An Essay by Angela N. Carroll
Illustration by Erin Robinson
What steps must we take to rectify systemic racism in the world of Classical music?
In 1971, German composer, writer, and filmmaker Hans G. Helms interviewed Black composers, opera singers, and musicians in New York to assess histories of prejudice in Classical music. A young Sanford Allen, the first African American violinist in the New York Philharmonic, offered a grave response.
“The art world tends to view itself as being something apart from the mainstream. As a result, it tends to think that it does not have the failings of the rest of mankind. I think that has been the source of a lot of the trouble … people insisting, ‘We don’t do that!,’ ‘What are you talking about?’ It’s impossible to correct a situation that people won’t admit exists.”
Almost 50 years later, the struggle for large and small music ensembles in the United States to acknowledge and rectify long-standing racial and gender disparities in the field remains an ongoing point of contention for patrons and performers alike.
In 2016, researcher James Doeser conducted a study with the League of American Orchestras to evaluate racial/ethnic and gender diversity in the orchestra field. The report revealed that while some progress has been made, significant disparities across racial/ ethnic and gender divides persist. A poll administered between 2002 and 2014 showed that African American musicians represent just 1.8% of orchestra players in the United States and only 3.4% of orchestral board members. Data also confirmed that although African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian/ Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and other nonwhite backgrounds collectively increased fourfold over the last 34 years (1980–2014) from 3.4% of all musicians to 14.2%, there have been no gains for African American musicians. In recent years, their inclusion hovered at around 1.8% from 2002 to 2014.
How will Classical music survive in an increasingly Black and brown world if the genre remains stubbornly exclusive?
This moment of global uprising in response to histories of state-sanctioned violence against Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ lives, and our collective mourning over the hundreds of thousands who have succumbed to COVID-19, provides an opportunity for individual and institutional advancement. How can individuals educate themselves and their communities so that they can be confident and powerful allies in the fight to eradicate systemic oppression? How can institutions, organizations, and corporations assess and revise problematic policies and practices that discourage inclusivity and diversity? Posting tailored statements of support and concern on social media is not sufficient. This is the time for decisive reform and reconciliation.
To understand what Classical music is, as it has been defined by contemporary composers and scholars, requires candid cultural contextualization. For Amiri Baraka, there is a stark distinction between what he called “European concert music” and “American Classical music,” aka the Blues. Rahsaan Roland Kirk diverges from what is traditionally regarded as “Classical music” to elaborate on “Black Classical music,” commonly referred to as jazz. The hierarchies that classify particular cultural traditions as distinguished or “high” forms of art and other, typically non-European genres as lesser forms of art, maintain false valuations about the relevance of Othered creative expressions. This presumption exacerbates established prejudices about the capability of nonwhite musicians and composers. Classical music has been greatly influenced and advanced by the contributions of African, Caribbean, and African American composers — from Chevalier de Saint-Georges Joseph Bologne, a contemporary of Beethoven, to Florence Price, the first African American woman pianist to premiere a symphony at the Chicago Symphony. There are countless others whose names remain obscure, but their profound achievements continue to inform Classical music.
“Stravinsky, when he came to the U.S., always made it a point to dig what Ellington was doing,” Baraka noted in the seminal text Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music.
When institutions like Peabody make an intentional effort to diversify their musicians and staff, it encourages a broader viewership: People are more willing to engage in programming when they see themselves reflected in that programming.
“I was concertmaster with the Harrisburg Youth Symphony, and sitting and playing, I was the only Black member of the orchestra,” says Aaron P. Dworkin, Peabody Preparatory alumnus, violinist, and founder of the Sphinx Organization. “A lot of those experiences were isolating, but the way my mind works, I [thought] about what I could do about it.”
In 1997, compelled by a desire to “empower Black and Latinx musicians to be fully represented and have Classical music audiences be more representative of the nation,” Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization, an initiative that strives to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Sphinx works with orchestras to encourage artist development, artist leadership, and education and access.
