Interview by Sue De Pasquale
Since arriving as dean five years ago, Fred Bronstein has made improving diversity — of faculty, students, and programs — a top priority at Peabody, and a variety of initiatives are beginning to bear fruit. In the wide-ranging interview that follows, Dean Bronstein tells why it’s so crucial to engage classical musicians from historically underrepresented communities, and he talks candidly about the successes and challenges of ongoing diversity efforts across the institute.
Why does the issue of diversity continue to be so important for Peabody?
Historically, classical music has been a shockingly nondiverse field. And the reality is that even today if you go to any major orchestra in this country and look on stage, if you see one or two musicians of color, that’s a lot. That is an appalling fact of life. And that’s not good for the field. It’s not good for the quality of music. It’s not good on many levels.
Then there’s the issue that demographically the United States has changed dramatically and will continue to change dramatically over the next three to four decades. Today, we are effectively a two-thirds white and one-third nonwhite population; that is going to flip over the next 30 to 40 years. Couple that with the fact that we’ve seen a decrease in audiences for classical music over several decades. Taken together, that’s a bad formula for success for the future.
From a strategic perspective, we need to grow audiences that are much more diverse than we have today. And that can only happen if you change the face of the performers — if you see more African Americans, more Latinx musicians, and more women (e.g. conductors) up on stage. So that’s how I come at this.
To me, the single biggest issue is that existential question: Who’s going to come?
Peabody is not atypical from other conservatories. Going back 160 years, we’ve had a checkered history with regard to addressing this issue [of diversity]. It’s not been a positive story. We have the opportunity today to really change the trajectory. So that’s why diversity is something that is front and center — one of the critical issues we focus on, not just for Peabody but for the future of the industry.
You’ve been working hard on improving diversity at Peabody since you began as dean in 2014. Are you seeing progress?
Yes, we are. This fall, 13 percent of our faculty members are underrepresented minorities. Two years ago, we were at 6.5 percent. So, we’ve essentially doubled the presence of underrepresented minority faculty here in two years. If you look at the average of our peer set of music schools across the country, we’re now about three times the average.
Similarly, we have been very proactive in building the diversity of our student body. Today, we are at about 14 percent, which totals about 95 to 100 students who identify as underrepresented minorities. That’s up about 60 percent from 2015.
Is it where we want it to be? No. But we will continue to keep building. Today at Peabody, when you walk into a room of students or a faculty meeting, you see considerably more diversity than you would have seen before.
How would you describe the current campus climate at Peabody in terms of inclusiveness?
We are actively working to really develop a culture of diversity and inclusion. Over the last year, we’ve held microtrigger workshops for faculty and administrative leaders, managers, and some students. [Microtriggers are subtle offenses — words, tone, inflection, or body language — that can create real and undue harm.] One of the things we’ve observed is that people may say things without understanding how what they say could be interpreted. So, we want to create more awareness around that.
It’s an interesting challenge on a campus like ours — a little hothouse mix of people, with about 670 students and 300 or so faculty and staff. We have an international population; we have students coming from increasingly diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. So, people are bringing different frameworks and experiences. We are giving people the tools, through featured speakers and training sessions, and seeding the environment to have conversations around the issue of diversity.
I would never say that we are where we want to be on this yet. It’s a work in progress to create a place where people really feel safe and comfortable and included. But we are really working at it. As the community becomes more diverse, it heightens the need for this kind of work.
What steps is Peabody taking to increase the pipeline of faculty and students from diverse backgrounds?
Intentionality is really important; you start from the premise that, yes, the pipeline to this field has not been rich with diversity and we, as a field, have not done enough to address that.
With faculty searches, people tend to go to what they are familiar with. It’s very important to think and look beyond that traditional sphere. So, we have a faculty diversity advocate on every search committee; that’s become part of our process. At every step in that recruiting process, we are looking at diversity of the pool of candidates. How did diversity advance? When the candidates who advanced were not diverse, why not? I’ve sent searches back, actually. I think that kind of intentionality — and creating that awareness — helps everyone become much more conscious of the importance of diversity.
