Marie Dillard gathers her friends in her dorm room on campus at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown to do what teenagers do: hang out and listen to music. “Just wait until this beat drops,” she tells them, head bopping. Her friends lean in, eager—Dillard is known for her musicality and easy coolness, so of course the playlist will be dope. But they’re ill-prepared for what comes next: the opening strains of 19th-century composer Gustav Holst’s Opus 29 from St. Paul’s Suite (in which, to be fair, the beats do drop).
“My friends are like, ‘What is this?’” Dillard says, laughing. “I love classical music. It’s what I want to play, the space I want to be in. I refuse to believe I’m the only Black person who feels this way.”
She’s right, of course: She is not the only Black person who loves classical music. But ever since she picked up her first instruments—the violin at age 4 before switching to the viola at 12—she’s felt singular in her interest. In many spaces—orchestras, music lessons, string instrument camps—Dillard was often the only young Black musician. “That’s a problem,” she says. And it’s one the 17-year-old hopes to help solve with her nonprofit, the Persistent Endeavors Foundation.
“I’ve found that when Black people are really good at something, it’s like, ‘Wow! You must just have this exceptional ability,’” Dillard says. “When the fact is, no, I have worked at this since I was 4. It was a persistent endeavor.”
She co-founded the nonprofit in 2022 to expose young musicians from diverse communities to the world of classical music—and keep them there. It also works to create a pipeline to help shepherd geniuses-in-the-making to national organizations like the Black Violin Foundation, a nonprofit that awarded Dillard a grant to pursue private music lessons, and, most recently, to purchase a brand-new viola.
“I realize, based on the spaces I was in and the people I was surrounded by, that I found a passion, and was able to keep it,” Dillard says. “It shouldn’t come down to the spaces one is in. Not everyone is so lucky.”
Via Persistent Endeavors, Dillard has created her own space, the Crescendo Lab, a project she piloted with five young students this summer in her hometown of Englewood, New Jersey. The pilot, which ran for five weeks with multiple 35- to 45-minute sessions, sought to generate excitement in her young charges for classical music, support each child’s musical learning, expose the little learners to composers of color and offer Dillard as a mentor.
“There were Black composers in classical music, but Black classical music didn’t take off because of racism and segregation,” Dillard says. “No other genre of music is this closed off, and that historic lack of inclusivity has created the issue I see today: a lack of people of color, particularly Black Americans, in orchestras.”
Dillard plans to bring Crescendo Lab to Delaware via her work with area elementary schools as a part of the school’s mentoring program. And thanks to recent monies awarded at the Be All You Passion Project Festival at the University of Pennsylvania, she plans to fund private music lessons with St. Andrew’s director of instrumental music Dr. Fred Geiersbach for a violist who might not have the means to pay.
Dillard, who played first chair viola in Delaware’s All-State Orchestra last year, cannot overstate the impact of music on her life. It started with endless Earth, Wind & Fire tracks that her mother, Robin, “broadcast to me in the womb.”
“Music is how I move through the world. It’s what I love; it’s something that impacts how I think,” she says. “It’s incredible to me that I can pick up an instrument, look at a piece of paper, then create beautiful noise. It’s like coding in your head. I could have easily been in a place where I just stopped doing this thing I loved because I didn’t have the resources and people I needed.”
That’s why extending a lifeline to the next generation of young musicians from various racial and ethnic backgrounds is so important to her.
“I feel a responsibility to contribute to the world I want to see. I want to help people, to make sure they know that they can carve places for themselves,” she says. “Incorporating history into this mentorship to let these kids know that there were people who looked like them—are people that look like them—doing the same things they are doing or hope to do is foundational.”