“When my father passed away, music really helped with the heartbreak and being able to get past the trauma of losing a loved one. I was a Daddy’s girl in all senses of the word, and he was a very strong person who taught me to be strong. There was never a way of being weak because I was female: I was always playing sports with him, he was taking me out horseback riding because he was a cowboy spirit. We always partook in very spirited debates: He had different politics than me, but that was always okay. If I had my own opinion, I’d have to be able to support it. That taught me the power of negotiation, a good debate, and being able to see multiple sides of a story.
He was a huge influence on me. He would always say he was the first one to teach me how to sing, too. He loved the Beatles, so he would teach me Beatles songs when I was very young, and I would sing them in front of everybody.
‘Dosed’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers really helps me through my personal heartbreak. It’s not one of their more famous songs. It’s about Anthony Kiedis’s girlfriend, whom he loved very dearly, but she overdosed. It was the song he wrote while he was trying to get over the heartbreak of losing someone so young and so soon. He thought he would have a lifetime with her, and she passed away at a very young age.
The hook is gorgeous with the guitar. The song captures me with the guitar solo, and then the lyrics come through. The body is already involved, the endorphins are already there, and the lyrics help comfort, ultimately.
Music As Language has been my theme and my brand working with people. Here in New York, many of my students are interested in pursuing the arts. But in the Bay Area, the number of students going to pursue anything in the arts was pretty limited, so it was a matter of trying to make sure they had this deeper awareness of the world around them. STEM education can be limiting to the individual and the person. The arts are the best way to see that you are not a machine — you are an individual. I’ve approached music as a sense of identity and expression when your words fail you and a way to help your mental health. It’s challenging, especially in the world we live in today, where we’re staring at computer screens all the time, and we’re not getting human interaction. Music is a way for us to look inward and deal with some of the issues we aren’t able to talk about.
One of the difficulties of going into music education is you lose your passion for it a little bit. That probably sounds harsh, but it’s kind of true. Your students are passionate about music, so you become passionate about what they’re interested in doing. You lose your sense of exploration because it’s all based on your job. Although we all love what we do, we’ve lost that sense of meeting in the break room and talking about this new song because of course we have — it’s our job. We’re living and breathing it all day, every day. But music is a form of communication for us, and to jam with like-minded people is really interesting. Maybe it’s not necessarily the songs anymore, but it’s just, ‘Hey, grab an instrument — we’re going to be in the key of E minor, and let’s just see where this goes.’
My biggest passion is understanding the people behind the music and helping young people find their path. Music As Language helps students find recording studios, producers, and a band that would play with them. Then we also help them with the songwriting process and the technical aspect of their instrument or voice. On top of that, colleges have become increasingly more complex and difficult to navigate, especially when saying you’re a musician on your college applications. I had a student trying to navigate that process, and she put down that she had been singing for many years. She hadn’t done any formal exams or competitions, but she took lessons and sang for a long time. When she said she was going to put it on her applications, her guidance counselor said, ‘Well, have you sang in Carnegie Hall? Have you passed a level 10 exam? Have you been in an international competition? Well, then don’t put it on there.’ It was like unless you’ve done something amazing with it, it doesn’t have any value. That was like a dagger through my heart — a child was being told her hard work had no value because she couldn’t quantify it. Music is this qualitative process that now we have to quantify, and Music As Language is trying to help with that. Students can keep doing their art and let us be the science in the back.”
“My name is Darlene, and I’m a second-generation Filipina. My parents grew up in the Philippines, they immigrated here, and I was born in California. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the first 18 years of my life, and then I moved down to Los Angeles.
In high school, my theater teacher encouraged me to look into music education, so I ran with it. I came out of college in five years with two degrees [in piano performance and music education], but my overall intention was to be a teacher. I student-taught at a school district nearby, and it was perfect timing because they had an opening for ten music teachers. I was already in the system, so I was hired. I’ve been in that district ever since, and I love it there.
I took so many classes when I was in college, but my heart felt so safe and at home every time I learned about education. Every opportunity I had to teach in front of kids, I thought, ‘This is for me.’
I’ve dabbled with the idea of doing other things, but why would I? I can’t see myself as not being a music teacher. It’s so personal. It’s part of who we are. Some people do jobs because that’s just how they make money; they compartmentalize their lives. But as a musician, it connects to my humanity. If I wasn’t able to teach music, I don’t think I would be Darlene Machacon.
