS been done. It’s not easy, and in any field, you will surely suffer your share of bumps and bruises should you choose to make the ascent. Music is fun, but it’s not all fun and games. I’ve seen the musical mountaintop and I’m here to tell you that if you’re willing to push your talents to their absolute limits, there’s room on it for you. You’ve been selected to be a part of this program because people believe you are capable of making the climb.
The good news is that you don’t have to be first. Our predecessors have relieved us of that pressure. Despite what some may tell you, there is already a legacy of great African-American and Latin-American classical musicians. 50 years before I won my position in the Met Orchestra, the doors to many orchestras were closed to people who looked like you and me. These people pushed on that door for years so that a small handful of people could get through. My generation is working hard to open that door all the way. I hope that your generation will kick the door off the hinges and storm the room. We’re going to have a great party in there, and the music will be incredible!