Original Article at blog.usejournal.com
Che Buford accomplished something most violinists will claim is nearly impossible: using Youtube videos, he taught himself to play the violin entirely by ear. He was 11 years old. He first heard the sound of a violin one year earlier, during a recital at his elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I was so intrigued by the sound the instrument could make, it inspired me to learn to play,” he said. Two years later he would take his first lesson, and five years after that he would step foot on the most famous stage in New York, Carnegie Hall.
At 19, Che is currently in his second year at conservatory. Quiet and gentle, his subtle confidence belies a rise to success in the ruthlessly competitive world of classical music, where the now-ubiquitous conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion has only just begun to meaningfully impact a Eurocentric musical culture.
Despite the enormous influence of musicians of color on nearly every genre of music, the classical music field remains starkly white and Asian. In 1996, Black and Latinx musicians comprised one percent of American orchestras. Today, their ranks have increased to just four percent, according to data compiled by the League of American Orchestras. Leadership of the world’s prominent musical institutions remains similarly homogeneous, with people of color representing only one percent of orchestra executive directors. The New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States (founded in 1842), did not have a single African American principal player in its ranks until 2014, when Anthony McGill was hired as principal clarinetist.
The striking lack of diversity on classical music stages has created a perpetual cycle of exclusion, where aspiring musicians of color must overcome barriers at every step of the way, from prohibitive costs of lessons and instruments to implicit bias during auditions. Not to mention the profoundly discouraging reality that many musicians of color face when attending their first classical performance — looking up at the stage and being unable to spot a single player who looks the way they do. Photos of the New York Philharmonic or the MET Orchestra musicians paint a vivid picture. But for an industry that is historically elitist and funded largely by an aging, white listenership, some leaders in the field see racial inclusion as a way to keep classical music current and growing into the 21st century.
“In order for classical music to not only survive but thrive in today’s world, we feel that it has to stay relevant. It’s not going to stay relevant if it’s not reflective of our cities and our communities,” said Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Detroit based Sphinx Organization, which creates pipelines for classical musicians of color.
According to Dworkin, the first obstacle for potential players of color is the instrument itself. Violas, oboes, and french horns are not only expensive, they’re often completely unfamiliar to students who have never been exposed to a music class or lesson. Sphinx programming provides students with free instruments and instructional support throughout the beginner and intermediate levels, culminating in placement in one of several all-minority ensembles like the Sphinx Virtuosi, which performs at top arts venues nationwide.
Sphinx reaches over 100,000 students annually, making it the leading organization of its kind in the U.S. But its success relies on a resource-heavy approach that enrolls students when they are children and continues to support them through adulthood. For the vast majority of students, this level of support simply does not exist at the public school level, and private instruction can cost thousands of dollars a year.
When Che’s mother Delphine Fawundu cobbled the money together to buy Che’s first violin, he was ten years old. A first-generation immigrant from Sierra Leone, Delphine was raising three boys while pursuing her own career as a multimedia artist and educator. She was unable to afford private lessons but encouraged Che to play on his own, encouragement which proved hardly necessary.
“As a parent who is not musically inclined, I didn’t really know about the whole thing so I’m like, is this real? Does he really know what he’s doing?” recalled Delphine.
Che was born in 2000, so it’s no surprise that his first inspiration was a Youtube star: a performer named Lindsey Stirling who blends electronic music with violin in highly expressive, viral music videos. Che would spend hours after school learning her pieces by ear. But in addition to Stirling, Che fell in love with Itzhak Perlman, one of the most famous living violinists. It was from watching Perlman perform that Che learned how to hold a violin and experiment with vibrato.
Around the same time, he started to beg his mother for lessons, but private instruction still wasn’t a financial option, so she enrolled him at Excellence Boys Charter School in Bedstuy, which offered music classes. After one year, the music teacher quit and a replacement wasn’t hired. Che and a small group of kids continued to practice on their own, with the help of a teacher who gave them permission to use the music room.
