Jonathon Heyward, known as the “Converse Conductor,” became the youngest and the first Black music conductor and director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in its 107-year existence. Now, the 31-year-old plans to use his position to attract more Black youth to orchestral music.

“In the year 2023, I didn’t think I would be saying that: ‘the first African American music director,'” Heyward told NBC News. “It’s a testament that work needs to be done.”

Heyward became interested in orchestral music at age 10 and started playing the cello after many students at his performing arts school in Charleston, South Carolina, wanted to play the violin.

“The violin line was completely out the door and no one was in the cello line,” Heyward said, per NBC News. “I was ready to go home.”

Since then, Heyward fell in love with cello and knew he could unite a community through his work.

“I picked up the cello in the fifth grade and instantly felt a part of something. … You are creating something bigger than one person. I think that’s the beauty of the unity that you get from that classical music form.”

Heyward’s passion for symphony music was enhanced in eighth grade when a substitute teacher chose him to lead his class orchestra as the music conductor.

“Guess who got picked?” Heyward said. “To my sort of embarrassment, I didn’t like standing up in front of my peers and being in charge at all. But what I fell in love with was the idea of the score.”

Throughout his musical career, Heyward has inspired others through his work and clothes, leading him to be nicknamed the “Converse Conductor.”

Heyward started wearing the classic red Chuck Taylors during a concert after he had forgotten his dress shoes. At the time, he worked as the assistant conductor for The Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England, and wearing the Converses later started a trend among those who attended his shows. The 31-year-old said he owns 15 pairs now, per NBC News.

Heyward also wore the red Chucks during his three-concert tour weekend on Sept. 23, which kicked off his five-year engagement with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The weekend also included performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Baltimore’s OrchKids program, which creates opportunities for classical music in Baltimore city schools.

Heyward is an advocate for the program and believes he can encourage other young up-and-coming performers.

“I felt like I could do it because I had amazing supporters. I had amazing educators. To be able to pass that baton, no pun intended, or pun intended, it’s vital,” Heyward said, adding, “The sky is the limit.”