Where are all the great Black pianists? Michelle Cann is one of the best. And she's determined to help shift the musical landscape to include many more pianists of color in the coming generations.
On the season two finale of the HearTOGETHER Podcast, pianist Michelle Cann joins host Tori Marchiony for an intimate conversation about the nature of competition, expressing something transcendent in music, and the importance of mentorship for up-and-comers.
MUSIC, performed by Michelle Cann
PRICE, Sonata in E Minor
CHOPIN, Ballade No.3 in A-flat Major, Op.47
PRICE, Piano Concerto in One Movement with The Philadelphia Orchestra
Mixed by Teng Chen
Editorial Council, Noel Dior & Tim German
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m your host, Tori Marchiony. And this is a space to hear from the artists and activists working to create a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall.
You just heard a clip of our guest today, the renowned pianist Michelle Cann, performing Bach’s Sarabande.
MICHELLE CANN: Throughout my entire life from, you know, 10 years old. I always come back to Bach. If I just want a moment to just play and enjoy music, it's like I have to pull out something from Bach.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Michelle Cann made her orchestral debut at the age of fourteen and has stay pretty busy ever since. She’s earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in piano performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music, as well as an Artist’s Diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she now teaches. In 2022, she received the Sphinx Medal of Excellence recognizing her outstanding work ethic, spirit of determination, ongoing commitment to leadership and artistic excellence. The Sphinx Organization is focused on increasing representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music, an ambition Michelle has held dear from the outset of her career.
MICHELLE CANN: I think, uh, one definite issue that I had was that when I was younger and I kind of looked around me, I definitely had right there in my home, my older sister as a great role model as a, you know, as a pianist and, um, you know, even as a teacher and in that sense, it was like, oh, well you, you, here's another black pianist, but this is my sister. So, um, I sort of took that in, in certain ways for granted. And I wanted to see, well, you know, who else is out there who's looks like me and made it, you know, essentially, and, and has a big career.
And I remember being disappointed at at least for what I knew right at that time to be, um, kind of a small number. I just couldn't find much information about more than maybe a handful. You know, that was definitely one thing that at least gave me pause. I mean, I, I am thankful more than anything else that I had a really supportive, have a really supportive family. My parents were very much behind pushing my sister and I throughout our childhood, um, to be our best at whatever we did, uh, you know, beyond just playing the piano. Well, you know, whether it was in our studies or, and we, all of us played multiple instruments and you just bringing our best to the table. So one thing that I think is really important is to acknowledge how that family structure or whatever your family structure is, what you are, um, you know, exposed to every day and like how important that, that is supportive. Um, and so I think that definitely made a big difference in terms of just self-confidence regardless of what I might have been seeing out there in the world, you know, whether or not that discouraged me, it didn't, um, hinder, uh, my, my progress. It definitely didn't hinder my drive. If anything, I think I had more drive to try to be successful because I felt like there wasn't enough of us um you know pianists out there that looked like me.
TOR MARCHIONY: Uh, you've spoken in previous interviews about how early in your career you would sometimes doubt yourself and, and second guess your abilities. And I'm wondering, looking back from this position you're in now, if there's any advice that you would give to your younger self at those crossroads,
MICHELLE CANN: You know, when I was young, I was really obsessed with, um, well, I, I have to play this piece and I have to play it perfectly and I've gotta get all the notes. Right. And, you know, in, in, in the way that I would sort of self-analyze based on what I perceived was the most important thing in order to be successful. Oh, I'm not practicing enough. Oh my gosh, that pianist practices for like seven hours. They, they say...and so I'm not doing enough. And I feel like there was this constant battle when I was, you know, high school or even, um, you know, my undergrad of feeling like I wasn't doing enough. I wasn't getting enough notes. Right. Or whatever it is. And so what I would tell my younger self, which is what I tell my students now is, you know, you were focusing on, I mean, sure. Those things matter, but you were focusing on the wrong things or you were focusing on them way too much because when someone hears you, whether they're a judge now that I've been a judge in big competitions, whether they're a judge in a competition, or they're the audience in a, you know, recital, every single person wants to be moved. They want to have a, you know, really kind of an emotional experience and connect to you as a musician on that stage. And the pieces that you're playing, you know, I would tell my younger self, like, I'm sorry, perfection is not key. If anything, like, if people really want perfection, then, I mean, Hey, the world's really changing. There's like, we're robots that can do everything these days. You know? So if that's really what they wanted, I mean, honestly, you could just find some robot. I mean, we already have the pianos that self play. So there you go, you know, you know, no mistakes, nothing's wrong. You know, people don't want that. They want a real human experience. And the human experience is not perfect. It's like, it's about the music first. And obviously, yes. Do you wanna make sure you get as many notes right. As possible you practice that, you know, you're drilling all these things. Sure. The whole package matters. If it's a complete mess of a performance. Well, unfortunately, people they're gonna focus on how much of a mess it was. You weren't prepared. So in no way am I saying like, don't prepare, but in the end, always keep your focus on what are you trying to say through this music? What are you giving the, sorry, what are you teaching them? Are you bringing something new to the table? Like, what are you doing to give them an experience that they've never had before?