Delphine eventually brought Che to the nearby Noel Pointer Foundation, which provides string music instruction for under-resourced communities in New York. He took his first private lesson at the age of 12, which is practically geriatric in classical music, a community dominated by tiger moms and helicopter parents who enroll their children in private lessons as early as age three. Indeed, the chances of becoming a professional orchestral musician after such a late start are extremely unlikely. But Che’s odds were improved by a series of fortunate events initiated when Delphine’s friend Clinton Wike dropped by the school where Delphine was a teacher at the time.
“He’s a musician who was in a R&B group back in the 90s,” Delphine said. “I knew he had studied music so I said, ‘Listen to my son play the violin.’”
Wike was impressed. A former police officer, he had studied at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where in addition to classes in police science he took a music appreciation course from Caroline Stoessinger, a respected concert pianist and author who has produced events for St. John The Divine and other world-class stages. The sole music faculty person at John Jay, Caroline has fought hard to keep the course in the curriculum, an uphill battle at a time when music education programs across the country are disappearing.
Wike enjoyed the class and kept in touch with Caroline, who in 2000 formed the Mozart Academy, which provides free high level private instruction to children of immigrants in New York. The first attendees of the Mozart Academy were the children of a Rwandan diplomat, whom Caroline says still keep in touch and update her about their musical development, despite no longer living in the United States. Since then, her students have performed for the likes of Harry Belafonte and Mia Farrow. Wike gave Caroline a phone call and convinced her to give Che a shot.
“Out of respect for him [Wike] I said ‘Ok, bring him over,’ and I got a couple of violin teachers together,” Caroline recalls. “And then he started to play… oh my god, he sounded great! He had a beautiful, big, rich sound. His intonation was almost flawless. He could use vibrato, which some people with good instruction can’t use!”
When Che enrolled in the Mozart Academy, he stepped into strange and unfamiliar territory. Suddenly, he was surrounded by sheet music and words like posture and technique that previously held no meaning for him. There was an extensive classical repertoire to be learned, material that was worlds away from his Youtube hero Lindsey Stirling. Previously among the best of his peers, Che was now surrounded by musicians who were much further along than he was. His talent was raw — it needed to be shaped.
“My first couple of lessons, I felt like it was very intense,” Che said. “There was lot of new material which was difficult for me to get used to. I struggled because a lot of things I did were by ear. I had very little music reading experience.”
But it wasn’t just the music that was different.
Che spent his childhood in Crown Heights and Bedstuy. The Noel Pointer Foundation, where he took his first lessons, is on Herkimer off Fulton Street, a pulsing commercial district lined with hair braiding salons, discount stores, and fast food chains. Muslim men, beards dyed red with henna, congregate outside the mosque on Bedford Avenue while African immigrants wearing colorful robes hawk jewelry and scented oils on the sidewalk. In his own home on Crown Street, Che was surrounded by his mother’s fine art photography and hand-crafted jewelry inspired by her West African background.
To attend the Mozart Academy, Che would take his violin on the C train and travel uptown to the 86th street stop. Caroline runs the academy out of her own home on Central Park West, a spacious apartment filled with antique furniture, watercolor paintings, and of course, a baby grand Steinway piano. A typical afternoon with Caroline can involve a multi-course meal finished with a dessert of strawberries and whipped cream. There will be crystal glasses of champagne that somehow always remain full, while Caroline regales her guests with stories about Leonard Bernstein and Elie Wiesel, with whom she was close friends. Walking out onto the balcony, visitors behold a sweeping panorama of Central Park.
Originally from rural Arkansas, Caroline was raised by a railroad man and a local schoolteacher who had high aspirations for their children. She grew up listening to classical music on a wooden radio that was immediately switched off when Elvis Presley came on the air (“Too vulgar,” her father said).
Though she relies on rent control, Caroline said the outward expression of cultural refinement is deliberate. “It’s important that my students know that nothing is out of their reach,” she said.
