It's a wonder sometimes how I was able to be where I am today as a black woman. The obstacles and hardships that I've had to endure are still unbelievable to me. As I begin my sophomore year in college as a music major, I want to share and reflect on my journey as a double minority working within not one, but two white male dominated industries.
Like famous musician Esperanza Spalding, I am also a black woman playing the largest instrument in the orchestra: The double bass. The difference between the two of us is our genre; Ms. Spalding specifies in jazz, whereas I am a classical musician, an even greater rarity than its funky cousin. Like many starting musicians, I began my music career at the "late-bloomer" age of 12 on the violin. I didn't enjoy the competitive nature that came with the popular instrument, so I switched to something more low-key, but nonetheless still extremely important to the orchestra. That summer, I took home a small bass, an Elemental Essentials book and got to work. Seven years later, I'm still playing the same six-foot instrument, but it wasn't easy.
From the reactions to the expressions from different people after explaining to them what instrument I played, it didn't take long for me to figure out that I was the "odd one out" in my orchestra, in my school and even in my county, Charles County, Maryland. While there were a few women here and there that I played alongside, the vast majority of the people that I performed with, auditioned with and rivaled against were white men. Many were obviously not used to seeing a 5'2" black chick playing the same notes they were with the same intensity, if not more, as they were.
Not much has changed in the last seven years. Even though I had been playing bass for a little less than two months, I had achieved quite a few milestones before even leaving middle school. In my county, we had two popular honors orchestras that students auditioned for and performed in every year. The first orchestra, deemed All-County for obvious reasons, consisted of two orchestras, middle school and high school, with middle and high school students, respectively, from all of the schools within my county. The second orchestra, named Tri-County, consisted of the same description of the two orchestras, except students from the tri-county area of Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties all auditioned.
As one may guess, it was extremely competitive. I had performed in Tri-County the year before on the violin, but auditioning on a completely different instrument was an entirely new challenge for me. Preparing for the first double bass audition of many to come, I was bombarded with a very colorful palette of questions and statements, ranging from, "How do you think you'll compete with those who have played longer?" to, "I've never even seen a black bassist before," to, "You think you're above all of them because you're black?" 2012 was the beginning of that color palette, in which my continuous and unwavering response was, "Mind your damn business."
A week following the audition, I was selected as the principal bass player for the 2012 Tri-County Honors Orchestra. Out of seven bassists that had auditioned, and the five bassists in the orchestra, my name was on the top with the best audition score. That was when I had learned that regardless of my race, my gender or my demographics in general, I could do anything I put my mind to if I continued to persevere and work hard. I kept it up throughout the first two years of high school, soon learning that teaching myself how to play bass forever wasn't going to cut it if I wanted to go even further with my music career.
The wake-up-call occurred my tenth grade year, when I missed the principal orchestra spot by two points to a guy from Calvert County. Adding icing to the proverbial cake, a fellow student in the orchestra shrugged at the list and went, "What did you expect? He's a white male, of course he was going to get it." I reveled in this fact for a while, asking myself, "Was it a fact? Or a figment of glorified perspective?" I spent a major part of the rest of the school year wondering to myself, "What did this person have that I didn't, and how can I get it?" The answer was quick and simple: A private teacher. While I was getting more and more familiar with my instrument, I was also beginning to get more familiar with my second career choice — welding.
In my last year of middle school, I had the opportunity to attend a STEM and CTE oriented high school. Out of the 16 different programs to choose, ranging from cosmetology to culinary arts to biotechnology, I decided to pick two that were extremely unheard of for someone of my demographic to pursue a career in. Those two programs were welding and electrical construction. I was accepted into the welding program without a second thought, and was the only woman in a class of nine other students. Of course, I was the subject of a constant nature of condescension and scrutiny. There were constant jabs of how I wouldn't make it far enough as it was being a woman, but being black solidified that fact. Despite all of these things, I continued to do the best that I could: I stayed after school, worked on extra projects and exceeded my own and my teacher's expectations. I did this all while continuing to better my skills on the bass. I soon became a leader in my orchestra and a role model to many other music students outside of orchestra. Soon after, I was invited to play in the high school's symphonic band, and became a ringer for them throughout the rest of my high school career. I was beginning to make a name for myself.
Junior year was the milestone where I decided what exactly I wanted to pursue in my future. This didn't come without challenges and a lot of late night thinking. In welding, I began competing in competitions and studying to be a certified welder. Competing in SkillsUSA for welding sculpture, I was the first ever welding student from my high school to win first place in a welding competition in the state of Maryland, and therefore became the first student to compete in a national competition. I was the only black female competing nationally in welding, and out of 42 competitors, I placed seventh in the nation. It was truly a liberating and life changing experience for me, one that I will never forget.
