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Moving Between Musical Worlds

March 28, 2019 School of Music

Tomeka Reid Hero 2

Tomeka Reid ’00 discusses her journey to becoming a professional musician.

By Sarah Snyder

As a student cellist Tomeka Reid ’00 said she was a shy and quiet undergrad with a lot to learn. Years later she’s a “New York Times” reviewed musician and “a New Jazz Power Source.” In the years following graduation from the University of Maryland (UMD), Reid has established herself as a phenomenal cellist and improvisational artist performing alongside legendary artists like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. She makes her debut return to campus on April 5, when she’ll perform with her stringtet as part of The Clarice’s Visiting Artist Series. I caught up to chat with her about her journey from a classically trained cello performance major to a successful professional music career.  

How did the University of Maryland School of Music help shape your musical skills?

I was very green when I started my degree at UMD, but I saw what I needed to do and where I needed to be. I practiced really hard. I didn’t take private lessons growing up. We couldn’t afford them. When I went to UMD, Ms. Elsing [Reid’s cello professor and now faculty emeritus] was so amazing. She found the best cello in the school’s collection of instruments and gave it to me because I didn’t go to undergrad with my own instrument. She saw that I cared and other members of my cohort saw that I cared, and they would give me extra tips on technique and what to work on.  Sais Kamalidiin, in the ethnomusicology division at the time, became one of my greatest supporters. I did a lot of listening. It was a great environment for me.

You studied cello performance at UMD, and now you perform jazz and improvised music. What was that journey like for you?

After graduation, I moved to Chicago and discovered how rich and fertile the jazz scene is there. I played in many ensembles with incredible musicians like Dee Alexander, Mike Reed, Nicole Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. It’s only been in the past 10 years that I committed to jazz and improvised music. I felt like I might get pigeonholed, and that people would think I can’t play classical music anymore because I’m playing freely and improvising. In 2000, I decided to get my masters from DePaul University and later my doctorate in jazz studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I wanted to honor the tradition of the music by studying it more formally, even though playing in the clubs with all these talented artists is where I really learned about jazz.

How do you feel about classical music now?

I still love classical music. When I go back to it, it’s easier to play. Maybe because jazz relaxes you, makes you more loose. I encourage people to improvise. When we strive for perfection constantly, it can make us so tense.

Are you excited to come back to UMD to perform?

It’s really awesome to come back and to come back in this way. I left almost 20 years ago and a lot has changed. To present my own work makes me feel encouraged in my life. I’m so proud of not giving up in the moments when I wanted to because look at what’s happening now. I never imagined any of this really.

What has been the most surprising part of being a professional musician?

I tell people all the time that being a musician is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s so much that you learn along the way that is just as important as your degree. Playing music is a lifetime journey. You learn about yourself. You learn about people and relationships. Music is the perfect companion to life because our lives are improvised. Do what you dream and work hard at it, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the journey.

The Tomeka Reid Stringtet performs at MilkBoy ArtHouse on April 5 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. as part of The Clarice’s Visiting Artist Series. Tickets available here.

Photo credit: Tony Smith