Interview with Violinist Melissa White: Sphinx, Harlem Quartet and Yoga

February 26, 2019, 10:45 PM · Earlier this month, when the Sphinx Organization announced the winners in its 22nd annual competition, I could not help but think about the long-term effect this organization has had on encouraging diversity in classical music.

One reason I thought about this was a wonderful interview that I had last fall with violinist Melissa White, who actually participated in the very first Sphinx Competition in 1997 and was one of its early first-prize winners. I crossed paths with White when she was in town to perform the Barber Violin Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony (where I was playing the concert as a proud member of the second violin section!) It was an utterly enjoyable collaboration, and great ride through the Barber (that last movement!).

After the concert, White spoke to me about her career, which has included solo performances around the world; the formation of an enduring and successful chamber group, the Grammy award-winning Harlem Quartet; and most recently, the creation with fellow violinist Elena Urioste of a yoga program and retreat for musicians called Intermission.

Throughout all of it, Sphinx has provided a community of support that allowed her to work her way toward success, and then to continue that path.

Melissa White
Violinist Melissa White.

It all started with a young girl from Lansing, Mich., who was very persistent.

"I first saw the violin when I was four years old, on an episode of Sesame Street -- Itzhak Perlman was the guest artist on this particular episode," White said. "I was fascinated by the way his chin fit in the chinrest, and I thought, 'That looks like a perfect instrument for a person to play!' Right after the show, I asked my mom for a violin. She didn't say yes, but she didn't say no. So I begged for two years, and finally when I was six, my parents believed that I meant it, and that I wouldn't just ask for something new next week. So I got a violin, and I got to start playing when I was six."

From then on, it was serious business. Neither of White's parents is a musician -- her dad is a retired accountant for the state of Michigan, and her mom is a retired school counselor in the public school district in Lansing. But they understood dedication.

"My mom was the one who took me to every lesson. She would take notes, record my lessons and then help me to practice when I was young," said White, who started her studies at a Suzuki program in community music school in East Lansing, Mich. "Then when I was 11, I went on to study with (Almita and Roland) Vamos in Winnetka, north of Chicago. So my mom drove me every Friday, five hours to my lessons. We would stay the night up north and then drive home Saturday."

"I have an older brother and a younger sister, so my dad would stay home with the other two kids while my mom was doing all this violin work with me," White said. "Everyone in the house knew that Missy had to practice -- they heard the violin for about four hours a day. And when Missy had a recital, everyone was going to Missy's recital, putting on our Sunday best. So it was a family affair."

White was one of the youngest participants in the inaugural Sphinx Competition, a competition for Black and Latino string players that was founded to increase minority participation in classical music. It grew from the fallout of a particularly difficult incident in Detroit: in 1989 Michigan state legislators withheld funds from the Detroit Symphony because it had only one black member -- in a city that was 60 percent black. But what to do, when the audition process is blind? A forward-thinking young violinist named Aaron Dworkin had an idea: encourage Black and Latino players at a younger age, provide them support, give them a place where they saw people who looked like them, striving and succeeding in this field. Provide additional opportunity where a lack of it has existed in the past. Dworkin founded the Sphinx Competition, which has taken place every year in Ann Arbor and Detroit ever since and grown into a larger Sphinx Organization.

That first year, White won third prize. But she was determined to win first prize. She came back the following year, and again she won third prize.

"So I took a year off. I came back in 2001, and that's when I won first prize," White said. "Since I had tried a couple of times prior, it was a huge boost for me. I was 16, and it felt like finally all of this work had paid off."

That win gave her some concrete opportunities. First was the opportunity to perform with major orchestras around the country -- rare and invaluable experience for a young musician. "I knew at the time that it was a huge honor and an incredible experience, but now I look back and I think....In your formative years, it's so important to play with piano, to rehearse with piano and to play in the studio with piano. I had some years where I got to experience that, but with orchestra. That's huge, so I'm extremely grateful that that was part of my education."

