Conversation with Violinist Nicole Cherry: Overcoming Historical Racism in Classical Music

July 12, 2021, 3:07 PM · How can music teachers and performers make a difference, when it comes to healing racial divides and promoting diversity within classical music?

These kinds of questions were at the center of featured conversation in late June between violinist Nicole Cherry and Brian Lewis, artistic director, at Juilliard's virtual Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies.

Nicole Cherry
Violinist Nicole Cherry.

Cherry is Assistant Professor of Violin at The University of Texas at San Antonio as well as second violinist of the Marian Anderson String Quartet, a group named after the famous African-American singer Marian Anderson. In its early days, the quartet made history as the first African-American ensemble in history to win a classical competition when it won the International Cleveland Quartet Competition in 1991. Cherry joined in the early 2000, and the group continued to win awards, perform, and teach through faculty residencies at various institutions such as Texas A&M, and currently, Blinn College in Bryan, TX. The quartet has embraced its mission to create new and diverse audiences for American Chamber music -- check out their excellent TED Talk from 2016.

Cherry herself has done extensive research on the Afro-European violinist, George Bridgetower, and in 2016 she created the ForgewithGeorge Music Project, a compilation of performances, lectures, and recitals that aims to restore the legacy of great artists of color that have been dismissed from the history books. Cherry earned her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Maryland, masters degree from The Juilliard School, and doctoral degree from Texas Tech University.

In their conversation at Starling-DeLay, Cherry and Lewis did not shy away from the difficult topics of racism, social justice and the historic dismissal of black artists in the classical music world.

Cherry's exposure to music started with her father, who played the piano as well as the trumpet. Sitting at the piano, her father would play an eclectic mix of music - everything from Mozart to Ellington -- for her and her brother. Born in 1925, "my father grew up in the rural south," she said. When walking to school as a child, he would walk by evidence of recent lynchings - and that kind of imagery was seared into his being. Cherry remembers one Christmas, when her mother wanted to buy her father a turtleneck - a pretty innocuous-sounding gift, until he said, "I don't wear turtlenecks, it reminds me of lynchings." He was determined to get a college degree, and he continued with higher education until he'd earned a doctoral degree. Her mother, who was younger than her father, was a criminologist.

For his own children, Cherry's father focussed on hope and on making things better, she said.

Lewis asked Cherry, in what ways has she encountered racism in classical music, and what does she do when it happens?

These days are very different from the days of her father, she said. Thankfully, she does not encounter lynchings. In this generation, the racism tends to be covert, and that makes it tricky to handle.

"You have to choose a perspective," she said, "society questions whether you have experienced racism or not."

Here are a few examples:

Depending on the situation, these might be outright racist comments, or they might be classified as "micro-aggressions." Either way, they add up.

"How do I respond?" she said. "Do I take it as racist, and react?"

In reacting to such incidents, "I always keep the youth in front of me," she said. "If I had a group of children in front of me, how would I respond? If I can teach, then maybe we can have some forward motion and positivity."

During her own upbringing, one of the most positive experiences for Cherry was youth orchestra -- specifically the DC Youth Orchestra Program. While she started playing piano at age 5, Cherry started violin somewhat late - at age 12. Being in youth orchestra "brought me to the violin - the violin just grew on me," she said. While in youth orchestra, she had the chance to play all the Beethoven symphonies except No. 9. Youth orchestra brought out her determination and dedication; and it also made her part of a community.

"We can really look to our youth orchestras to create positive community," Cherry said. She sees "social justice" as a call to action, defining it as "the transformation of the world to create equity, to create opportunity and access for many cultures to experience all the great things that a nation has to offer."

What better place to start, than to provide opportunities to children such as youth orchestra?

Cherry's late start on the violin gave her more insecurity than anything else, but fortunately her teacher "didn't make a big deal about my starting late - she met me where I was," Cherry said. She brought her to gigs and rehearsals - she even had Cherry turn pages at recitals. She exposed her to the classical music world and showed her what was possible.

When Cherry had the opportunity to go to Juilliard for her masters' degree, she said felt like she'd been given an invitation to visit Venus.

"I scaled the hallways all the time," Cherry said. "I wanted to embrace everything that school had to offer."

When she was there for graduate study, Juilliard had recently started its first annual MLK Celebration concerts and had also just founded its Music Advancement Program, a Saturday program to serve intermediate and advanced music students from New York City’s five boroughs, seeking students from diverse backgrounds underrepresented in the classical music field.

Her teacher, Stephen Clapp "was an advocate for me in so many ways," she said. Among them, he made sure to introduce her to the contributions of Black musicians, presenting her with music by Samuel Coleridge Taylor and other repertoire by people of color.

"As an artist, we have to bring our identity into what we are doing," Cherry said. While she occasionally resented always being asked to play things such as Amazing Grace, she has found her own way to celebrate her own identity.

