An Excerpt from "Practicing for Love: A Memoir" by Nina Kennedy
In the wake of the widely publicized sexual-abuse claims brought by violinist Lara St. John against the late Jascha Brodsky, her violin teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music (read the full article here), I decided that it was time to share my own story of abuse that took place when I was a student there.
The kinds of abuse I endured there were verbal and emotional. The perpetrator was clearly a racist, but I did not have the skills at the time to handle such abuse. It was devastating when it became clear to me that my teacher was not going to help me pursue a career, because a concert career was all I had ever imagined for myself. It had been my parents’ dream for me, and their mothers’ dreams of both of them. Little did I know that this one racist, elderly white woman set out to crush their dreams, and to destroy me in the process.
The year I auditioned to enter the Curtis Institute of Music there were three openings in the piano department, and seventy-two pianists came to audition for those three openings. Before arriving at Curtis I had given my first complete recital at age nine, and had appeared as piano soloist with the Nashville Symphony at age thirteen (before an audience of over four thousand).
Kennedy performing with the Nashville Symphony
My first book – Practicing for Love: A Memoir – is scheduled to launch this month. This book marks the end of my silence. Here is an excerpt from the book on my time at Curtis.
From Practicing for Love: A Memoir by Nina Kennedy, ©2019:
"The day the acceptance letter from Curtis arrived, I was afraid to open it. As long as I didn’t know the results, there was still hope. The letter was waiting for me in the car when my mother picked me up from the bus stop that day. I opened it to find that I had been accepted. My mother shed a few tears and then told me to call my father as soon as we got home. She actually dialed his number and said that I had something to tell him. When she held out the phone for me, I yelled across the room 'I was ACCEPTED!!'
He then said to me, 'You’ve just made my... life!'
"Wednesday afternoons, all students would meet in the Common Room of the Curtis Institute for tea poured by the elderly daughter-in-law of founder Mary Curtis Bok. Every time she saw me, she asked what instrument I played and how long I had studied there. And I saw her every week!
My class schedule was intensive. I had my weekly piano lesson with my primary teacher, Eleanor Sokoloff, Keyboard Studies and Score Reading with Dr. Ford Lallerstedt, Music Theory with David Loeb, and Ear Training with Miss Klar. Having the grand piano in my studio apartment meant that I never had to worry about finding a practice room. I took advantage of the opportunity to learn copious amounts of repertoire, including Beethoven's 'Appassionata' and 'Waldstein' Sonatas, Chopin's F minor Ballade, the Tchaikovsky and Brahms D minor concerti.
I thought that studying at the Curtis Institute meant that I was well on my way to establishing a solo career. However, my primary teacher, Eleanor Sokoloff, had other plans. She made it clear in my first lesson that she would not listen to any repertoire. She would only hear me play scales, arpeggios, and Pischna exercises, which were some of the most boring exercises ever written. Mrs. Sokoloff had a very loud, almost screeching voice that I found to be very intimidating. Her comments could be quite rude at times. No one had ever spoken to me this way before. I was quite disheartened at the thought of having this woman as my teacher for the next four years.
Welcome to Curtis!
That year there was a story being whispered among the students about a female piano major who had practiced and learned the Brahms Second Piano Concerto over the summer. Her teacher was Mieczyslaw Horszowski. When she brought this piece into her first lesson of the school year, Mr. Horszowski refused to hear it.
'A woman cannot play this piece,' he said.
At the time, the man was eighty-six years old. Did he not know that Johannes Brahms composed the piece for Clara Schumann to premier and perform? The poor student had no recourse. There was no one to whom she could complain. One can only hope that the students at Curtis today are not subjected to such sexism.
That year Marian Anderson was a Kennedy Center Honoree and would receive the medal from President Jimmy Carter. The event was being broadcast live from the Kennedy Center in Washington and Miss Anderson actually called me in my little studio apartment to tell me to watch. She asked how it was going at Curtis. I guess she could tell from my voice that I wasn't terribly enthusiastic. She told me to wear pretty dresses and to keep my chin up. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I didn't wear pretty dresses.
Marian Anderson had enjoyed success and fame in Europe in the 1930s and was almost worshiped as a goddess in Sweden, where she met and sang for famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein. He wrote in his second autobiography My Many Years just after he had signed a contract with concert impresario Sol Hurok for a third American tour, 'Suddenly at that point I thought of Marian Anderson. My enthusiasm for Nina Kennedy with Marian Anderson
her had had great results. She had an immediate overwhelming
success wherever the managers engaged her on my recommendation. I told all that to Hurok. "You ought to present her in America," I said, "I vouch for her triumph. She is the greatest Lieder singer I have ever heard." He made a sour face. "Colored people do not make it with the box office," he said in his professional lingo. But he was visibly impressed by my insistence. He left for Amsterdam to hear her sing and signed a contract the same night.'
Sol Hurok secured the engagement for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of over 100,000 after the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall – which they owned – because of her race. That concert marked the turning point in Hurok's career.