Another direct benefit of winning that year was that she received a coaching with the legendary violinist, Isaac Stern. "It was very close to when he passed, actually, so that was another thing that felt extremely special when it was happening," White said. "It was in his living room in New York City and I was completely petrified, walking into his condo. I played the first movement of the D minor Bach, and after I played I remember being so happily surprised at how much he enjoyed the music-making."

"At that point in my life, when I would go to a lesson, the first thing I would hear would be critiques, or what I hadn't quite gotten right yet from the last lesson," White said. "After I played for him, he was delighted by the musicality, and my approach to the movement." White had been listening to recordings of Stern since she was a child, when her mother would play tapes of his performances in the car. "He was a hero to me -- I thought, 'Wow you like my music-making? Don't you have a lot of things to say that are wrong?' Obviously, he had many things to work on with me, but he did it in a way that was a musical collaboration. I'll never forget that."

Those were some of the direct benefits that came of winning the Sphinx, but it didn't end there. The competition itself aims not just to identify top players, but to help them in their development with mentorship and career advice. Beyond the competition, there is support for developing artists, educational initiatives, professional groups that have grown out of Sphinx, and very importantly, community-building.

White's quartet, the Harlem Quartet, was one of the first professional groups to grow out of Sphinx.

"We originally were put together by Sphinx in 2006," White said. "Sphinx had received a grant from Target to go into the community of Harlem and present classical music." The original four members were all first-prize winners of the Sphinx Competition: White, violinist Ilmar Gavilán; violist Juan Miguel Hernandez and cellist Desmond Neysmith.

The Sphinx Competition put them up in a brownstone in Harlem, and that is where four people who had never played together became a group that was to play at Carnegie Hall and The White House, tour the world, appear on television, win a 2013 Grammy and collaborate with people such as Chick Corea, Itzhak Perlman, Ida Kavafian, cellist Carter Brey, Paul Katz and clarinetist Anthony McGill and Paquito D’Rivera.

Their first gig was a premiere at Carnegie Hall, and it was a lot of pressure.

"None of us were living New York, so we would stay at the brownstone. We would spend about seven hours a day rehearsing," White said. "We had never played together, and we had this project to fulfill. We needed to get programs up and running; we needed to have repertoire ready to go. Also, Sphinx was going to host their first gala at Carnegie Hall, and they wanted that to be a debut for Harlem Quartet. So that was a big deal. We were rehearsing around the clock."

One of the first pieces they chose for their repertoire was a string quartet by Wynton Marsalis -- but there was just one catch: at the time it had not been published. "The parts we had were handwritten parts with manual corrections, and you couldn't quite decipher much of it (she laughs), it was really confusing!" White said. "We put it together aurally, with the only recording, which was by the Orion Quartet."

"It was just an all-in project, and this experience created a lot of chemistry," White said. "We all had done chamber repertoire in school, but this was special because we were all willing to do whatever we needed to do to have repertoire that would grab an audience. We knew we would be performing for young children who hadn't been exposed to this music before, so we wanted it to be a variety."

"With this chemistry, we decided that we wanted to keep working together," White said. "So even when we had fulfilled the Target project, we went after more concerts." Sphinx helped them in the beginning, and then a manager took them on. Since then they have had a few personnel changes: their current cellist is Felix Umansky and their current violist is Jaime Amador.

One of their most successful collaborations, for which they won a 2013 Grammy, was "Mozart Goes Dancing" with Chick Corea and Gary Burton.

Did they always do jazz?

"It really was a dive off the diving board, into the deep end," White said. "I took a jazz intro class, when I did my last two years of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy. I learned a lot, but I wouldn't say that taught me how to do jazz! The quartet got our hands on an arrangement of 'Take the A Train,' and we really enjoyed it. But the solos -- we felt could make the solos fit our instruments a little better and we could have a little more fun with it. Again, we were just working together, aurally, and we re-wrote our solos and created our own quartet version of 'Take the A Train.'"

