Tabitha Johnson doesn’t just play the piano, she engages it. When she’s performing classical pieces, her fingers caress the ebony and ivory keys and her body sways to and fro as she produces audible masterpieces.
The 24-year-old virtuoso is a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music and is on the path to being one of the world’s most notable classical musicians. In March, she won the David I. Martin Music Guild of the National Association of Negro Musician’s (NANM) piano and organ competition. Last month, she won the NANM’s Eastern Regional competition and now she’s headed for the national competition this summer.
A native of Barrie, Ontario in Canada, Johnson said she’s been playing the piano since age 3 and seriously began studying music at age 8. She comes from a musical family with her grandfather, older sister and two cousins also playing the piano. Johnson eventually learned music through Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music.
“It all started off very casually,” she said. “Once I got serious, my lessons became two and a half hours long. I learned theory, music history, harmony, all of these things. I’ve been playing for 21 years.”
At age 16, Johnson did a concert tour around Ontario. She later earned her undergraduate degree in music with a minor in business at McGill University in Montreal. Johnson is currently finishing her Masters in Music Performance at the Manhattan School of Music.
She also teaches piano privately and at Music Beans in Lower Manhattan teaching 30 students in total.
Along with her recent win at NAMN, Johnson won third place at the Canadian Music Competition. In 2018, she won the concerto competition and played with the orchestra at the Miami Music Festival. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her competition with NAMN was done virtually with her performances pre-recorded. Johnson will compete at NAMN’s national competition virtually in July.
Some of Johnson’s favorite pianists include John Legend and Nina Simone. She admires what she calls their “ease” style of playing and hopes to achieve a similar style.
“What I’ve noticed from Black musicians is the ease they have at the instrument,” Johnson said. “It’s like they’re just having a conversation and that’s what I want to have. I don’t want to look at the piano as this thing that I need to conquer. I would love to be able to mimic that ease that they have.”
Diversity lacks in the classical music scene. Many orchestras have none or very few Black musicians, including the New York Philharmonic and the MET Orchestra. Johnson says a lack of Black children having access to music programs to consistently cultivate talent is a factor.
“I think the biggest thing is figuring out what that barrier is for a child not to have lessons, an instrument or a teacher,” she said. “You can’t fix an entire system but if you start with a person right next to you and you can figure out what their problem is and try to fill that gap.”
While Johnson is a classically trained pianist, she enjoys playing sacred music and improvising with the genre. As she’s wrapping up her studies, she wants to cultivate a style all her own.
“I want to be able to develop my own voice and whether that’s in a different style of music, or whatever it is, I just really want to be able to develop that. It will probably be a lifelong process,” she said.
As for her future, she wants to work full-time as a piano teacher in Manhattan, pursue a doctoral degree in education and work in higher education. Johnson also wants to play more classical music by Black composers. In her competition with NAMN, she played Toccata, a work by Black female composer Dolores White.
“I want to play and perform more Black works and hopefully record a good chunk in the future,” Johnson said. “Playing with an orchestra would be great.”