TORI MARCHIONY: I'm, I'm curious if, if you consider yourself a naturally competitive person and how your competitiveness has impacted your path in music.
MICHELLE CANN: Hmm. Um, so ask my sisters about how monopoly games go, but the amount of like boards being thrown. So anyway, there is definitely, uh, a certain amount of natural competitive to me. Absolutely. Um, the interesting part though, is that more than anything else? It's just because I'm, I can be very self critical, so it's, it can be something where, you know, if I do something and, you know, I lose, it's not even just about like, who beat me, it's about how well did I, do you know what I mean at whatever I was doing. So, um, in music, you know, this would show itself in competitions when I was young and through high school. And, um, I remember there was this one, uh, particular competition, and I think I got third place and this other guy, he got second. Um, but long story short, we were standing on the stage, we're ready to get our awards or our honors or whatever.
And he kind of turns to me and, you know, kind of haughtily is like, "well, you know, third is better than nothing." And you know, something like this, something like this. And I, I just remember leaving that competition and I was like, he's never gonna beat me again, you know, forget just some music or, you know, just the fact that I'll grow as a pianist. I was like, I will beat him. And, you know, two funny things, he never beat me again. That is, I think the most progress that year for maybe he helped me. The other thing is we're friends now. So it's actually really cool. We're still, he's the nicest guy ever, but, uh,
So that's my little story from a young age, but, um, I don't know if that's the best, you know, example or advice to kids like this is what you should practice, you know? Well,
TORI MARCHIONY: I dunno that it's like advice so much is just real talk that like this entire industry is set up around competition and to make you compete with yourself and with your peers. And so the fact that yeah, on the, it, it motivated you in this way to, to reach your greatest potential, which is awesome. But on the other hand, do you think that the competition is necessary as a part of music-making? Do you think that if people weren't pushing each other like this, we would have these great results that we do, or is it necessary to compete?
MICHELLE CANN: the value that I see in competitions is that because of the nature, this is human nature for most of us is that we do have a competitive spirit to us. I mean, honestly, it's also like survival. Let's just, you know, on some level, right. We're trying to make sure that like, we're the strongest at this or that, you know, we can't help this, the process of getting ready for a competition, I think can be very valuable in terms of, you know, when we have that kind of motivation to say that, oh, we're gonna be judged and whatever, Ooh, we can win money or whatever. The reason is there's this like external motivation that, you know, can enhance whatever internal motivation you already have and you push yourself. Um, sometimes, you know, for this goal to a level that you might not have otherwise, but the side of, well what's the end of it is what happens when you put that much effort, so much effort, and then you don't win anything. And sometimes you don't get anything. Sometimes you just lose, right. You don't even make it to the next round. So the question is, how do you step away from that? How do you come out of that? Are you actually remembering that, Hey, this is subjective. Hey, there's a, you know, I think about Simone Biles and you, you know, and that with the Olympics and how, how people were just like, oh, we're so shocked. And, and it's like, I'm sorry, she's a human being. And this is one moment in time. You know what I mean? This is one moment in time. What are we supposed to be perfect all the time.
