(VIDEO) As a doctoral student in the School of Music, Nicole Cherry uses her skills as a violinist to connect with those around her.
As a child, Nicole Cherry sat at her father's feet, listening as he played pieces by Duke Ellington, Ludwig Van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
"Every night after dinner, religiously, he would play the piano," Cherry said. "I would just sit at his feet and listen, and it was a family thing. It was almost natural, like eating, that music was going to be part of my life. I started piano lessons and then moved to the violin."
Cherry, now an acclaimed violinist and a musical arts and violin performance doctoral student in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing ArtsSchool of Music through Texas Tech's Graduate School, has traveled the world, performing on stages across the globe. She said the versatility of the violin gave her, a shy child turned introverted adult, ways to communicate with those around her.
"I like the fact that the violin is a vehicle for all types of voices," Cherry said. "You can pretty much play any style of music on it and it sounds natural, whether it is playing the blues, playing a little country tune, playing a little Mozart, playing an Indian raga. Now you even hear hip hop on the violin. There are just so many ways this instrument can express itself, and I love not only the sound of it, but also, the languages it can speak. It is through this music that I can reach so many lives."
Cherry has used her music to connect with others in her community, performing with numerous quartets and ensembles, leading community music programs and performing in hospitals and assisted-living facilities. Her work has been recognized by the Texas Tech University Women's Club, which awarded Cherry a 2018 Paul Whitfield Horn Scholarship, and by Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec, who presented Cherry with the President's Excellence Award in Diversity and Equity.
"Nicole is a tireless advocate of community engagement through her musical endeavors," Schovanec said. "Her efforts to engage with those on our campus and in our communities will continue to have significant impacts well beyond her time at Texas Tech. She exemplifies what it means to be a Red Raider."
Learning the violin
After playing the piano for several years, Cherry began studying the violin at age 12. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Cherry was a member of the DC Youth Orchestra Program. She said she remembers the day, just a couple of years after she began playing, that she truly committed to life as a musician.
"There was a snow day," Cherry said. "It was a terrible storm, but we still had to go to rehearsal. It happened that the conductor wanted to do a chair test that day."
To complete the chair test, each student played in a small group that consisted of a musician from each section of the orchestra. While the other sections – like first violins and cellos – had several students present, Cherry was the only second violinist who had made it to rehearsal that day.
"I had to play every time – about 30 times," Cherry said. "That was eye-opening, because I realized the value of practice, of being diligent about something you really care about, of your passion and bringing it to the utmost level."
Though she played many more times than the other students that day, Cherry said the conductor had nothing negative to say about her performance. Instead, he was so impressed that he put her in the senior orchestra the next season.
"That was life-changing for me," Cherry said. "It was through this moment I learned the power of commitment. That was completely uplifting. I was just a young teenager, I had just started, but I decided music was the thing I was going to do."
Cherry continued to play as she completed her bachelor of music degree in violin performance at the University of Maryland. Soon, she was in New York City, studying at the Juilliard School.
"Talk about a small fish in a big pond," Cherry said. "I get there and there are musicians of the stature of Yo-Yo Ma everywhere. You ride the elevator, and you see the star of the next movie, Denzel Washington, and people like that. I often wondered, 'What am I doing here?' But it was the most amazing experience to be around that level of artistry. Then you realize these people you see coming down the hallways, they are there to serve, they are there to teach the next generation of artists. That, again, fired me up to say, 'You know, I could really make a difference through music.'"
After completing her master of music degree at Juilliard, Cherry continued building on an impressive list of performances, playing in places like the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall and touring as a featured concerto soloist in Israel, Egypt, Jordan and South Africa.
As a member of the award-winning Marian Anderson String Quartet, based in College Station, Cherry has had the chance to perform musical outreach and lead community music programs in venues that include churches, libraries, schools and prisons across Texas and the U.S.
"As I said, I'm really compelled by the many languages the violin can speak, and it is through this vehicle that I can hopefully change people's lives," Cherry said. "I think that's where my path is."
Bringing the music to Texas Tech
In April 2016, Cherry said she began thinking about returning to school to pursue a doctorate degree.
"We have a lot of great music schools in Texas, and I sent an email to everyone I knew, to all the different music schools," Cherry said. "Annie Chalex Boyle emailed me like two seconds later."
While Cherry had planned on returning to school the following year, Chalex Boyle, who became Cherry's violin professor, convinced her to visit Texas Tech then. When Cherry arrived at the university, she performed an impromptu audition for Chalex Boyle and several other faculty and was immediately invited to begin courses the following semester.
"Nicole is an incredible performer, comfortable with many different genres," Chalex Boyle said. "She is an advocate for new music, consciously reaching out to a variety of composers and premiering new works."
Cherry said Chalex Boyle's dedication to her education was not only a deciding factor in her decision to enroll immediately, but also an indication of what she could expect from other faculty in the School of Music and at Texas Tech.
"She gave me a lesson the same day I was here, and that was just a great example of, holistically, what this School of Music is," Cherry said. "They're all trying to help you reach your greatest potential and hone your passion."
Cherry said her professors encourage creativity equally alongside research-based learning, something that was new to her as a student.
