“I began music lessons literally when I came home from the hospital as an infant because my grandmother was a pianist, a soprano, and a music teacher. Shortly after I came home from the hospital as an infant, my mother, who was a registered nurse, went back to work, so Nana was taking care of me.
She would play for me, sing for me, take me to the piano. When I was actually one year old, she began giving me lessons. Unfortunately, she died when I was five years old. I went to a local piano teacher, a wonderful woman named Dorothy A. Earley, who taught me out of a John Thompson Piano series and later gave me the Steinway baby grand piano, the same piano that I used to take lessons on.”
“I’m very, very sensitive to color and music. In the John Thompson preparatory book, there weren’t any pieces where your hands really played together, but the very first piece in Grade 1 had the left hand play the C below middle C and the right hand play the E above middle C. I know now that’s an interval of a 10th, but then I knew nothing about intervals. What I did know was that sound struck something in my soul. I can’t explain it. It was the sound. I had heard nothing like that before. To this day, when I play, I look for color in the harmonies and the melodies.
Musical things made a great impression on me as a child. My parents sang in the church choir, and one Christmas they took me to the candlelight service. At some point, all the lights are turned off in the church, and people have a candle. At this service, all the lights were off at the very beginning of the service, and they were just done by candlelight. I was so mesmerized. I remember to this day the music that was sung and played at the candlelight service. I left in such a heightened state that that night, my mother had candles all around the living room in celebration of Christmas. When my parents went to sleep. I got all my toys and lined them all around my toy organ. I lit all the candles that mother had. It was a very dangerous thing that I did, but I was so mesmerized that I had to have my own candlelight service. The next morning, my mother woke up, and she said “Ricky, what did you do last night?” and I said “I had a candlelight service!” She asked me a second time, “Did you light my candles?” and she said, “You did. It could have been a very dangerous thing that you did. Don’t you ever do that again.” At first I wondered how she knew, but then I realized: her candles were little angels, and that morning, they had no heads!”
“My father recognized that his son was strange. When he saw that, he looked at the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times and began to get tickets and subscribe to concert series. When I was a teenager, every weekend, my father took me to New York to hear all the great pianists. I will never forget.”
“My teenage years were very lonely years because I was practicing three-plus hours a day. I didn’t have any friends who felt about music the way I did, so they didn’t understand my practicing. So I sort of kept to myself. I was teased by fellow students and faculty of high school. But I loved music and I loved the piano so much that it didn’t deter me.”
“I call Sylvia Rabinof my piano mother. I achieved so much under Ms. Rabinof: I made my debut at Lincoln Center with the Symphony of the New World playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto when I was 17 in my senior year of high school, and I began performing professionally at 15 going before audiences. She said to me one day: “Do you want to be a good piano player? Or do you want to be an artist? Mind you, if you select the second, you’re in for a life of work, never ceasing.” I have a letter she wrote to me years and years later. In the letter, she says, “Do you remember when I asked you that question?” What she meant was that it’s not just enough to play a song. You have to know about the composer. You have to know why the composer called a piece that. For example, I was learning the piano Sonata by Beethoven “The Tempest.” A death mask is something that was done to a person after they died. They took plaster and put it over the person’s face, then poured bronze into the cast, and out came this mask of the person in death. Mrs. Rabinof had a copy of the death mask on the wall, and she said, “Look at that. Look at him. Even in death, he was not at peace. He was not just deaf, but he struggled.”
It took me a long time to learn the piece “The White Peacock” because I didn’t want to learn it. It was by Charles Griffes, and it was done in the impressionist style. I came to the lesson and Ms. Rabinof said, “What have you prepared?” When I told her, she said, “What about ‘The White Peacock’?” I said I needed more time. This continued until the third week I came, and she said to me right away, “I want to hear ‘The White Peacock’.” I hadn’t practiced it. She said, “I’m not going to teach you. You’re not going to get a lesson today, and you’re not going to get a lesson until you come to me with that ‘White Peacock.’” Well, she took my mother’s check. When I finally learned it, she had me go to the Bronx Zoo and watch the peacocks. “A peacock does not walk like a pigeon. In New York, they have pigeons all over the street, but I want you to look at the peacock because in order to play this piece effectively, you have to have in your mind how a peacock walks, how a peacock will run, when the male opens the fan what that looks like.” This is what she meant when she said, “If you want to be an artist and play like an artist, you have to know more than just the notes. I achieved so much under Mrs. Rabinof: I made my debut at Lincoln Center with the Symphony of the New World playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto when I was 17 in my senior year of high school, and I began performing professionally at 15 going before audiences.
After making my debut with the orchestra as a senior, I went to Juilliard, which was a dream. Dorothy Earley graduated from Juilliard, and as a black woman in the forties, this was a great accomplishment. Importantly, she told me about the Juilliard School. During one New York excursion, my father took me to the Juilliard School for me to see it. They were finishing up the new school at Lincoln center, and the lady gave me a catalog. I must have been 11 or 12 years old, but I had dreamt about the Juilliard School from my first piano teacher.
