Trumpeter Theresa May Shares the 'Calluses' Black Women Build in the Classical World
Born in Shaker Heights, trumpet performer and teacher Theresa May has established a diverse, prolific career in music. From an early age, May has worked to break barriers and expectations in the orchestral world as a Black woman.
“We need to do better at making it known that women play trumpet,” May said. “We also play tuba, and any other brass instrument, and trombone and whatever."
Entering the world of brass instrumentation
A regular performer with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, Cleveland Brass Works and Gabriel’s Horns, May also plays trumpet in the multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming collective Mourning [A] BLKstar.
May’s career in music began as a performer, but teaching the community brass instrumentation is what brought May back to Cleveland. She teaches private lessons to about 50 students of all ages.
May started learning to play the trumpet when she was nine years old. Her father, also a trumpet player, was her first teacher.
May first pursued a bachelor’s degree in music therapy but switched her focus to trumpet performance three-and-a-half years into the program.
“I was just practicing trumpet all the time instead of doing other things that I should have been doing as a music therapy major,” May said.
May said she grew up going to Salvation Army for church where she was in the presence of heavily brass ensembles and brass bands.
“So it was definitely going to be a brass instrument that I picked, not a stringed instrument,” May said. “And out of all the brass instruments, I was just drawn to the cornet, a smaller version of the trumpet.”
May’s goal was to win an orchestra position while attending graduate school.
“Anyone who’s doing that now, or has, knows how kind of a tall task that is,” May said. “There’s always a million and five people showing up for one audition for one chair in orchestra.”
She wanted to keep playing in orchestras, but taking multiple auditions became expensive, and the competitive nature wasn’t what May believed music should be about.
May enjoyed teaching music and knew she wanted to pursue instructing others even though she had not pursued a music education degree.
She moved back to Cleveland after graduate school to determine her next path.
“I knew I wanted to teach. So then moving back here was just me figuring it out step-by-step, day by day. Figuring out who would call me for gigs and seeing what I liked and what I didn’t like,” May said.
Facing classical music’s diversity problem
While pursuing her own education, May said she was one of the few Black people in her undergrad program.
“I think the lack of representation and me just feeling welcomed and 100 percent comfortable in my surroundings all the time was part of the reason why I didn’t want to keep pursuing taking a bunch of auditions,” May said.
She said these feelings are common for any Black person at any institution.
“We’re normally the one [out] of 20 in the classroom,” May said. “It can feel ostracizing, where you always notice you’re the only one in the group.”
May said this feeling of being ostracized or singled out was something she was used to, but it was still uncomfortable.
“I asked myself, ‘Do I wanna continue in this and feel like that?’ And the answer for me was ‘Nope,” she said.
May said she also feels that she is considered a “novelty” as a female brass instrument player performing in ensembles.
“I think that’s very telling of how far we haven’t come,” she said. “When people see me with a trumpet, it’s still like a shocking or a ‘wow’ factor. But there are literally tons of women that play trumpet.”
May said her father told her, at age 12 or 13, that she would have to build her confidence since there will still be people who think she can’t play because she’s a young woman.
“He was right,” May said.
During college, May said her instructor told her to sit principal, or first chair. Older white men present asked if she was sure she was supposed to be sitting there.
“Us bracing ourselves for moments like that is what helps us keep going,” May said. “You kind of build callouses for situations like that.”
May was among 10 Black female brass musicians in the classical world who participated in a Zoom conversation that was broadcast live on Facebook this year.
The musicians discussed the lack of a voice they had in their positions and how people don’t “see” them.
“Different lives, different people, the same experience,” May said.
Finding freedom as a performer
May’s work with Mourning [A] BLKstar aims to put a spotlight on the personal experiences of diverse artists.
She joined the group after meeting RA Washington through a friend. Washington asked May if she wanted to get a horn section together for the group.
The collective crafts songs that call attention to police brutality, racial injustice and inequality, while telling the unique stories of members’ individual lives.
“It’s very freeing. I feel a sense of freedom being in this group that I don’t get in any other ensemble that I play with,” May said.
She said the Mourning [A] BLKstar vocalists tell their stories through song from a very honest point of view.
The instrumentation, particularly the horn playing, evokes the emotions of the songs.
“The word that we use all the time is ‘organic,” May said. “It feels kind of cheesy to keep saying that, but I think that’s the closest to the truth.”
May said when she is writing parts with trombone player William Washington, the two are creating what they feel in a particular space and time.
“So it’s not like we’re political. We just talk about our lives and our existence,” May said. “Sometimes the Black experience is always just politicized, but it’s literally just our lives that we’re talking about.”
Mourning [A] BLKstar's latest album, “The Cycle,” was released this year during the pandemic. The group had a major tour planned to support the release, which was canceled because of COVID-19.
May has kept busy teaching students of all ages throughout Cleveland.
She became involved with an organization called fp Creative, where she has produced and performed pieces by living Black composers.
Her program includes works by friend Ahmed Alabaca and Buck McDaniel, as well as music by Regina Harris Baiocchi and Richard Peaslee.
May recently took part in Divas Through the Decades, a Seraph Brass project for the Global Fund for Women. She was featured among 81 musicians from around the world for the collaborative project, which put the spotlight on the world’s top women brass musicians.
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