"That caught on; the audiences really loved it," White said. "From there we decided we should get our hands on some other jazz tunes."

They called their other violinist, Ilmar Gavilán, their "resident jazzer," and he led the way. "For him growing up in Cuba, music was a way of communicating, a natural part of the DNA. His ear just understood the language of jazz, and he was able to do things on the violin that fit jazz.

"He would help us arrange our solos, to go for the sound of a jazz band, versus a string quartet doing jazz," White said. "We learned on the job, literally. Luckily we did a performance for Chick Corea, and he loved our interpretation of his string quartet. So we started working with him, and we did some tours together. Once you're working with these jazz greats, the languages takes on a persona. Being on stage with them, you start to see that it's a whole other world, and we loved it. So that's how we built our chops."

How have they stayed together?

"In our group, we have this saying: We ask if everyone is a 'little bit happy.' And when the answer is 'Yes,' then we move on!" White said. "You can rarely have everyone be completely happy, when you are debating something. We have learned that it's best to make sure that everyone is a little happy. We're all willing to compromise. It's important to respect each colleague as a player, and to recognize that their input musically is from a place of knowledge. We ultimately have the same goal; it's just how you go about it."

Recently White has a new project, a yoga and wellness program for musicians called Intermission, which she founded with fellow Curtis graduate and Sphinx laureate, Elena Urioste. White turned to yoga when she realized that her favorite athletic activity, running, might eventually ruin her knees, having witnessed her mother undergo double knee surgery. She started doing Bikram yoga in earnest and soon discovered that her longtime friend, Urioste, also had discovered yoga. "So we went to classes together, and then we started talking about how nice it would have been to have this in our lives while we were in our formative years, practicing five and six hours a day," White said. "What if we had actually been healthy with our bodies all that time, and mindful with our practice? Because we could see that our work on the mat was starting to benefit us on the stage. If you practice focusing on one thing, when it comes time to need to deliver on that one thing, you know how to work your mind."

That is when they hatched the idea for a retreat for musicians.

"Musicians need to refuel ourselves, because all we do is give out our mind body and soul through our art," White said. "We decided maybe musicians would want to take a week to come have a haven to do what they need." Their first retreat took place in 2017, then more in 2018, and they have several retreats scheduled for summer 2019. "We're also starting to do what we call Sessions, which happen at institutions so we are able to work with younger people and present the idea of wellness overall. You can't just hack for eight hours a day and expect that things will be okay! First of all, something might not get better if you're not mindful about it. If you start thinking about your little muscles when you practice, you might have better practice outcomes."

Earlier this month, White traveled back to Detroit to participate in this year's Sphinx Competition.

"It's like a family reunion for participants, every year when Sphinx happens," White said. "Now they've put together an orchestra, so some of us play in the orchestra. Others just go to the conference. Whatever you're doing there, it's nice to have that annual face-to-face where you're able to see that people are still doing things. Some people are starting new initiatives. There's something about being able to have a community that's working toward the same goal, everywhere around the world, that is strengthening. So it has been nice to have the home base of Sphinx to be a platform for that happening."

"Diversity is a big conversation, and it's happening in a lot of places: big cities, small cities, towns, schools -- all over," White said. "That's how change begins; that's how you can start to see it. First you have to acknowledge that there is something lacking, that there is a problem or a void. Once that is acknowledged, then progress can start. There has to be open dialogue and conversation about how to approach the problem and how to figure out a way to make the change. Sphinx has opened the doors for that conversation to start to flow, so that it is not something that people feel like, 'Is it okay we're talking about this? Should we tiptoe on eggshells?' Sphinx has the competition, and they also have a conference. Presenters, musicians, educators and administrators come, and it's an open dialogue. It's about seeing all these faces, seeing people who are working hard to make music accessible to everyone, to have music education be a vital part of everyone's upbringing, not reserved only for those who can afford it or are privileged to have it."

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