Brendan Slocumb’s first novel, The Violin Conspiracy released this month by Anchor Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is charting on Amazon, has quickly gained national media buzz, and become a Good Morning America Book Club selection in only a matter of days. Its surprising success has caught its author pleasantly off guard. Represent Classical spoke with the author and musician this week about his work and personal inspiration behind the story.
The Violin Conspiracy tells the story of a gifted young Black violinist, Ray, who on the eve of The International Tchaikovsky Competition (one of classical music’s most prestigious and grueling competitions) has his prized violin stolen. Ray faces multiple obstacles from unsupportive family members, racist fellow musicians, bigoted community members, police, and other gatekeepers who can’t accept that a Black man can acheive success in classical music.
The narrative leaves readers guessing about who has stolen Ray’s violin until the very last pages. Along the way, the book also confronts the ways in which Black and Brown musicians find themselves working twice as hard as their white counterparts to prove their worth in an industry based on Eurocentric and white supremacist ideas, and the exclusion of contributions by musicians of color.
“As a musician, this is what I’ve been living and breathing for the past 40 years,” he says.
It was during the summer of 2020, that Slocumb found himself with time and space brought on by pandemic stay at home orders to delve more deeply into writing. Though he had written prior, none of his writing had yet been published.
The events of that tumultuous season, brought about by the murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing racial reckoning, made him realize that people were becoming more receptive to examining racism and discrimination in the U.S. From this, he was inspired to write a novel based on his own path as a Black classical musician growing up in the South.
Born in Yuba City, California, Slocumb was raised in Fayetteville, NC. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in music education, with concentrations in violin and viola. In the book, he pays homage to his former college violin teacher, Dr. Rachel Vetter Huang, in the character of Janice, who mentors Ray throughout his teen years becoming his private teacher. Janice believes in Ray despite his frequent self doubt.
It is this theme that reprises itself again and again in the novel: how opportunity and support at critical moments in the life of a young musician make all the difference in their career and success.
Slocumb has been a music educator for the past 23 years in public and private schools teaching general music, orchestra and guitar ensembles. As a performer, he’s played with the Washington Metropolitan Symphony, the McLean Symphony, the Prince George’s Philharmonic, and the Alexandria Symphony. He is concertmaster for the NOVA-Annandale Symphony Orchestra, and been a frequent adjudicator and guest conductor for district and regional orchestras throughout North Carolina and Virginia. He performs chamber music with members of the Annandale symphony.
With his own students, who have ranged from elementary to high school age, he tries to instill in them the confidence to persevere. Too often, his students of color might be the only non-white students in their school music programs or classes. He tells them this unique position can be an asset to their musicianship.
“You can be the trendsetter,” he explains.
In addition, Slocomb says many students of color don’t have access to the same opportunities or experiences as white music students. If their family happens to be economically disadvantaged, the cost of instruments, repairs, private lessons, summer programs, audition and competition fees, formal attire, and accompanist fees, make classical music education a nearly unattainable, inequitable pursuit.
Despite these challenges, Slocumb firmly believes that music education imparts self discipline and fosters determination, in addition to fostering joy of expression and creativity. This, he says, is especially important for students of color. So much so that even if a student never sees the stage professionally, they learn important life skills that will last them years.
“It’s really, really important for people to understand that practicing…having the discipline to sit for hours, you learn to work through the difficult stuff.”