In many ways, Caroline and her apartment embody the aesthetic of what classical music once was — and still is, for the unfamiliar: effortlessly bourgeoisie. Yet there’s a fragility to her lifestyle that’s being encroached upon by today’s Manhattan, just as Che’s pocket of Brooklyn is being encroached upon by gentrification. Bridging Che and Caroline’s realities is the generation in between: that of Che’s mom, Delphine.
Delphine was an art teacher for ten years before she decided to pursue an MFA at Columbia and reinvent her own visual art. At a gallery opening in Chelsea, she exhibited her latest work, a solo exhibition titled “The Sacred Star of Isis” which draws heavily on her Mende heritage and the mythology of the African deity Mami Wata. But her practice as an artist predates her education at Columbia. Like her son Che, she was self-taught and has a modern take on what creates a recipe for success.
“When it comes to the creative fields, there’s a traditional way to do it all. But we also live in an age where people are doing amazing things and didn’t even go to school,” she said, referencing the success of Youtube stars and Instagram influencers. Delphine impressed upon all of her children the importance of pursuing their own creativity, but she is wary of student debt, and said she didn’t want her children to graduate college with a financial burden.
The tension between Delphine’s approach to success and that of her son’s new mentor Caroline, who believes staunchly in the importance of traditional training, would come to a head later in Che’s career when it came time for him to apply to conservatory.
While she consistently supported her son’s passion for music, Delphine is still in awe about how everything seemed to fall into place. “I would never have let Clinton listen to Che if he didn’t come to my school,” she said. “Then I researched Caroline and I thought, ‘This lady really knows what she’s doing.’ It’s just so seamless how everything was connected.”
Firmly under Caroline’s wing, Che began a rigorous course of study at the Mozart Academy that involved hours of daily practice and performance. He was assigned a professional violin teacher (Caroline plays piano, not violin) in the person of Bela Horvath, an accomplished player who studied under the celebrated violinist Pinchas Zukerman. As a result, Che received for free the kind of personalized, private instruction that typically costs $100 an hour. In a resource-rich environment, his skills developed rapidly.
“From what I could tell, he had perfect pitch,” Caroline said. “We started with him and he just flew in leaps and bounds.”
By high school, Che was nailing auditions for programs like InterSchool Orchestras of New York and the highly competitive Juilliard MAP program, designed for young musicians of color with at least two years of experience playing their instrument.
And the benefits weren’t limited to violin skills. Through the Mozart Academy, Che and his mother gained access to a network of elite programs, teachers, schools and competitions. They could find out where to audition, what to play, and what Che should wear to make a good impression. Not unlike the college admission process, once they became privy to insider knowledge, they could compete with access and privilege in rooms otherwise dominated by white and Asian musicians.
A beginning violin can cost anywhere from $400 to $2,000, a price range that can be immediately disqualifying for aspiring players who don’t have programs like Sphinx or From The Top (the NPR show and educational initiative) to provide instruments that correspond to their skill levels. But Che’s instructor at the Mozart Academy connected him with Martin Nitsche, a well-regarded luthier in Queens, who listened to Che play and furnished him with a high-quality violin at a tremendous discount.
Personal connections turned out to be a driving force behind Che’s pre-professional growth. But connections to instruments or after-school programs were just one piece of the puzzle. For the vast majority of musicians who make it to an advanced level, the real secret to success is finding a good mentor. An experienced player who provides not just insider knowledge, but confidence. Someone who says: You’re good. You should keep going. For musicians of color, encouragement from within the industry can be difficult to find.
According to Stanford Thompson, “Ninety-five percent of the equation is getting the help and the support that you need.”
Thompson is a trumpet player and the founder of Play On Philly, a music access and education non-profit based in Philadelphia inspired by El Sistema, the acclaimed Venezuelan youth music program that brought Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel to fame.
