Practicing for Love is the story of the life of a concert pianist – a former child prodigy, no less – who also happens to be an African-American woman. Nina Kennedy was raised on the Fisk University campus, where her parents were on the music faculty. Fisk University is one of the nation’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Anne and Matthew Kennedy were both celebrated concert pianists. However, both of them felt that their careers had been hampered by American racism. As a result, they were determined that, in a post-Civil Rights Movement America, their daughter would enjoy the success that was denied them because of their ethnicity.
Nina watched as her parents suffered from the psychological effects of racism, but she also observed something that her parents may not have intended for her to see. Though both of them were pianists, even within the Black community her father received more praise and recognition because he was a man. Her mother allowed herself to be deeply distraught by the sexism which kept her trapped in the role as helper/assistant. In an effort to escape her mother’s misery (and alcoholism), Nina vows to stay away from men and college faculty positions.
Nina’s avoidance of men is revealed to be more than just that. It is really a combination of the result of seeing her father as cold and unloving, and a quest to fill the unmet need for the maternal love that was withheld. The details of her romantic life add spice to a primarily career-focused memoir, as we see –yet again – a woman trying to balance the demands of a professional career with the demands of her romantic liaisons.
This first book of memoirs is divided into four parts. Part one reveals Nina’s work and recognition as a child prodigy from her first complete piano recital at age nine, to her debut as piano soloist with the Nashville Symphony before an audience of 4,000 at age thirteen. She goes on to perform in concert and with orchestras throughout the country, and is accepted for study at the Curtis Institute from a pool of 72 pianists who auditioned for three openings. She completes her bachelor’s degree at Temple University, and then receives her master’s degree from the Juilliard School in Piano Performance and Orchestral Conducting.
Her second year at Juilliard, she meets a young woman who becomes her partner and patroness. Part two begins after her graduation from Juilliard. She is presented in a highly successful New York Debut concert at Lincoln Center, and receives a rave review in the New York Times. The day after that triumph, however, her partner goes to her doctor to have a lump in her breast examined. Thus begins a three-and-a-half-year ordeal with cancer, radiation, chemotherapy, hair-loss, nausea, and ultimately, her partner’s death.
At 28 years old, Nina survives the death of her spouse without any help or support from her parents. She ends up coping as best she can, drinking, partying, and engaging in other reckless behaviors. She finds herself in a relationship with a recent law school graduate who negotiates a record deal with an international label, and a music video with filmmaker Spike Lee. Due to a sleazy contract, the record deal falls through, however; and the young lawyer takes her frustration out on Nina physically.
Part three begins with an affair with a cocaine-addicted actress who introduces Nina to the world of script-writing, which becomes a new means of artistic expression. She finds herself writing scripts for the actress, as well as texts for her own spoken-word performances. She meets a soprano after a performance at the W.O.W. Café in the East Village, who invites Nina to perform with her in Vienna. While there, Nina meets the woman who helps her realize her dream of living in Europe, which represented an escape from American racism. This Austrian woman accompanies Nina back to Nashville when her mother dies, and helps her go through the mountains of papers that her hoarder father has collected. Thus began the production of the award-winning documentary film on her father’s life, which has its world-premiere six years after Nina’s mother’s death.
Life in Europe presents a different set of challenges, including a pervasive sexism which prevents women from securing major contracts. The book ends with an idyllic scene of life in Hoffnungsthal (“Valley of Hope”) in Germany, where Nina fully develops her writing skills. Her concert career will re-emerge in Book 2, and a new career as a TV talk show host begins.
© Nina Kennedy: 2018
Practicing for Love: A Memoir
Written by Nina Kennedy
Nina Kennedy is available for readings and Q&As.