Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects.
Today, meet cellist Carrington Truehart! As an MMI Fellow, Carrington works with students at Kingsbury Elementary and STAR Academy. He is also an Iris Orchestra Fellow, performs periodically with the Memphis Symphony, and has been a member of the Jackson Symphony, PRIZM ensemble, and more. He is passionate about and active in community outreach efforts through music. He recently chatted with MMI about how he’s honed his teaching artistry during the pandemic, and why Memphis is a place where a musician can make a name for themselves.
I’m a cellist, and a born-and-raised Memphian.
I’m actually the artist Fellow for the Iris Orchestra at Germantown Performing Arts Center. I’ve also subbed with the Memphis Symphony occasionally. With the Iris Fellowship, we do tons of community outreach at places such as Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Hope House, and more. So we do a lot of community outreach to a lot of the young children who can’t reach us.
On Becoming a Cellist
I’ve been playing since eighth grade. I’m actually a pretty late starter compared to most classical musicians. So I’m 27 now, almost 28, and I’ve been playing for 14 years.
My first experience with music was when I was a kid. I was in a general music program at the University of Memphis called Kindermusik or something like that. This was way back in the late ’90s.
I started playing cello for real at Mount Pisgah Middle School, in a newly introduced strings program. My best friend, John, and I were the only two people who signed up for that class period. I said, “Well, I’m not that good at gym, so I guess I’ll do music!”
Now, I liked school, but you know how there’s something—a subject maybe—that’s your calling? I hadn’t really found it yet. I was just a middle school kid just trying to get through school, really. And I feel like music was the first thing that was fun. At first, it was a place for me to get away from everybody and do something different that people wouldn’t expect. I think I took to it because it was something that you have to work at a lot. And I think, especially in terms of social and emotional maturity, it really helped develop my personality and my values.
I started taking private lessons with a teacher, around my junior or senior year of high school, and I wish I would have practiced more. When I decided to pursue music education as an undergrad at the University of Memphis, I think it was really just because I had spent so much of my time in music that I feel like it was the obvious choice. I had planned to join the Navy, actually, but I decided music was my calling.
On Performing vs. Teaching
When I got into college, I felt like I was in music education to teach strings, but when I got to the end of my degree, I feel like I didn’t really know enough to be a strings teacher. I felt like I had spent a lot of time in classroom learning about the theory of teaching, but I didn’t really learn about the practicality of actual string pedagogy. Now, they’ll say, “Oh, well, we have wind methods. We have string methods classes.” But a lot of it was basically just picking up a violin, or whatever the instrument was. And actually, if I’m cello, they’d make me pick up a violin or viola for about a week or a month or so, just to learn some skills on it.
But I really feel like what they should be doing is actually making you take pedagogy classes to understand how to teach these instruments, so that way when you get in front of an orchestra and you’re trying to figure out how to do something with your violin, you know what to do. Even if you don’t play the instrument, you can at least know what kind of sounds you need. So I felt like once I got into student teaching, I realized how much I didn’t know.
I also feel like they don’t really tell you what your options are when you’re in school. At the time, they’d say, “Practice your instrument, do your recitals, and learn your excerpts so you can win an orchestra job.” Which is great, but, especially now, orchestra jobs are very, very few and far between—especially if we’re talking about the ones that are at a very high level.
What if you want to teach public school? What if you want to open up your own teaching studio? Or what if you want to work in administration? There are other options out there, and I feel like students need to have a real conversation with somebody about what you can do with your career, that can actually help you put food on the table. I feel like that’s one thing that I felt like I had to learn as I went along, and I was lucky to have the right people in my life at the right time saying, “Do this.”
I actually feel like I’ve learned so much about how to navigate the professional world after I graduated, because you just figure it out and you learn what’s going to work and what doesn’t. I could write a whole book about that.
On The Qualities That Make The Musician
For me, the key is having a good attitude. That, and a willingness to listen—it’s even more important than how skilled you are at your music. If you have a good attitude that makes people want to work with you. If you have a good sense of maturity, that takes you far.
The other important piece is time management. I always try to teach the students I work with how to develop their music skills even when I’m not there. If you have a math test coming up, you probably should study a little bit every day. Same with learning music. How do you make the choices with the time that you have?
Once you learn how to time manage, you find that you actually do have a lot of time.
On Growing as a Teaching Artist—And an Artist—During Covid-19
There have been pros and cons of teaching during the pandemic. One of the good things, I would say, is that because I’m limited on my resources when I’m teaching virtually, I’ve had to learn how to keep myself animated during a lesson to keep students’ attention. I’ve had to learn the language of breaking things down for a student over the computer screen, because when it’s right in front of you physically, you can point and show them things. It’s almost putting on a character—you have to learn the language, you have to learn the dance of working with different students online.
Some of the students are ready to go back to in-person learning, but they also understand the situation. I thought I would have a lot of students like, “I just want to go back,” but they actually get what’s happening. But I know it has been hard for some students.
Obviously, the pandemic shut a lot of things down—concerts we were going to have that we haven’t been able to have. But you know what? It’s actually been really great, in terms of my own personal growth as a musician. When everything got shut down for a few months and we were stuck at home, it actually gave me time to practice. It gave me time to study my teaching. And so I basically said, “I’m going to make the most use of this time,” because we rarely get all these weeks to just sit at home and wait for the next chapter.
I knew once things started to pick back up, it was going to hit. So I tried to use my time the best that I could.
Once I get the vaccine, one of the things I’m looking forward to the most is actually going back to the big gym down the street. I work out at my apartment gym and I have some equipment at home, but I really miss going in at the gym. I want to go with my wife to go get a drink, hang out with friends. Just socialize, basically.
And I think in terms of teaching, it will be nice to come back to school, because I’ve been taking a lot of teacher training online and with different people, and so, there are some things that I’m anxious to try to sink my teeth into.
On Memphis Music Then and Now
When I first started my professional career, I was one of only two Black string musicians. There just wasn’t much access to high-level players when I was in public school. So when I came to college, I was like, “Where did these people come from?” They had to bring them in from other places, where they had Suzuki programs, where they had access to private lessons starting in childhood.
So that’s why you have all these players who play really great even when they’re in college. I didn’t take the same path, which is why I’m so grateful I am where I am. I hope that MMI continues to thrive for years to come, because I feel like with Fellows going into the schools, it offers a different platform. It offers exposure to kids who don’t know what a concerto is or how to sound good on an instrument.
I think the Memphis of today is a little more community based. Like I said, when I first became a student musician at the University of Memphis, there were few African American musicians or people of color playing classical music. By the time I left grad school, there were a lot more. And I feel like the way the University of Memphis is now trying to use more local and regional talent to foster them into being the next leaders of the community is great.
Before, they were bringing in musicians from other places to come here to study and then leave. Memphis felt like more of a transitional place. But now, in terms of recruitment in the academic field, in terms of future careers of leaders, there’s more of a push to make something here so that way you don’t have to leave.
This is a place that you can come and make something out of yourself.
And Memphis is growing. There’s a lot more construction going on—for example, the Highland Strip or Summer Avenue. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next 10-15 years, because I feel like we’re still in that stage where things are just starting to cook. But I think there are some good things that are happening.
On The Future
Right now, I’m trying to audition for a cello position in the Air Force orchestra. The video audition is due in early March. And then if you get in, there’s a more cohesive audition in April.
I’m also doing some projects with a colleague of mine, the other Iris artist Fellow Amaro [DuBois]. We’re putting on some concerts, we’re collaborating with some musicians in the Memphis Symphony, and different things like that. So there are some projects coming up, but right now, my wife and I are trying to get a house and trying to make things work for the next year.