I am a musician. Music is what I know best and may be the only thing I know well. Music saved me during a difficult and even dangerous time in the early years of my life. Orange County, California was not the easiest place to grow up gay in the 1970s. Being adrift, like many during their teens, I was especially sensitive to nearly daily taunting, name-calling, and ridicule because I was a mixed-race, gay youth.
Emil de Cou – Photo: Griffin Harrington for Wolf Trap / File photo
After spending years trying to hide my true self from others (and even me) I came across my own personal “life preserver,” and a very unlikely one at that — my high school band room. With my fellow nerds and geeks I finally found my voice and acceptance and, most of all, I found music. Although the taunting never stopped outside of the band room, it seemed to sting less knowing that I could find refuge in music. Those years of refuge, supported by my wonderful teachers and friends, have never left me.
I have been lucky enough to have made a life in music and throughout my career the most fulfilling experiences I have had as a conductor have been to bring music to young people and, above all, to the most vulnerable around us, including other racial and sexual minorities. Music cannot put food on the table or employ thousands of people, but I know from first-hand experience that music has a positive influence on the lives of all Americans. Music is at the center of every milestone event, be it a birthday, a wedding, national mourning, or a spiritual gathering. Music, even in its most basic form (e.g., the birthday song or “Now I know my ABCs”), can entertain millions. Music can also give a voice to the voiceless, and, in my case, save a life by providing a refuge to a developing young, gay musician.
Every time I speak to young people about the power, joy and fun of music, I tell them that they — or anyone — can have a voice. We need to become a singing nation, and less a shouting one, once again. In the words of James Johnson, “lift every voice and sing.” And if by doing so we save one vulnerable child or a forgotten, lonely soul we are that much closer to fulfilling that glorious promise to become a more perfect union. Vilification and vitriol have no place in the arts, just as they have no place in American life.
To date, it seems that mere “words” have not unified this great country. Perhaps it time to give the arts a chance.
Emil de Cou
Pacific Northwest Ballet
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