Piano and Racism


One of the greatest loves in my life is my relationship with music. Music has been a constant companion throughout life as far back as I can remember. Once, while taking piano lessons from a retired 80-year-old local professor, I was feeling overwhelmed about music stores closing, music programs being cut from schools and local music group numbers falling. My question to him was, “Has a lifetime of music, music study and practice for you been worth it?”

He paused a moment and then said, “No one can take music away from you, and it will never let you down.”

I have always felt the beckoning of music. It asks that you follow it and stay on the path without ever realizing or reaching a destination. Because of this, it is an outlet to practice faith, patience, self-control, perseverance, loyalty, letting go and unconditional love.

While there are many milestones along the way, there is no finale. Music lives on in the lives of the people we share it with. We borrow a little of the vibration, reshape it as our own for a while, then set it free again when we share it on the world wide web, the local stage, with the baby in our arms, the animals in the forest, or when we teach it to one another.

For me, it is the process of sharing music through teaching and creating music with others that I find the most rewarding in life. I love community music making, and I cherish the relationships built by the bonding power of music making and teaching. One of my greatest joys is watching music ignite a soul. I love being that partner who helps to keep another on the path, like that teacher did for me when I started veering off track. It was that day that I realized, if I want to see more music making in my community, I must get to work! I read somewhere that changing the course of life for only one person can reach 240 people in four generations! It reminded me of the story of an old woman who planted a forest of trees knowing she would never live long enough to sit in their shade.

There are so many obstacles for future musicians. Getting on and staying on the path is hard. It’s more than just acquiring a good quality instrument and kind teacher, having a place to keep it and practice it, a ride to the teacher’s house week after week, parents who are there to be supportive and endure the sounds in the house as you play the same passages over and over again trying so hard to get it just how you want it. (Thank you mom.)

Some have extra obstacles beyond these, just for having more melanin in their skin. When I set out to do what I felt could make a positive change in my own way those years back, one thing I chose to do was give free lessons to Black children. I quickly realized I had not properly educated myself to the hardships that many children face. It never occurred to me that it would be difficult to give something away. But for those reasons listed above, this “giving” also asks something of people – something a Black person who has lived through generations of oppression and racial inequality may not have the means to give.

My idea proved impossible until one day, about a year ago, a young boy and his mother walked into a community drum circle I was hosting at the park. I noticed immediately how much the boy loved drumming and offered to give him free lessons. The mother followed through, week after week, bringing her son out to my home studio, and for the past year it has been a wonderful experience.

Until this week. This week, instead of running errands, the mother decided to wait in her SUV on the street in front of my house. About half way through the lesson, I noticed a police car drive very slowly past my window. I thought this was very odd as I had never seen a police car in our neighborhood and for it to be going that slowly meant something.

As a white person though, it’s easy, isn’t it, to quickly brush it off without a worry in the world. I finished the lesson and didn’t give it another thought until I saw a Facebook post from the student’s mother later that night. She posted that she thought someone called the cops on her while she was peacefully sitting in her SUV. But here is where the story for me gets sad. Her post ended with her joking and some laughing emoji’s. I felt devastated. I was outraged! I immediately teared up reading her post.

But she was laughing it off? That police officer did a slow drive by, circled around in the middle of the road to glare her down, twice! This intimidation must have felt so unjust and so hurtful. There are enough obstacles in the world for people to do “ordinary things” like take music lessons, but if you’re Black, there is also this! Later when I reached out to her to apologize for not recognizing what was happening, she once again laughed it off. I didn’t know if I should say this, but I did anyway.

“I don’t think this is a laughing matter,” I wrote.

She wrote, “It’s either that or cry and scream.”

My heart sank, and I was in tears again. Then I remembered a lesson I learned at the Universalist Unitarian Church one Sunday several years ago, “When you see something, say something.”

I posted a message to my neighborhood group asking people to be aware of racial profiling, noting that in the nearly 20 years I have taught lessons with parents waiting outside my home for their children, only now that it was a Black parent, did someone call the police.

For those of you reading this, I would like you to think back right now, has that ever happened to you? How would you feel if it did?

Music soothed me through the emotions that followed this incident of racial profiling. It was with me when there was an outpouring of love, support and apology to this wonderful mother from my neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods. I know it will be there to help us celebrate a more equal and just world some day. It continues to teach me to practice faith, patience, self-control, perseverance, loyalty, letting go and unconditional love as I navigate these difficult situations.

I will be heading to the piano for a bit of relaxation following this writing. It will show me the answer as to how we can get to that better world. The black notes and the white notes must play together. Only then will we experience the harmony we dream of.

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