The Proud Voice: A Conversation With Terrance McKnight

Staley Sharples speaks to the musician/teacher/author/podcast host about de-centering whiteness from classical music, why Chopin isn't favored in West Africa, interrogating the lack of diversity in...
By    September 7, 2023

Credit Julie Yarbrough Photography

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Staley Sharples says that writing is telling yourself you’re worthless and a God at the same time.

Terrance McKnight is many things to many people—some know him as an accomplished pianist, others recognize his warm and familiar voice from his long-running radio program on New York’s WQXR, while former students remember his instruction during his tenure at Morehouse College. This year, the musician, host, teacher, and author of the upcoming book Concert Black adds a new title with his podcast, Every Voice With Terrance McKnight.

Spanning over a hundred years of history, McKnight uses his debut season to explore Mozart and Verdi’s famous operas The Magic Flute, Otello, Aida, and Abduction from the Seraglio – as he works to decenter whiteness from classical music while shining a light on the outdated and racist stereotypes upheld through these works. In Every Voice, McKnight finds his own story illuminated in a project that writes a new chapter for the Mississippi-based artist, using his personal experience to make classical music accessible and engaging for all.

As the youngest of five siblings, McKnight fondly recalls a childhood filled with a love for family, community, and education. Showing his prodigious skill for music in childhood, McKnight experimented with the trumpet and accompanied his father’s church services as a pianist. McKnight’s talent as a musician only slightly edged out his innate sense of curiosity. This desire to learn was nurtured by his father, a beloved pastor who led Bible school around the kitchen table, and his mother, who would instruct a young McKnight to read at the library after elementary school until she could return home from work. Early supporters of the budding musician, McKnight’s mother and father encouraged their son to cultivate his gift, reminding him to practice and “use your music to help somebody.”

Their words led McKnight to attend Morehouse College, where his creative identity began to truly take shape. Singing in the Morehouse Glee Club, McKnight’s world opened up beyond the confines of what he’d been taught in his years of musical study. However, it was a chance trip to West Africa that gave McKnight a new outlook on classical music—there, he found that the works of famed composers like Chopin, Liszt, or Bach didn’t resonate, as it reminded people of the violent history of colonialism and erasure of their culture. Upon his return, McKnight convened with his mentor Andre Watts about his program for his final recital, which would focus on Black composers like William Grant Still and Florence Price. Watts gave McKnight his vote of confidence and set him on a path to continuously seek ways to connect to listeners through diverse cultural representation in music.

In his podcast, McKnight shares a touching anecdote behind his creative philosophy. As a boy, McKnight’s father would encourage his son to join him in picking up trash in the parking lot of their local grocery store. When McKnight asked why they were spending their time doing this, his father explained that this simple act of service was a way of making the world a kinder place for everyone. It’s a piece of wisdom the accomplished pianist, host, and historian has carried with him into an illustrious career. McKnight beams when discussing his father, citing his way of moving people towards the truth, aided by a gentle guiding hand that encouraged his congregants to reflect on their shared humanity.

“As a pastor, you have to try and say what’s true, but not make people feel bad about how they live,” McKnight says. “He would always try to find a way of making people feel welcome and making people feel special even as he’s saying, we can all be better.”

When asked about his reasons behind the development of the podcast, McKnight shares that his goal is to introduce a new way of thinking about classical music. In paving the way for actionable change in the culture of the arts, he hopes to create a space where everyone is celebrated. Channeling his father, McKnight explains: “We can all love a little better. We can all clean up our community a little bit better and beautify it a little bit better for all of us.”

When did you first recognize that you wanted to pursue your path as a professional musician?

Terrance McKnight: I was in college. I grew up playing music, but never really saw an avenue that I was really interested in until I went to a concert in college. It was the Atlanta Symphony, and I heard [pianist] Andre Watts play. And it wasn’t just his performance, it was the whole vibe. The seriousness of the music, the emotion, and the way it moved people. Whatever he was doing, it just resonated very deeply. From that day, till this day, I’ve been very serious about music. I saw how his interpretation of the music impacted 2,000 people in the room. And I thought maybe I can use music to do something similar.

When you were in graduate school, you had a hand injury, which changed your trajectory because you weren’t able to perform in your graduation recital. I read that you reached out to Andre Watts as a mentor and that he was an important figure for you at that time. When you were unable to express yourself through playing music, how did you still maintain that creative fire? And what role did Andre play in helping you kind of move through that injury?