The year was 1937 and Rubinstein had already noticed tensions and violence perpetrated by Hitler's Nazis against the Jews throughout Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Romania. As he lived in France, he himself would be directly affected by this surge in hatred only a few years later. I don't know if Rubinstein was aware of the fact that audiences in our nation's capital were segregated until Marian Anderson's groundbreaking concert at the Lincoln
Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson Memorial. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used this concert as a propaganda ploy to solicit 'Negro' participation in and enthusiasm for the Second World War. After all, how could he justify sending black troops to defeat the Nazis while racism prevailed at home? Mrs. Roosevelt resigned from the DAR after witnessing their embarrassing behavior.
Violinist Fritz Kreisler was on the side of the Germans during World War I, so it should have come as no surprise that Kreisler played for segregated audiences. In the 1920s there was outrage in the black community of Charleston, West Virginia – my mother's birthplace – when Kreisler was engaged to give a concert but blacks were not allowed to purchase tickets. My uncle Howard, who was still a young boy and burgeoning violinist, was given a ticket and was thus able to attend. My maternal grandparents, along with other African-American community leaders, took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper protesting this blatant discrimination. Kreisler brought his racist leanings to the United States where racism, segregation, and discrimination were already flourishing but on a different level than his German anti-Semitism. He was one of a few individuals who spread their racist filth all over the globe.
When African-American soldiers liberated the German and Polish concentration camps, they were praised as heroes by the Jews. But when these men returned to the United States hoping that their patriotism would grant them equality in their homeland, they were greeted with the same indignities that they had endured before they left. My own father told a story [in the documentary film Matthew Kennedy: One Man's Journey] of being mistakenly put in charge of a group of white soldiers during the Second World War and being responsible for getting them from Boston to Virginia. He sat panicking for the whole train ride, wondering what he would do when they reached the Mason-Dixon Line where he would be required by law to sit in a segregated 'Jim Crow' car. He continued to panic until they disembarked without incident. But this was the kind of humiliation American soldiers had to endure well into the 1940s and beyond.
Now the Trump administration and the Republicans are bent on destroying the gains African-Americans have made over decades. To watch them in action is truly nauseating, and many of his followers don't even know why they need to hate scapegoats so much. Such people seem to need to feel superior to someone else in order to feel secure. They haven't even bothered to figure out why they have chosen a particular target. It is most unfortunate. But I digress.
I saw on the Philadelphia Orchestra schedule that operatic tenor Seth McCoy was scheduled to appear for a concert, so I wrote to him to ask if he'd like to meet. He invited me to lunch at one of downtown Philadelphia's most expensive restaurants. We had a lovely chat and a delightful meal. When he saw that Curtis was getting me down, he became angry.
'Don't you let those people break you down. They make me sick!' he hissed under his breath.
He then gave me the whole story about how some American opera houses refused to cast him as the romantic lead with a white soprano. His anger surprised me, since he was a success. My father had never shown such functional, targeted anger. He would waste so much energy on talking himself out of his anger that he was totally blocked. Then his anger would spew out in uncontrollable, dysfunctional tantrums, usually directed at females. I never saw my father go off on a man.
Sylvia Olden Lee was a premiere vocal coach who was on the faculty at Curtis. In 1933 she was invited to play at the White House for the inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1942 she toured with baritone/film star Paul Robeson as his official piano accompanist, and in 1954 she was hired as vocal coach for the Metropolitan Opera. She coached opera stars Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. Her husband, Everett Lee, was an internationally acclaimed orchestral conductor who made his home in Sweden. He was the first African American to conduct a Broadway musical, the first to conduct an established symphony orchestra below the Mason-Dixon Line, and the first to conduct a performance by a major U.S. opera company. I had heard him conduct the Nashville Symphony before I left there.
Sylvia Olden Lee was also a dear friend of my mother's. Her father, James Clarence Olden, was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Quartet which included tenor Roland Hayes. She and my mother were both Oberlin alumni, and her daughter Eve had accepted a faculty position at Fisk for a semester. Mrs. Lee came to Nashville to visit when her daughter was establishing herself there and I remember her as having a delightful sense of humor.
During one of my boring lessons of playing Pischna exercises, Mrs. Sokoloff blurted out, 'That Sylvia Lee has been asking me and the director why you and Graydon Goldsby [the other black piano student] aren't participating in the concerto competition.'
Every year the Philadelphia Orchestra would sponsor a concerto competition for young artists. The winners would perform with the orchestra.
Mrs. Sokoloff continued, 'When she goes off the deep end, watch out! I told her you weren't participating because you weren’t ready.'
Sylvia Olden Lee
Well part of the reason why I wasn't ready was because you only allowed me to play scales and arpeggios and Pischna exercises! How dare you?! Sylvia Olden Lee was reacting to the racism that we encounter every day. I kept my mouth shut because this woman had complete power over me. But I never forgot how this white woman felt totally free to disparage this family friend without fear of complaints or reprimand.