Trailblazing music professor receives Stecher & Horowitz Power of Innovation Award and continues to pioneer for greater diversity in the arts

Trailblazing music professor receives Stecher & Horowitz Power of Innovation Award and continues to pioneer for greater diversity in the arts

Home » #Faces of UDC » Trailblazing music professor receives Stecher & Horowitz Power of Innovation Award and continues to pioneer for greater diversity in the arts

Trailblazing music professor receives Stecher & Horowitz Power of Innovation Award and continues to pioneer for greater diversity in the arts

Dr. Leah Claiborne, associate professor of music (piano) and coordinator of keyboard studies

Photo Credit: Crystal Lenz

Dr. Leah Claiborne, associate professor of music (piano) and coordinator of keyboard studies, has received the 2022 Stecher & Horowitz Power of Innovation Award from the Music Teachers National Association. This $10,000 prize is awarded annually to a young professional artist or teacher who demonstrates an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to artistic excellence, pedagogical leadership, nurturing spirit and community service.

“It is a surprise and honor—there were such incredibly deserving applicants,” said Dr. Claiborne. “What meant the most was knowing I am working alongside important leaders, but my work was chosen as the inaugural recipient.”

Dr. Claiborne teaches the history of African American music. She also focuses on using Black composers in her performances and research. She serves as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion columnist for American Music Teacher and the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Frances Clark Center/National Conference of Keyboard Pedagogy.

She grew up studying Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. “I remember always sitting at a piano trying to pluck out notes,” she said. “I listened to my Dad’s jazz records. My favorite albums were by Nina Simone, and I wanted to become the pianist, artist and change agent she was. My father started me off with classical music, which was love at first sight.”

Having performed across the United States, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Japan, she is a highly sought-after adjudicator and clinician in national piano competitions. Yet, the award-winning musician says she has struggled with “always being the only Black person performing and competing on concert stages.”

“This lack of representation was highlighted once I decided to major in piano performance at Manhattan School of Music and University of Michigan,” she said.

Dr. Claiborne took a pedagogy course in graduate school and soon realized that she had never studied a piece by a Black composer.

“When I started researching piano music by Black composers, I became committed to performing their music and bringing awareness of their significant contributions. I want to ensure that students at all levels of their musical studies know that they were and are creating music for them,” she said. “I want to make sure that a student like myself never has to go through 20+ years of music education without ever knowing about music by Black composers.”

She was named the Father Merlet Prize in the ProMusics International Music Competition in 2019 for exemplifying high-performance excellence and an unparalleled commitment to social outreach. In 2017, Claiborne was the first pianist to be awarded the Rackham Predoc Fellowship at the University of Michigan. It allowed her to further her research in compiling, editing, and recording piano music by Black composers. In 2016, she was a top prize winner in the National Association of Negro Musicians National Piano Competition.

Dr. Claiborne obtained her undergraduate degree from the Manhattan School of Music and a Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Michigan. She notes that she always celebrates students who take on the challenge of pursuing piano performance. Even though the audience applauds for the music they’ve heard, she praises the daily efforts, setbacks, devotion, and sacrifices it took to get her students to that point.

“I have always felt that piano performance is the most honest work,” she said. “It takes guts to walk out on stage. You may be playing an instrument that you may have never touched in your life. You share the most vulnerable and intimate parts of yourself in the hopes of connecting with your audience. It is honest work because each pianist has a unique testimony to give when they perform. Each day of preparation builds and molds the person’s character, confidence and commitment. In those short moments on stage, we have the opportunity to share just a snapshot of the long efforts it took to get to that performance.”

For more information about the UDC Music Program, please click here.