Turning Up the Volume: Kellen Gray (assistant conductor, Chicago Sinfonietta)

Turning Up the Volume is a collection of interviews that focuses on the individual stories of up and coming musicians in American classical music. These interviews explore topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability as they apply to historically underrepresented artists. But most importantly, Turning Up the Volume is a platform for these musicians to share their experiences in their own words.

The first interview of this series is with Kellen Gray, assistant conductor and Project Inclusion Freeman Conducting Fellow at the Chicago Sinfonietta. On the podium, Gray brings a unique perspective. A perspective he credits to his diverse musical background. From Rock Hill, S.C., Gray was introduced to a variety of different musical idioms at a young age. Whether that was hearing his father preparing for church choir, listening to old vinyls he found in his parent’s attic, or playing violin in middle school string classes–Gray finds inspiration for his musical interpretations in all of these experiences. Kellen Gray also offers a perspective rarely heard in classical music. Part of the 1.8% of African-American musicians who make up American orchestras, Gray gives his experience of being a black man navigating the world of classical music and how he is working to embrace his unique identity and perspective in this interview.

Can you talk about how some of the other musicians responded to you when you first entered the professional orchestral world?

I can’t say what is in people’s hearts. I can only articulate the way people responded to me without any sort of provocation. There was definitely a sense of otherness cast on me. I felt as if I not only looked different but was treated differently. I think there were several contributing factors. For one, I was a black musician and much younger. There are sort of cultural differences in the way I dressed and looked at the time.

So I can’t say what everyone else thought about me, but I can I definitely say the way they responded to me and it made me feel as if I was extremely different.

Can you describe their response?

Standoffish, in the way a stranger walks up to you in the street–that kind of strange look they have or the slightly retreating response you get and the body language that comes with that. That is the way I was treated by almost everyone. […] When I said hello to some people it was as if they needed to be on guard. And it was extremely apparent to me I needed to disarm people before I actually approached them.

I felt like I couldn’t approach people confidently. I felt like I needed to dampen my level of confidence to introduce myself to people to make them feel a little less threatened.

Kellen Gray--Photo by Bryan Garris

Kellen Gray–Photo by Bryan Garris

Did you feel like you were counteracting the American stereotypes of what it means to be a black man?

Definitely. One very specific example, I was given advice by another conductor that basically suggested that I should try to sound more “white” and less “southern” in rehearsal. He said “don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist, and you didn’t say anything wrong it’s just the timbre of your voice. It’s just that we have to sound as neutral as possible on the podium. Think of about a telemarketer, they use a sort of voice so that they can appeal to everyone.”

In another instance, I was told by a musician that they were surprised by how “articulately” I speak. This also gave me pause, because I wondered how else am I supposed to speak? What was her expectation? Did she expect to speak less intelligibly because I’m black? These two instances, along with a teacher who questioned what seemed like every one of my expressive verbal gestures, for a long time made me second guess myself every time I opened my mouth in front of an orchestra.

I can [also] think of a couple instances where there was a meeting between the orchestra and the administration, and some bad news was given. Some people were visibly upset about things or had something to say, but I knew that I basically couldn’t. Because as a black male in the orchestra, my credibility would be under attack if I were to visibly disagree with something. I can disagree, but I have to do it in the most prim and proper way. As if I’m not actually allowed to be emotional about anything because I’m just going to be the “angry black man.” I wasn’t allowed to be, and it is still the case, anything but happy and humble. You’re not allowed to brag on yourself, or be angry, or be really sad about something. Your credibility is really under attack if you aren’t anything but humble and happy.

How did code-switching and the feeling you needed to fit in impede on your music making?

In every way possible.

How can you express yourself fully or create art that is most authentic to you when you buy into the sense of “otherness” or “wrongness” that’s thrust upon you? All musicians are victims of crippling self-doubt to begin with. Add a sense of “not belonging” and it’s paralyzing.

I felt so restricted, or was restricted by always giving so much focus to what I was supposed to do to blend in. And it’s not because of any sort of insecurity or feeling like I shouldn’t be here–it was honestly so I could get along in the profession. It felt like I was not going to be accepted in the profession; therefore, I will not work if I don’t act this way or if I dress this way or if I speak this way. I learned [code-switching] as a sort of survival technique, as someone who does come from a different element that is trying to survive in this environment. It’s how I have to operate if I am going to be successful in the industry.

I’ll expand it from code-switching as far as how I carry myself, or dress, or speak, or behave in a professional environment–but it also had to do with me artistically and my interpretations of things. It put me in a mindset of looking at how other people did things normally or how they did it in the past for me to figure out how I was going to do this. It had me referencing recordings more than having me find my way of doing it, or if I did have a good idea I almost never did it because no one else was doing it. It was the complete opposite of any creativity or any creative energy I had.

Kellen Gray--Photo by Jarrett McCourt

Kellen Gray–Photo by Jarrett McCourt

We’ve talked in the past about how the Chicago Sinfonietta helped you embrace your identity within music. Can you explain?

Before I can even address how Chicago Sinfonietta has helped me embrace my identity in music, I’d first have to address how they’ve helped me embrace my identity as a person. As I’ve mentioned already being put in the “other” category–treated differently because of the way you look, taught differently because of the way you look, taught to do something differently so that you look more like the “typical” player or conductor, taught to omit things about my past or my story, told to speak a certain way, to look a certain way. Before becoming a part of Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion, I diluted myself, trying to fit in, trying to be like everyone else, but they showed me how valuable the true me really is. And how the things that make me different make me unique. And how the things that are different about me are exactly what the world of classical music really needs, and the things that more conservative minds would want to omit from my story are the things that have made me strong and what other young people that look like me need to hear.

I could wrap up this interview with my own conclusion, but I think it is really important for the audience to hear your words on why your story is important.

One of my favorite poems is by Maya Angelou called ‘[Our] Grandmothers’ and there’s a line in there that says “I come as one but I stand as 10,000.” That is literally how I feel about my career as a conductor and as a classical musician. Before, I spent so much time trying to shape myself to certain norms to survive in the industry. Now to realize that trying to fit to those norms is feeding the sickness that classical music has, as far as not having as much diversity. So the reason I think my story is important, is it is the story of the people classical music needs to survive.

My story is important because without my story classical music doesn’t have a future. If classical music is going to survive it has to be relevant. I am always going to love the traditions of the field, but to grow a new audience we have to appeal to them. And not only appeal, but have other people who look different, who come from different backgrounds.

My story is important because of what and who I represent. Like I said, I am just one right now but I represent 10,000 more that could be right here with me.