The murders that happened last summer were a wake up call. Not just for me, but for so many people around me. I’ve always felt there were social issues around [music], but because of the system I was in, I felt like we were just music teachers. So I just rolled with that, even though in my heart, I really wanted to speak up on those things. But after seeing the Black Lives Matter movement pushing for it, I was like, ‘No, it’s time to put things up in front.’ That motivated me to be more outspoken on issues because these social issues impact the music classroom, too. When we’re teaching students, we’re really teaching students how to thrive in society. But if we just ingrain ‘You need to know the difference between a quarter note and two eighth notes,’ how does that help them when they step out of the classroom? How does it help them to be more compassionate people? To be less racist? When there’s the mindset of ‘We’re only teaching music,’ it’s damaging because kids start to think, ‘Music isn’t that applicable in my life because my teacher only wants me to know the difference between forte and piano.’
Over the summer, I was thinking about doing a podcast but put it to the side. But then, one of my college friends goes, ‘I’ve always wanted to start a podcast.’ That’s how Coloring the Melody Podcast got started. We wanted to talk about the hard issues and how the intersectionality of our identities play a factor in how we teach. When we first advertised it, we realized our audience wasn’t just teachers, so we needed not to be too teacher-y but also talk about issues related to education. We see how our podcast can be an advocate for how music teacher education should be.
I listen to pretty much every music education podcast out there, but when I looked at my podcast library, there was a lack of representation in people of color. All of them were white women or white males. You will not find another duo of female music teachers of color. One moment where I knew we were doing the right thing was when one person wrote a review saying, ‘I’m a music ed student, and I’m Filipina. I’m so excited to hear this.’ When I was in college, there were no other Filipina music majors. I was the only one, and I had no Filipina music teachers to look up to. It was wonderful encouragement to think I was the one that made them realize there is someone who looks like them and is surviving and flourishing in the field.
In the classroom, it’s really in the small details, where the kids are indirectly learning about the core issues of social justice. For example, in the storybooks I use, I think about whose voices are being told. In the illustrations, do I see just people of the dominant culture, or do I see people with different hair textures? When I was growing up, my storybooks had just white people, and I would be in shock when I would see anyone of Asian descent. I intentionally pick materials that reflect what my students look like and show different ethnicities or abilities. In song choice, where students sing short songs to learn about different rhythms or concepts, I choose songs that are not always in English, so they realize not everything we do has to be in English. They learn a little bit about that culture and how our culture connects to others’ cultures. When students get used to thinking that way, they’re less likely to think of other people as outside their bubble.
I will admit it’s a little bit tough because of the limited time frame I have, but I know what to prioritize because of the limited time I have with these students. I would rather have them be more self-aware of their own emotions and other cultures than knowing random musical terminology they can’t connect outside of the classroom.
A thing I really want people to know is that incorporating social justice is essentially just good teaching. To separate it, to me, feels like it’s just separating social issues that directly impact our students and not welcoming talking about it in the classroom. It tells students, ‘I only care if you know musical stuff,’ but not seeing that they can be well-equipped to succeed outside of the classroom. When these kids grow up, they’re going to pick out what core memories they have of their elementary music experience. I want them to think about how music connects to the outside world. What they learn in music can help them better understand people. Those are skills they have to carry with them anyways. Social justice isn’t another thing to add, but another way to help our musicians to tap into who they are as people.”
“I always loved music and music was always part of my life. In high school I did almost everything that I could: I did piano, I did marching band, jazz band, concert band, played in musicals, and did competitions for piano and saxophone. I really enjoyed it. My parents were not the typical ‘you can’t do music’ kind of parents. But, I knew that stereotype against careers in music. So I thought, ‘If I can’t have a career in music, let me pick something else.’ It’s not like nothing else would work, so I thought, what else would interest me? Psychology is very interesting to me because it’s thinking about how people think. And I think that social interactions between people are interesting and important, no matter what field you go into. Specifically, the field of psychobiology was a way for me to get into pharmacy because my mother was a pharmacist. Pharm school is for four years, and then you can be a full-fledged pharmacist and make nice pay right out of there. But then I did it. I volunteered for a couple of weeks at a pharmacy, and then I instantly realized I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life. I also worked a couple of other office jobs, and I literally found myself watching the clock until it was time to go home. Even if I liked the job, that sort of regiment just wasn’t for me. I found myself organizing events and still doing music things even without pay, so I just thought I would do it full time. One thing about piano teaching, in particular, is that it’s also sort of like entrepreneurship and being a business owner and your own boss. I can do things in the way that I want.