Terrance McKnight: That injury happened on a Saturday night, and I didn’t know the depth of it. At the time, I just knew that I couldn’t really use my arm. The next day a friend invited me to go kayaking. I can’t remember where we went, [it was] in Savannah somewhere. I didn’t know how bad my arm was, but I knew that I wouldn’t have to think about it that day.

It was a Sunday morning, and I was like, whatever is wrong with me, I don’t have to think about. I can just go and get on the water and be good. And so I did that, and I start to realize, man, this arm is gonna give me some trouble. For the next couple of weeks, I was trying to make it right, and pretend it wasn’t as bad as it was. I could play for 10 minutes at a time without feeling any pain. Maybe a month or so afterward, a friend invited me to go to West Africa, and I did that. Again, it was an escape. I was able to be away from school, be away from the music, and reflect on my past and my future.

I had probably about three or four mentors, who were in music—all older than me—who would give me advice. I started reflecting on some of the things that I had been told. I remember Watts saying to me, never get out in public and play something you don’t believe in 110%. Because if you don’t believe it, you can’t convince an audience of it. So I started thinking about what I would do for my graduate recital, and getting out of school and what I would do. One of the things that I experienced in graduate school—and I knew this, but I experienced it—was that if you were going to be considered a serious pianist, there was a certain repertoire that you had to play.

There was Brahms and Beethoven and Chopin, and Liszt and Bach. I started thinking about what statement I was making by playing these composers. Getting up in public and playing these composers, when other composers that I was interested in and whose music I play, like Florence Price, or William Grant Still or Nathaniel Dett, weren’t taken as seriously. It didn’t prove that you were a great pianist by playing that music. It was [determined by] the other music. I thought, what statement am I making if I just play those Western European composers? Because that’s not the statement I’m trying to get out there and make. That music doesn’t speak to my community. It doesn’t really represent me directly, emotionally. I can tell the stories about these other folks from my own heritage, but it’s not respected in these halls. So what statement am I going to make if I spent so much time working on these composers? I gave it a lot of thought.

When I could play in West Africa, there were pianos that I could play on. I’ve never told this story. I noticed that the music wasn’t resonating over there. I started thinking maybe me playing Chopin sounds like… it reminds people of colonization. Maybe they’re offended by it. I don’t know. But it didn’t have the same impact that it did in the practice rooms or in the halls or in the Recital Hall in Georgia. You know, it’s like maybe I’m offending somebody because the French colonized this part of Africa. I have to be careful about playing this.

After I graduated and got a chance to work in radio, I started thinking about the variety of people that lived in Georgia, and all the people that might be able to hear my show, from different cultures. Was there a way for me to represent all of those expressions? Through my playlist around classical music, could I represent everybody’s classical music traditions in a radio program that was about classical music, but not just solely Western European music? So that became something that I’ve been interested in since my early days on radio.

I think that the key to instilling a love of music in people is showing them where they show up in these places. Speaking about your podcast, I want to revisit your radio show from 2010 to 2014. Up to this time, you’ve made documentaries as well. Would you say your podcast [“Every Voice with Terrance McKnight”] is almost like a hybrid between the radio show and the documentaries you’ve done?

Terrance McKnight: Yeah, I think so. It’s shorter form, but it still has that element of looking at historical figures and ideas and music from the past, the storytelling. Although this podcast is more for me. More of my personal experiences show up in the podcast. I don’t have to be concerned with playing so much music. In the radio documentaries, it was typically about music in somebody’s life. This podcast allows me to talk to do more with the stories and to de-center, even though we’re talking about opera.

What’s the process been like? Have you found any challenges or anything you weren’t expecting when you went into this process?

Terrance McKnight: Having gone out to see these operas, and been turned off by these operas, I haven’t really been interested in the art form so much. But I’ve been interested in the fact that I wasn’t interested and why. Oftentimes I’m involved in these conversations about the lack of diversity in the opera house or in classical music, so for me, this was an opportunity to say why there’s a lack of diversity. This is why I don’t show up.

I’ve been able to interrogate those aspects of the opera. Someone asked in an interview the other day, if it was my intent to eliminate the stories in these operas. I said, no, I’m trying to illuminate the stories of the operas, and really talk about some things that I’ve never heard really discussed about some of the racial tropes and some of the ideas that accompany these things that are about race that could make somebody feel offended.

You’re focusing on Mozart and Verdi in this season, and these composers are separated by about 100 years, yet the themes are very apparent. When you were developing this podcast, what was your process like in linking these figures? You recently explored these historical ties with your Langston and Beethoven performance with the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center as well.