“If you talk to the musicians in any of these orchestras and you ask who helped them,” he said, “no one will tell you, ‘Oh I picked up the instrument, I learned via Youtube, I showed up at the audition, and I was fine.’”
Thompson has performed with world-class orchestras like the Seoul Philharmonic and gives most of the credit for his success to his own mentor Chris Martin, who is white, and currently the principal trumpeter for the New York Philharmonic. Thompson said Martin was one of the few people who made him feel welcome in classical music.
“He believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Thompson said. “He never sugar-coated anything. He let me know when I was letting him down because he knew I could do better. And that’s what it took.”
Thompson grew up in Atlanta as one of eight siblings in a musical family raised by two professional musicians and educators. He said he initially picked up the trumpet because he wanted to hang with his older brothers. And he was good at it, eventually earning a seat in the school band. But he said he didn’t always feel like he belonged.
There’s a moment from the sixth grade that is burned in Thompson’s memory. He was sitting second chair during a rehearsal for the all-county honor band, the only Black kid in the room, when one of the band directors began to hover behind him. “Just to make sure I was playing correctly,” he said. It developed into a pattern, where someone was constantly looking over his shoulder. “It was like they just couldn’t believe that a kid who went to a school like mine could be there, that somehow there must have been some type of mistake.”
“There’s this really clever system that takes the responsibility away from the people who give opportunities and puts it on people of color. What we hear is: ‘You need to get better. You need a fellowship program. You needed to be here at a certain time in a certain place.’ And after a while of hearing that, you get really tired of it. It’s like, I can’t always be the problem.”
Thompson eventually got into the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program which sponsors youth musicians of color, one of the longest-running music diversity programs in the nation. But in his regional youth orchestra band, the inequities remained obvious. Thompson would have to sit co-chair with white players who were below his skill level.
Despite putting in work at the conservatory level and taking lessons from some of the best trumpet players in the nation, Thompson struggled to get audition opportunities from orchestras in New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.
Thompson’s experience is far from unique. For musicians of color who do make it through conservatory, the audition process is another opportunity for implicit bias or outright discrimination to impede their path.
American orchestras often utilize some type of screen or curtain separating the player from the judges’ panel during auditions, obscuring the player’s identity and allowing the judges to evaluate talent solely by ear. This is customary at a wide range of levels from high school to professional. But while most orchestras utilize a screen at some point in the process, for the vast majority of high-level orchestras, the screen comes down during the final round.
Weston Sprott, a trombone player with the Metropolitan Orchestra, credits that screen with getting him the job.
The MET is one of the few orchestras known for keeping the screen up during all stages of the audition process. When Sprott joined in 2005, he was one of three African Americans hired out of the past six auditions, meaning half of all MET auditions were won by African Americans during that time period. However, an African American wouldn’t be hired again until 2017, about 30 auditions later. The numbers are small — African Americans represent a meager 1.8 percent of total American orchestra musicians — but they suggest that the use of a screen levels the playing field considerably.
Sprott also emphasizes the importance of students having a mentor who looks like them. He still remembers a moment from 20 years ago when Atlanta Symphony trombonist Stephen Wilson sat next to him on a bus ride to a performance.
“He said, ‘You’re really talented Weston, you can really do this, keep practicing, and keep in touch with me if you have anything you want to work on.’” Sprott said these connections and conversations were of equal value to private lessons.
In addition to playing with the MET, Sprott was recently appointed Dean of the Preparatory Division at Juilliard and has worked with Stanford Thompson (the two met at Curtis) to promote diversity and inclusion at institutions. He also mentors several young trombone players. But he expressed anxiety at the circuitous path students must take to find him. In the same way that Che found Caroline, Sprott says players often come to him through voicemails and emails he gets from mothers who happen to find his website.
“We need to establish a mechanism that makes this advocacy and mentorship something that occurs more because of structure and less because of random chance.”