However, even in Louisville, Kentucky, I still faced the same critical and condescending opinions from people. They wondered why I was in welding instead of something like nursing or childhood education. They asked how I felt about competing with so many other guys, and if I expected to get very far in the competition. All talk, and it was never entertaining past the short and sweet response of, "Thank you for sharing your opinion." Striving to move farther with my musical knowledge and skill, I began to pick up other instruments along the way, ranging from bassoon for the school's concert band, to the trumpet for marching band. I experienced my first All State audition; although I wasn't accepted the first time around, I was more determined to try even harder next year. After a lot of thinking, weighing out benefits and determining where my heart really laid, I decided I wanted to pursue music as my career. I wouldn't fully get rid of welding, but my passion was with my bass.
Senior year rolls around and I wasted no time getting as much musical experience as I can before going off to college. Alongside orchestra, I was enrolled in the jazz band, was a ringer for the concert and symphonic bands, and began my first year singing in the chamber choir. I was also one of the drum majors for the marching band. I even took some time to learn piano. Alongside my usual participation in All County and Tri County Honors Orchestra, where I continued to win the principal position, I also participated in All County Honors Choir, and competed in a jazz band competition, where I was recognized in the "All Star Band" as an electric bassist.
In February of that year, I had achieved my goal of being accepted into the Maryland All State Senior Orchestra, the first bassist from my school and the first bassist from Charles County to achieve that feat. Despite my major attention towards music, I was still a tough cookie in the welding world; I competed in more competitions and officially became a certified welder. Our original group of 10 had shrunk down to six in two years, but I was still one of the best students in the group. While I was finally beginning to be acknowledged and respected for my hard work, there were still a few sly comments here and there, that really just went in through one ear and out the other.
I had only a few colleges in my sights for music performance: The Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, the University of Maryland College Park and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I was accepted into three, and received scholarships for two. It took a while, but I had finally settled on UMD, and couldn't have asked for anything better. Graduation rolled around. I received awards and certificates, even being selected as the outstanding student in my Welding course. I had come so far from just "the black chick that played the big-ass instrument," and I wasn't slowing down anytime soon.
I wasted no time once I get to college. I started off with taking and earning 42 credits in my first year, putting me ahead of many of my peers in that aspect. I maintained three different jobs at the same time, all while contributing at least 10 hours a week to practice time. Being around people with the same goals and aspirations as me was a great feeling, but I still continued to hear the same comments I've been hearing for years: people asking why I wasn't principal compared to my male counterparts, why I was always at the end of my section all of the time. These questions rang around in my head for a while, but soon took their exit. With the help of many friends, mentors and my teachers, I still excelled and succeeded in anything I set my mind to.
Recently however, racial profiling decided to take a direct approach for the first time in a while. Taking my usual taxi services to work, I sparked up conversation about my musical career with the driver, a white male. I gave him a short summary of my story up to this point, to which his response was: "Well, based on that, I don't really think you'll be going any further than where you are right now. I should know, I have relatives that play in professional orchestras." Needless to say, I was extremely shocked. He then shrugged and said, "I've never seen a black girl play bass in a professional orchestra. Based on what I've seen, that probably won't change. The audition process is way too intellectually and physically challenging for someone like you to get through to an orchestra." I should've kept my mouth shut, but I knew I had to make a point. I mentioned that most professional orchestras that I've known of are blind for the first few rounds, so you can't really distinguish the "tall white men" from the "short black girls" at that given moment. Adding the cherry on top to the proverbial icing with a side of racism, he goes, "Well, I'm sure the lot of them would be thrown off just by looking at your name while going through the roster."
My head was spinning. All of the hard work and effort that I had done to get myself to where I am now was just being spit on and crushed by an ignorant racist who thought he was justified because his relatives were professional musicians. I was shocked, but on the other hand, I wasn't. It was probably the only thing he grew up knowing, that black girls aren't proficient in a white male-dominated industry. He sent off one last goodbye message as I got out of the car: "Music is nice, but it doesn't fit your aesthetic."
That comment sticks around every once in awhile. What is a person's aesthetic? How does it differ from the white man, the white woman, the black man? How does it affect the music industry? That's when I realized — it doesn't. To have someone try to degrade and belittle me based on my name, my gender and my race is nothing new to me, and hasn't done anything to me but make me more determined to meet my goal. I hear it all the time, and I continue to take it with a heavy grain of salt. As I enter my sophomore year, I know I'm going to be taking the world by storm yet again, even harder than before. I've gotten this far without letting the weight of irrelevant words and comments bring me down, and I'm not going to start anytime soon. I aspire to inspire. I strive to achieve. If there is any stereotype about black women not being as musically talented as others of different races and genders, then I will destroy that stereotype with an iron fist. I will create a path for young black women to follow their dreams, their goals, and their passions regardless of the comments and criticisms that their way. I still have a long way to go, but I will be one of the best black female bassists that anyone has ever seen, and that is a promise.
Lead Image Credit: Pixabay