Robert Lee Watt Defies Racial Barriers in Classical Music with Instrument for ‘Thin-Lipped White Boys’

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The Black Horn book cover In an industry where Blacks are incredibly scarce, French horn player Robert Lee Watt has managed to triumph over classical music’s racial barriers and now he’s sharing his journey with the world.

Back in October, Watt released his autobiography, entitled “The Black Horn,” which details all the struggles he faced as a Black man who fell in love with the French horn.

Today, Watt is celebrated as the first African-American French hornist to ever be hired by a major symphony in the United States.

He is praised for spending nearly four decades with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and he will forever live on as an iconic figure in classical music. However, his love for the French horn wasn’t always held in such high regard.

In fact, it caused his own father to question him and eventually led to a racist nickname that plagued his early years in a major symphony.

The New Jersey native revealed that while he was born into a musically inclined family, his father wasn’t very supportive of his choice to play the French horn instead of the trumpet.

Watt’s father played a lot of popular music on the trumpet and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.

Fate had other plans for the emerging musician.

Watt came across a French horn in the basement of a local community center, he explains in his autobiography. He asked his father what the instrument was, only to be told the instrument was for white people.

“He says, ‘French horn – that’s a middle instrument, it never gets the melody,” his father answered, according to Watt. “And besides, it’s for thin-lipped white boys. Your lips are too thick.”

For some reason, however, Watt just couldn’t shake the feeling he got after discovering that French horn.

“It really touched me,” Watt said during an interview with NPR.

So despite all the odds that had been stacked against him, Watts continued to practice playing the French horn.

It turned out that Watt’s father was afraid his son would face the same rejection that he faced in the past after he auditioned for Juilliard.

Fortunately, Watt did have another paternal figure who didn’t have any fears that he would be rejected.

“I think it’s time for your to start looking for a job,” Watts recalled his teacher, who recently passed away at the age of 100, saying.

“Doing what?” he asked his teacher.

Robert lee Watt makes classical music history His teacher felt like the answer was incredibly obvious.

“Playing your horn, dummy,” Watt’s teacher answered.

That teacher continued to push Watt to embrace his passion for the French horn and it eventually paid off.

Getting hired by the Los Angeles Philharmonic didn’t mean his journey was over, however.

It was actually the first time he would really have to come face to face with the harsh realities of racism in the classical music industry.

Watt told NPR that he was often referred to as Boston Blackie.

“No one ever had ever called me that personally but many people came to tell me that that’s how I was referred to,” he said.

Fortunately, Watt never turned away from his dream. His first friend in the orchestra reminded him why his position as the first Black French horn player was so important.

“Bob, now that you’re here, try and get as many Black people where you are,” he remembered being told by a Chinese member of the orchestra. “That’s how things change.”

Unfortunately, not too much has changed in the demographics of major orchestras in the U.S.

As of 2013, only four percent of orchestra players in the U.S. were Black or Latino, according to Aaron Dworkin, the president and founder of the Detroit-based nonprofit Sphinx Organization, which works to “create positive change in the arts field and in communities across the country” by improving education and access to the arts.

 

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