In my sophomore year at Juilliard, the cafeteria at that time was on the second floor. I got out of the elevator, the second floor and I stopped, and I looked around and I said, “I’m here. I am here.” You know why I did that? It wasn’t just because I had heard about the school, and my first teacher went there, or because my father got me the catalog. So many people look back on their lives and say, “I wish I realized where I was when I was there; I just wish I realized the opportunity that I had while I was having it.” I knew the opportunity I had. I knew where I was. Everything wasn’t a bed of roses. There were some thorns.
When I started Juilliard, I wasn’t performing quite as much. I had a new teacher, of course, and Mrs. Rabinof was very adamant about me giving him the chance to teach me. But after I got accepted and before attending the school, I went through a period that I didn’t want to go. Even though this was The Great Juilliard School, I was apprehensive. When my mother told her about my second thoughts, evidently, she flew off the handle. She said, “You tell him he is going there, that it’s time that he experienced a different view for his playing, and that this is a wonderful experience. That’s the end of it: he’s going.” The very first time I played in my new teacher’s masterclass, I didn’t feel I played well. I called Mrs. Rabinof from a public phone and was crying. She told me to calm down and relax and everything. It was traumatic because she even said it: “I’m kicking him out of the nest.” I couldn’t understand it because I had achieved so much under her tutelage. But I’m glad that she and my mother prevailed and that it wasn’t up to me.
After Juilliard came a lot of performances. I knew when I was in high school that I did not want to become a public school music teacher. I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist, but I knew I did not want to take my knowledge and skills to public school only because I wanted to be with students who wanted to be in my class. So I became a college professor not too long after I graduated from Julliard with my masters, and I still am.
I am driven. One day my piano tuner came to tune my piano. At the time, I was teaching at a community music school. He said the piano teacher at Rutgers University is going to take a leave of absence because she’s pregnant, and they’re going to need to find someone to take over her pupils. The minute my piano tuner left my house, I got in my car. I went directly to Rutgers University and to the music department. I went up to the Secretary, and I said, “Hello, my name is Richard Alston, and I should be teaching here.” I had my resumé. She introduced me to the head of the department, he said to me, “A lot of people would like to teach here. Leave me with a resume, but I can’t promise you.” When I left his office, I remembered that when I was 13, I met a man named Professor Chester Smith at that same department. He had read about me in a newspaper, and he wanted to meet me, possibly to teach me. So I asked the secretary if Professor Smith was still teaching here, and she said yes. I said, “Is his office still around the corner?” She said yes, go say hello. I knocked on his door, and he remembered me. I was older, but he remembered me.
I told him I read that one of the teachers was leaving, and he said, “Well, you would be perfect to take her place.” I said, “Well, I just met your chairperson, and he said that he would get back to me, so I don’t know if that will come to pass.” I thanked Professor Smith and everything I left.
Five minutes after I got home, the chairperson called me. He said, “Professor Smith knows you evidently and highly recommends you, so if you want to teach here still, we’ll have you. I got back in my car and drove back down there. If we want some things in life, we have to go after them. We can’t wait until someone gives them to us or asks us if we want it. We have to go after it. Sometimes we might hit a wall or a door might not be open, but this has been something all my life that has been a mission. I feel that I was put here to make music at the piano and to share it, so when opportunities knock, you have to be ready.
Someone once said to me, “One day you’re going to see something, and you’re going to say, “That should be me.” Well, when I read that they were doing a production of Porgy and Bess at the Met, and I went to see it. They opened all of the cuts that Gershwin was forced to make when he put it on Broadway. It begins with a piano piece called “Jazzbo Brown Blue,” and I said, “That should be me up there.” Before it could be me though, I had to learn it, so when the opportunity knocks, I will be ready. Well, I ended up being selected to do it on the stage of the Met. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, I felt like I was in the Land of Oz, because it was just so magical.
I wasn’t nervous. I never use the word nervous. We might have anxiety. Here’s an example about anxiety. I was feeling “nervousness,” and I said to myself, is this what I want to do? And then I look back. I look back to when I was a child, and I would do little Sunday afternoon recitals with my toys as the audience. I looked back and I remembered making my debut at Lincoln Center. The answer was yes. This is what I want to do. You should always know where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go throughout your entire life. I’ve been so blessed with so many wonderful, wonderful experiences and opportunities, but it’s not over.
Many musicians who I know have retired, and they’re the same age I am. But there was a very famous pianist called Simon Barere, and he died on the stage of Carnegie Hall playing the Grieg piano concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. So if it’s destiny, when I have to go, I want to go with my boots on.
