Published November 10, 2022
Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, Melissa White became enamored with the violin when she was only 4 years old, thanks to an episode of “Sesame Street.”
One of six new faculty members in the Department of Music, White performed at President Satish K. Tripathi’s recent State of the University address and has enchanted audiences and critics around the world as both a soloist and a chamber musician.
She is a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Harlem Quartet, first prize winner of the Sphinx Competition, and a graduate of the Curtis Institute and New England Conservatory of Music.
White has had return engagements with the several national and international philharmonics and orchestras. Her film credits include a violin solo in the soundtrack to Jordan Peele’s 2019 psychological thriller “Us.” She has also performed alongside several pop artists including Pharrell, Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys, and Lauryn Hill.
Last June, she made history as the concertmaster of the Recollective Orchestra, the first all-Black orchestra to perform on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. The occasion, aired live on CNN, was a Juneteenth program presented by the LA Philharmonic to mark the bowl’s centenary.
White currently is on a European concert tour that includes her debut in Ireland and a return to London’s Wigmore Hall. She is scheduled to make her Carnegie Hall recital debut in June 2023.
In addition to her musical career, White is co-founder of Intermission, a groundbreaking program that unites body, mind, breath and music-making through yoga and meditation.
White recently talked with UBNow about what sparked her early interest in violin, how she prepares for performances, how her teachers continue to influence and support her, and her impressions as a new faculty member at UB.
I first saw the violin on “Sesame Street” at the age of 4. Itzhak Perlman was the guest artist, and I loved the way his chin fit perfectly in the chin rest of the violin. So, watching him play, 4-year-old me was thinking that this is the best instrument for a person to play because you can rest your chin on it perfectly, and when the show went off, I asked my mom if I could then play the violin, and she did not say yes, but she also didn’t say no. So, I begged for two years and finally, when I was six, she got me a violin, and that's how I got started.
Yes, I did when I went to his summer program. Well, his wife runs the program, so I first told his wife the story. She loved it, and said, ‘Oh, you have to tell him,’ so I told him, and his response was one of puzzlement at first. But he’s hilarious and quickly joked, ‘You started the violin because of me?’ To which I responded, ‘No, it was because your chin looked perfect in the chin rest,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, my chin! Ok! That’s good! Thank you.’
Yes, and no. In my teenage years, I did go through a period of time where I didn't really want to be practicing because I wanted to be hanging out with my friends. So there have been moments when I thought, ‘Ugh, why did I beg so hard for this?’ But ultimately, the answer is yes. And I even say that I’m a violinist today because of the sacrifices that my mom made for me to receive my violin education.
It’s something that I’ve built upon over time, so nothing feels wildly different. A lot of what we do requires muscle memory, but for me to really feel comfortable on stage, I like to have time with the piece — I want to practice it so that no matter which way it goes, I can feel comfortable enough to share my musicality first and foremost, and really be able to say what I want to express through my music. And again, that takes time. A couple little things that help me to prepare are playing through my piece in the shoes that I’m going to be wearing on stage, which are usually high heels. Practicing in the exact shoes makes me feel like I’m in performance mode, and I like to get that feeling before I’m in front of thousands of people. I've been practicing visualization, too. When there’s a part of the music that I need to really focus on in my practice room, I think about what it is my eyes are doing, where I’m looking visually and what is going through my head at that moment. So, working on a little bit of visualization ahead of time helps me to feel more prepared. And then, finally, I would say, being an instrumentalist is like being an athlete; we need our stamina, and it takes a lot of energy to do what we do on stage. So along with the time practicing and studying, you also need the time to help your body build up the stamina and the strength to produce this performance that you want to deliver.
I am definitely still inspired by Itzhak Perlman. I’m lucky that I’ve had a chance to meet him, and even gotten to play with him and study with him, which was the most amazing thing. But I would say, adding on to that, I now have lots of inspiration. I gain inspiration from my peers such as Elena Urioste, Augustin Hadelich and Sheku Kanneh-Mason. I’m also inspired by artists in different genres who are just wildly creative and have really allowed their instrument or creative outlet to be a natural voice for them, such as Whitney Houston and Brad Mehldau.
Yes, but what makes this question hard is because every single one of my teachers has been fantastic in a different way — in the way that I needed them when they were my teacher, so I could list every single one. My very first violin teacher ever was Chantelle Fraser in Lansing. My mom still randomly runs into her, and they have fun chats. She had a way with children to make it fun; there were games, there were songs, I drew pictures. And after Chantelle was Linda Gregorian, then onto Roland and Almita Vamos, and next was Hal Grossman. They were each brilliant in their very own way. What I will say is that when I was finishing up my undergrad at the Curtis Institute of Music, I wasn't quite sure if I would be good enough to sustain a career in music. My teacher at that time was Ida Kavafian, and she said, ‘I think you should carry on because you have something worth sharing. Your music, your voice is something that should be shared.’ She didn’t pressure me; she just guided me in a nurturing way that again I needed in that moment. And to this day she and all of my former teachers are just a text message away, for which I’m very grateful.
I always knew that I had a love for teaching, quite honestly even as a kid. One of my favorite games to play was library. I don’t even know if that’s a real game, but I made it into one. I love to share knowledge, so even though I was a kid, I would share knowledge with my friends — I mean what knowledge did I even have while playing library as a kid? But whatever I knew, I loved sharing. And then, when I was a teenager, I started teaching instead of babysitting. I taught violin to earn a little money. I loved working with students to see them excel, but not just for me — for themselves, too. I loved for them to see themselves get better in their own individual way; and it’s a very personal endeavor. So, it’s different for every student, and that’s always interested me. I’ve also been giving master classes since I was very young, and I’ve been going to universities with my string quartet and doing residencies for nearly 20 years now. Really, I don’t remember not doing that. I guess it became formalized when I started teaching privately at NYU. So now, being here at the University at Buffalo, it feels like a natural progression and a really lovely fit.
So far, I think it’s an amazing community — both here on the university’s campus as well as the Buffalo community at large. My colleagues in the Department of Music have welcomed me warmly with open arms. They’ve invited me for coffee to get to know each other and they have generously offered their help to me as I continue finding my way around campus while learning the ropes of being a new faculty member. I would say the best thing about being on faculty here at UB is that it feels like people genuinely enjoy being here — faculty, students and staff alike — and when someone enjoys being where they are, it offers an inspiring environment in which to create. It doesn’t feel like people clock in and clock out — they want to come early, like I said, to get coffee and get to know each other and get to talk about projects. So, to feel all of that from the faculty is truly special. And then my students are phenomenal. We’re getting to know each other through our lessons and coaching, which has been an absolute joy. They’re all hungry to learn, to work hard, and to grow as artists and humans. It’s truly a special place to be and I’m excited to grow here!
Welcome to UB and to the music department. I hope to meet you soon. It sounds like you've had an amazing career so far, with much more wonderful things to come.