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.
Toward the end of the school year, Eleanor Sokoloff informed me that she was not going to renew my scholarship for the following year. In other words, she was kicking me out. She allowed me to prepare to audition for other faculty members before the end of the year, but I'm sure she made it clear to them that I was not to be re-admitted. Since I was preparing a program, she submitted to listening to repertoire. Thank God! If I'd had to play another Pischna exercise, I would have passed out. I prepared the Chopin F minor Ballade and the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata for performance. Mrs. Sokoloff agreed to listen to my program one last time before I played for Horoszowski and Bolet.
When I finished the Chopin, she said, 'I could kick you in the stomach!'
'I could kick you in the stomach! If I had known you could play like that, I never would have revoked your scholarship.'
I couldn't believe what she was saying to me. She was the one who had refused to listen to any repertoire all year. And now she's shocked that I can play?!
'Well it's too late now. There's nothing I can do,' she said.
I left her studio hoping that I would never have to look at her old, wrinkled face again. Later I would learn that she had made a habit of kicking young girls out of Curtis. She had ruined so many careers and no one ever questioned her actions. My mother had even come to ask her face to face exactly what the problem was. I observed them from a distance in the Common Room. My mother told me that all Mrs. Sokoloff could talk about was what I wore. She was a pro at this so she totally dominated the conversation. I was quite surprised that my mother was so quiet.
I had read in Arthur Rubinstein's My Young Years of his encounter with a teacher in Berlin who was so embittered that he set out to sabotage careers of young pianists. Whether it is conscious or not, such creatures exist and school administrators should be very careful when hiring teachers who literally hold the futures of these young artists in their hands. Eleanor Sokoloff had been a fossil dating back to the days of the Curtis founder, Mary Curtis Bok. Most of the people of that generation did not believe in civil rights or equality for African Americans. Such people got their kicks out of taking on a student just to destroy him or her, and they know full well that the shame of being kicked-out would force the victim to keep his or her mouth shut. It took a lot of work for me to overcome Sokoloff's mistreatment and verbal abuse. Unfortunately, I have heard that she set out to ruin many more careers. As I write this, she is over one hundred years old and still torturing students.
Mrs. Sokoloff did have some students who weren't necessarily so talented, but she liked them nonetheless. I learned later that these students had wealthy parents who often wined and dined both of the Sokoloffs. Her husband Vladimir was also on the faculty and supervised much of the chamber music at Curtis, so I saw him there often. He was very chummy with then director John de Lancie. These parents often paid for private lessons and also made of habit of presenting Mrs. Sokoloff with expensive gifts. Since my parents could not afford to play this game, it was clear that I was going to have to find someone who could.
Years later, I would learn of the heartbreak suffered by pianist / songstress Nina Simone inflicted by the Curtis Institute of Music. She came with her family to audition for admittance to Curtis, but was rejected. As a result, she was forced to take a job in a nightclub in Atlantic City to support her family. At first, she played the piano wearing concert gowns, but the manager forced her to sing and threatened to fire her if she didn't. She was an extremely talented pianist and had said that she wanted a concert career. The National Association of Negro Musicians gave her some support, but it was not enough to launch a classical career in a field where whites made all of the decisions. It should come as no surprise that she sang The Blues so well."
In Lara St. John’s case, she was told by then dean Robert Fitzpatrick to keep quiet and that no one would believe her. In my case, I didn’t even know how to complain, never mind to whom. I never would have had the courage to walk into the director’s office and file a complaint. What would I have said? “My teacher is a racist.”? I knew I had no evidence, no hidden tape recordings, no letters or notes. It would have been my word against hers, and she certainly would have denied it.
I hope that young students today know that they can go to the NAACP, or to a students’ rights organization, or a women’s advocacy group. Racism is still pervasive in the classical music field, and I pray that today’s students are armed with the resources they need to fight the injustices they face. Speak out! Tell the truth. And don’t be afraid. We believe you!
Nina Kennedy is a world-renowned concert pianist, orchestral conductor, award-winning filmmaker and television talk show host. She holds a master's degree from the Juilliard School and served as conducting apprentice under Kurt Masur during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic and l'Orchestral National de France. She has performed and resided in Amsterdam, Cologne, Paris, Prague, and Vienna. She produced the award-winning documentary titled Matthew Kennedy: One Man's Journey - featuring her father, former director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers - which was selected and screened at international film festivals worldwide.
* Practicing for Love: A Memoir is published by RoseDog Books ($24 plus S&H). To order a copy, go to infemnity.com/shop.