Featured photo: Author, musician and educator Brendan Slocumb (photo by David Bickley)

On Tuesday, April 18, nationally-acclaimed author and NC native, Brendan Slocumb will be visiting Bookmarks in Winston-Salem for the national launch of his new novel, Symphony of Secrets. In it, a music professor investigates the work of a famous composer who may have stolen his pieces from Josephine Reed, a Black, Jazz Age prodigy.

Slocumb was raised in Fayetteville and holds a degree in music education, with concentrations in violin and viola, from the UNCG. He’s also taught music at public and private schools for more than 20 years, and has performed with orchestras throughout Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC. His debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, was one of the most anticipated novels of 2022.

What would you like to start by talking about?

My newest book, Symphony of Secrets, I’m really excited about. It’s a story that I don’t think too many people are aware of. It’s very relevant today. It takes place partly in 1920 and the other half is in the present day. It tackles some really important and ongoing issues.

Tell me about some of those issues and what does your research process look like?

I am a stickler for accuracy just because as a reader or if i’m watching a movie or something, when things are just a little bit off, I’m like, C’mon, you really could have taken a little bit more time and gotten that together. So, I know I can be very critical so I’m looking at it through the writing with a critical eye. With the research for the 1920s I looked up not only music styles but clothing styles and meals, what people would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, where they would work, how much they would make, what segregation was like during those days. Even for women, what were women out in the workforce doing. Everything that was going on at the time I wanted it to be reflective in the story.

What were some of the more surprising things that you found through your research?

One of the things that really stood out to me was the amount of money that the music publishers made off of musicians, songwriters and performers. They would be paid pennies for these songs that everyone around the world that would be singing and dancing to. A lot of them would be destitute because they could not live off of what they were paid for their work. It’s been happening for a really long time and it’s a real thing.

This book has a 100-year time gap. What parallels or differences do you see between the different eras that you’re writing about? 

In my experience, it is prime for minority writers now. I don’t necessarily like to use the word minority, but for stories that we have to tell from our own perspective, the time is perfect for that. People are really receiving those well. Whereas, the parallels for Symphony of Secrets at least, you couldn’t as an Asian-American person or a Black-American person, you could barely go to the library let alone write a book that would be well-received around the world and I feel very optimistic because things are changing and that’s great.

People say we live in a racist country and this and this, but you take a look at where we’ve come from and where we are now, yes, there’s a long way to go, but progress is truly being made. Books like The Violin Conspiracy and Symphony of Secrets and all the other books that writers of color are putting out, it’s really opening up the eyes of the people who would not have necessarily thought, This is a way of life for people, it’s not the same as mine; I never would have thought this had I not read this. So, I think some good is being done.

Has the landscape of performing or teaching classical music changed in your lifetime?

In terms of education, I think more people are accepting of musicians of color. I think people are seeing that more people are making names for themselves in traditionally white spaces, which is fantastic because we’ve been there the entire time. Whatever the reason is, I’m happy to see it. We’ve come such a long way. I’ve come from walking into a room and people thinking I’m the custodian to being a respected person who is going to conduct these difficult pieces of classical literature. We’re on the right path, I really truly believe.

It does seem like there’s been a shift. How does that inform how you approach teaching?

As far as education is concerned, you look at traditional classrooms, most of the teachers that you see for classical music or strings or band, are mostly white females. When I walk into a classroom I demand respect and attention just from my appearance. I think people are becoming more open to the idea that, Whoa this Black guy who looks very scary, he’s actually quite capable and he knows what he’s doing and I can learn something from him. I think people are softening their attitudes to atypical teachers, music education wise. I’m so happy to see more students of color in music and teachers as well. We bring a completely different perspective to teaching and I think it’s a different way of connecting.

You described yourself as ‘scary.’ Can you expound on that?

In my experience, when a Black man walks into a room, he’s there for one of two purposes: To cause trouble or to take out the trash. That’s been my experience. Just based on how we’re portrayed on TV and in the movies, you’re a gangster, or a thief, or a basketball player. You can’t do anything educational or non-traditional Black men roles. So when I walk in I never change who I am regardless of where I’m going. I’m still going to show my tattoos, I’m still going to wear my earrings, I’m still going to be myself, I just happen to be a Black man. I’m completely capable and qualified to teach at a very, very high level. I just happen to be Black. I’m glad people are looking past my skin tone to actually give me an opportunity based on what I can do and not just what I look like.

Do you ever feel pigeonholed or tired of being labeled as a Black writer or Black musician?

I used to, but I realized that we’re all human and our race is part of our identity. But once people have read what it is that I’m talking about and see me, I don’t think they see a Black man, I think they see someone who has a story to tell and it’s an interesting story from a perspective that they’re completely unaware of. And for a lot of people that’s very eye opening. You see that hard exterior melt. 

I know you went to UNCG and know the area. Are there places in the Triad you like to hit when you’re here?

I’m a huge breakfast guy so I will eat breakfast for breakfast, lunch and dinner so I’m a huge fan of Tex and Shirley’s. I’m totally going there when I come into Winston, I’m going there just to eat.

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