It’s been roughly 25 years since the conversation about diversity in classical music began. While some progress has been made, it’s largely been limited to specific groups. Two visually clear examples are the increased presence of Asian-Americans and women in the field. According to the League of American Orchestras report, the proportion of musicians from non-white backgrounds increased “from 3.4 percent of all musicians in 1980 to 14.2 percent in 2014.” But the authors note that “when the data is more closely examined, it is clear that the modest shifts towards diversity that we observe have been largely driven by Asian/Pacific Islander musicians.”
Today, nearly half of orchestra seats belong to women. Yet statistics show a level of privilege for white and Asian women not shared by other women of color.
Inequities exist at the staff and leadership level as well. While there is near parity between genders in orchestra staff, non-white staff have “hovered at 14 percent since 2010,” according to the League of American Orchestras report. For board members, there is a roughly 40-60 split among female and male members, yet non-white members comprise just under 8 percent of orchestra boards.
Women have also made gains as composers, and today they are programmed more frequently and intentionally by major orchestras. But even for white women, these opportunities sometimes come only after a painful social corrective, for instance when orchestras are publically skewered for not including non-white, non-male composers (this happened to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2018).
Complicating this picture is the incredibly competitive nature of classical music. Comparing the difficulty of success for classical musicians to Olympic athletes — or conservatory admissions to those of Ivy League schools — is no exaggeration. That difficulty, combined with the faulty assumption that musical achievement is completely talent or merit-based, puts even less responsibility on people in powerful roles to promote diversity in their organizations. White people get turned down for orchestra seats all the time, so when a person of color fails an audition, it’s easy to blame it on merit.
The result is a nearly impenetrable hierarchy that nods to diversity as a value in web copy and brochure photos but resists progress at the systemic level. While there is an argument to be made that the field is deliberately complacent, and that programs that support diversity are merely band-aids on a bigger problem, it’s also true that there is a genuine interest among stakeholders in creating systemic change. But for an art form rooted in male Eurocentricity, the question becomes, how?
Cultivating young players who are Black, Latinx, and gender diverse is the foundation of current efforts to combat these attitudes. In this work, one area of difficulty that often goes overlooked is geography. Gretchen Nielsen, executive director of From the Top, is focused on that aspect. Prior to From the Top, she was the Vice President of educational initiatives for the LA Philharmonic where she headed up the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles(YOLA) program.
“We set up orchestral training programs in the heart of neighborhoods that didn’t have great access to quality music education,” she said. “We were learning over time what access really meant, and exploring the intersection of excellence and access.”
Nielsen recalled sitting in on a rehearsal at one of the YOLA centers, when a young brass player asked her, “Miss, why are there no white people in this orchestra?”
“My response to him was, ‘We’re in a neighborhood where not many white people live.’ It was interesting to me that he noticed that and wanted to understand it. If you’re Latino or African American and you’re surrounded by people who look like you, that becomes your point of reference.”
Inthe United Kingdom, at least one orchestra is approaching the issue from an entirely different angle.
Instead of trying to diversify existing orchestras, Chi-chi Nwanoku, an upright bassist of mixed Nigerian and Irish heritage, created Chineke!, a professional all black and ethnic minority orchestra. It’s the first of its kind in Europe, and when it launched in September 2015, it was an overnight sensation.
Two weeks before its debut, it sold out London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Nwanoku was in the dressing room the night of the performance when she received a text from a friend outside: the line to get in was stretching around the building.
“Walking out onto that stage is an experience I’ll never forget,” she said.
When the curtain raised, 62 musicians representing 31 different nationalities walked out onto the stage. The entire audience was on their feet, cheering, shouting, screaming, and crying.
The momentum hasn’t stopped since. Nwanoku was interviewed in all the major British papers, and Chineke! has received invitations to perform on some of the world’s most prominent stages.
“It sounded like a global sigh of relief. We had all shades of color on that stage… it looked like London.”
Creating new spaces for people of color like Chineke! offers an alternative to the difficult task of diversifying traditionally white spaces. But for most orchestras, diversity is still the goal, and it’s as complex and multifaceted as it has been in other spheres of society.