Terrance McKnight: I picked on Verdi and Mozart, because they’re two of the most performed opera composers. I think Aida has been performed more than anything at the Met, outside of La Boheme. So it’s been performed, like 1100 times. These operas, they show up every year on stages across the world. Verdi, people consider him one of the great opera composers of the 19th century, Mozart, great composer of everything from the 18th century. Whatever they did, and whatever their genius was, was picked up by other composers. So I wanted to start with the guys at the top of their game, and look at how their ideas and their music had been so influential.

When you have so many performances of The Magic Flute, and audiences around the world have been hearing this piece for 200 years, those words and that music is going to have a lot of impact, and a lot of ripple effect. I wanted to look at those ripple effects. Reading a promo for my first show, I wanted to use the line from the opera [The Magic Flute], because it just jumped out at me. I thought, Oh my God, this will grab everybody’s attention. Because it’s so horrendous when he says, “I am Black, and Black is ugly.” I played that promo in my car. I’ve got a three-year-old daughter, and the minute I hit “play”, before he could finish, I stopped it. Because I thought, I do not want her to hear those words strung together.

In your podcast, you share the anecdote about your father, when you went to go pick up trash with him and beautify the neighborhood. I think that’s such a great thread through this. I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about your father, and how that element of community care and service was instilled in you. How do you express that today?

Terrance McKnight: My father passed away last year. He was 91. Both of my parents grew up in Mississippi. During the pandemic, my sister and I moved them back to Mississippi, because we just figured they’d have more space and less interaction with the public. Shortly after, I moved here, to help my sister and to be closer to my parents. I got to spend the last 15 months of his life with him. That was fantastic. My father was always pretty serious about his purpose. He always had a lot of faith in my walk, and the way I handled myself.

I grew up playing piano in his church, and so we worked together in church. Through example, he gave me a sense of purpose, to my community, to my family, and to myself. He was the oldest of 10 brothers. He’s the leader of his family. He moved from Mississippi to Cleveland, and all his brothers came behind him. I saw that in my father, that sort of devotion to family, and to community. I took that on. When I was a kid, he was teaching Bible school. Every morning I would wake up and dad would be in the kitchen with a big light on, he’d be reading, he’d be studying and then some evenings, he would take me with him when he taught. I would sit in the back of the classroom, and just listen to him teach. When I got out of grad school and I started teaching at Morehouse, he wasn’t surprised, because I knew how to study by watching him. I knew how to stand up in front of a class, because I watched him do it. He helped me be serious about music and the possibilities of it.

I read that you used to work on cars with your brother, and that got you used to playing in cold practice rooms.

Terrance McKnight: Oh man, my brother. My friend would drop me off from basketball practice, I would go straight into the garage and help him work on these cars. And it’s Cleveland, right? It’s basketball season—it’s cold! I’m a pianist, so I was trying to work in gloves. I didn’t want to get my hands dirty or mess up my hand. He said, “Can’t work in those gloves, it’s cold out here!” So I did that from 10th grade until the time I graduated. But I was always driving new cars to school. When I got to Morehouse, I remember there were some instances where a practice room didn’t have heat. Didn’t bother me, I could go in there without gloves. I could practice while all the other students were waiting around to figure out what was wrong with the heating system. So I would call my brother and thank him, like “I just left the practice room. Nobody was up here because there was no heat, [but] I just put on my hat, and got to work.”

My mother would tell me to use my own brain when I was growing up, because I had all these cousins, and they wanted to do things and go places that I wasn’t always comfortable with. I had a basketball court in my backyard—my father had to put all this asphalt in our backyard, because we had all these cars. The neighborhood kids would want to come to my house and play basketball, and I would be in the house practicing. They’d be out in the driveway or on the sidewalk calling my name, trying to get me to come out and play basketball, knocking on the door. My mother would say, “Just because they’re calling your name, don’t mean they’re your friends.” When I was in college, a lot of my friends were going to parties and stuff on Friday, Saturday night. I’d be up in that practice room.

Your parents sound like incredible people. With your dad being a pastor and you growing up in church, do you feel that played a role in your sense of musical discovery?

Terrance McKnight: Yeah, but not so much musical discovery. I think the church gave me a sense of how important music was in moving people’s emotions, and how music could be used to move a story. If my father was talking, music was to supplement whatever he said, so I saw the way that music and words supported one another. The music of the church was sort of limited, in a way, although I had four different church jobs. It was all similar, it was all steeped in some sort of religious expression. They were all Christian churches, so some expression of Christ.

