Kevin Sylvester says that when most people see a 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound black man, they don’t expect him to also be a classically trained violinist. A recent exchange with a woman in an elevator, when he happened to have his instrument with him in its case, drove that point home.
“She’s like, ‘What do you play?’ ” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘I’m a violinist.’ And she was like, ‘Well, obviously you don’t play classical, so what kind of style do you play?’ ”
Sylvester says he explained that while he does have a degree in classical music, he plays all kinds of styles. “She didn’t mean it maliciously,” he says, “but I hope she gets to see us in concert and we can change her perception.”
Moments like this inspired Sylvester and his partner, violist Wilner Baptiste, to call their new album Stereotypes. It’s the latest release by their duo Black Violin, whose seeds were planted years ago when the two met as high school students in Florida.
Both men say that when they were kids, studying stringed instruments wasn’t exactly Plan A. Sylvester was nudged into music classes by his mother in fifth grade, and grew to like the violin despite initially dismissing it as uncool. Baptiste, meanwhile, originally wanted to learn saxophone — but when he signed up for summer band, he was put into a string class with a different teacher accidentally. Or so he thought.
“I didn’t find this out until 2012, that the reason why I got put in his class was because he and the band teacher had a bet,” Baptiste says. “They basically said to themselves, ‘Listen, let’s play golf, and whoever wins gets this kid in their class.’ So it wasn’t an accident — it was actually done on purpose.”