Steven Banks

Saxophonist. Educator. Inclusion Advocate.

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable"

- Ludwig van Beethoven

(IN)VISIBLE: Carl Alexander

Last night, I had the distinct opportunity to see a multimedia and collaborative vocal performance by Carl Alexander, a wonderful countertenor and someone that I know to be a renaissance man (vocalist, composer, photographer, I'm sure more things that I don't know). The recital was entitled Shelter: A Glance into Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. I don't really even know how to begin to describe how important the experience was for me. 

I'll start with musical aspects of the performance. Carl's voice is absolutely amazing. He sings with such unmistakable character and mastery that you never even begin to think about intonation and accuracy because it is always impeccable. More importantly, every moment he was on the stage was an opportunity for him to communicate something very genuine to the audience. All singers learn to act to a certain extent, but his presence on stage was something so far beyond acting because it was true and real.

This is something that I have come to notice as an amazing trend with my colleagues that are black classical musicians. We never have a shortage of feeling and humanity to communicate. We are a deeply expressive people. Why? Because all of those things that others can't and may not want to understand go directly into our instruments, voices, and batons. We may be told that we're doing too much or being "distracting" to the music, but the truth is that were expressing our personal experience through the lens of whatever piece may be on the stand. I can honestly say that the only time I even think about stage presence is when someone is telling me that I'm doing too much (not so ironically, those people have never been minorities). This is why I love to watch people like Carl, Andre Watts, Anthony McGill, the Imani Winds, and so many others. This is also another reason why creating a diverse conservatory environment is so important. Younger students need to be able to hear feedback about expression from someone that might actually understand how they feel and resonate with the music.

While the music was impeccable, the subject matter, multimedia presentation, collaborative artists, and everything else was perfect as well. I could never cover everything thing that was touched on in the recital, but what resonated with me the most was the very last image I saw on the projector.

It said, "visible yet so invisible." These four words so truthfully represent the experience of being a minority in the white-dominated conservatory environment. You are on one hand extremely visible and on display because you may be "the only one." University marketing teams may purposefully find you for the purposes of portraying diversity on their promotional materials (not saying that's entirely bad). People look to you when there are matters of race or gender that come up in the classroom since surely you must know what all minorities think. People are surprised when you speak well and say things like "you speak so well for a..." Some may finish that sentence, and others realize how awful what they were about to say is. These, I promise you, are just a FEW examples off of the top of my head.

On the other hand, you are utterly invisible in this environment on a much deeper level. People know you, but they can not see you. They can't understand your experience in the world and many times they feel no inclination to try. Why should they? You're just 1 out 200 others that it might be easier for them to interact with during the day. Sometimes the effects of this are debatable. Other times they are so incredibly clear that it's saddening. There are so many times that I have been in social situations at school in which I will try to contribute to a conversation and am completely and utterly ignored to my face. I don't understand how it's possible. I know they hear me (6'4", 210 lbs, loud voice...), but somehow their subconscious mind tells them so strongly not to engage that they just pretend that I didn't say anything at all. Many of you will not believe me, but those that have been close to me long enough have seen it with their own eyes.

In many music classes, teachers call themselves "cool" by including some examples in class with popular music. Many times this manifests examples from The Beatles, Taylor Swift, AC/DC, etc. What they don't realize that this doesn't make the concept any more relatable for a student that grew up listening to Motown, Ray Charles, and gospel music. These are small things that can be very isolating. While everyone else may be enjoying the song and feeling a shared experience, you are left alone thinking "I've never heard this in my life." Again, these are just a few examples that came to mind, and I don't want to go on forever.  

Carl's recital touched on SO much more than the visibility/invisibility idea, but this resonated with me very strongly and I have to give him the credit he deserves for a truly inspiring performance in every capacity. PLEASE check out his website, and look for Carl Alexander's name in lights someday soon.