Classical music’s new role model

When violinist Tai Murray was growing up, there were few Black American musicians performing in the world she aspired to. Now as a critically acclaimed artist, she’s going back to school to show youngsters of all backgrounds that classical is for everyone. 

This idea that there is a section of society that classical music fits into is completely unnecessary. It is – and should be – for everyone. Classical music mustn’t be inaccessible to anyone, for any reason.

Music opened up my world. It allowed me to express myself emotionally. I was a really quiet child, and music was my way of opening myself up to things. It taught me dedication, it taught me discipline, perseverance and strength.

Classical music also gave me the ability to be able to communicate with others easily. I spent a lot of time with other musicians learning and studying. Because of the discipline, I was good at maths, languages and I learnt great interpersonal skills.

Not only did it turn me into a professional musician, but in a much broader sense it really gave me the tools to use in other parts of my life. It was my gateway to life.

I have always been very fortunate in having wonderful role models, from teachers to fellow students whom I listened to and looked up to. Yet while I was growing up, it was rare to see a Black American performing on the classical stage.

Having role models in classical music is very important. You want to see yourself on stage when you go to a concert and for me specifically that’s not something that happened very often.

Yet I believe the key is that anyone who wants to be a role model should be one for people of all ages, colours and creeds. They should be aware that music allows for them to be a role model for someone who looks different from them.

As an ambassador for the music charity, London Music Masters, I regularly go into schools in Lambeth. These are inner-city primary schools where most of the kids don’t come from white, middle-class backgrounds. Here music is their common language, because for most of them, English isn’t their first language.

It’s been amazing observing the children. When one child plays individually, their peers watch attentively. They are fascinated by how their friends are holding their bows and instruments and how they are making their sounds. All the students are aware of their friends as an extension of themselves – the environment is supportive, not competitive.

Children are so impressionable. They love to learn things, they love to experience new things and they really want to learn. So if you give them something to try, they’re very happy to give it a go – regardless of whether it’s Mozart, a contemporary piece or even music born of their own creative minds.

The moment a child starts to listen or play music, all those so-called barriers to classical music just slip away. All that counts is the music and the communication between the musician and the audience.

Discipline, concentration, motivation and passion – vital skills inherent in learning an instrument – come before acquiring knowledge. Music opens up a child to receive an education. We must make music a gateway for every child’s life, regardless of their background.

London Music Masters’ instrument recycling scheme Lost and Sound is accepting donations. Murray will perform at Wigmore Hall on 6 April, and she will give a talk with the novelist and political activist Candace Allen at the English Speaking Union on 9 April on the theme of ‘Class, Race and Classical Music’.