Danielle, one of our beloved violinists in Palaver Strings, walking the walk down a New Haven hallway.

Time and time again, I come back to the idea of music bringing together people from all walks of life.  I’ve always loved the fact that people, regardless of what language they speak, which neighborhood they come from, or what color their skin is, can all find a love and appreciation for the same artist, song, or genre.  As a performing musician, and often audience member, I see first hand music’s ability to act as a bridge between people of various backgrounds - especially within pop, jazz, rock, folk and various other genres. Looking around concert halls, and across orchestra sections, I sometimes question how true this is for classical music.  

When I started violin at age six, race wasn’t something I spent much time thinking about.  As the years go on with society operating the way that it does, I’ve become increasingly aware of the color of my skin, especially when I’m doing what I love; playing the violin.  Looking through the eyes of six-year-old me, opening my violin case to get ready for Suzuki violin group class, the very last thing on my mind was being the only black girl in a room full of children. I was more caught up in remembering how to hold my bow, and where to place my tiny fingers on my 1/8 size violin so that I could play twinkle- twinkle remotely in tune.   

As I continued violin through my elementary school years, my mom would buy me recordings of some of the female big shot violinists, such as Hilary Hahn, Midori, Sarah Chang, and Anne Sophie- Mutter, for inspiration.  I would listen to their recordings and idolize these women.  They were my role models; I worshipped and adored them. But just like any other little girl who walks into a toy store and picks out the doll that looks most like them, I wanted to find the violinist that looked most like me.

While growing up I couldn’t help but notice the lack of diversity in the ensembles I would play in, or even in the audiences that we would play for.  My observations made me feel different, and like “the other”.  Over the years playing in various youth orchestras and conservatory/university orchestras, there would come the occasional down-time while the conductor rehearsed other sections.  Although I should be sitting there actively listening, I often succumb to daydreaming.  I look around the stage, packed with other musicians around my age.  As I look throughout the orchestra, made up of sometimes sixty or more musicians, I make the same observation that I have again and again over the years. I ‘m either the only or one of a handful of black musicians on the stage.  And the same goes for the audiences that we attract.

Especially during my teens, I had moments when I just wanted to blend in.  I didn’t want to stand out every time the orchestra would stand up to bow. I didn’t always want to be the “token” black violinist in a particular youth orchestra or summer music festival.  I wanted people to just see me as a violinist, not a black violinist.

As a teenager I felt like it was my responsibility to break the stereotype that classical music isn’t for minorities. During the end of high school I learned about the Sphinx organization and was greatly inspired by their mission. This organization has developed incredible strategies to give more opportunities to Black and Latino string players.  After learning about Sphinx and auditioning for their renowned concerto competition, I gained a sense of pride and belief that, although I may stand out from most of my classical peers, I still belong and have an important place in classical music.

I want little girls, just like the six-year-old me, to be able to attend classical music concerts and see someone playing in the orchestra who looks like them, so that they know that this form of music is not limited to people based off of the color of their skin.

As a member of Palaver, I believe that we are truly taking steps to perpetuate the use of music of all types as a language to bring people of all backgrounds together.  The performances that we have done this year, including the ones at the Haley House Soup Kitchen and Boston Medical Center, have been some of the most diverse audiences that I’ve ever seen!  Palaver is being the change that I want to see in the classical music world, and that is EXCITING.

Danielle Wilson