When I got to Morehouse, that’s when the sense of musical discovery set in. We were singing in German, Italian, Yoruba, French, and all of these different styles of music. I had friends who could sing Stevie Wonder, but they could also sing Handel. In Atlanta, there was a large East African community, people from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea that I ended up becoming friends with. I had West African friends too. My sense of musical discovery came really when I lived in Atlanta. It was more of an international city than Cleveland was.

With your strong interest in teaching and storytelling, I’m curious about your interest in music history. Where did the love of being a historian come from?

Terrance McKnight: I think it probably comes from my father. We had probably three different types of encyclopedias in our house.

I’m the youngest of five. I would always see my older siblings doing research, reading encyclopedias. They would help me do my homework. I remember writing papers as a young person. We would always go upstairs, to the encyclopedias.

I talked about that grocery store where my father and I used to clean the parking lot—well, across the street there was a library. I remember instances where my mother, who was typically home when I came home from school, would sometimes say, “I’m not going to be home when you come from school. So you just go and sit at the library, but just don’t sit there. You read some books.” She knew how long it took me to get out of school to get to the library. When I would get to the library, the librarians, they knew my mother and me, would have a stack of books for me to read when I got there. They would tell me what time my mother was going to be home, and they would come get me and tell me when I could start walking home. She didn’t give me a key to the house until ninth grade or something like that.

I had cousins who were trying to sneak girls back home after school, and my mother wasn’t having it. So she sent me to the library. Then I started playing basketball after that. She was just trying to keep me on the straight and narrow, she didn’t want me to interrupt my life.

When I started teaching at Morehouse, there were some very bright students who were very intimidating. These guys had come from some of the best high schools in the country, I had some really brilliant students. So I really needed to know what I was talking about. I always had a fear of walking in the classroom and some student telling me I was wrong.

It’s got to be nerve-wracking to get up there and teach students. You’re putting yourself out there. As interesting as it might be, I’m sure, it might have been a little scary. It’s a bit of a performance.

Terrance McKnight: Well, it prepared me for my radio work, especially in New York. I remember one of my early shows, I was on WNYC at the time, and I told this story about Leonard Bernstein. I talked about how Bernstein had this roommate, he would come home at night and he would play piano and his roommate ran out of her room screaming, “I hate music! I hate music! Why don’t you stop? It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I hate music.” And he turned it into a tune. [Singing] “I hate music, but I love to sing.” I’m telling the story, I played the piece on air. I get an email, and this woman told me that was [her] mother who lived with Lenny, between these years. She was the one who ran out screaming, she told me her mom’s name and all this stuff. I asked, “Did I get the story right?” She said I got it exactly right. I got to know what I’m talking about here in New York City. Because these listeners lived this, and they know it, and it’s special to them. So I was glad I developed that ability to study and research, that thirst for it. It’s served me well.

With this work that you do, do you feel like people are trying to do better?

Terrance McKnight: We ebb and we flow, you know? I think these ideas are so baked into our society, we believe that if we don’t change, that our survival isn’t guaranteed. You’ve heard my podcast—I had Iago, talking about how he hated Othello. I alluded to this in the show, but it almost sounded to me like some of the rhetoric I heard from people talking about Obama. Mozart’s Magic Flute is 200 years old, so generation after generation is hearing these words, and that stuff affects people. It seems like these are things that I’m getting to in these 200-year-old operas that have taught us how to treat one another, and taught us this is the way to survive, and this is the way things are supposed to be. There are ebbs and flow to progress, but I’m optimistic about it. I think we have to be.

[My platform] is my opportunity to try and make things better, to try to move the needle and in the right direction. Something we really haven’t gotten to in the podcast, I get to it in my book, but I try to keep my books separate from my podcast for a number of reasons. I do have one singer say, “The people that support have supported my career are the one-percenters.” I did a little research and found out if you make $500,000 or more, you’re considered the 1%.

Oftentimes, those people are the influencers in our culture. They are the people who are connected to the people or if not, if not themselves, they are the people who affect legislation, they are the folks who affect hiring practices, decide who’s there sitting on boards. So they’re making the decisions that affect the rest of us. They are really the ones who decide about culture. If these people are a part of our ecosystem, that is, seeing these images of Blackness, as I talked about, in opera, it’s baked in, and it becomes a part of who they are, and how they make decisions, and who they associate with, and what their circle of influence looks like.

My job as a public radio host, and a person with an opportunity to get out there and tell stories, is to try and shift the thinking, and the experience of those folks who are making decisions that affect me, and the people I care about. I see this as an opportunity to expose them to a new way of thinking, and perhaps a new way of being and decision-making.

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