Randall Goosby
Photo by Kaupo Kikkas
Emerging Masters

Randall Goosby: “It’s not just notes on a page”

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Short Profile

Name: Randall Goosby
DOB: 1996
Place of birth: San Diego, California, United States
Occupation: Violinist

Randall Goosby's debut album, Roots, is out now via Decca Records.

Randall, you first picked up a violin at age seven and have played it every day since. Can you imagine what your life would be like without music?

I can imagine it, but none of the imagined scenarios seem very realistic! I guess if I’d gone a different route, I think I probably would have had something to do with sports, you know, I started getting into playing basketball with my friends. So who knows, I might have ended up a washed-up wannabe NBA player working a desk job somewhere… With the violin, though, it was love at first sight. Instead of coming home and watching cartoons or going to play outside, I just played my violin. I don't even call it practice, I just played for hours and hours. I don't actually remember putting the violin away — I imagine there were times when I even fell asleep with it! (Laughs)

So practice never felt like work to you?

Well, of course, I started to understand that I do have to practice three hours a day, it’s a requirement! So then it started to become a little bit more… I won't say it became a chore. But my mom and I we started to butt heads a little more. I would want to go play basketball with my friends, and she'd say, “You can do those things, but you have to get your work done first. There's a difference between work and play.” So I'm really fortunate to have a career at this age, and a lot of times it doesn't feel like work.

“You can play something, what you feel is one hundred percent your absolute best, but the next time you go out there — I mean, for me, I still wouldn't want to play it the same way.”

Your mother was also the one who encouraged you and your siblings to take up an instrument early on.

Yeah, my mom grew up singing and dancing, she played little bit of piano and she was actually in an R&B band when she came to the States. She’s Korean and was raised in Japan, and she told me that the band is what really helped her learn English! So she was not a classical music enthusiast by any means, but she said, “I'm going to make you guys play an instrument, because nobody else will!” I chose violin. I'm actually grateful that my parents didn't come from a classical music background because we all discovered it together. It wasn't like I was going off of someone else's blueprint. My mom is still one of my biggest inspirations… She's been a huge, huge motivation for me, she’s the one who's always been there to remind me, first of all, what I'm capable of, and also why this is important, not only for me, but for the world.

What do you mean?

I think my parents realized that if this is something that I really love to do, and it's something that I'm serious enough to put the time and the effort into, it could change people's lives. I don't know how my development might have changed, or might have been supported if I had any black role models in classical music when I was younger, you know? When I was fortunate enough to win the Sphinx Concerto Competition, and I was performing with their partner presenters and orchestras, I started going into their partner school programs. And oftentimes those are schools that are majority minority in terms of the student body makeup and the demographics. I was always pleasantly shocked when I told them my story and played the music that I know, which I also thought was nothing special — and kids’ jaws were on the floor! I just understood, “Wow, this is a completely new and unfamiliar experience for them.”

You yourself only started to encounter the music of black composers as part of the Sphinx Concerto Competition, right?

I didn't know that composers could be black until I was 13! You know, it's really a testament to what people are taught about classical music. We have been fine with just totally disregarding an entire world of stories and music and sounds and experiences. I don't think that our teachers were intentionally leaving it out, it’s just that nobody taught them about it either. It's just not been a part of the conversation. So with my debut album Roots, it was really important for me to give voice to not just black composers, but composers from all over the world whose stories and whose cultures aren't really fairly represented in our field. Florence Price, for example, all of the pieces of hers on my album have not been recorded before, so often I wasn't really sure if I was playing it the way she intended because there was no prior performance practice for me to study. Instead, I studied her life.

There’s also a real discrepancy in education in the United States; art and music education in general just isn’t as represented in schools as math and science.

Absolutely! I mean, it would take us hours and hours to go through all of the reasons why arts education at a young age is essential. I think it really should be mandatory, because everyone has feelings, you know, everyone has emotions, and not everyone can express those in math or science class! Some people need their own outlet. And that's certainly what it was for me. Looking back at all the things that I've experienced and all of the people that have come into my life because of music, like Itzhak Perlman, for example… I almost get a little emotional thinking about it, because it's shaped everything about who I am and how I see the world and what I want for the world.

Apparently one of Mr. Perlman’s most important lessons to you was that you have to be moved by the music in order for you to move your audience in playing it.

Yeah, it's crucial that we as the performers feel a real connection to what it is that we're playing. Because after all, that's all we're trying to do in the end, is connect with our audience. And I think it's kind of… It’s almost mystical. You can play something, what you feel is one hundred percent your absolute best, but the next time you go out there, I mean, for me I still wouldn't want to play it the same way. Every performance and every rehearsal and every practice session really is a learning experience. It’s just trying to make every heart beating moment that much more intentional because even for people who have never heard or never experienced classical music before, we're all human beings; we can feel when somebody is really emotionally invested in something.

Are you lucky that the music you play always moves you in that way? Or have there been times when you just have to go out there and play it because it’s your job?

I think that's part of the challenge! For me, I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I can decide what I play. So my first priority is making sure that I program and perform things that really speak to me, because those are the things that I feel most comfortable speaking to others about through the instrument. That's really one of the backbones of my performance philosophy: making sure that people understand that this music actually means something. It's not just notes on a page.

Is there a balance that you have to strike in order to play with those big feelings, but not give so much emotion that it gets in the way of your performance?

Sure, I mean, you don't want to tip the scales to one hundred percent right at the very beginning of performance. With any great movie, TV show, opera or any sort of story, there are ebbs and flows and ups and downs, and there's a trajectory to it. It's something that the average listener might not even think about, but it's the kind of thing that Mr. Perlman always used to tell me in lessons when he wanted me to get a little bit deeper into it. He was like, “Just do something different, but don't let me know what it is. Change something, change your approach, change the way you think about it, but do so in a way that's not like you're just throwing it in my face. Let me feel it, and don't make me want to think about it.” I thought that was really powerful. It's not even enough anymore to feel it, you have to want to get that feeling across as well. And finding that balance is a lifelong journey.

What do you think it is about classical music that makes that demands so much from its performers in terms of that kind of storytelling?

I don't know of an art form that can so viscerally encapsulate any area on the spectrum of human emotion and human experience. Somebody can hear a piece that they've never heard before, and memories from any point in their life might just come rushing to their head, they might be filled up with this emotion that they didn't even know that they had. Classical music forces us to reckon with those kinds of emotions. Especially as a performer, you have to have that vulnerability to say, “Wow, this makes me feel really sad or disturbed,” and you have to be able to put yourself in that place in that moment. And that’s something that I'm always going to be trying to figure out how to do better. But I think the only the only way to get there is just to keep doing it over and over again and try to do it in a new way, in a way that's exciting to you every time.