Life as a Black Classical Pianist

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

by Luke Welch

From an early age I was quick to realize that there were not (m)any other young black pianists who were learning how to play classical music – at least that I had ever met. Fast forward a couple of decades, and nothing has changed. No “growth of the sport,” no “catering to a wider audience.”

Why? The question invites a chicken-and-egg analysis. Is there a lack of interest in classical music within the black community because it is so underrepresented at the highest levels? Or is the lack of representation another form of systemic discouragement directed toward a certain group?

I have always loved classical music and its seemingly endless possibilities. No matter how many hours of practice, there will always be more work to do and new heights to reach. The works of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti could by themselves offer a pianist a lifetime of exploration. As a “musically gifted” youth, I knew that many other pianists seemed to be light years ahead of me. Still I remained fixed on the goal of becoming the best version of my musical self that I could be.

While I was committed to my own improvement, I was often met with confusion, resentment, discouragement and sometimes disdain. I don’t “look” the part of a classical musician, nor do I talk as such (whatever that means). I have often been told – especially during my time living abroad – to consider switching my focus to something supposedly more in my lane, such as jazz.

I have even been stopped – in the reputedly tolerant Netherlands! – from entering a concert venue in which I was the performer until I was able to convince the unidentified individual (thankfully not the concert promoter) to look at the advertising poster to confirm that I should be allowed inside. In another instance I was questioned at a music store while looking for recordings of Chopin, Liszt and other composers whose works I intended to perform, as to whether the music I sought was actually for me. “Wow, you definitely can’t judge a book by its cover!” was the blatantly prejudiced response.

The restraint it took to not lose my temper took every fibre of my being. I remember discussing the situation with my father shortly afterwards and was even more disheartened to hear his candidly matter-of-fact yet sincere
response: “Well, son, get used to it.”

During all of my academic years, from elementary school through university, I did not encounter another black pianist. This interesting observation extends to competitions, professional performances and piano masterclasses. It was not something I dwelt on at the time, as I was so preoccupied with building my career and completing my education. I noticed the imbalance only when meeting people backstage after my own performances. “Do you perform this kind of music often?” I have been asked. “We don’t see people like you performing classical music very often.”

Such episodes made me realize that the stakes were much higher than making a name for myself. I came to understand that I represented a community within the community – a black classical musician (see: unicorn) in an already marginalized society (the classical music community). Not only was it – as it still is – of paramount importance to be at my best on stage, but it was imperative to remain aware that the lights, camera and attention may not stop when the performance is over.

I am not one to theorize on whether my ethnicity impacts my career opportunities. I believe that quality will always succeed. So as long as I prepare well, push myself to be a better musician tomorrow than I am today, maintain a respectful attitude, and appreciate the incredible support of those who have contributed to my career, the rest will take care of itself. Diving even deeper into the seemingly infinite pool of classical music, travelling the world, seeing new places, meeting new people, performing, recording albums: these are my passions. If part of the job  description involves being an ambassador of sorts, I welcome the opportunity, especially if it has the potential to encourage young black individuals to explore a world they may not know exists or feel entirely comfortable stepping into. It is a wonderful feeling to do what you love, regardless of perception.

The same sentiments hold true between performances. As an independent artist, I devote many of my waking hours to building the practical component of my career. I have focused on teaching as well, working with students of all ages and abilities, first in the Netherlands, where I lived from 2008 to 2017, and now back in Canada. It has been a longstanding dream to achieve a position in a college or university.

How many institutions in this vast expanse of the Great White North employ teachers/professors/music educators who look like me? As recently as a month or so ago, I applied for an associate professorship at a Canadian university not far from where I live. I expected that my background on multiple continents in addition to my performance and teaching experience would have warranted at least a cursory response. Unfortunately, there was not even so much as an acknowledgement, let alone an invitation for a conversation.

Gullible or optimistic, I await the next opportunity.

Luke Welch is a pianist and teacher based in Toronto. His third album, The Return: Beethoven and Schumann, was released in 2019. For access to a fuller version of this essay, a podcast, and other information, go to

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


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