I started piano in first grade, and then saxophone was seventh grade. I’m pretty sure my parents just signed me up for various things just to see what would stick. I went to a group piano class where we had five keyboards. They saw that I liked it, so they signed me up at the nearby music studio with the cheapest, youngest teacher.
Obviously, by now, I know that eventually, piano came to something I was very passionate about. But when did it turn from something I was just doing to something I’m passionate about?
It started with this piece called “Marching Season” by Yanni. This piece was played in this 10-piano concert that we used to do in Hawaii. It was the last piece of the concert, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a really cool piece.’ It was the first sheet music book I ever purchased, and it came in a book. I decided I would just play some of the other pieces in the book because that’d be a waste of money to just buy for one piece. I played all the other ones and then I thought, ‘Well that’s cool. Let me buy another one.’ That’s when things really took off because I started to sight-read a whole bunch of things. I played a lot of video games back then, so I would print video game sheet music. I used to have these two-inch binders of different kinds of music. When you can sight-read, things become a lot more enjoyable because you don’t have to practice as much. It’s not about more practice. It’s about efficient practice. I mean, I don’t like practice.
In college, I wouldn’t say I played a lot, but I did play. At UCLA, they have some pianos in the dorms, and you can also pay a fee to use the music department practice rooms; eventually, when I moved into an apartment, I had my own keyboard. This was bad research on my part, but I had figured I would be a music minor at whatever college I went to. When I got to UCLA, I found out they don’t even have a music minor. I thought since I was at a large university, they should have whatever I want. Not true. Their music departments are more specialized, so it’s majors only. And so music was relatively small for me in college: I was in the Symphonic Band, but a saxophone. I don’t play the saxophone anymore. I don’t even talk about it.
After I graduated from college, I did something in Japan called the JET Program, which is basically where they bring in foreigners to teach English to the Japanese school system. I did that for three years. The job itself was pretty easy. In the prefecture, we had the International Arts Festival every year. They had a nice stage and the venue that we rented included a Steinway piano, so every year I thought, ‘Well, I better take advantage of it.’ So every year I got a group of people together, and we did a couple of musicals such as Les Miserables and the Lion King. I put in a lot of work into that, and I just found how much I really like doing music things, playing music, and coordinating people. I could do something where I hope I can see more of an impact.
I moved back to California because Angela, my now-wife is from here. We moved here right before Christmas in 2013, and by the following Christmas, I had 50 students. I thought, ‘I can actually make a living off of this.’ And, well, we’re where we are now.
When I first moved here, I had a lot of time on my hands. So I did various things; I taught English at the Japanese Senior Center, and I also played the piano at the hospital. I have a lot of music, so that’s right down my alley. It would be a service and it was gratifying. People would regularly come up and say thanks, and the occasional ‘Can you play softer?’. I was essentially live background music. It was just as much for me as it was for them.
The way that music in colleges are structured is heavily classical, which I think is very old school. It’s prime for change. Music education now is sort of almost like quiet, systemic racism because teachers only teach classical and pretty much everybody doesn’t see anything wrong with that. I think there’s just this large divide and the teachers want to teach classical because that’s what they know. That’s what they like, and that’s what they know. The thing about classical music is that there is a right and wrong. There are the correct rhythms and notes and fingering, but when you’re doing these other types of music with improv and all those other things, the teacher has less say about it.
Sometimes I come off as anti-classical music, but that’s not true. If a student wants to play all these other kinds of music, the classical training will make you good at them. It has to be a balance. There’s a certain high from playing classical music because it’s hard work. It’s very intricate and detailed and every note is thought out by the composers, so that’s a very valuable mindset. It just can’t be everything.
Classical music should stand alongside other music as an equal, rather this current hierarchy of classical music as the gold standard, the art form, and everything else is supplemental or for fun. People don’t even see anything wrong with it, so I’m trying to speak out about it. So many people quit lessons. A lot of times the teachers blame the students for not being ‘made for it.’ I don’t think teachers look at themselves enough — there’s more to it than just the student.
The reality is, every one of my students has played some classical music, but it doesn’t resonate with a lot of people for various reasons. It’s more fun to play than to listen to. Even if you look at my playlist, there’s very little classical music on it. Another thing is the acoustic element of it. To hear it through speakers or headphones, it’s not the same sonic experience as hearing it from a piano. Part of it is a cultural thing: if you go to any piano event that is ‘serious,’ you just assume that it’s classical. We always just play the same composers. There’s been a lot of research on professional orchestras, and what they play is very classical-heavy. It’s not like teachers are against it, they just don’t know how to get into it.”
