Troy Stuart, cellist with the Ritz Chamber Players, studied with me when he was in middle school (in an after-school program) and then for his first two years of high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Now he holds my former position there, and also teaches at the Peabody Preparatory, where I taught as well. He’s profiled in today’s Baltimore Sun in article about African-Americans in classical music.
I almost cried when I read this:
In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn’t in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall – the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
“I had to cover it for the first half-year,” Stuart says. “I wasn’t gaining any confidence from seeing myself. If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn’t have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted.”
I knew it was hard for him growing up in an African-American neighborhood and being the guy into cello and classical music, not basketball. I didn’t know it was that hard. I don’t know if there’s anything I could have done. I just know that I thought he was amazing and I loved being his teacher.
Troy speaks in the video on the Baltimore Sun site (I cannot figure out how to embed it here) about finding your passion. It’s over twenty years ago that we worked together; I remember his boundless, sometimes hard-to-channel, enthusiasm as if it were yesterday. It was obvious back then he’d found his passion. The irrepressible spirit I remember so well from 1984 seems to have remained, well, irrepressed.
6 responses to “Troy Stuart”
Huh? What of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor? What of Marian Anderson? What of Paul Robeson (ok, well, I think he’s a classicist!)? Or Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (unrelated, but named after Samuel)? Or George Bridgetower (Beethoven originally wrote the Bridgetower Sonata for him, but renamed it to the Kreutzer Sonata after Beethoven and Bridgetower had a falling out. I’ll bet it was Beethoven’s fault.)? There’s been many others through history.
You don’t have to be Afro-American to consider those people heroes.
(This turned out to be a long-winded response!)
Well, Terry, I imagine that when Troy was a student, not just in high school but also when he went to Oberlin, no one told him about any of those possible heroes you mention. Even today, our music curricula are so bound up with common-practice era classical music works that few if any undergraduates learn about any of the important figures you mention, unless they take a course in “Black Music” or something with a similar title. And in the few places where such courses are available to undergraduates, they are elective courses.
When I was teaching Troy, I’d never heard of any of those you mention, other than Anderson and Robeson. And, just in my early twenties myself, I had no idea of how profoundly out of place a kid like Troy would have felt entering the classical music world. I look back and think I failed him, that we all failed him, that the system failed him. And then I think, my god, we’re still failing our students, not just the African-American kids but the white ones as well. And I realize I feel uncomfortable bringing up race with my African-American students. It can be really touchy.
But there’s another issue, and I think it’s what Troy speaks to in his Yo-Yo Ma remark. Whether or not he was aware of important figures from the past, where was the prominent African-American cellist (or violinist) that a kid like Troy could identify with? Eugene Moye had made a brief splash in the late 1970s, but didn’t develop a solo career.
I don’t know why this pops into my mind but it does. My son sees Daniel Craig as James Bond; if he fantasizes being Bond, it’s Craig he sees himself as. At age 50, I know the “real” Bond is Sean Connery, although when I was a teenager Roger Moore was playing Bond and I actually would imagine myself as Moore. Suppose they’d stopped making Bond movies when Connery quit after “Diamonds Are Forever.” It would be rally hard for my son to go watch movies from the 1960s and imagine himself as Sean Connery. Teenage boys don’t identify with people from the past; they identify with people in their present. We need living role models when we’re growing up.
My cello heroes were all white men (Rose, Rostropovich, Starker, Piatigorsky, Harrell), and Jacqueline DuPre, a white woman. (Hmm, they were older than me, so maybe that blows my age argument, but they were all alive and playing and/or teaching.) Even the older students I looked up to were white. So I can certainly understand how out of place Troy felt. There just weren’t string players who looked like him.
And there are few now.
There’s no denying the racist aspects of the American classical music establishment, which Joseph Horowitz makes so abundantly clear in his book “Classical Music in America”, for example. Think of the reaction against Dvorak’s embrace of “negro” and “Indian” melodies, the efforts to marginalize jazz, etc. The whiteness of classical-music culture is not just a coincidence; there was a lot of design to it, a hundred years ago, and that legacy remains.
I can identify with this in a different way. Not only was it hard for me to accept that I was way more attracted to guys more than I was to girls, but also I didn’t know of any successful gay string players. I often felt out of place. I felt I had to be extra closeted with cello teachers, and with some string students. It would have been different, I think, had I been a pianist or organist, where there were many out gay students. When I was at Juilliard, for example, I knew of only one other gay cellist, and he was super closeted with everyone except other gay guys. My head was so full of negative stereotypes about gay men, and I didn’t have a gay cellist role model.
I still don’t know many gay string players–I know of more than I actually know, but there just aren’t that many. I wrote in a recent post why I feel it’s important for my students to know I’m gay, while not making a big issue out of it. Our LGBT students need to see LGBT adults, to have living role models.
The fact that Walt Whitman and Michelangelo were gay was of no comfort to me when I was 18, even though I knew about them and others.
I’m starting to ramble (or have been rambling for a while), so I’ll stop here. Very thought-provoking comment. Thanks!
And yours a thought-provoking response. It’s good that it’s as long as it is. It brings out points that we seldom express or dare think about, but are always lying beneath the surface, unacknowledged.
I have a bad habit putting irony into my Internet writings that only I understand, and I confess this was an example. If they are heroes, than clearly, they accomplished things well beyond what we could expect of people, which just goes to support Mr. Stuart’s point of view. A handful of heroic figures out of several hundred years? That’s what it takes to be successful, sometimes only posthumously? And even they are forgotten?
Yep, the “system” might have failed Troy Stuart, but then, he met the challenge anyway. Put him on the list of heroes.
Thanks, Terry. I didn’t catch the irony firs time through. And I love the last line of your most recent comment. On my list, too.
Maybe a bit odd to respond to this but felt like I should! Music has been the greatest thing that has entered my life! Playing my cello has brought me nothing but pure joy and happiness! Words can never express all of what it means to me! Having had the honor of learning some of life`s great lessons through the cello constantly reminds me that a life without passion is simply empty. At no point have I ever regretted being the ” black kid with the cello!”. I feel only lucky enough to have found my purpose in life. Jackie, Slava, YoYo, Sascha, PamF,LeonF,Leontyne ….and you,Eric have always served as the best role models anyone could ask for. You did not fail me ,you inspired me with your beautiful playing and love for what you did. Having more faces like mine on the concert stage would be wonderful but I believe that in the end the most important thing is to remember what is under all of our skin, our character and goosebumps.
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