TORI MARCHIONY: Right. And her value, her long-term value, her skill, her merit doesn't hang in the balance every time she goes out there. It, it, yes. Even though we wanna treat it that way, even though we wanna treat it, like it has to just constantly be increasing. That's not the way people actually can be.
MICHELLE CANN: No, they can't. And I think, you know, so what do you do with that? And I, and I guess that's personal. I mean, I've seen so many, newsers, I've seen it, I've seen them just burn out. I’m not saying don’t push yourself but, at the same time, look at all the violin, all the pianos, all the harpists, every instrument that are phenomenal and that people love them for so many different reasons. And remember that that is the end. The end of all of this is just to make you the best that you can be and understand people will accept you. If you love yourself in your music and you put that love right into your instrument and into the audience, they're going to accept you. And in that moment, they're not gonna be sitting there focusing on like your bio and looking at like how many competitions you didn't win. You didn't do like, that's, it, it isn't the point. It's not the end. Mm. So just find that balance.
TORI MARCHIONY:Do you feel like at this stage, you understand what is so special about your playing?
MICHELLE CANN: Hmm. I, I guess I understand what the kind of feedback that I get from people and I, and I do, and, and I get it. I think the most common feedback that I've gotten over, even since when I was young, was that you're not afraid to just put your heart out there to just put your soul sort of right on the table and say, here it is. And when I'm in a, the moment of performance, my goal is to, you know, is to do just that is to put, you know, honesty on the table, through music, you know, through whatever the composer is trying to get you to hear. But also the story I'm trying to tell you, I realize that in order for you to really experience the way I do, then I can't hold back in turn terms of putting that raw emotion, you know, through, through the keys I have to, when I'm feeling that something is very painful in, in, in a passage, I have to actually really feel that pain. And maybe in my mind, I'm picturing whatever that means for me, you know, it could be something really personal. I've actually written like words or even poems to pieces that are connected to my own life experience and not to share with anybody per se, but just for inspiration when I'm trying to learn the piece and like really connect to it. And so when I perform it, I'm thinking about story. I'm thinking about those words, I'm singing those words. And so I have to be willing to put that, that reality to put in whatever it is, love, happiness, joy, you know, the broad spectrum of emotions. I have to be willing to just put at that out there and let the audience see all that there is.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was Michelle Cann performing the second movement of Florence Price’s Sonata in E Minor, on NPR’s From The Top…a show she has also co-hosted.
TORI MARCHIONY: So I'm wondering if… there are kind of two questions that weave together. So I'll just give you the spiel and then ask you the question. So my research team and my editorial council, we talk a lot about the, the colorblind myth of meritocracy that we in America love to believe like, well, the cream will rise to the top, no matter what other factors might be at play, it'll just happen. And, uh, one of our researchers, Tim is an actor and he gave this example that the most fun nominal Black actors are constantly getting asked to play a fellow. And the underlying message there is you're so exceptional that you must be included, but you're still Black. So that inclusion must be on very, very narrow terms. Um, and I, I know that you've had your own experiences with that kind of like pigeonholing. And I'm curious if there was a particular point that you realized that how institutions were going to involve you would be related, but not directly correlated to your merit. And then the second part of that is if your parents at any point had a conversation with you about how race might play a role in your career, and if so, how that conversation went. So big, giant loaded question.