“I’ve realized a lot about music and interacted though music in a unique way through In the Groove. The game is basically an American spinoff of Dance Dance Revolution. There are four arrows — up, down, left right — and you step on the arrows to the beat of the music. That game was originally made by a Japanese company, but an American company made In the Groove, where you could actually use custom songs. Eventually, it stopped being produced because of a lawsuit, but the community still lived on and produced content for the game. The game has gotten to a point where people can pass these incredibly difficult charts, which are the set of arrows that go with a song.
For me, creating the step charts is the whole creative process in of itself. You have to think of how you want to mimic the music with the movement. I made a chart as a summer project; I’m maybe halfway up the difficulty curve, but a huge way from the top players, who can play at 250 beats per minute.
In the chart I made, there are some really dense parts. I’ll have ideas for certain patterns that I’ll determine, then the rest will be neutral material so that those parts stand out. The pattern will highlight parts of the song that I want to bring out, and the rest is just filling in the gaps. It probably looks like a bunch of notes flying around, but it’s funny how much intent you can convey with four notes and rhythm.
For example, when you don’t have your feet switching arrows, you’ll have a box, where your feet stay on the same arrow. Right foot stays on the right arrow twice, and left foot stays on the left arrow twice. I intend to emphasize the string tremolo in the back of the mix. I just listen to the music and think of what can be easily emphasized by the techniques I already know. Since this song has an A-B-A structure, I took the notes from the A section and mirrored them, so all lefts become rights and all rights become lefts. It adds cohesion to the song.
It’s very artistic, and you can convey a lot of your intent with the decisions you make, even though it’s very limited. You can make something that’s very satisfying and aesthetically pleasing to play, even though it’s a different realm of aesthetics. It’s a combination of rhythm and feeling.
After making the chart, it’s really fun to play it and finally feel the theoretical things that you had in your head. The other part of it is sharing it with people and seeing if they can understand and interpret what you’re doing.”
— Lucas Clark, San Jose, California
You can view Lucas’s Twitch streams of his In the Groove sessions here.
You can learn more about Lucas’s music at laclark.me.
“Someone mentioned to me recently that music is a universal language and that really resonated with me. I take Spanish at my school, so I know what it means to study a language. I also know what it means to comprehend the technicalities of the musical language. Music is beyond the technicalities though; when you learn Spanish, you can only speak to other people who know Spanish, but with music, you don’t really need to have the education side of it to benefit from it. Anyone can benefit from it.
I’ve been raised with the belief that giving back is equally, if not more, important than receiving. I am grateful for my parents who have supported my musical journey and have supplied me with lessons in the piano, violin, and viola. My parents let me learn three instruments, and I think it’s important to use it more than playing in a recital three times a year. Music has taught me to be a servant leader by sharing my gift of music with the world, and it has given me a reason to encourage others to impact the lives of others with their music.
I’ve always been involved in the music department at my school, Bellarmine College Prep: I stand as the Principal Violist and head up service and outreach on the music department’s leadership committee, so I organize performances at different organizations for all of the music groups.
When quarantine hit, I had a bunch of extra time, so I decided it was best to step it up as a runner. When I was on one of my runs, I passed by an assisted living facility, and I saw the activity director walking in for the day with a mask on. I got home that Tuesday, and thought, “What can I do for them?” I had live concerts for numerous organizations that I had to cancel because of COVID-19, but I still wanted to still connect with them through music. I came up with the idea of creating virtual concerts for isolated and lonely individuals during the pandemic. I started with contacting the 20 kids from the music program that were involved with service performance. Then, I went through my school’s coordinator to plan another virtual concert, and even more people got involved — even teachers and people not in the music program. It was supposed to be one concert, but then it became a concert series because so many people had responded. I built it in a place of discomfort because I had to step it up as a leader. I had to make all of these phone calls to organizations, and I had no video editing skills before, but I was driven to make a difference.
As of now, I don’t have plans to be a professional musician, but music will continue to be one of my ways of connecting with others. One of my favorite things to do is a Christmas concert that my two brothers and I do for my parents and my grandparents. We all play the piano and violin, and so after every Christmas Eve dinner, we all sit down and play duets and trios. My grandma is a retired piano teacher, and my dad is a pianist, so I guess music has been a part of my entire life. I like that community. It’s my family — my smallest community of musicians. Recently, my brother Alex and I have been using our violin skills in the virtual concerts. He got into composing and together we work through his creations. Music has been one way the two of us have been able to deepen our relationship as brothers as well as serve others through the virtual concerts. That’s the kind of stuff that I’ll continue doing as it brings me joy to build connections through music.”
