Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Globe and Mail: Award-winning pianist Luke Welch reflects on being a Black classical musician

Luke Welch was 'often met with confusion, resentment, discouragement, and sometimes straight-up disdain from others around me.'
Nadia Cortés/Handout

The Globe and Mail

Luke Welch

Special to The Globe and Mail

September 6. 2020

From an early age, as I was first enrolled in piano lessons, I was quick to realize that there were not many, if any, other young Black pianists who were learning how to play classical music – at least that I had ever met. Fast forward a couple of decades and nothing has changed. No “growth of the sport,” no “catering to a wider audience.”

I’ve often wondered if it is bit like the old “chicken/egg” conundrum – are Black people less interested in joining the classical music community because there are so few people at higher levels who look like us? Or is the lack of representation the result of a subtle kind of bias against certain people – systemic discouragement? Of course, it could be both. My experiences as a Black musician in this world have given me some idea of how to answer these questions.

I was around seven years old when my music teacher, Mr. Gibson, first introduced me to the piano. Since then, I have loved everything classical music has to offer – a seemingly endless expanse of amazing works spanning hundreds of years that provide those who choose to play them a variety of technical, musical and ideological challenges. No matter how many hours of practice, there will always be more work to do and new heights to reach. Delving into the diverse works of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti could by themselves cost a lifetime of exploration, let alone engaging with the oeuvres of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and beyond.

As “musically gifted” as I was said to be when I was young, there were so many other pianists who seemed to be light years ahead of what I thought I could ever achieve. My goal was to become the best version of my musical self that I could be. Little did I know that would result in me graduating with masters degrees in both Canada and the Netherlands, performing for former Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, giving concerts in over a dozen countries worldwide and ultimately receiving the highest honour of Canada’s Black community: the Harry Jerome Arts Award.

While I was committed to my own improvements, and those my piano teachers laid out for me, I was often met with confusion, resentment, discouragement and sometimes straight-up disdain from others around me. An incident happened during my university studies that I will never forget. I was accompanying one of the university choirs. At the dress rehearsal, we were in the middle of a gospel song when the choir conductor abruptly stopped the ensemble. “You all are lacking energy!” bellowed the conductor. “This is a gospel song. You’re supposed to loosen up, clap your hands and move from side to side,” he continued. “Isn’t that right, Luke?” Mercifully, before I had an opportunity to give him a response befitting the occasion, I had several choirmates usher me out of the rehearsal, all while avoiding eye contact and profusely apologizing on his behalf in sheer embarrassment. Needless to say, I never collaborated with that “professor” again.

I have often been told – especially during my time living abroad in Europe – to consider switching my musical focus to something more “in my lane,” such as jazz music. I have even been stopped from entering a concert venue in which I was the performer until I was able to convince the unidentified individual (thankfully not the concert promoter!) to actually look at the advertising poster.

In another instance I was questioned – while at a music store looking for recordings of pieces I was intending to prepare and perform – whether the music I sought was actually for me. Once I stated that I, too, was a classically trained musician, the look of shock was followed by the comment “Wow, you definitely can’t judge a book by its cover!” The amount of restraint it took to not lose my temper in that moment took every fibre of my being. I remember discussing the situation with my father shortly afterwards, and was even more disheartened to hear his sincere, yet candidly matter-of-fact response: “Well, son, get used to it.”

Welch does not 'theorize whether or not his ethnicity impacts my career opportunities, nor do I care to.'
Nadia Cortés/Handout

Unfortunately, he was 100-per-cent correct. During all of my academic years, from elementary school through university, I did not encounter a single other black pianist. This extended beyond school to competitions, professional performances, piano masterclasses, or any other musical environment. It was not something I dwelt on at the time, as I was too preoccupied with building my own career and completing my education at Western University – and later the Rotterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands.

It was during my studies at the university level that the proverbial light bulb finally went off in my head and I realized the stakes were much higher than simply accomplishing great feats at the instrument and making a name for myself. I came to understand and appreciate that I represented a community within the community – by that, I mean being a Black classical musician (see: unicorn) in an already marginalized society (and yes, I admit that those who immerse themselves in the classical music community tend to be pigeon-holed as being on the fringes). Not only was it – and still is – of paramount importance to be at my best on stage, but it is imperative to remain aware that the lights, camera and attention on me may not necessarily stop just because the performance is over.

I am not one to theorize whether or not my ethnicity impacts my career opportunities, nor do I care to. Quite the opposite. I believe that quality will always succeed. So as long as I continue to prepare well, push myself to be a better musician tomorrow than I am today, maintain a respectful attitude, and appreciate the incredible support from everyone around me and those who have contributed to my career, the rest will take care of itself.

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