Michelle Cann (photo- chambermuse.com)
Arts & Culture Featured Music

Curtis Institute Chooses Michelle Cann as Inaugural Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies 

The Curtis Institute of Music has created the Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies as a way to commemorate the late faculty member. Sokoloff was on the teaching faculty for 84 years and only recently passed away in July 2020 at the formidable age of 106.

Continuing her legacy will be no easy feat, but Curtis found someone who is up to the task. The school has named Michelle Cann to fill the Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in piano studies. This is a truly fitting way to honor both women for their influence, passion, and drive. Find out more about what makes the Curtis faculty members special, and how Curtis maintains its prestigious reputation.

Who Is Michelle Cann?

Michelle Cann is a classical pianist who graduated from Curtis in 2013. She has gone on to share her musical talents both in the U.S. and around the world. She’s also been involved in community efforts, directing two children’s choruses in the music education program Play on Philly. (This program was inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema.)

In 2019, she was named Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s MAC Music Innovator, a program that highlights African-American classical musicians. This individual is selected by the Multicultural Awareness Council for his or her technical skills, powerful artistry, and commitment to education. As a part of her duties as a MAC Music Innovator, Cann participated in music performances throughout the community, particularly in primary and secondary schools. 

South Carolina Symphony with Michelle Cann performing Piano Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price. Price was the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra in 1933 (photo: courtesy Steinway & Sons)

Cann and Sokoloff

Michelle Cann met Eleanor Sokoloff when she was attending the school, and she received some very valuable advice in their first interaction. Sokoloff was excited for Cann to be at Curtis, but she also reminded Cann of the competition ahead. Turning talent into a career at Cann’s level is rarely a seamless transition.

Sokoloff told Cann that she had all of the tools at her fingertips. From the facilities to the first-rate faculty, the Curtis Institute sets its students up for success. Sokoloff also stressed the importance of knowing your worth in the industry and never forgetting just how valuable you are.

It’s clear that Cann took this advice to heart. Cann went on to become a Community Artist fellow after receiving her Artist’s Diploma. She was also hired as a collaborative staff pianist at her alma mater. She performs in the U.S., China, and South Korea as both a recital and chamber musician. 

Sokoloff’s Legacy

Sokoloff was always vocal about attracting more female faculty members. This Chair is made possible by both the support of her family and from a Curtis alumnus named William A. Horn. The Curtis Institute has designated this Chair to forward-thinking female pianists because that’s exactly who Eleanor Sokoloff was.

Cann embodies Sokoloff’s best qualities, and she views her role as a way to advance Sokoloff’s original mission. Cann’s former teacher, Robert McDonald, has said that Cann’s gifts go far beyond her talent as a performer. Her vision, experience, and dedication are what will make her such an asset in the piano department. She is the very definition of a role model. 

Changing the Conversation

Cann plans to use her background as a way to shed new light on old adages. As a woman of color, Cann has long understood that she has faced certain challenges that others did not. One of the things that she wants to do is use influence to send positive messages to all children, no matter their identity, who choose to pursue music.

When people off-handedly tell children that they can achieve anything they want, visible examples must back these statements up. Cann wants to be the one to show rather than tell children that there are opportunities available to everyone if they’re willing to put in the work and believe in their worth. 

Cann and the Students 

In Cann’s own words, “I am honored to continue my connection to this great institution as a member of the piano faculty. I have learned a lot throughout my life about the importance of mentorship and the value of being a musician with meaningful relationships with our communities.”

Ten years after enrolling at Curtis, Cann is thrilled to work with students at the school. In her capacity as Chair, she has even more opportunities to pass down all that she has learned along the way. 

Cann will be working remotely with Curtis students in chamber coaching sessions as well as individual lessons. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the school is operating entirely online. She sees this as her chance to inspire students to build lasting and fulfilling careers and to connect with audiences in a more powerful way. 

This might be her first year in the Sokoloff Chair, but Cann is no stranger to helping young musicians. She was chosen as an innovator in Cincinnati because she understood the value of mentorship. She also helped involve the larger community, bringing people together to support one another. 

The Curtis Institute

Curtis limits enrollment to around 175 students to ensure that each musician gets the mentorship and education he or she needs to thrive. The school offers programs in organ, conducting, composition, guitar, and piano, as well as a symphony orchestra and opera program. 

Further, no student at the institute pays for their education. Every student receives a merit-based scholarship so he or she is free to concentrate on perfecting their craft. All faculty are actively performing musicians who serve as a direct connection to the professional industry. Faculty members offer personalized advice and guidance in addition to sharing their world-class talent. 

Curtis emphasizes the importance of performance with students presenting more than 200 times every year. Curtis invites visiting artists from around the world and hopes to bring musicians together from every corner of the globe. The Curtis Institute of Music is a school that has touched the lives of millions of people by fostering young musicians to become the best they can be. 



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