Black Girls Play Classical Music Too: Meet Lelia-Michelle Walker

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“Performing at the Oscars is much like performing  on stage at Carnegie Hall. It’s a burst of adrenaline that is quite the norm for me. I live for pleasing an audience but I also know that these opportunities are very few of many for African American female artists such as myself.”

Lelia-Michelle Walker is a classical musician and performing artist hailing from Washington DC. Classically trained in both the viola and violin, Lelia is charting a career within classical music and taking up space in an industry that hasn’t included many or been been inclusive of Black women.

When looking back on her fascinating career so far Lelia says:

I have performed with Eminem, performed several music award shows (Grammys, VMAs, American Music Awards), recorded for film but the best highlight is holding the first chair viola position in the resident orchestra of Carnegie Hall, which is my longest standing position. I also performed with Mac Miller on his NPR tiny desk which is near and dear to my heart because I last-minute charted the music as we didn’t have any sheet music and hired the strings to perform for that gig. In other words, I had to chart out the string arrangements from just hearing the song and split the score into first violin, second violin, viola and cello.

Classical music is truly the foundation of the modern music we listen to. We find classical music in lots of spaces within society but creating a career as a musician of this genre is not something that many of us think to be possible, which is why Lelia’s story is so fascinating and why we wanted to find out more about her dynamic career.

Hi Leila, thanks for taking the time to chat and talk more about your amazing career as a classical musician. Let’s start with breaking down what classical music is and how you’d describe the sound? 

A sometimes soothing or dramatic sound of complicated beauty. Often misunderstood, it is the foundation of all music — you can branch out into any genre from classical. Classical training is the foundation. 

What attracted you to classical music and creating a career as a musician? 

I was in love with the voice I had when I played. I am excited to share my music with the world. I am always pleased to see Black boys and girls who decide to go down the same route because they once saw me perform at Carnegie Hall. I was also attracted to complicated rhythms and fast math in reading music. I was attracted to the way it made me feel and how it made the hairs on my arms stand up when I heard a particular sound. It was a way for me to express what I am feeling without speaking.

My journey with music began as a young ballerina who had observed many pits during live dance performances. I saw the affinity between them both. However I was made to choose later in my career and sided with the art that wouldn’t be as physically demanding. Or so I thought. The viola is an extremely large, awkward instrument that is just as strenuous on the body to play as a career in dance.

What does a career as a classically trained musician look like? 

As a classical musician it is quite difficult to get a seat in a professional orchestra because you have to have a certain amount of degrees and performance experience. You can be dismissed based on who you had as a teacher or even accepted if you had a well known teacher. This is a play on the art of connections. A career as a Black classical musician  means you have to work a lot harder to be accepted or tenured in an orchestra. Not many people are supportive of Black classical musicians, which is why they tend to abandon this art form and redirect into playing with an electrically modified sound, where it is substantially easier to cover up flaws than playing a true acoustic instrument.

Is there a clear career trajectory for pursuing a career with classical music and how would one get started? 

There is never a clear career trajectory. I have met musicians who have gone on to become nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, CFOs and CEOs. The rigorous music training that a lot of these professionals have gone through promotes a certain level of discipline that allows them to learn just about any role in any industry.

One should research teachers and scholarship opportunities for potential instrumental training. Once that is in place bang out on the instrument as much as you atrociously can because classical music training can be super rigid. One thing you don’t want to do is get stuck inside a box that you are not able to play other genres. Classical music theory certainly helps with having a foundation, but oftentimes does not allow freedom and fluidity as much as other genres allow.

How can one earn an income through classical music? 

Becoming a professional performer is definitely one of the hardest things to break into. There are several musicians competing for the opportunities and it seems most are attracted to a few minutes of viral fame, which is not longstanding. I’d say take a few classes in music business or pedagogy so if performing doesn’t work out you can branch off into arts administration and other related music careers that will allow you the freedom to pursue a part-time music performing career. Pedagogy allows you to teach and music business helps you better understand the industry as a whole.

What have been some difficulties that you’ve faced in your career? 

Auditioning knowing I’m qualified, but because of the color of my skin being rejected. Not having anyone understand how demanding mentally and physically it is to play a viola. Also trying to survive on the little income that it provides. I sometimes spend more on the upkeep of my instrument than I would get for a singular gig. The level of rejection I got from my mother when I chose a career in music over a desk job. Having kids early in my life and not having a village that would help me raise them so I could continue to perform.

As much as I want to stand out from the music crowd I also know that I must blend and adhere to respectability politics or these opportunities won’t come again. It’s a catch-22 for me. I’d like to emphasize that a lot of African-American musicians are all competing for the same opportunity in a world where we are little accepted. As you can imagine it makes any African-American musician fight that much harder. I have a big personality and am plus-size, which isn’t always accepted on the stage. I am often ignored, disrespected, dismissed and deal with a lot of workplace/music place microaggressions. I hope that people are more accepting of the things that make them uncomfortable, as people like me deserve all of these magical opportunities.

For the Oscars this year you were a violist for the Pre-records and part of the orchestra for Billie Eillish’s performance of No Time To Die during the  ceremony. How did your involvement in the Oscars come about?

I was personally asked by the Musical Director Adam Blackstone to be a part of the ceremony. I was amongst some of my closest friends in the industry during the ceremony. Derrick Hodge being one of them, who also orchestrated for the Oscars. I met Adam Blackstone at a Thanksgiving shed performance almost 10 years ago where I was introduced to him and our friendship took root. I met Derrick Hodge when he had invited me to record for the movie Antebellum with musical artist Maxwell and have been personally requested by him on numerous occasions. I am truly humbled by all who take a liking to my sound and will never take that for granted.

And finally, for any women who’ve never listened to classical music before, where would they start?

I would start with solo artists playing a specific composer. Don’t just go with the obvious favorites, you might get bored. Aside from the well known ones like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, go for Mahler, Shostakovich, Leonard Berstein, Poulenc, Hindemith. As a Black female I would look into Alvin Ailey’s Revelations album and also Black female composers like: Chiquinha Gonzaga, Florence Price, Eleanor Alberga, Pamela Z, Shirley Thompson and Errollyn Wallen.

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Kristen Bingle
Kristen Bingle

I've been natural since 2014. Since then I've been obsessed with watching hair tutorials and learning more about how to keep my hair healthy — and sharing that with others. I'm based in London, work in Marketing and love herbal tea.

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