Pianists — I guess because what we do is serious — we’re serious when we play. Even when we play a piece that’s fun. I noticed that all the pianists came out on stage looking serious. They had a job to do, and they were going to do it. Then my father took me to hear Arthur Rubinstein. He walked on stage with a smile on his face. He was happy to see me there. So I said, “Forget about this seriousness. I am happy to perform for these people.”
A couple of years ago, I performed at Carnegie Hall. After the performance, one of my friends and choir members of my church said to me, “When you walked out on stage, you had this huge smile on your face.” She said she couldn’t get over it. I said, “Well, first of all, I was at Carnegie Hall! I had something to smile about. Second, I remember seeing Arthur Rubinstein walk up on that same stage, and he smiled. I was not only happy I was at Carnegie Hall. I was happy to see you and everyone else I invited to share this experiment experience with me.”
“When I was maybe nine years old, next to the Clementi Sonatina, next to the Bach Invention, I was playing this piece by a man that looks like me: “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” by James Bland. This was one of the inspirations for my lecture “Classically Black,” and I play the tune in the lecture. 9 out of 10 times, people think Stephen Foster wrote it, but it was written by a black man named James Bland. My teacher, from the very beginning, was letting me know that people who look like me compose music.
When I saw Andre Watts’ — my great, great, inspiration and idol — debut with New York Philharmonic when I was eight or nine years old, I saw a young guy that looked like me. I knew then I could do this because he did it.”
“At one time, I was going to work on my doctorate, and I auditioned for a conservatory and got accepted. I spoke to a woman who, at that time, was the associate chair at the department. At the very beginning of the conversation, she said, “Oh, you should study with so-and-so.” I said, “But he’s a jazz pianist. He doesn’t play classical music.” And then I realized that right away, because I was a black pianist, instead of looking at what I played for the audition, she figured I was a jazz pianist. I said, “Why do you think I’m a jazz pianist?” and there was silence. She knew why she thought that, but I was letting her know that I knew why she thought that.
I did a competition where there was a reception in which the judges were going to announce the winner. Before the winner was announced, the conductor of the orchestra came over to me with someone else, and he said, “You play beautifully. We’re going to see if we can schedule a special concert for you.”
I thought, wait a minute. They haven’t even announced the winner yet, and they’re coming to me saying that they want me to do a special concert. In other words, they’re telling me that they’re not going to select me as the winner, but I play so well that they want me to come back and do a special concert. I knew right away that my playing had nothing to do with whether I would get the first prize or not. There were maybe three or four finalists, and they didn’t go to any other finalists and say that. The decision was already made because I was a young black man.
When I told my teacher who was a white man about what had happened, he didn’t want to believe it. He said I couldn’t start thinking like that because it’ll cloud everything I do. But an older white woman had come with me to the competition to accompany me in the concerto. At the next lesson, he told me that she told him I should have won the competition. I was angry because when I told him this, he didn’t believe me. But when a white woman told him, then it was valid. Historically, you would need a white person to vouch for you to go to certain places. This was a good example of that: she was speaking for me.
At that time, I didn’t say anything, but now I think I am more outspoken. I haven’t had any incidents recently that cause me to speak out, but I know it still exists. I know there are opportunities that I should have gotten and still should get that I didn’t get. But I’m really hoping now that there’s a change. It’s happening. We people of color are capable. The whole Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the attention of the world what people of color have been experiencing for decades and decades.
You can look at the orchestra personnel throughout the country and realize that there are wonderful, fantastic, great violinists and cellists, and horn players, brass players of color. Yet when you look at these orchestras, you don’t see them. I did a PBS documentary called “Classically Black,” It’s a documentary where I played works by black composers, and it talks about the history of black instrumentalists in classical music.
When I made my debut with the orchestra, I performed with the Symphony of the New World. This orchestra was formed and consisted of instrumentalists of color: all black men and women. We come to 2020, and you look at orchestras: maybe one or two black people are in orchestras, but it’s not that many. It’s not that we aren’t ready; we have been ready for decades.”
“I started the lecture “Classically Black” maybe 20 years ago, and it grew out of the PBS documentary also called Classically Black. People don’t realize that composers of African descent have been writing music since the 17th century like Chevalier de St. George. I realized that people were not programming music by black composers. Not even black instrumentalists at the time. I even got into an argument with a student who was planning a senior recital and didn’t have a work by a black composer. I got so angry. I said that I as a black man, it’s up to you to let other people know about our history. Maybe other people will do it, but I feel obligated to share this music.
Years after my grandmother passed, my grandfather brought a box of her music to my house. I was playing “Classically Black” concerts at the time and decided to go through Nana’s music. In this box, there was a law tablet with an essay written called “The Negro in Music.” She was talking about all the composers I was playing. I had it put into a gold frame. When I read this essay, I realized it was kind of like a last will to me. I was following in her footsteps and playing these composers she spoke highly of.”
— Richard C. Alston, East Orange, New Jersey