Consider the notion of cultural equity, or the idea that every culture has its own standards of excellence and aesthetic values, and that all cultures should be considered equal when compared with one another. When viewed from this lens, the fact that major performing arts institutions define the American ideal of high culture becomes highly problematic, because these institutions keep classical music and the symphony orchestra — not to mention ballet and opera — at the top of the artistic hierarchy. Eurocentricity, which is rooted not just within the institutions but within the musical repertoire itself, becomes the default example of high culture while non-western cultural traditions, whether it be music, dance, or something else, are excluded from this category.
The classical music canon is comprised of 500 years of compositions written almost exclusively by white men, a legacy that reinforces stereotypes about what a composer should look like, not to mention whose culture classical music celebrates. Like an out-of-date history textbook, the classical European canon completely overlooks the contributions of composers of color. But beneath the surface of that canon is an abundance of works by Black, mixed-race, and non-male composers who had a profound impact on the musical landscape.
One of those composers is Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, a mixed-race composer born in 1875 to an English mother and a West African father, who won a violin scholarship to the Royal College of Music when he was fifteen. After composing a trilogy of cantatas called “The Song of Hiawatha,” he became world-famous and would eventually tour the US where he was known as “the African Mahler” (which was actually not the first time the public invented such a nickname for a black composer; Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was called “the black Mozart” during his heyday in the 1700s).
The Song of Hiawatha was directly inspired by the epic poem of the same name published in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, adapted from the mythology of the Ojibwe people, a Native American tribe based in the Great Lakes region. Taylor-Coleridge’s fascination with the poem likely stemmed from his own recognition of the parallels between the legacy of slavery and the persecution of the indigenous tribes of North America.
Taylor-Coleridge was so successful during his day that he was eventually invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt, who drew harsh criticism from members of the press who were outraged that a black man was allowed to have lunch at the same table as the president and his white wife. But the Song of Hiawatha had already taken on a life of its own. It quickly became one of the most popular choral pieces in America, right up there with Handel’s Messiah. While the latter remains ubiquitous, The Song of Hiawatha eventually faded from view and is rarely considered for orchestra programming today.
Chineke! is set to perform works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor during their spring programming this year.
While the majority of orchestras still perform canonical pieces that can date back hundreds of years, a younger generation of players and composers comprise the now-established and somewhat more diverse “new music” community. Born out of a desire to dismantle some of the stodginess of the classical tradition as well as a practical solution to the limited seats in orchestras (via the creation of smaller chamber ensembles), new music has demonstrated an undeniable diversity of thought in sound, programming, and the commissioning of new works.
Foundational to the movement are a number of chamber ensembles, among them International Contemporary Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, and adventurous string quartets that actively commission new works like Mivos and JACK Quartet to name just a few. Institutions like Carnegie Hall have come clamoring for the participation of these ensembles, their leaders, and most of all, the younger audiences they attract. The popularity of new music among audiences has even broken through to conservatories; many of the top music schools have opened up their curriculums to incorporate its fresh sound and entrepreneurial ideas. As a result, the programming choices of orchestras are beginning to reflect a balance between the traditional classical canon — still a safe bet with established audiences — and newly commissioned works than can attract different ticket buyers. For institutions that must constantly uncover new ways to stay relevant, the rapid expansion of new music is proof that classical will not die out with the white-haired members of the audience. But while the younger generation has successfully been engaged, and their participation is more balanced along gender lines, the racial and ethnic disparity remains largely stuck.
“In some ways, there’s more diversity than in the traditional scene, but the diversity is different,” said Jade Simmons, a concert pianist, author, and motivational speaker known for her genre-bending performances. “I saw more females in the new music scene. And there’s more diversity of thought, diversity of performance styles. But ethnicity, not so much.”
