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Bermuda pianist brings change at top music school in America

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Pianist Michelle Cann (Photograph supplied)
Pianist Michelle Cann (Photograph supplied)

Michelle Cann has received several honours as a pianist but it was her ability to work with others that got her hired at one of America’s top music schools.

In November she was appointed the inaugural Eleanor Sokoloff chair in piano studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“I was surprised when I found out,” said Ms Cann, who graduated from the school in 2013 and has worked there as a collaborative pianist for several years. “I am making a name for myself, but I am not quite on the A-list so that everyone in the world knows me.

“They said we want our pianists to be more interested in [collaborative playing] instead of sitting in the practice room and all they care about is playing for themselves and winning the next big competition.”

Ms Sokoloff was a member of Curtis’s faculty for 84 years. Before her death last July at age 106, she begged the school to hire a woman to replace her.

Ms Cann, 33, is the only permanent female member of the piano faculty and the only African American, out of seven professors.

“[Ms Sokoloff] was a student at the school very soon after it opened and then became an instructor,” she said. “She was really frustrated that there was no woman on the piano faculty other than herself.

“I think that by appointing me they were killing two birds with one stone. They felt I would be a great person for this role. For the future they want things to be different.”

Ms Cann tries to get back to Bermuda regularly to see her 93-year-old grandfather, Arnold Cann, and other family. She was last here in 2018 when she took to the stage as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts with her sister Kimberly who is also a concert pianist.

Her parents, Leonard and Kaye, moved to the United States a month before she was born. Her father teaches music and choir in Avon Park, Florida.

Given lessons at an early age, she went on to win the International Russian Music Piano Competition and in 2019 served as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s MAC Music Innovator. The award recognised her as an African American classical musician who “embodies artistry, innovation and a commitment to education and community engagement”.

She was accepted at Curtis in 2010. Because there are only around 20 piano students there at a time egos can run rife, she said. She got involved in various community efforts as a response.

One was an after school music programme that had made “a big difference” with at risk children in Venezuela.

With no experience she was asked to lead a similar initiative in Philadelphia.

“I ended up doing a very good job,” Ms Cann said. “I was there for three years.”

Inspired, she went on to start several other music mentorship programmes in the community. Her plan is to use her new position to encourage more Curtis students to similarly engage with the community.

“I want to open their minds while they are students,” she said. “I want to say, ‘Don’t worry. Just because you take one hour away from practising your instrument and go out to a public school and connect with some children, you’ll still be just as good.’

“People want to connect with people that they can relate to. When you connect with the rest of the world you bring that back to your playing. Your playing is a reflection of your soul.”

Curtis Institute began to examine diversity more closely as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement in May. Ms Cann supported the protests but did not join them physically.

“A big part of that was Covid-19,” she said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. Yet I think that those who took that chance and went there made a difference for other people.”

Philadelphia has had 102,837 cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began, and 2,722 deaths.

In 2020, with all of her live concerts cancelled by Covid-19, Ms Cann found it difficult to find the motivation to practice. Virtual performances and lessons helped, until she got “really burnt out” with Zoom.

To alleviate boredom she found work delivering food.

“We are all feeling very positive about the vaccinations,” the pianist said. “I see music organisations starting to make plans for the summer and doing their best to figure out ways to get music in a live way out there this year.

“It is almost like we have been hibernating and then finally comes out after how many months. Sadly we are not in a safe place yet.”

For more information on the Curtis Institute of Music visit Curtis.edu

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Published January 19, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated January 18, 2021 at 12:30 pm)

Bermuda pianist brings change at top music school in America

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