Blake-Anthony Johnson always has been a novelty. Since his family moved a lot, he was always the new kid and experimented with identities at different schools.
“I was interested in everything,” he says. “I was president of the math team, the prom committee, I played on the football team — there was nothing I didn’t do.”
Playing the cello was one of those things.
“It wasn’t that I was terribly gifted,” he says. “It was one thing I could do on my own. Because I was always the new student, I had more down time than most people. I’m not sure what made me practice so much but I really clung to it.”
In the classical music world, it is highly unusual that Blake-Anthony started playing at 12-years-old and started private lessons at 18 — most begin at a much younger age. While he downplays his skill, his talent gave him the opportunity to spend a summer at the Governor’s Honors Program in Georgia, cementing his love of the cello.
This led to a music scholarship from Vanderbilt University. Since earning his bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a professional studies degree, impressive awards, performances around the globe and recordings have followed.
Despite or maybe in light of his success, Blake-Anthony remains a novelty. According to the League of American Orchestras, only four percent of American orchestra musicians are African-American or Latino.
Being a novelty is one of the reasons he landed at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). As long-time collaborators, CCM and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) recognize that orchestras need to be more inclusive and engage underrepresented musicians. The two entities created the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellows Program and secured four years of funding from The Andrew Mellon Foundation. Five fellows, including Blake-Anthony, were chosen as the inaugural class after an extensive audition process. Fellows are string musicians and include up to two violins, and one viola, cello and double bass.
“How orchestras are set up, there is a class divide and an economic divide,” Blake-Anthony says. “This is a part of society that has been closed off to many people for a long time. I think it’s important for people to realize this fellowship is allowing minorities in any sense, economically, racially, to be part of the club. The club has been designed to keep us out.”
Blake-Anthony JohnsonOne way the fellowship is getting people like Blake-Anthony into the club is “with sheer opportunity.” This includes CCM classes preparing fellows for the competitive audition process they will encounter in their careers. They also play five weeks per season with the CSO, with additional work on community engagement and educational activities.
“Our nation’s orchestras do not reflect the diversity of the communities in which they work,” says Peter Landgren, UC Foundation President and former CCM dean. “For symphonic music to be relevant in the cities and communities in which they live and operate, we must do something to move that needle. The CSO/CCM Diversity Fellows Program is helping to do that.”
Blake-Anthony notes that the fellows have an effect on younger musicians.
“It gives a very visible presence that ‘oh, minorities do exist in classical music,’” he says. “Any kid who works hard—regardless of gender, class or race—should have the same access.”
The impact is also personal. He has three nephews, age 10 and under, who are looking at him as a role model.
“It’s cool for me to show my nephews that you can literally do anything,” he says. “There are so many things that say the opposite, so it’s nice to give them a tangible example.”