Love, Like Music: A Review of Nina Kennedy's "Practicing for Love: A Memoir"
A joint review by Dean and Petra Aldrich of Practicing for Love, Nina Kennedy’s richly detailed and frank memoir.
“For those in the world of classical music, Kennedy’s book is a winner. Her musical talent and technical achievements are obvious to anyone familiar with the works in her repertoire. Moreover, her descriptions of the challenges she faced as a Black woman in classical music provide essential, timely, and pointed critiques of the field. Musicians, composers, conductors – take note!”
- Dean Aldrich, father, trained concert pianist, teacher of music and history, and graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in piano performance and music education (bachelor's and master's degrees).
“Kennedy’s memoir provides fascinating and essential insights into lesbian history and the experiences of lesbians in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. Truly, the value of this opportunity to see such a pivotal period in LGBTQ+ history through Black and lesbian eyes cannot be overstated.”
- Petra Aldrich, daughter, amateur violinist and vocalist, community organizer for racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights, independent consultant in policy analysis and program evaluation.
Nina Kennedy grew up a child prodigy whose talent and self-discipline sustained her through a daunting childhood, a challenging career, frustrations and racial prejudice, and to eventual success as a world-renowned concert pianist. Richly detailed and frank, Kennedy’s memoir Practicing for Love is a gold mine of information, insights, and anecdotes from the worlds in which she lives. For anyone interested in the world of classical music, the New York lesbian scene in the 1980s and 1990s, and/or the complex and multi-layered ways that talent and aptitude interact with race, class, gender, and sexuality to shape our lives, this book is winner.
Kennedy’s memories of her childhood explore the complex and frequently unhealthy relationships between herself and her parents. Her mother and father were successful pianists and college professors, yet they remained subject to the prejudice – indeed oppression – of a racist culture and the systemic racism inherent therein. The piano was central to family life; so much so that parent-child relationships outside of music would sometimes veer towards neglectful, bizarre, or cruel. Kennedy paints a vivid and compelling portrait of her parents as talented and extraordinary musicians struggling to reconcile their hopes for equity in the post-Civil Rights era with the reality of entrenched and systemic racism. She explores the impacts of these injustices on not just her parents’ careers, but also on their relationships with one another and with her.
Kennedy’s incredible drive is clear throughout her book. In college and early adulthood, she maintains a rigorous schedule of academic study and piano practice while working as housekeeper, nanny and cook in a wide variety of often stressful situations and while facing ever-present prejudice. Her innate talent and passionate love for the piano sustain her through many challenges, and her commitment to the piano is clear: she loves it, and she is committed to using the piano to achieve the independence necessary to live life on her own terms: as an artist, a lesbian, a feminist, and a Black woman. Throughout the book we see Kennedy build networks of mentors, fellow performers, and patrons to support her professional and musical development. People of marginalized and/or targeted identities pull together to support one another in the face of an oppressive dominant culture or system; in her memoir, we see Kennedy consistently connecting with people in the music world who are also Black, LGBTQ+, and female.
While Kennedy’s persistence is evident and her musical accomplishments unquestionably important and deserved, hers is not simply a story of a person persevering and eventually succeeding in spite of barriers: it is more complex than that. Kennedy is very clear in her memoir that racism and sexism from teachers, colleagues, conductors, reviewers, agents, symphonies, etc. prevented her from achieving success and recognition in the way to which her talent and effort should have entitled her: in the way that her white male contemporaries were able to do. She sought and created other avenues for herself, such as travelling and performing in Europe (as many Black American musicians have done in response to racism in the U.S. music industry). A key theme in Practicing for Love is Kennedy’s effort to define and claim success on her own terms.
As readers, we both connected deeply and immediately with Kennedy’s story. Dean shares both Kennedy’s passionate love for the piano and her desire to achieve success and independence through the piano. He recognized and empathized with her descriptions of the financial realities facing a cash-strapped scholarship student attending a prestigious conservatory. Kennedy’s descriptions of the class-based cultural barriers she experienced at conservatory hit very close to home, and we both deeply appreciated her illustrations of the impact of racism and sexism in the world of classical music. Finally, Dean reveled in the many detailed – occasionally even gossipy – anecdotes that Kennedy includes about prominent conservatories, teachers, conductors, and performers (though it must be said that, as a strictly amateur musician, most of these went over Petra’s head).
It is clear that as a pianist Kennedy is masterful in all the traditional music periods, and that her own preference is the Romantic period. The technical and interpretive demands of that period are daunting indeed. The enthusiastic concert and performance reviews quoted throughout the book confirm both her skill and audience appeal; her virtuosity is unquestionable. We hope that Kennedy will take time from teaching and performing to add a coda to her riveting memoir: Dean in particular would love to know her opinions and insights of other specific composers in the canon and on the contemporary classical music scene.
We were both fascinated by Kennedy’s exploration and experience of the interplay of politics and talent that determines access, exposure, and success in the world of piano performance. The gate-keeping and exclusionary politics in this context operate on everyone, mediated according to our race, gender, sexuality, and class. Certainly, anyone active in the music world or seeking insights into its complexity, hazards and rewards will benefit from reading Kennedy’s memoir.
Petra very much appreciated Kennedy’s descriptions of her coming-out process, recognizing and personally connecting with many aspects of Kennedy’s experience. She particularly appreciated Kennedy’s beautiful illustration of the difference that acceptance (or rejection) by our families of origin makes in the lives of LGBTQ+ people. Kennedy focuses first on her relationship with her own parents, but in describing the important romantic relationships of her life, she also explores the relationships that her partners have with their parents. Kennedy’s memories illustrate the way that we in the LGBTQ+ community have always built our own support networks of chosen family to sustain us in the face of cultural homophobia and rejection by our families of origin, and also the way that acceptance and support from our families of origin sustains and enriches our lives.
Sexism too often silences lesbian voices and experiences within the LGBTQ+ community, as racism can obscure the very existence of LGBTQ+ People of Color. When considering the 1980s and the early 1990s, particularly in New York City, this tendency toward lesbian erasure is exacerbated by the (somewhat understandable) narrative prominence of the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on gay men. Kennedy’s memoir provides fascinating and essential insights into lesbian history and the experiences of lesbians during this period. The value of this opportunity to see such a pivotal period in LGBTQ+ history through Black and lesbian eyes cannot be overstated. In addition, Petra delighted in hearing about the wealth of lesbian bars and events that Kennedy attended, and the different aspects of the Queer community in which she participated during this time: plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.
As a piece of literature, Practicing for Love employs a loosely chronological structure. It is occasionally chaotic in the initial chapters, jumping from memory to memory without fully exploring the themes that connect them or the aspects of each incident that make them important. That said, we appreciated the accessible style and language that Kennedy uses and feel that an extensive critique of the book's literary quality would rather miss the point of this engaging memoir.