Like many successful musicians of color, Simmons, who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, gives some credit for her early success with having a supportive family. But she said she felt isolated during conservatory. “The truth is, conservatory never tells you: ‘You can do this.’ In fact, very subtly they start bursting your bubble from day one,” she said. “They mold you into the reality that performing is very difficult, next to impossible, so what else are you going to do?”
It’s a question that all musicians, regardless of race or gender, confront at some point in their career. For Simmons, that meant becoming an entrepreneur. She learned to blend her performances with inspirational speaking, and was soon pulling in corporate clients that supported her financially and allowed her to continue performing her own work for audiences. Her success is emblematic of the new paths some musicians of color are forging in the face of limited opportunities within the traditional route.
For Che, this rift between new and old played out in his own life, when he had to make the most important decision of his career thus far: where to attend conservatory.
Che applied to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, an elite institution which along with The Juilliard School, Curtis Institute of Music, and a few others, make up what is essentially the Ivy League of conservatories. For these schools, the process of evaluating merit and talent mirrors that of higher education at large in that it skews along class lines, perpetuating issues of access and representation.
Not only was Che accepted to Eastman, he was offered a scholarship of $40,000 per year. But when Che and his mother Delphine sat down to look at the fine print, they realized the scholarship didn’t cover room and board, textbooks, and a number of other expenses.
“We still would have had to take out a loan, and that was scary,” Delphine said.
Che would eventually decline his acceptance to Eastman, and instead enroll at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, which offered to cover not only tuition but all costs of enrollment.
His mentor Caroline Stoessinger was dismayed. She had been pushing hard for Eastman, her own alma mater, where she contends Che would be more challenged and would make the necessary connections to earn a seat at a reputable orchestra when he graduated.
“Whoever heard of the Boston Conservatory?” she quipped. “Che needs to know what his competition is.” Caroline fears that Che will be more talented than his peers, and that it might go to his head. “There may be some beginning violinists at Boston Conservatory, but no one who has any professional ambitions would be going there to study violin. It’s not a respected place, and I think it’s a disaster,” she concluded.
Caroline called Eastman several times on behalf of Che to try and convince them to cover the full cost. While the derision she directed towards Boston Conservatory is undeserved, her passion is clearly rooted in a deep belief that Che has what it takes to succeed, paired with the anxiety of knowing just how easy it is to become derailed from the process. As the trumpet player Stanford Thompson put it, “There are a lot of exit ramps on this road.”
Delphine said the decision about where to enroll eventually came down to cost. But for Che, the opportunity to attend Boston Conservatory has some advantages that Eastman does not.
“They’re concerned with making more open-minded classical music and ensembles,” he said. “It’s very free compared to other conservatories that are strict and aren’t open to new ideas. I think the merger with Berklee creates a lot of opportunities to experiment with different kinds of music, and that’s not like any other conservatory that I know.”
He added that the environment in places like Eastman or Julliard is extremely competitive, bordering on cut-throat. Spending four years in such an intense learning environment would intimidate any prospective student, but for musicians of color, who comprise about 14 percent of the student body at Juilliard for example, that prospect is especially daunting.
“For someone who has been in environments where there’s a lot of support, I think that would probably be overwhelming for me,” he said.
While Caroline still believes he would achieve more at Eastman, for Che, the possibility to experiment with different kinds of music is thrilling. He’s developed a love for new music and is continuing to hone his skills as a composer, which he said allows him to experiment with non-western sounds. One of his idols is the thoroughly modern Christopher Cerrone, a Brooklyn composer best known for “Invisible Cities,” an opera and site-specific multimedia installation based on the Italo Calvino novel.
Che said his own compositions are often political in nature, including a work that he refers to as an “art song” titled “We Lived Happily During the War.” It’s inspired by a poem by the Ukrainian Ilya Kaminsky, which deals with the tension and guilt of living peacefully in America while being aware of great suffering happening in other places.
“It’s hard to believe how everything would’ve happened without the support that I got and the people that I met. [Without that support] I don’t think it would have turned out the same way,” he said.