"They are helping us understand what it means to be an exemplary scholar and seek beyond the information that is right in front of us," Cherry said. "The professors are molding a balanced educator who is scholastic and artistic. It's so refreshing and stimulating. I feel like I could just knock on every door, and they would be able to answer any question I have. It's a walking archive right outside my door."
Since arriving at Texas Tech, Cherry has received support not only from the School of Music and TCVPA, but also from other areas like the President's Office, the University Women's Club and the Graduate Women's Mentoring Program. Wendy-Adele Humphrey, associate dean of the Texas Tech School of Law, said she has enjoyed getting to know Cherry as her mentor in the program.
"Nicole continues to amaze and inspire me as she pursues her doctorate in music," Humphrey said. "Not only does she excel in her field, but she also is dedicated to making a positive impact in the community. Her caring attitude and tenacious spirit make her a joy to know."
Cherry also has taken advantage of President Schovanec's invitation to students, Office Hours with the President. Held throughout the year, the sessions give students the opportunity to speak with the president face-to-face to share ideas, ask questions and get to know the university's leader. Cherry said she has visited with Schovanec three different times.
"The fact that the president has an open-door policy is incredible," Cherry said. "You hear all the time in academia, it starts from the top and trickles down. How the students feel is all about how the administration, faculty and staff feel. Everyone I've talked to says, 'He's so warmhearted, he cares deeply about the welfare of the student body.' And he really does. When I was with him, I felt like I was the most important thing on his calendar.
"He would ask me, 'Well, what other activities are you doing?' or 'Are you making sure that you're getting towards your graduation, too?' He really cares about helping you get to the point of graduation."
In February, Cherry performed as the opener for an on-campus lecture by author and two-time NAACP Image Award winner Michael Eric Dyson. The lecture was part of the African-American History Lecture Series, sponsored by the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and the President's Office.
Eric Fried, an associate professor of music who has served on Cherry's doctoral recital committees and has consulted with her on academic and community projects and awards, said that performance was just one of Cherry's countless achievements.
"She is one of our top doctoral candidates in the Texas Tech University School of Music," Fried said. "Her community outreach has extended well beyond the school, making her a wonderful ambassador for the School of Music and for the J. T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts."
Within the School of Music, Cherry has performed with several ensembles, including the University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Phillip Mann, and the Vernacular Music Center under the direction of Chris Smith. She also has participated in events like the University Symphony Orchestra's annual Instrument Petting Zoo in October, which invites children of all ages to become acquainted with various instruments.
"That's where the gold is, right there," Cherry said. "The concert is great, but when you get to touch kids' lives like that, you never know – it might not be the violin, but it's that moment, where they got the courage to try it, that changes their lives."
During her first semester, Cherry was part of the graduate string quartet that focused on outreach in the Lubbock community, playing several hours per week in local elementary schools, the juvenile justice detention center, hospitals and assisted-living centers. The difference in those places, compared to performing daily in a place like the school's Hemmle Recital Hall, has had a profound effect on Cherry and her fellow students.
"You learn a lot about yourself doing that kind of thing," Cherry said. "Not only about your environment and what other people who are suffering are going through, but you also learn a lot about your level of courage. It's a different emotional state that you bring to that experience.
"It's all about service. It's completely about humility and letting the music speak for itself and you keep a smile on your face and let them ask questions if they have them. If they feel sad, they feel sad that day, but they sit there and they listen to the music. Those are hard places to watch people going through what they're going through. But if you can somehow make at least a moment of their day a little better, then it's all worth it."
Playing into the future
Now in her third year of studies at Texas Tech, Cherry plans to graduate in spring 2020 with her doctorate and a graduate certificate in business. She said she has begun thinking about where the music will take her after graduation. In a recent conversation with Chalex Boyle, who is now the concertmaster of the Lubbock Symphony, Cherry mentioned the possibility of auditioning for the symphony.
"I'm falling in love with Lubbock, you know," Cherry said. "There's just so much excellence here."
She's also considered paths that would take her beyond the Lubbock city limits.
"I always dreamt I would be the artistic director of the Kennedy Center," Cherry said. "I grew up there. You could take the subway straight to the Kennedy Center, and after school I would do that in my teen years and just walk around. I just love that place. If I could get a cot and sleep there, I would have."
Serving in a leadership position would allow her to continue to create opportunities for others, both fellow musicians and their audiences.
"I always felt like if I could be a CEO, executive director or artistic director, I could open doors for other artists and other people who might need help in some way and I could use the arts to help them," Cherry said. "I love the idea of bringing up the next generation. We all should be able to embrace all of these wonderful types of arts, no matter where they're coming from. They all stem from similar branches, they all come from the same tree and we're just kind of merging these different elements to make them one thing or the other."
Chalex Boyle said she has no doubt in Cherry's ability to lead.
"She has been able to grow individually as an artist through all of these opportunities at Texas Tech, which will help her be prepared for the next step of her career," Chalex Boyle said. "Nicole's ability to bring enthusiasm to unique audiences through classical music is a way to build bridges between communities. Besides being a consummate musician, Nicole is one of the kindest and most supportive colleagues to her peers in the School of Music.
"She is using her music-making as a form of social justice, which is imperative for our society. She is the definition of a leader in the arts; one who empowers others to create."