— Max Amend, San Jose, California
Art of the Heart provides young musicians with a space to showcase their talents while bringing the joy and comfort of music to senior citizens, the developmentally challenged, pediatric patients, and low-income adults. Learn more about Art of the Heart here.
“Music was a way for me to express myself in a way that words could not. Ever since I can remember I have been singing. It allows you to dig up a story from the heart and let it out through your voice. Pouring my thoughts into a song is something that has become so effortless and natural, and it allows me to feel free.
My piano journey began at the age of 4. My grandfather used to listen to a lot of piano music with me. I would listen and watch in awe at the piano player’s hands flying across the keys. I knew that I wanted to do that. For a young kid, practicing was a task I despised and got very bored of doing, but luckily, the people around me always encouraged me to continue instead of quitting, something I’m glad I didn’t do. Music is a part of me that I was brought up with and something that I count on everyday.”
“I remember hearing my dad playing piano. I loved it, and I wanted to do just what he was doing. So in 5th grade, I finally enrolled in piano lessons. I was operating under the delusion that I would be able to play as well as him as soon as I started. It was not as I hoped. It was hard and boring and extremely annoying as my parents would constantly remind me to practice. Soon, though, maybe in the middle of 7th grade, I began to like it. I could play harder pieces and choose to play songs that I knew and liked. I love pop music, so I would find chords to songs and sing along to the piano. I write lyrics to songs, and soon, I began to create piano music for my songs. I think that’s what I’m really into. I mostly write pop but sometimes infuse a touch of country or elements of R&B.
During quarantine, I’ve decided to learn a new instrument. I found my mom’s old acoustic guitar, tuned it, and started to teach myself. Now when I write music I add guitar. While we were in quarantine I also found myself playing piano more. I even found one of my favorite piano composers named Yiruma. I liked how calming his pieces were and am now playing multiple of them. I recently found out how to use GarageBand, so I’ve been recording songs on there and hope to have people hear them someday. Now that I look back I’m glad my parents forced me to continue piano because if they hadn’t, I never would have really found my love for music.”
“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.”
“Navajo music is something that is really meaningful to me. I grew up in a household with a grandma and grandpa who are traditional so Navajo music was always playing, mostly for entertainment. Music traditionally for Navajo is to help treat illnesses or just for us to get through obstacles. It is pretty common to me because I listen literally every day. It’s something that heals us, for us to manage to get through many obstacles because the songs are from a really long time ago.
Navajo music has been here for centuries, and they tell many stories or they help me out mentally.
Navajo songs were created by the ancestors of the Navajo, which means they wrote the songs through a rough time. So knowing that the Navajo music has been passed through many generations helps me mentally because the generations before me may have been more troubled mentally or physically, so they made songs to help them.
Navajo traditional music are songs that are prayers created by a particular person, who has the knowledge of the Navajo tradition, which means the individual would be called a medicine man. Only he or she would know how the songs work. Sacred songs that are used in ceremonies are sacred, which is pretty hard to explain, but the songs we Navajo people use are sacred, which means we rarely ever talk about traditional songs.
Music means a lot of this to me. Traditionally, music is used for healing, but other music is for chilling or having fun! Both my parents and older siblings listen to various amounts of music! My father listens to hard rock, heavy metal, rock, and some country; my mother listens to rock, country, rap, hip hop, and alternative; my three older brothers listen to Navajo music, rap, hip hop, alternative, and rock; and my older sister listens to rap, R&B, and hip hop. So, my family listens to many genres, and I listen to every genre they listen to, but I just added Kpop to the many genres. From my point of view as the youngest, every song that was shown to me always struck a memory.”
— Gertty Boone, Rocky Ridge Arizona, member of the Navajo Nation
“Music means a lot of things. For one, it’s an outlet for me to just create and explore. I really enjoy trying to create music in a certain style or sometimes even in no specific style. Music is also a way to escape sometimes the problems we face. When I sit at the piano, play in band, or just listen to music, I focus more on the music and less of the stress I may be encountering such as tests, homework, etc. Personally, music is just a really great way sort out my thoughts. Whether I intentionally or unintentionally do it, the music I play sometimes when I just need to play often reflects how I feel, whether I’m happy or sad or frustrated. I don’t always know how I feel, so music provides a way for me to understand myself a lot better.”