Randall Goosby is keeping historic, Black classical music alive

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

Randall Goosby says his album “Roots” is about showing Black composers’ contributions to classical music. Credit: YouTube.

Randall Goosby is a 26-year-old violinist who rose to fame in the classical music world when he was only 13. In 2010, he became the youngest winner of the coveted Sphinx Competition’s junior division, a national competition for young Black and Latinx classical musicians. Goosby’s dad is Black and his mother is Korean. And he’ll be performing with The LA Philharmonic this Thursday and Friday.

He tells KCRW that his mom wanted the kids to all play an instrument of their choice, so at age 6, he started with piano but had trouble reaching all the keys with his small hands, so his self-esteem plummeted. After months, he turned to the violin, which he says was “love at first sight.” 

“As soon as I started playing, I mean, instead of coming home from school and watching cartoons and eating snacks, I would just throw the violin case open and just play away until I fell asleep.”

Goosby ended up studying under a Latvian teacher who required him to practice three hours a day — for three years. After switching instructors a few times, he got placed with Julliard-educated Philippe Quint, and by age 11, he (with his mom) flew from Memphis to New York City once a month for six hours of lessons jam-packed into each weekend. After three years of that schedule, he was ready to enter the Sphinx Competition.

Goosby credits his mom, and her so-called “iron fist,” with giving him the discipline to practice consistently. 

“She would literally sit in the room with me with a kitchen timer that was set to one hour, and I can take a break once I heard the ding and I got to an hour. There were a couple of times I tried to leave at 49 minutes, 53 minutes, and she poked her head and it’d be like, ‘Excuse me. I didn't hear a ding.’ And so, my dad, he was always the one to say, ‘Hey, come on. It's a nice day out. He's a boy, his friends are knocking at the door, let him go outside and play.’ She was like, ‘I will. But he's got to practice.’ So she definitely kept me in it.”

Halfway through high school, Goosby studied with renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman during a seven-week intensive summer music program. Previously, he says he’d listened to every one of his recordings at least 1,000 times over. 

During the first week, a lightbulb moment went off. “I was like … obviously I'm going to spend the rest of my life playing this music. I wouldn't rather do anything else.” 

In 2021, Goosby released his first album “Roots,” which is a compilation and celebration of Black composers. Coming out of 2020, which was defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, Goosby says he didn’t know what he was doing and whether it was possible to play a meaningful part of the cultural revolution that was happening all around him. 

“This was my moment to really leave a mark and put my stamp on this cultural reawakening. And so immediately, I gravitated towards ‘Okay, let's tell the story of all of these voices, or at least a few of the many voices that have been forgotten or silenced or left out of the history books in classical music.’ And obviously, a lot of those names are Black. So just looking back, I'm just so grateful to have had the opportunity to put together a collection of such great music and to share it in such a big way.”

Goosby’s record includes the works of Xavier Dubois Foley, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Black composer Florence Price, who died in 1953. Hundreds of pages of her personal notes, letters, and music manuscripts were discovered in 2009 when her Chicago home underwent renovation.

“Now, fortunately, much of it has been published. I think it just goes to show that the presence and the importance and the contributions of Black artists and classical music is not new. In terms of the future of classical music, in terms of how do we make it more sought after, how do we make it more approachable, more relatable for more people — it’s including music that's written by more people.”

Today, Goosby works to expose young people of color to diverse classical music by just playing it for them. 

“The impression of it has been so internalized by all of society, really, and those that do engage in it are fine with the reputation that it's built up — of being this very exclusive, snooty, high-brow type of affair.”

He adds, “If you bring it into a school, I've had the opportunity to do so many times, and I go in there with a T-shirt and pants and sneakers on, and I talk about myself, I talk about my interests. … Then I play this music for them. Suddenly, it means something completely different because it's coming from a place and from a person who they feel like they can relate to.”