Embracing Diversity

By Christen Brownlee
Illustration by Erin Robinson

How Peabody is leading the way to attract a more varied array of students and faculty – and why such efforts are crucial to the future of classical music.

Embracing Diversity

One day when Jonathan Rush was in the eighth grade, his band teacher was leading the class in playing a march. At one point, she asked if any of the students wanted to try conducting. When no one else volunteered, Rush raised his hand. His teacher gave him a quick tutorial in conducting technique, then left the rest up to him.

“I felt this sense of unity in front of the ensemble, and it was incredible,” he remembers. “I wanted to do this more, to feel this more.”

Rush immediately started trying to learn more about conducting. He watched videos of maestros in action and practiced different conducting patterns. He talked to anyone who would listen about his newfound interest, including a family friend who taught piano and went to his church.

“She told me, ‘I don’t know if you really want to go this path,’” he says. “She said that the music world doesn’t accept black conductors as they do white conductors. She didn’t know if I’d succeed because you don’t see many people like us doing that.”

Jonathan Rush 03

Jonathan Rush conducting the Buckeye Philharmonic Orchestra, a student-run ensemble at The Ohio State University, where he served as music director from 2015 to 2017.

Driven by his passion, Rush is now a first-year master’s student in the Orchestral Conducting Program at the Peabody Conservatory under the guidance of Marin Alsop, who directs the program and is also music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony. Alsop herself is one of few female conductors in this heavily male-dominated field.

Both Rush and Alsop are part of the changing face of conservatory education, where growing numbers of underrepresented minorities and women are making their place at schools across the U.S. that have traditionally been overwhelmingly white and male. As the oldest conservatory in the country, the Peabody Institute is leading the way, making changes that are gradually increasing the diversity of faculty and students alike — transformation that Conservatory leaders hope will permanently alter the makeup of performers and audiences across the musical spectrum.

A Bully Pulpit

Why increase diversity in the first place? “The easy answer is that it’s the right thing to do,” says Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute. “But it goes far beyond that.”

Bronstein explains that many of the broader efforts he’s been leading since he began his tenure at Peabody nearly four years ago have been aimed at keeping music education — and by association, music in general — relevant for performers and audiences far into the future. This sentiment is at the root of the Institute’s new mandatory Breakthrough Curriculum, which introduces concepts of community, citizen-artistry, and entrepreneurialism over four-year undergraduate programs. These concepts haven’t typically been part of conservatory training, but they’re quickly becoming key to having a successful music career and keeping audiences engaged.

Diversity is part of this same picture, Bronstein says. Numerous studies have shown that a diversity of workers — including different races and ethnicities, sexes, and sexual orientations — lends itself to excellence in a variety of fields, such as business and medicine. In these fields and others there have been proven benefits of grouping together people of different backgrounds to offer multiple points of view, including more creative problem solving, expanding the mentor pool to better serve junior employees, and achieving familiarity and understanding to more effectively serve people from varied backgrounds.

Music is no exception. Bronstein points to the increasing breakdown of barriers between musical genres as one critical area where increased diversity has driven positive change. For example, contemporary classical composers are currently incorporating elements of pop and jazz into their work. Performers whose primary role has been in popular music are increasingly collaborating with those in the classical realm and vice versa. Musicians from diverse backgrounds, he explains, will be necessary to keep this cross-pollination going and add creative new ideas.

A diversity of faces and voices will also be necessary to build audiences over time, Bronstein says. As the demographic makeup of our country changes, performers need to change to reflect that shift, he says, otherwise audiences will gradually disappear.
“I always tell people that those of us who go into music are all in the audience development business,” he says. “To keep audiences strong, you have to have performers who look like the audiences you want to attract.”

Conservatories — especially Peabody, with its long history — have a special charge to make that happen, says Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of Sphinx, a Detroit-based national organization dedicated to increasing diversity in the arts.

“Music education institutions have a bully pulpit and a special role,” she says. “By changing things at the preparatory level, you’re providing tools at the base to stop the gap for underrepresented minorities and make performers more reflective of the communities they’re serving.”