“That’s one of the reasons why I’m actually very, very cautiously optimistic right now, because I see things actually happening and not just commentary,” says Dworkin. “I see certain policies changing. There are a lot of organizations that are just putting out statements, and that’s good, but of course, they aren’t enough.”
Sphinx provides a powerful pipeline for young people who aspire to be a part of the Classical music field to learn how to advance their skills. Sphinx also offers essential guidance for orchestras on how to reform and resolve, at a local level, inclusivity and diversity issues.
“I think the big game changer [questions], if you will, are who’s on the board, who’s on stage playing regularly, who are you featuring, how much of your budget are you committing towards these issues, and how much repertoire are you performing? And … ultimately, do you include Black and Latinx composers?”
Inclusivity and diversity initiatives are most effective when they establish symbiotic, equitable, and reciprocal relationships between institutions and communities. The institutional support that is provided to communities should be informed by community input: members of the community who are compensated for their participation on institutional boards or as institutional staff. Communities should feel comfortable and confident collaborating with institutions like Peabody to ensure that their needs are accommodated and revised as necessary to ensure lasting support for those communities. Representation matters.
“A huge part of the decolonizing work that I do is to try and be an example to someone else, like a sixth grader who is learning the saxophone who maybe has not been exposed to Classical music,” says Tyrone Page Jr. (BM ’16, MM ’18, Saxophone; BM ’16, Music Education), a teaching artist at Baltimore School for the Arts and band director at the Peabody Preparatory and Oakland Mills Middle School of Howard County, Maryland. “In my own way, I try to pave the way for younger versions of me.”
Since graduating from Peabody, Page has worked to provide the same level of support and encouragement to others that he received while he was a student. Page acknowledged the privilege of his experience; he successfully completed training at the Conservatory without experiencing any substantial acts of racial violence or injustice, an experience that many other students of color at Peabody and other predominantly white institutions (PWIs) have not had.
Histories of apathetic response to or lack of acknowledgement of institutionalized oppression, prejudice, and violence prohibit the assured physical and psychological safety of Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BlPOC) students during their academic careers. Lack of institutional support also amplifies fears BlPOC students may have about their futures; if their academic settings represent a microcosm of the field, what anxieties may be triggered when they consider engagement with the larger profession?
Fellow Peabody graduate Taylor Boykins (MM ’14, Voice) is making similar strides to diversify opera. “The connections and collaborations that I had while I was a student have kept me busy since I left,” Boykins offered. “I’m just excited that now I get to give back in my own way.”
Both Page and Boykins are working on exciting projects. Page regularly performs as a chamber musician with the collective Mind on Fire, led by James David Young (DMA ’14, Composition), and the pair recently released the album True Fluorescent Skeleton under the Ehse Record label. Boykins is scheduled to perform in a series of socially distanced outdoor concerts devised to make opera more accessible. The support that they received from faculty, staff, and their communities during and after their academic careers has facilitated their ability to continue to work in the Classical music field.
“I’m doing the thing that I said I would do when I graduated,” Boykins says. “You really have to go after the things that you want.”
“The idea of someone not going for something or feeling like they don’t have a chance because of that lack of representation, it not being normal, or it being rare, I hate that,” Page says. “It never crossed my mind that I didn’t stand a chance because I’m Black. We were fortunate to be in environments, have teachers and a family who did not let us [think that]. As I got better, people would encourage me, like, ‘Don’t you ever put that horn down!’ I want to be the reason that someone feels like they can make it.”
The work to create equitable institutions that can sustain inclusivity and actualize policy reforms will not happen overnight. Real change requires a deep and considerate institutional investment into the communities that they inhabit. It is alarming that the demographics that are reflected in the cities where many orchestras reside are not reflected in the organizational structures of those orchestras. Where is the disconnect? Are institutions collaborating with and requesting feedback from the communities they reside within? Do institutions ensure that any outreach programs they facilitate have true impact? It is essential that organizations look inward to review their own policies and procedures so that any findings that reveal unresolved disparities can be rectified.
The possibilities of progress arise when outdated ideologies, policies, and practices are abolished. The work to facilitate true institutional reform and reconciliation will provide pathways that sustain progress for generations to come.