MICHELLE CANN: Yes. Um, uh, I'll start actually with my, my parents. That's actually interesting. Um, my parents, if you wanna sort of speak on some level of the idea of sort of colorblind on some level, that was how they raised us and not to say that they didn't acknowledge. I mean, you know, they, of course they acknowledged the fact that, you know, we were black and, um, we should love ourselves. And so I don't mean it that way, but I mean, it, in the sense that they never used, um, the fact that, that we were black, they never let us think or believe that we would be limited for that reason. Like there was, you know, we were not raised to focus on that. You can't really hide this from your kids, right. Because as soon as they're out doing things, they experience the different, um, sometimes maybe subtle, sometimes more obvious, um, discrimination in different ways. If, you know, if they're literally just going out into the world. So I think what was interesting was we are in this household, that's, you know, they weren't going to, they, I think this, their whole approach was we don't want them to feel limited from the get-go. We're not going to try to, um, have them focus too much on, oh, well, the world thinks I can't do this as well because I'm black. So in other words, it was just like, well, in this household, we have this expectation for you and, you know, we know you can meet it. And so we're gonna keep pushing you to that. That was their focus on just raising us to be strong women and all of my sisters, it's an all-girl, family, we're all very independent and, um, you know, uh, very confident in ourselves. So I think that this approach was, um, it was good and I'm grateful for the fact that they were just trying to say, Hey, you guys are smart, you're beautiful, you're capable.
And just go out and conquer the world. Now on the side of, then when we actually left the home and went off to our various schools and had different experiences, um, I still think back and, you know, I feel so blessed for the piano instructors that I've had over time, because your piano, you know, your personal musical instructor, whatever instrument have is honestly the closest relationship you have in music school, because, you know, they're seeing you every single week or more, they're part of your development the whole way through. And so it's actually really, really important that your private teacher does not pigeonhole you. Right. Because I feel like it can start there and then you go from there. So I had, you know, my teacher, first teacher was Paul Sheeley at Cleveland Institute of Music. And he believed from me, believed in me from the get-go.
He absolutely did. I remember it was my first year there. He put me in masterclass opportunities, recommended me for performance. I got to play at the Kennedy Center. I think that was my freshman year giving me extra lessons. I mean, he just believed in me as a pianist. Right. So I had this advocate, you know, in him that again, sort of sheltered me from probably what I would've experienced if I was just on my own, trying to make it. And I didn't have that kind of support, you know, from someone powerful. Right. And where I probably felt if anything, pigeonholed, it was coming from my peers. Sometimes I remember that when I first came to, uh, conservatory, um, you know, for my bachelor's degree, there were, um, just a couple of comments that stuck out to me and, and I, I knew what they meant.
That's why I said, sometimes these things are subtle. And so a couple of different people, oh, you're a vocalist, right. Oh, I thought you were a vocalist. And so I remember those comments and I, and I remember someone else who just, you know, and they said, wow. I mean, I didn't, I didn't expect you to be so good. And I remember when they said this and I said, what, what do you mean? Like, why do you do not expect? And I remember that this person like stumbles on their words a little bit and says, oh, I mean, just like, cuz your person, cuz you're just so like outgoing and fun. And I, you know, I didn't expect that, you know, I thought, you know, you'd be more serious if you were this good or, you know, and they really tried to make up for it, but I read through it and I remember it just disappointed me because I realized that I was coming into a space where people expected me not to be very good admittedly, when I finished school and I'm sort of out there trying to have a career, I did notice that, well, the only concerto opportunities that I seem to be recommended for all the time are Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
That's not the only concerto I've learned. That's an, the, um, all I can do, I, you know, can I, can I play something else? And now I'm so grateful that, you know, I am doing other concertos, I'm doing definitely doing Gershwin. I'm definitely doing Florence Price who I love and you know, but I'm doing other pieces with the orchestras. And that I think is so, so important. The not just for me, it's important to see, you know, another Stewart Goodyear who plays, you know, all sorts of rep and, and he's a composer himself. And I, I love him as pianist and many others, a and Pratt, you know, as I start to go through different names and I see that as time goes on, they're playing all sorts of repertoire, something that I, when I was a little bit younger, I'm starting to see that, you know, slowly change. And it's so important because again, we think about that younger generation that looks out to see what's going on and I don't want them to look out and see black candidates just playing, you know, what we've been pigeonholed to play.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Here’s Michelle Cann playing Chopin’s Ballade No.3 in A-flat Major, Op.47 at the Curtis Institute of Music in July 2020.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Michelle takes her role as a mentor to the next generation of black pianists quite seriously. Over the years, the outlets have shifted - she’s worked with X-X graders in West Philadelphia through an El Sistema program called Play on Philly…and later created her own program, Keys to Connect which brought parents and students together to learn piano. But the evolution is far from complete.