At this point, she is very interested in restorative history; that is, acknowledging accomplishments by musicians of color who have been left out of the history books. Her George Bridgetower project aims to do just that. For example, Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata was first dedicated to Bridgetower - but this fact is sometimes left out of history books and program notes. Bridgetower also studied with the famous Italian violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti - "but he never makes the list of Viotti's students," she said.

She plans to continue "piecing together the things that should be there, that are not," she said.

When it comes to what the classical community can do, we can provide a pipeline for good information and be an ally to people of all different backgrounds.

"Racism is embedded in our society," Cherry said. "The answer to systemic racism is systemic ally-ism -- so that any time something happens we have a systemic and structured way to handle it."

It's important to be intentional about creating an engaged, multi-cultural community. Lewis pointed out that "outreach" is not a great word, as it implies that some people are in and some our out. "Community engagement" is a better way to think about it.

"As artists, musicians and educators, we are all in a very important position to do that," Cherry said.

"What can we do personally?" Lewis said. "Go out and educate!"

And if you need to educate yourself first, here are a few places to start:

*If you have more good resources, please share in the comments!

You might also like:


July 13, 2021 at 04:42 PM · This was definitely a good talk with Dr. Cherry. I think her program to bring under-recognized black composers / performers is a great project and hope it gets all needed support. My only disagreement is with her comment about systemic racism. Inherently, racism is individual, not systemic. Each of us has the responsibility to recognize bias or racism we might have, and we are each responsible for our own actions, for good or ill. However, her answer to racism is absolutely right either way; education!

July 13, 2021 at 06:27 PM · Fraid I can't disagree more Richard. Systemic discrimination is when it assumed that a person of a minority group would be less effective in an opportunity. For example, suppose you are a black musician professor and a committee is organizing a fundraising event and needs a faculty member to perform. Unless they are discrimination aware many of them will think 'why pick the black guy when we might alienate some of our donors'. I know this happens because I have been in leadership positions where I have seen it (for a different minority as it turns out but its not hard to transpose. This is an example of systemic racism that is NOT individual. The individuals just go with the flow since to not do so they would actually have to stand up to be actively anti-racism in front of their peers - which is a major step beyond 'not being racist themselves'.

Systemic racism (and minority discrimination) is endemic and too often hidden under 'to be safe'.

July 13, 2021 at 06:58 PM · Elise, I appreciate your comments, though I'm not certain I follow the distinction you are making. In the case you mentioned, some individual or individuals have to make the comment or decision "why pick the black guy"; it's not a rule or an institution, it's an individual deciding to act in a racist manner. I do completely and totally agree that too many people just go with the flow and don't stand up when they hear someone making racist comments or decisions (I've seen that happen to my wife, and unfortunately my children also, who are multiracial). That has to be solved through education, and encouraging people to stand up when they see or hear something that isn't morally acceptable. We all have to be accountable for our own actions.

And thank you Laurie for the excellent article and great summary of Dr. Cherry's talk!

July 13, 2021 at 08:01 PM · Richard, the reason that most talk is about systemic racism in terms of how things can actually change in society, is that most of the decisions that affect people are not people consciously deciding to discriminate against people, and that most people think, "well, I'm not racist", even if they are making decisions that discriminate against people. A lot of people work within systems that have many hidden biases that snowball into larger effects, and often the people working within the systems feel bound by the rules or norms, and if we pretend that the rules and norms are fine, then people enacting those rules and norms can discriminate without realizing it.

Laying the onus on the individual is fine, but to stop there allows practices and rules that span and have effects across many generations, such as redlining practices in housing, how orchestras are filled, or who gets allowed to vote or not. Because racist systemic practices are explicitly framed as race-neutral, often in order to hide the racist intent, and sometimes due to implicit biases, it's a total misdirection to say that individuals just need to not be racist. That's been the official line for a long time, and yet this country is full of entrenched bureaucracies of racism.

It's somewhat analogous to how oil companies created a concerted marketing campaign around calling for recycling efforts and saying that the onus was on the individual; it's because that allowed them to sell all the plastic crap to people, and it freed people from thinking about the collective harm of participating in that market, and made them think that as long as they recycled, they were doing their part, which is why the world and your body is now clogged with tiny bits of plastic.

It's propaganda and it's unfortunately very effective at propagating the status quo and then some.

July 13, 2021 at 09:22 PM · I do see your point Christian, and clearly agree that where institutional biases remain, they should be addressed and eliminated. Having said that however, I strongly believe the onus is still on all of us as individuals to speak up when we see any forms of racism or discrimination, whether institutional or individual in nature.

July 14, 2021 at 10:44 AM · what do you make of Leon's talk?

July 19, 2021 at 07:44 PM · The comment of the professor that I could nit-pick -- and I'm not the only one in this thread who takes this position -- is the comment about "systemic racism." This phrase has become a mantra of late, and a lot of people using it appear to have no real grasp of what the phrase means. In some cases, "institutional racism" might be more accurate -- see preceding comments about faculty professors and donors.

In the days of Jim Crow, the USA definitely had systemic racism -- it was codified into law; but this is not the case today.

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