Winter 2021: Building Diversity in Your Music Career: Interview with Michelle Cann
Michelle Cann is making history as the newest female Caribbean American to join the piano faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music.
Artina McCain (AM): It is a pleasure for me to interview you after watching your career blossom over the past decade. Let's start at the beginning. How did you get started with piano?
Michelle Cann (MC): We had music in our family and in our blood. My father, who is a music teacher, started me. He has been teaching K-12 schools his whole career. His focus is on band, choirs, steel drums, etc. Particularly unique for me is my older sister who had already been playing piano pretty well by the time I started. When I was six or seven and ready to start, my parents understood the importance of piano study and were diligent to seek out proper instruction. As a progressing pianist (or as a teacher passing students on), we must realize and appreciate the fact that students get something from every teacher. There is a time when a student might need someone else to develop them as a musician that we might not be able to offer them. That said, as my sister matured as a pianist, my parents understood that our talent was beyond lessons with the local teacher and transferred me to a more serious teacher within about a year of study.
AM: So, what was the next step as you got older?
MC: I auditioned at various music conservatories but also had an interest in medicine. I ended up going to the Cleveland Institute of Music and that was important because I wanted the ability to study science at Case Western Reserve University but also receive the highest level of musical training. I studied with a great teacher, Paul Schenly, and pursued biology as a minor. As I progressed, I continued with the five-year program to receive my Masters degree.
AM: At what point did you realize that your diverse career would not include biology?
MC: I went through a crisis in my own mind where I thought I wasn't good enough to make it in this competitive world as a pianist. A lot of this was my own personal issues. I didn't want to keep going towards this career if I didn't feel confident with my pianistic skills. It didn't matter what other people told me, I kept saying I wasn't good enough. I decided to perfect my performance craft and pursue the Artist Diploma at the Curtis Institute of Music with Dr. Robert McDonald.
I told myself—you have come this far, it's not the time to give up. Go for broke, go as hard as you can. This will be my last push. If I spend time only on the piano, at least I will know if this is where I want to be. When I decided mentally I was going to give it my all, I realized I would never have a fair chance if I kept pursuing a career in medicine and piano. Something had to give if I was going to do one thing well.
I don't regret having done so many things, because it gave me choices.
AM: Tell us about your career up until this point. Can you take us from your time as budding student musician to professional concert artist?
MC: After graduating from Curtis I have stayed in Philadelphia for the past ten years, and my life is extremely varied. I always had a life that was multifaceted. Having a musical father, we were expected to be a part of his ensembles and help strengthen those ensembles. In addition to piano, I played violin, trombone, steel drums, hand bells, and tuba in my last two years of high school.
I had quite the childhood. It was hilarious. I was in all these ensembles doing so many things in music. When I went to college, something had to give. I was pursuing biology, taking violin, organ, and piano. I was determined to play all of these instruments—it was who I was, and what I enjoyed.
Fast forward: I finished at Cleveland Institute of Music and moved to Philadelphia to begin my diploma at Curtis. I thought, finally, I'm getting what I want! Practice piano and nothing else—and I was miserable! This had never been my life. After my first semester, I was asked to be the choir director for Play on Philly, an el Sistema inspired program. I had never really directed any choirs. I had only accompanied them. I started working with these young kids after school and learned a lot.
Suddenly, I went from being depressed and overwhelmed to having balance and purpose. I realized I need to be doing things for people and with people. Sitting in a practice room by myself playing for hours on end and having no connection with other people or musicians made me miserable. Playing and making music with kids gave me purpose. From there, I started to add things on —I found a job with a church as the choir director, started my own independent studio, and was asked to be on the collaborative staff at Curtis immediately after graduation. In addition to all of that, my primary interest to be a soloist and play with orchestras was still there. Now I concertize as a soloist and chamber musician. I perform with my sister as the Cann Duo. In addition, I started my own group piano class with eighth graders at another school as a one-on-one mentorship program with first graders called Keys to Connect. The program brings role models to young kids and responsibility and purpose to the eighth graders. These are the things that I continue to involve myself in. I have found a balance that suits me and don't see that changing anytime soon.
AM: Wow! That's incredible and I should say you do everything at an extremely high level. It seems you have exhausted the possibilities for a diverse career as a pianist! With so many interests and success, can you share a challenge that you have faced and overcame?
MC: What was interesting for me from a young age through my time at Curtis, was when I would walk into a space, especially a competition, and would get these looks. I would either get the energy or looks that would imply "why are you here" or "you aren't going to win" or "I'm not taking you seriously." I learned to navigate this negative energy. On the flipside, there were people who liked me while others would say "this is unfair" or "how did she win."
As I got a little bit older, I was able to develop a tough skin. Despite my accomplishments, even at my audition at Curtis there was another disappointing moment of "why are you here." In the audition waiting room there was a father waiting for the results for his child. He asked me, "Why are you here auditioning? There are so many other schools." He began listing all these other schools. Again, this question, "why are you here," was all based on how I looked. Thankfully, at that time I already finished my audition before he gave that energy to me. I will never forget that when I made it, he looked shocked. I had mixed feelings. Selfishly, we all probably love the fact when people doubt you and you prove them wrong. It feels good, but frustrating when you know how hard you worked. No matter how much you've achieved they think you don't deserve to be there or don't belong there. There is an implicit bias as soon as you enter the space. This just showed me there is so much work that has to be done.
AM: I resonate with that so deeply. Implicit bias says, "you don't belong here" without even giving you a chance to present your skill set. What can we do as classical musicians to initiate this change of attitude particularly towards BIPOC communities?
MC: For classical music, we need more diverse leadership so that you and I see more of ourselves. If there is more of me in the space, there is less ability to doubt that I belong there.
When I was ten years old, if there were ten other Black children, along with other races, I don't think I would be getting the looks. At this point, you can't question that I belong here—that's why we have to change the landscape.
AM: Speaking of changing the landscape, I want to congratulate you on your new position at the Curtis Institute of Music. What an opportunity to be the leader we all need to see!
MC: We are out here! Despite all the roadblocks, as you know, we are still making our way through. It's important for us to come together and lift each other up. But it's also important for the classical music world to let us in these spaces. I am overjoyed to join the piano faculty at Curtis. Hopefully, I will be a great inspiration to all the students who are there and a symbol of the power of diversity and why that's a great thing to have. When you have a diverse faculty, you are encouraging all students that want to come into that space and making them feel comfortable. It's an honor and responsibility that I'm happy to take.
Hopefully, I will provide great inspiration and great mentorship to those who will come.
Michelle Cann received her BM and MM degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music and her Artist Diploma degree from the Curtis Institute of Music. She currently serves as a Curtis Collaborative Staff Pianist.