Blacks and the Pianist
By Richard Huggins
From AccompaList, a Resource for Church Accompanists
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The following was written as a personal response to the issue of race relations in America. I am releasing it on Martin Luther King's birthday and accordingly I should add that it deals only with relations between whites and African Americans. (Please accept that the term "blacks" is a necessary convention for the article to work.) I certainly acknowledge that there are relations issues among all sorts of other racial group combinations.

Although MLK worked unceasingly for the betterment of race relations between whites and African Americans, this is not in his honor. It simply is my attempt to use creative thought and a touch of whimsy to make a point. To that end I hope that in your reading of it it succeeds.

--Richard Huggins


Race relations in America (and beyond) are of keen interest to me. Because I am a professional pianist I've had to come to terms with blackness. I have no choice, as you might understand, because even though I have 88 keys to choose from, to use them indiscriminately means I must include the black ones, sometimes giving them even more attention than the white keys.

It hasn't always been easy to do this. When I was young and the most vulnerable to prejudice, I was mighty scared of those blacks. I wanted nothing to do with them and would go out of my way to avoid them. Perhaps I didn't even know that I was being influenced by the prejudices of other young players. It seemed that it was just the existence and appearance of those black keys that was enough for me. (Sometimes fellow players and I even made jokes about the black keys, as if by laughing about them we could feel better about our bias.) Thankfully I had music that similarly avoided the use of those keys, and I began to think that perhaps I never would have to deal with the black issue. And what a utopian world that would be! "White keys forever!!" might have become my chant.

Before long, however, a sobering reality began to surface. As I grew older and my musical pursuits broadened, I began to encounter music that called for the use of black keys. Not only that but my teacher---someone I thought was as white-favoring as me--- changed colors, so to speak, and started trying to get me to use those black keys.

I wasn't sure what I thought about this development. "Just look at those black keys," I thought. They seemed, well, uppity to me, what with their hi-steppin' appearance as compared to the white keys, the fact that they rose *above* the white keys as if trying to dominate them. And even though the whites outnumbered them, it didn't seem to change anything. Fiercely they seemed to stand, lean and long, almost daring me to face them head-on.

Pressured by the music before me and the teacher hovering next to me, I struggled to overcome my early prejudices (ok, hate). Hesitantly one momentous day I actually *touched* one of those black keys. Never had I touched one before. (In fact, as far as I was concerned I didn't care if never I went into their territory, much less touch one. They seemed happy where they were and I certainly was happy letting them stay there.)

I steeled myself for what would happen. Would the key jump up at me? Would my playing start to sound "funny"? Or worse yet, would my friends make fun of me for touching a black key? Odd, but none of those things happened. In fact (dare I admit it?) it was a surprisingly pleasurable experience. To ears long-accustomed to white-key sonority (sonority that I thought that was superior), these new sounds were refreshing, even astonishing. All of a sudden, getting from G to A or B to E could go the road less traveled. A road that made the trip more interesting, actually. Suddenly the folly of my previous fears---rooted as they were in ignorance--- was painfully apparent to me; the shame of my early attitude blushed my face.

Emboldened by this first encounter, I began gradually to lose my fear of these blacks. Oh to be sure, it required extra effort to reach out to them. They hung farther back in the neighborhood and, as I said, they stood higher. (In many white key signatures the black notes had their own symbols and only if you knew what those symbols meant could you use one.) Including the black keys in my musical activities would require learning new pathways, new ways to include them with the whites. During this period of epiphany, my teacher gave me music that used more and more of these blacks.

Soon I was to discover what musicians before me apparently had discovered for themselves, that if you combined the blacks with the whites in a somewhat organized way, you could do far more than either group could do by itself! The musical highway that could be traveled was more scenic, more varied and more fun to take! One section of the trip might have thunderstorms, another section would have bright sun, while yet another would have misty rain and fog, yielding to a crisp spring. The musical moods were as endless as the human emotions they evoked. What fun! As I advanced I even tried things I'd never attempted before, such as the day I *started out* with the blacks instead of merely using them when needed to help the whites. Another time I learned a difficult task of using them alternately and evenly, i.e. white-black-white-black... a social culture called "chromatic." It was okay but not easy, suitable for special occasions.

Today you'd hardly recognize me from that boy of before. More mature, wisened in the world, I have become fast friends with the blacks. I can converse with them almost as easily as the whites. I enjoy learning their particular slant on things, though I'll never know it all. And they certainly help add variety to my life! We can get all moody over at Debussy's house, play war games at Profokiev's place and even kick back over at The Blues Moon (a piano coffeehouse, naturally). Best of all, though, when we head over to the Church House we discover perhaps the noblest and best combination of blacks and whites soaring in song and praise.

I often think back at all I would have missed had I not learned to get along, yea to prosper, with the blacks. I am thankful for the opportunity that was mine to grow. For "harmony" is only a seven-letter word without them, but a word beyond description when they are included.

--Richard Huggins may be reached at