When 12-year-old Armond Vance first picked up a violin, he wasn’t inspired by the classical notes of Bach or other European composers. He was jiving to a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” performed by DSharp, a Black Atlanta-based violinist, singer and producer. Now 24, Vance not only entertains listeners on Instagram and TikTok by remixing hip hop hits (Just check out how he took “Up” by Cardi B back to the 19th Century). He is also an orchestra director at William James Middle School in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is passing down his skills to Black and Hispanic students and teaching them about composers who look like them.
Vance recently talked with Reckon about how he got into string instruments and the importance of diversity in the orchestra world.
So you have been playing the violin for more than ten years now. Did you come from a family with deep musical roots?
My first experience musically was dancing with my three sisters who were a lot older to me, but they were into dance – hip-hop and other dance styles like contemporary — and they were on dance teams. So that was kind of like my first musical education, I would say just listening to 90s – early 2000s hip hop and R&B. Then, of course, the music that my mom listened to was more like Motown and she was very good at drawing. There was definitely a lot of creative energy in our home.
What made you pick up the violin?
Picking up an instrument is kind of what really helped me to build my identity and it gave me a lot of confidence. It amplified my voice and really enabled me to start on a path towards being the best version of myself. I was a quiet and reserved kid, but I had a lot to say and a lot of thoughts. When people heard me on an instrument they listen. When I was in high school and middle school, people would be like, “Oh, that’s tight.”
So, your mom had creative energy from drawing, your sisters’ creative energy came from dancing and your creative energy came from the violin?
Well, violin at first. I started in middle school and I had a very cool art director who really gave me the space to explore the possibilities of what my instrument could do, which were kind of limitless. I was always trying to play hip hop songs and pop tunes on my instrument at an early age and he endorsed that.
He encouraged me to compose my own pieces of music and arrange pop tunes for orchestras. When I was 15, through his support and motivation, I actually wrote an arrangement for the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. They not only performed it. I got to conduct it, too. That was kind of the turning point for me, like, “Oh, this is what I can see myself doing this for a living.”
You identify yourself as an artistic activist on social media. You mind going more into why?
That really came into play last year. People might not want to listen or read to inform themselves, but if they hear a piece of music or see a piece of art, that really enables them to better empathize with a group for a cause. Music also has the ability to mobilize people. It served that role so many different times in history, like the Civil Rights Movement, but then also today with Black Lives Matter.
Last year, I wrote a piece for string orchestra dedicated to Elijah McClain, a violinist who was killed. It’s called r(E)volution and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra actually performed it. That piece was bringing awareness to him and all the other unarmed black men who were murdered by police. It was my most liked post on Instagram at the time and the Toledo Symphony actually commissioned me for that piece.
Can you talk about the lack of diversity in orchestra music and education?
The orchestra world, to be very frank, is a very white space. There’s a lot of white supremacy upheld there because it’s very Eurocentric. It upholds European composers as the greatest of all time and considers them the standard for what is musical genius and greatness. Honestly, I don’t agree with that. That creates a kind of alienating environment, especially if you’re the only Black kid growing up in your youth orchestra.
That’s why I always try to write and compose the blackest music possible. Like, you know, we can’t continuously uphold these Eurocentric values especially like when the American music industry is defined by Black music, not by Europeans because Black music is the most American of American music.
How are you changing that in the classroom and on social media?
In the academic setting, it is exposing my students to these Black and Hispanic composers because there’s actually many who aren’t in history books. Like Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a French composer who was half Black and half white because his father owned slaves and his mom was African. He was the greatest fencer and composer in France to the point that Mozart, like the white composers we always hear about, actually copied a lot of ideas from him.
I have this series on TikTok where I am trying to educate people about the hidden figures of Black classical musical history. Like Florence Price, who was the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major professional orchestra in 1932. There are only three videos so far, but I’m trying to do more.
It’s lovely that you, a person who discovered their love of strings in middle school, is now teaching middle schoolers. What inspired you to teach?
My orchestra director in high school, Wasim Hawary, inspired me to be a teacher. He saw the passion in me early and provided the outlets for that energy. I also love to watch kids grow into the beings they truly are and always have been.
Art can be an escape from adversity and really transform lives. If it wasn’t for music finding its way into my life, I would not be living the way I do today. I am comfortable, free of financial burdens, have the capacity to empathize with others, and I am in a position to really take care of myself –physically and mentally. This was not available to me as a child growing up poor. Music making can really evolve to be like a superpower
You can learn more about Vance in this week’s Black Joy newsletter. You can subscribe here if want more stories of melanin magic like this one in your email inbox every Friday.