MICHELLE CANN: So I remember, um, when I first came to Curtis and I was, I was ready to just focus only on piano and practicing. And I, again, going back to this idea where I thought, well, I'm not good enough. And that's because I need to be practicing, you know, seven or eight hours every day. And I need to only focus on that. Cause I was always, I've always been someone who has a lot of interest. So my undergrad, I, I was doing a biology minor. I was taking violin lessons. I was, I was sticking my foot in a lot of places for a while. Um, and I felt like, well, this is I, I could be even better if I wasn't doing these other things. So I'm just going to practice. And I remember that for a semester. I did that. And uh, by the end of the semester, I was like, um, using up the allotted free therapy that you could get as an and asking for more sessions because, and I couldn't quite figure out, I was like, why am I so depressed? Well, of course I get it, now. My only focus was the, the very thing I was talking about earlier that can be really bad, staying in a loop of negativity where you're just stuck in this place of just criticizing yourself and you're not good enough. It's not good enough. You're not doing enough. Right. And so when you're only fo is sitting in a practice room, especially pianists when we're very solitary, you know, for hours and just drilling and drilling, and you're not doing anything else that's positive in your life, uh, whatever that may be, then, you know, you're not finding that balance and eventually it's gonna get to you. So that's really where I was. And I remember that I got this, um, you know, it was one thing I was doing, which is for money. I had a job with the church and I've worked in churches. Uh, my whole life. I grew up in the church and I would, uh, conduct a small choir of ladies and play the music every Sunday. And so I'd found this job when I first moved, uh, to Philly. And I remember I got this call from Stanford Thompson who runs Play on Philly or the founder. And, um, he said, Hey, I've heard about you. And I know you conduct a choir. I said, hold on. It's like, you know, five older ladies and one guy, you know, it's like, this is not exactly, you know, conducting debut, but, um, at the same time I do sing and okay. And he said, no, no, no, it's, that's okay. We need somebody to work with our children's choir. And we need somebody who, you know, has teaching experience and many other things. And that I did. So I thought, well, I do need to pay these bills and maybe try something else.
Remember just thinking like, I've never done this a children's choir, but, um, I went step right in and I have to tell you, I spent three years with Play on Philly with the choir. And it was life changing for me. I spent three years with Play on Philly with the choir and it was life-changing for me when you're working with kids who were new to all this, the last thing they're doing is being anywhere near as self-critical as I am sitting in a Curtis practice room, right. They're just enjoying the little things they're enjoying their progress. There's this positivity generally in that atmosphere. And I just remember just stepping out into the environment and feeling like not only was I doing a good thing and that I mattered as a teacher, to these children, but that they were doing so much good for me, that their energy and their enthusiasm, um, to learn was changing me.
And I guess all that to say that, you know, I, I didn't need my much too much therapy after that. Just, you know, a regular amount and, and, you know, but anyway, I just remember like entirely having just, I was so much happier. I knew that on some level, I just always needed to be working with kids or, you know, mentoring in whatever way it was gonna be. I had to do it and I always have, it's looked different. So when I left Leon Philly, I actually started, uh, my own program that I did for a while called keys to connect. Um, it came out of my experience as a child, like understanding how important it was to have parents that really, you know, connected with what you and, and, and connected with you musically in some way and how special that was. So keys to connect was really a project to bring, you know, one parent and their child together to learn piano, um, collaboratively.
