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Taking the classism out of classical music

Quinton Morris with Samira Rodol (viola) and Fernanda Campos (violin).

This story originally appeared on KCTS9.org.

“Do you brush your teeth every day?” Quinton Morris asks four students in a small Maple Valley studio. “You’re teenagers,” he teases as eyes roll, “some of you probably don’t.”

“Playing with the metronome is like brushing your teeth,” he says.

Morris isn’t teaching high school health. He’s teaching beginning violin. And he’s drilling the basics — scales, hand placement, finger position and playing with a metronome every day.

The violin is a notoriously difficult instrument to play well and — for beginners — there are many sour notes and crooked bows.

“You need a lot of practice to become good at it,” says student Brian Nguyen.

Many beginners start in public school string classes. But often the best learning takes place with a private teacher, who can zero in on strengths and weaknesses and hone potential early on. But not all students can afford private lessons.

Cue Quinton Morris, associate professor and director of chamber and instrumental music at Seattle University.

“There is this kind of negative connotation that you only take private lessons if you have a lot of money, if you are privileged to have two parents in the household, if you are white or if you have really good grades,” Morris says.

Morris has set up studios in South King County through the nonprofit organization Key To Change, offering low-cost private or small-group violin instruction and financial aid to budding musicians.

“He wants to deposit back into young people the kind of investment he received,” says Vivian Phillips, Seattle Arts Commission chair. “He was educated, to a large part, in South King County, so he’s going back to his roots.”

Morris is an advocate for public school music teachers, and sees his efforts as bolstering beleaguered arts and music programs.

“It’s not uncommon for an orchestra teacher to have between 40 to 60 students in their orchestra classes with no assistant, no aides or help, and that’s what I hope the Key to Change studio can do — provide lessons for those students in the orchestra teachers’ classrooms.”

Not that Morris needs more on his plate. In addition to teaching duties at Seattle University, he lectures and performs all over the world. He is a frequent collaborator with arts and civic groups. He’s also the director/producer of Breakthrough, a film about Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the 18th-century violinist and first-known classical composer of African ancestry. Morris played Saint-Georges in the film, traveling to five continents for film-screenings and to perform Saint-Georges’s music in live settings.

Today, as one of very few African American violin professors in the United States, Morris believes that representation is crucial.

“When I got to high school, I was the only African-American violinist, not only in my school orchestra, but also in the youth symphony program here in Seattle.”

He hopes to reach young African Americans and other students of color who may feel shut out of classical music’s traditionally European and white culture.

The Breakthrough project and Saint-Georges, long-studied by Morris, is an opportunity to show students that black artists and musicians, although underrepresented, have been part of the classical tradition throughout history.

Above all, Morris believes that the discipline learned through mastering an instrument offers invaluable life lessons for young students.

“It boosts their self -confidence, their self-esteem, it provides them with critical thinking skills,” he says. “You’re learning all of those key qualities that a successful adult on this planet needs to have.”

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