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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Meet Melissa White: UB professor and Grammy winner

How White found her muse in violin and used it to make a career

UB professor Melissa White holds up her Grammy award shortly after the ceremony. Courtesy of Melissa White
UB professor Melissa White holds up her Grammy award shortly after the ceremony. Courtesy of Melissa White

Before UB professor Melissa White was a Grammy winner, she was a 4-year-old in a family of non-musicians. She recalls watching an episode of “Sesame Street” where Itzhak Perlman, the episode’s special guest, was playing the violin. She loved how his chin rested perfectly on the instrument. 

“I want to be doing that,” she remembers thinking. 

Immediately, she asked her mom if she could play. Her mother was reluctant at first. It took Melissa two years of begging and pleading with her parents until they finally caved.

After three lessons, White’s teacher reported back to her parents: she was no prodigy, and didn’t sound amazing early on. But she had a natural talent for the violin. She had the right technique, and her teacher saw it.

This weekend, decades after those first lessons, White won a Grammy.

“I was ready to applaud for whoever was going to win that thing,” White, who was shocked to even be nominated, said. “It was the most surprised I’d been in my life.”  

White and the rest of the string group she co-founded, the Harlem Quartet, won the Best Classical Compendium award for their latest album, “Passion For Bach And Coltrane.” She said receiving an award during her first time at the Grammy award ceremony was like “adding layers to a cake that was already delicious.”

The win is made even more impressive by the album’s quick turnaround. It was recorded in June, nominated for a Grammy in November and won the award in early February. In less than a year, an album was made, released, nominated and won. 

“It was such a passion project,” White, who described herself as “completely shook,” said. “We did it without thinking it would be rewarded.”

Now White just has to choose where to keep her gilded gramophone. She jokes that she could keep it on her nightstand, in the bathroom or anywhere in her New York City apartment. During her Zoom interview with The Spectrum, she turned the camera to a shelf in her living room that holds a swell of vinyl records and various other living-room decor, where she says it will most likely go.

“Wait,” White said while giving her apartment tour. “Come with me, I just have to turn off my oven… I’m also making salmon at the moment.”

White’s success is due in part to her parents’ support for her musical pursuits throughout her childhood. She attended music camp during the summer and then spent her last two years of high school at a boarding school that allowed her to merge her love for the violin with academics.

But for much of her childhood, White didn’t know it was even possible to be a full-time musician. 

“I didn’t know music could be a career,” White said. “I didn’t come from a family of musicians, so I thought people just played and got really good to be able to play for fun, as a hobby. Maybe you would get paid, but you would do it in addition to another job.” 

White didn’t meet professional musicians until middle school, but that path still seemed inaccessible. She planned to double major in orthodontics in college. 

But then she got into the Curtis Institute of Music. After earning her bachelor’s, she moved to Boston to earn her Master’s at the New England Conservatory of Music.

White, who never became an orthodontist,  is now an associate professor of music at UB and an adjunct instructor at NYU. 

As for the future, White doesn’t plan on limiting herself. She says she’d love to see a hip-hop producer “bring to life” a classical album. She loves all types of music, from Beyonce’s “Renaissance” to Queen and everything in between.

In the meantime, White is using her professorship to pass what she’s learned on to UB students. She’ll be teaching a class called “Break on Through,” where students — artists especially — will learn how to recognize their passions and skills and incorporate them into a future career. 

Josh Pawlik is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at josh.pawlik@ubspectrum.com 


JOSH PAWLIK
josh-pawlik.jpg

Josh Pawlik is an assistant arts editor for The Spectrum. His hobbies include playing guitar, working out and reading. He can be found on Instagram @joshpawlik 

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