Q&A with Nina Kennedy, author of Practicing for Love: A Memoir
Q: Why did you decide to become a pianist?
NK: Both of my parents were pianists. When they realized I was a child prodigy, they made the decision for me. But both of them had felt that they were held back because of American racism, so they were determined that I would have the kind of concert career that they were denied. In addition to the racism, my mother suffered from the sexism she experienced from the men in the Music Department at the college where they taught. My father had a much easier time of it.
Q: What did your mother teach you about being a woman?
NK: Well, I saw her as being depressed and defeated. She was very unhappy, and early on I felt it was my responsibility to make her happy. My playing the piano seemed to make her happy, but since she had perfect pitch, she was always yelling out the correct notes whenever I made mistakes. It was kind of a sadistic happiness. The more I developed and matured, the more she seemed to become jealous. I was very confused since, up to that point, I thought all of the standing ovations would please her. But now I realize that she was jealous.
Q: What was the hardest part to write?
NK: One of the most painful chapters involved the details around my first big recording contract with a major label.
I was so excited. We were flown to London to do the actual recording at Abbey Road Studios. It was my best playing. The recording engineer agreed that the playing was superb. But the executive in charge of the project just wanted to take advantage of my connection to Spike Lee, whom we had approached to shoot the video. When they wouldn’t give us a release date, and we missed Spike’s deadline, we went to Cyndi Lauper to do the video. She was the one who told us that I was getting screwed and to get out of my contract. It was very painful having to re-live all of that.
That executive had been involved in a scandal around another recording that had a huge global audience. He infamously withheld the artists’ royalties. I didn’t reveal his name, but he was a real jerk who even tried to get me into his country house - alone.
Q: Why did you write the book?
NK: Since the day it was discovered I was a child prodigy, I’ve been pretty non-verbal. In fact, as I was zoned by law to attend a segregated public school, I had to speak black slang during the day, and was forced by my college professor parents to speak the King’s English at home. So I pretty much kept my mouth shut. When I started writing in a diary at 16, I realized I had a lot to say.
I didn’t realize that there was a glass ceiling holding women back until I was well into my twenties. In Europe I was confronted with men who clearly were only interested in talking business with other men. Without a manager, a father or husband, I was floundering. I did find one female German manager who got me some engagements. When she retired as an artist manager, I was abandoned.
While I was in Europe I heard several stories from young women whose mothers were excellent musicians, but were never hired for orchestras. Around the same time, the National Organization for Women organized a protest at Lincoln Center against the Vienna Philharmonic for refusing to hire female musicians. The protest ended up receiving more press than the actual concert.
It is also very important to me that young girls learn how to cope with the inappropriate pressure put on them by some conductors, concert agents, and recording executives. Many young men have been pressured as well, and I was a witness to it. I wanted to share my experiences with my readers, and shine a light on an American classical music world that can be quite sexist and racist at times.
Ultimately, I wrote the kind of book that I would have wanted to read. I hope it sheds light on what it is to be an African American woman concert pianist.