Renowned classical pianist Andre Watts on discovering himself through music

Andre Watts, classical pianist2020 Classical Roots Honoree 

André Watts was just 10 years old when he played his first concert with The Philadelphia Orchestra. He realized then that he wanted to make being a pianist into a career.

In 1963, Philadelphia and New York-based instructor Genia Robinor helped bring Watts’s vision to fruition. Robinor astounded a then-16-year-old Watts by arranging for him to audition for a televised Young People’s Concert with Leonard Bernstein, the renowned composer, conductor, and pianist. Watts won a spot.

“The broadcast was especially successful for me because Bernstein made this huge proclamation — on national television — that he, himself, was going to take the pleasure of conducting me in the Liszt Concerto [#1 in E-flat],” remembers Watts, “while the three other performers would share a Mozart Concerto conducted by his assistants. This was, actually, the beginning of my professional career.”

A few weeks later, celebrated pianist Glenn Gould canceled his appearance with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. But someone suggested that Watts fill in. “Bernstein immediately loved the idea, and I was called on a Tuesday morning to play that same week,” Watts says.

Though he was nervous, he trusted that all he needed to do was continue to play as well as Bernstein believed he could: “The truth is that I didn’t truly realize the externals of the situation; I wanted to please my mother and my teacher! I also wanted Bernstein and the orchestra members to think I was really good, and that the performance on the Young People’s broadcast hadn’t been a fluke. I wanted them to know I was capable of playing well in the real concert world.”

Since then, Watts has become a superstar; he has performed globally, making appearances with virtually every major symphony and in recital at top venues and festivals.

Watts made his DSO debut with conductor Sixten Ehrling in 1969. In 1972, he became the youngest person to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Yale University. In 1976, he performed the first full-length recital aired on national television. And in 2011, he earned the National Medal of Arts.

Despite the good fortune he had early in his career, life wasn’t simple for Watts. Being biracial meant that he encountered prejudice from both whites and blacks. Still, his mother never allowed him to use bigotry as an excuse for not working toward his goals, and there were enough people who seemed to welcome the idea of a young man of color succeeding in the classical music arena that his obstacles were not insurmountable.

Watts credits the nurturing and instruction of his first manager, Bill Judd, and his last official teacher, Leon Fleisher, for their help; as well as Bernstein, his mother, and others. At the same time, he praises the many incredible musicians whose recordings he heard for their impact.

Grateful and flattered by his Classical Roots honor, Watts said the most significant aspect of the recognition is that it reminds him to be “a good example of always striving.”

“African-American students wanting to enter the classical music world still have the racial component to contend with,” he says. But he posits that the best advice he has transcends race, gender, and profession:

“I would say that searching for and discovering the real you is vital. The process of living and growing as a human being while trying to have compassion for all other human beings will help in making you the best musician or any career you choose — you can be.”

(This story was originally published by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.)

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