I should also note that the University Provost’s Office has been very supportive in our diversity efforts, and in funding incentives that have allowed us to attract highly qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds.
On the student side, the Admissions Office has done something really interesting that has made a big difference in our ability to identify and recruit African American and Latinx students. It’s called the Blue-Ribbon Scholarship program. We now have close to 30 partners around the country: high schools and other programs that are performing-arts magnets that tend to be in urban centers where the student population is often more diverse. In developing scholarship partnerships with these schools, we’ve been able to attract some of the country’s most talented students, and really broaden the reach of where our students are coming from in a very significant way.
It’s also really inspiring to see our current students wanting to be a part of building diversity at Peabody. In December, I met with members of La Obra, the Latinx student group at Peabody, and they were expressly interested in knowing how they could help recruit students of diverse backgrounds, and especially first-generation students.
Do you see a need for Peabody to work toward diversifying its concert programming?
I do think we need to think more broadly about repertoire and one of the things we’re starting to think much more intentionally about is what we program and how we program, and how we can bring diversity into that.
Two examples come immediately to mind. Peabody marked the Bernstein Centennial in fall 2018 with a production of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, performed for a diverse audience of 3,000 attendees at Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church. The production was conducted by Marin Alsop and featured the Morgan State University Choir and other community partners. Another example is Peabody’s recent performance of Ask Your Mama, a jazz-inspired work by composer Laura Karpman that sets to music Langston Hughes’ moving text.
Of course, it’s a balancing act; we have to provide the traditional repertoire that is the core of classical music because our students need to learn that, but at the same time you want them to learn a breadth of styles and repertoire. It’s very important for our students to be musically flexible as they go out into their professional lives and they develop their own audiences. This is an area where we are starting to pay more attention, but we have a way to go. Ultimately, this has to extend to more diversity in the curriculum itself and to go beyond the western musical canon.
I will add that Peabody has a fantastic Composition Department, and it’s in the composition world where you can really see an increasing diversity of musical voices and experiences and backgrounds. That’s where barriers dissipate. For example, Kendrick Lamar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2017 for his album Damn, was the first nonclassical or jazz artist to win the Pulitzer. I love that. Here’s this hip-hop artist who essentially wrote a contemporary song cycle. To me that speaks very clearly to the breakdown of barriers.
Within our Breakthrough Curriculum, the community engagement element is core. We’re getting our students to think: How do you program for diverse audiences? How do you build an audience? What does community engagement mean? There’s a rich landscape, particularly here in the city of Baltimore, in which our students can think and learn about these issues.
What lies ahead, both near and long term, for diversity initiatives at Peabody?
I’d love to say that we will continue on this trajectory of growth. But I also want to be realistic. We’ve had a big generational turnover in our faculty in recent years, which has given us the opportunity to be serious about this as we have undertaken a lot of new searches. That will inevitably slow down.
But I do think the student component will continue to grow, thanks in large part to efforts we’ve undertaken on the earlier end of the pipeline through Tuned-In, which is our program in the Peabody Preparatory that identifies and trains students from Baltimore of middle and high school age to help prepare them for possible careers in the arts. Some additional focus that we’re giving that program will contribute directly to our intentional recruitment of a more diverse student population into the Conservatory. We’ve now seen the first of our Tuned-In graduates come through and graduate from the Conservatory. It’s amazing. It’s a slow process, but it actually works.
Also, in December, the Mellon Foundation awarded Peabody a multiyear grant of $1 million to support Peabody’s role in the inaugural Baltimore-Washington Musical Pathways collaborative initiative, which seeks to diversify the landscape of the American classical music field. As cultural anchors in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Peabody and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and other affiliated partners will work to improve pathways for student musicians in grades 8–12 from historically underrepresented communities.
That’s a key part of this: Over the next 10 to 20 years, there has to be a long-term view and commitment to diversity efforts. The problem comes when you stop focusing on it; I would hope that this gets embedded in the culture of this place, so that long after we’re gone, everybody who is coming along thinks diversity is every bit as important as it is today. In fact, ultimately, we hope that a discussion of diversity in classical music and dance itself becomes obsolete. That will happen when diversity is pervasive in the field. Wouldn’t that be great!