Crossing borders. Breaking barriers. Beyond the lines. Outside the box. This type of hyperbole represents the foundation of the title from my new Scarlatti album. The catchy title, which to some people is entirely unnecessary and smacks of lameness, is meant to encompass a slew of meanings and double-entendres. There would have been no issue to capture the contents of the recording simply as “Scarlatti keyboard sonatas”, though with the current worldly trends and evolution it seemed wholly appropriate to subtly throw in my two cents as inconspicuously as possible.
Many years ago when my parents first became aware of my musical interests and tendencies, they decided – through the recommendation of many others around them – to enrol me into piano lessons. Themselves, lacking a notable musical background, figured the most sensible approach would be to start my formal musical education with classical instruction. At that time and tender age, it really made no difference to me what style of training I would receive since it was all virtually interchangeable. I knew nothing of the rich, seemingly diverse cultural history and traditions of the classical world which therefore made my lessons strictly a matter of doing as told by my piano teacher.
As the lessons began to pile up, and time passed, an awareness was starting to form. It was during these impressionable years that I played my first public recital, started entering local and regional competitions and expanded my musical network. Instead of exclusively attending private piano lessons, I was now being introduced to a larger group of people with the same ambitions, enthusiasm, and longer-term goals as me. Whether it be through year-end class recitals, my first major performance in Toronto, or any other classical music paradigm I started to notice a trend.
The early signs of this raised level of social awareness happened when I was first asked why I chose to study and perform classical music. It struck me as an odd line of questioning though due to my naivety at the time – in combination with my general benefit-of-the-doubt interpersonal personality – I didn’t think much of it. Over time, however, I realized that this question – if not verbatim then remarkably similar in wording – kept being asked more and more frequently. When I would talk to my friends and student musician colleagues about whether or not they have also been asked similar types of questions the answer always came back as a resounding “No!”, often accompanied by a look of perplexity. As they explained, it wasn’t uncommon to be asked when they started or how long they have been playing – or in other cases how they came to choose their particular instrument, but never genre-related. Hmm…
The light bulb in my head continued to shine brighter as the years wore on. At this point, after graduating from one of the more notable arts high schools in my region – if not within the country – it was time to move out of the parents’ house and head off to university. Indeed it was time to become a small fish in a bigger pond and this time, particularly considering the chosen university and city, it was finally clear and easy to hit the proverbial nail on the head.
I remember, as a teenager, the conscious decisions I made not only to become a professional pianist but also to forge my path primarily in the classical music industry. Part of the rationale came most obviously from my exclusively classical training on the piano. In another regard, it came from a continuous love of the music I had been studying, multiplied by the prospect of playing even greater repertoire – provided I continue down that particular path. Another line of thinking came from knowing that the task at hand would never end – no matter what the level of musicianship or pianistic abilities, there would always be exceptionally challenging music to choose from in the incredibly vast source of the classical canon. One significant point, however, came from the realization there were very few others who looked like me within the industry.
This last statement is not meant to imply that my baby face and dapper appearance was going to somehow score me guaranteed fame and success – rather the opposite. Somehow, over time, classical music has managed to take on a mind – and following – of its own. The faces, both in the crowd and on stage, often tend to lack in diversity (age/gender aside). This homogeneous environment for the most part presents no immediate or significant consequence – at least I pray it isn’t so. However, it has on occasion caused some confusion when I am introduced before a performance: my name is announced, arguably the most Anglo-Saxon name this side of the hemisphere, hailing from Canada, and then I walk out on stage. Oh, the sincere looks of bewilderment!
It has never been my intention to be a novelty item within the industry – music and piano playing has always been my passion and has driven me to be who and where I am today. The thought is extremely intriguing though – is classical music really entirely misunderstood by some cultures? Is there a level of unspoken intimidation for people like me to enter a world with few others who look the same? Have the demographic percentages always been so lopsided, or has it too evolved over time with key individuals now merely reduced to afterthoughts and historic footnotes? It would be extremely difficult for me to find a youngster from my community and show him or her some recordings or video clips of classical musicians who are similar in appearance and say: “You, too, could be that person one day!” Such videos are sadly too few and far between…
Thankfully I have, in recent times, come across others – and in Canada to boot! – who are not only superbly talented but also extremely active in the community. There is still a very long way to go, but it is both humbling and satisfying to see that not all hope is lost on what appeared to be a closing window. In this modern world of trends, individuality, and exclusivity, I’m going to continue crossing borders, breaking barriers, going beyond the lines, thinking outside the box…
Thanks for reading!