Creating a space in classical music for all, including those who have historically been excluded, has come naturally to Stephen Spottswood ’16. After earning his undergraduate degree in music education, he has used his talents to expertise to shine a light on musicians in the community. As a music and orchestra teacher at Reynoldsburg City Schools and the founder of Columbus Cultural Orchestra, Spottswood has inspired students of all ages to pick up an instrument and create music that resonates with them, often blending traditional genres for modern audiences.
“I’ve been a musician my whole life. I started playing the violin in fifth grade, but before that I was exposed to different styles of music besides classical, like gospel and jazz,” said Spottswood. “I just really liked playing, so I stuck with it. I was one of the only kids that looked like me playing the violin all through school. I was like the only Black and brown kid in orchestra.”
While a student at Capital, Spottswood took advantage of the collaborative nature on campus to explore how classical masterpieces could be mixed with radio favorites.
“It was really an environment of collaboration and everyone thinking outside of the box. I liked playing with my fellow students at Capital, for example, being asked to come to the studio and put strings on an R&B track,” said Spottswood. “My twin brother and I would do contemporary classical stuff during Friday Common Hour at the Conservatory. We would remix classical songs into a hip-hop melody and I would play the viola. It was pretty sweet, and I’m not going to lie, everybody loved it most of the time.”
Combining his love of the violin with hip-hop was a natural fit. A self-described “hip-hop head,” Spottswood found a way to integrate his two distinct passions into one unique art form, to tell his “story inside of the orchestral classical world.”
“The violin reminds me of when a rapper freestyles in a group, and he or she is trying to be the best rapper in the circle. The rhythms that they put together have to be interesting. They have to have something to say that people haven’t heard before,” said Spottswood. “It’s the same way with the violin at competitions. It’s about showing off who’s the best, how loud and fast, and how much swagger you have. You have to have swagger in order to play with confidence. That’s really the other thing that attracted me to playing the violin.”
In 2020, Spottswood founded the Columbus Cultural Orchestra, an orchestra created for and by musicians of color. While the door is open to anyone, musicians must play at least at an intermediate level.
As a composer and arranger, Spottswood can write music that fits a number of different skill levels, but he soon found through the Columbus Cultural Orchestra that his musicians lacked skills not necessarily taught in a traditional classroom setting.
“Nobody in classical music ever teaches us how to solo, but they should because soloing and improvising is the first step in order to be a composer. In using your imagination to create your own song,” said Spottswood. “That’s a big part of the African aesthetic, more so than the European aesthetic. With the European aesthetic, you just read what’s on the paper. With the African aesthetic, you actually create inside of a given confined scale. Inside of that scale you create your own song, and that is so rewarding.”
On Friday, April 22, the Columbus Cultural Orchestra will perform with Otterbein University and Capital University string orchestras at 5:30 p.m. at Mees Hall for “An Orchestra for the Culture” concert. Admission is free.
“The concert is going to be incredible. It’s not your traditional orchestra concert experience, although you will hear some classical music. Think of it more like a hip-hop concert,” said Spottswood. “Let the music move you – some people physically, some people emotionally – but at the end of the day experience a different culture inside a symphonic work.”
For more information about the Columbus Cultural Orchestra, visit https://www.ccomusic.org/.
To learn more about Stephen Spottswood, visit https://www.youtube.com/user/stephenstringz21.
For more information on the Conservatory of Music at Capital, go to https://www.capital.edu/academics/conservatory/.