Speaking Their Truth

Historically, Bronstein explains, people of color and women weren’t welcome at conservatories — even if there weren’t any explicit policies against them attending. Even as broader changes in society opened up increasing opportunities for these groups, populations at Peabody and other conservatories typically remained stagnant, with few underrepresented minorities and women in many fields and hardly any in leadership positions.

As the overwhelmingly white and male student body graduated from music schools, they helped maintain the status quo in the music industry — particularly for classical music, the mainstay of many conservatories.

When Bronstein took the helm, he says, one of his main goals was to break that cycle. His first move toward increasing diversity was to establish the Peabody Diversity Pathway Task Force, which joined three other task forces intended to promote major changes at the conservatory in the curriculum, the ensembles program, and faculty governance.

After the diversity task force’s inaugural meeting — attended by members of the faculty, the student body, alumni including those in Peabody’s Society of Black Alumni, and the advisory board — the group decided to focus on three areas: student recruitment, curriculum and programming, and climate and cultural competency. Subgroups for each of these topics, each co-chaired by a member of the staff, faculty, and student body, meet regularly to examine Peabody’s current state of diversity and develop ideas for change.

In a recent meeting on curriculum and programming, the group discussed whether Peabody should offer courses in the traditionally black genre of gospel. While the discussion was heated, says Denyce Graves, a faculty member in Peabody’s Voice Department, the meeting’s atmosphere was open and honest, allowing everyone to freely voice their opinions.

“People spoke what was on their hearts and what they felt. Everyone spoke their truth,” she says.

Another outgrowth of the task force’s work is the new Blue Ribbon Scholarship program, in which Peabody is working with partner high schools to identify strong underrepresented minority students who, if admitted, will receive scholarships to attend Peabody.

“It Takes Intentionality”

Other institution-wide efforts have made great strides in increasing faculty diversity. Bronstein and his colleagues developed a faculty search protocol that emphasizes identifying not just a pool of highly qualified candidates for a particular position, but also a diverse pool. If a list of finalists sent to the dean’s office for review isn’t diverse enough, Bronstein sends it back for reconsideration.

“We have to work harder to find these candidates, and there’s more competition for them,” he says. “It takes intentionality that we haven’t had in the past.”

These efforts are slowly affecting the faculty makeup. Five years ago, under-represented minorities made up just 3 percent of the faculty. Of the 28 new faculty hired for the 2017–18 academic year, 18% were under-represented minorities, bringing the total percentage to 7, a small but significant change.

IMG_0162-Edit credit Wendel Patrick

Wendel Patrick and students in his studio

The Conservatory’s Dean’s Incentive Grants, which Bronstein started soon after he arrived, have also helped on the diversity front. One example is the new hip-hop class launched last fall, which came about after students requested it. Hip-hop, a conventionally black genre, is a huge departure from the traditional classical offerings of most other conservatories, says the class instructor Wendel Patrick, a hip-hop artist who is also a classically trained pianist. But for Peabody to offer such a class, he adds, speaks to the school’s genuine drive to help students achieve well-rounded musical training.

Philanthropy supports the grant that funds the hip-hop class. Other recent gifts have been earmarked specifically for boosting diversity. For example, a $500,000 gift in 2016 by Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff helped establish the Peabody Institute Diversity Fund, supporting a variety of initiatives, including recruitment of Peabody faculty of color and providing full scholarships to attend the Peabody Preparatory to students in OrchKids, a music program for youth in Baltimore City.

With a requirement to match this gift, other donors have given specifically toward increasing diversity as well, including a new donation from Dick and Rosalee Davison that funds a scholarship for underrepresented minority students.

“It’s a minor fix for this situation,” says Rosalee. “But it may encourage other people to give too, which will have an even greater impact.”

Looking broadly at diversity-building initiatives that have begun to unfold across Peabody, Dean Bronstein says, “We recognize that we have only just begun to address these issues at Peabody, and we are committed to staying on this path.”

Considering stories such as that of conducting master’s student Rush, it would seem that all of these efforts are already making a difference — for him and future generations of musicians.

“Maybe in the future I’ll be able to conduct in inner cities or inspire people who have my skin color,” he says. “They’ll go to concerts and say maybe I can do this because that person looks like me.”