And in, in a group class, we had like various families in one class and they would be at one piano. And, and, you know, we were just learning piano together. We even had a lot of talks and I brought in a family therapist one time and we'd have these like just discussions. And it was really beautiful. I did this for a couple of years and I was actually asked to come into a middle school, um, charter school in Philadelphia. And I had to take a break on the parent and child concept because they wanted me to work during the school day. And so in this case, I had eighth-graders and first graders work together. And I, I, I worked with the eighth graders and prepared them for this one-on-one partnership with the first grader for each of them. And again, it was amazing. I had eighth-graders who were just like, so negative about the experience, and I don't wanna, I hate little kids and, you know, whatever it was, they felt, let me tell you when they got their kid, it was all about making sure that their kid, what they needed to know. It was really really great. Um, and I've always been, you know, a teacher I've always had various ages of private students myself, but one thing that stuck out to me in a future plan that I, you know, absolutely plan and hope to, uh, implement is that I've noticed that on the side of, you know, back to looking into the landscape and looking to see where, you know, where are all the black pianos, I don't see as many that are really making it still. Right. And when I look and think about it, I, I realize that, you know, even with Play On Philly and a lot of really great programs, a lot of them don't necessarily involve piano. It's difficult to do. You have to have individual keyboards for everything, you know, the resources involved, and you can only take so many in one class, or you can have a whole orchestra of kids, right, playing string or wind instruments. So it's, it's, it's difficult to, I guess, hit the same numbers. And so very often programs won't always have a piano component. And on the other side of things, piano is something that honestly, in order to be very competitive, that is for you have to start pretty young and you really do need to have private one-on-one instruction. I mean, as much as I loved, you know, what I was doing with Kea connected, and I'm still really happy about that, I realized that in this format, it was hard to give individual attention,
TORI MARCHIONY: Almost like those programs are designed for music access, but at a, at a low, like a lower level that it's like, you can have fun with this, but you're not gonna seriously make see your career with this resource we're providing like,
MICHELLE CANN: Right, right. Exactly. It can be, it can be. And I mean, you know, it's interesting. I think, you know, Play on Philly at least has done a really good job of when you see these, um, there's certain students that really are standing out and they connect them with private teachers. And I think, you know, organizations like that, that are mindful about out it are able to find a way around that and try to give that support. But, um, largely it can be tricky to catch the child at that young age and make sure that they're getting that same instruction that many other kids have access to. And so at any rate, I started to notice, I don't know if it was just, you know, obviously it was a coincidence, but it seemed like it all happened at once. I, I kept being, you know, introduced or approached by, you know, teenage or maybe even early college, um, you know, a variety of Black pianists that struggled in various ways, whether it was technical or maybe they hadn't done enough rep or, you know, repertoire, whatever it may be.
And I would see that they were so passionate, but they didn't have the support that they needed when they were younger. So they were ready to just go out into the world and get into the big schools or whatever they weren't competitive. They just weren't there. Right. And I remember just being so frustrated, I was like, I hate this feeling that it's, you know, too late and too late is a funny word. You know? I mean, you should never tell somebody that they shouldn't keep pushing because they should, but on some level it can be that way. Right. I mean, I just was so frustrated and I thought this is where I can really make the difference that I want to leave the kind of change that I can like specifically focus on. Do you see what I mean? Because there's enough organizations that are doing are putting instruments in children's hands and that's great, but there's not enough focusing on pianists of color and giving them the support in the rigorous training that they're gonna need, even if they can't afford it from a young age and seeing them through.
And so that's what I want. I wanna create, you know, a school or some type of program, whether it's collaborative with another program or independent that focuses on, you know, rigorous training. It's like its own little conservatory in and of itself. And it's, you know, scholarship-based, um, you know, based on need and that until back, because they can't afford it, but in order to stay in the program, they have to be committed to the work. And that I just want, I want parents that are serious about where their child is going. And as long as the parents are supportive and the child's willing to commit, then we're gonna see you through, like, I want to see that I want them to have the opportunities that I had because I had parents that knew how to give me, you know, how to put me in that place. They, they knew enough to make sure that those opportunities I was able to get. Um, I just wanna change that landscape. I want some really, really competitive pianists of color. And there already are some, I'm not trying to say there aren't, but I'm trying to put a lot more out there.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Conservatory, coming soon! Thanks so much to Michelle Cann for stopping by. If you enjoyed this episode please remember to like, subscribe, rate, review, comment, and share with your friends. I’m Tori Marchiony and this has been the season finale of the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. We’ve got some exciting changes in store for you in season three, so be sure to tune in this fall for more. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy Michelle Cann playing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with The Philadelphia Orchestra.