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Learning to Be Better, Do Better

Thomas Palmatier • InServiceOctober 2021 • October 9, 2021

Over the past year or two, many Americans have been forced to examine our nation’s struggle to treat all Americans equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender(s). Events such as the George Floyd murder made it impossible to ignore the daily obstacles and dangers faced by many Americans simply because of their color, gender, or ethnicity.

This has not been easy. It requires everyone to go through a process of self-examination. As a senior leader of military music organizations, I was keenly aware many of those organizations did not “look like” America. Under-represented groups included not just people of color but also female brass and percussion musicians. For years, I tried with somewhat limited success, to alter those demographics while still maintaining those organization’s very high artistic standards. What I failed to do was dig deeper into the reasons why there were so few applicants from those under-represented populations. One reason was we didn’t always do a good job of advertising those opportunities outside of the usual places from which we had traditionally hired. Indeed, many times auditions, even for the highest-level ensembles, are communicated by the grapevine where current members contact their friends and former teachers. The result was the audition population would tend to mirror the current organization demographics.

A deeper reason for the paucity of minority applicants was many of them did not get to the level where they were competitive for the highest-level music organizations because of barriers along the way. Do majority-minority schools consistently have equal resources and opportunities? Do they attract and retain the very best music educators? There are more than 100 HBCUs in America but many receive less public funding than their counterpart universities because of practices dating back to their establishment and they also tend to have much smaller endowments. The growing Latinx population in America faces similar barriers as do Native peoples. Music organizations of all types need to work to identify what we can do to improve access to high quality music education for every young American.

I am privileged to be a member of the American Bandmasters Association (ABA). If you’re not familiar with ABA, it was founded by folks like Goldman and Sousa and extends invitations to membership only after an exhaustive examination of a candidate’s contributions to the concert band movement and submission of high-quality unedited recordings. Recently, ABA, like many other organizations, has done some self-examination and recognized its practices have resulted in a mostly white male membership. They recently established an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Awareness (I.D.E.A.) Committee to develop substantive recommendations to ensure ABA represents the excellence of the entire American concert band movement and fully embraces and honors the contributions made by those in under-represented groups.

I have been honored to be part of ABA’s IDEA Committee and our frequent working meetings have caused all of us to share some deeply personal and often unpleasant truths. I’m optimistic this sometimes-painful process will result in positive changes in America’s flagship concert band organization.

But, how has this affected me? I frankly never thought of myself as being privileged. I came from a blue-collar rural family with limited income. I was the first to go to college and it was on scholarship at an in-state university back when those were inexpensive! I’m not particularly musically gifted compared to many (most!) of the leading band conductors and my “secret” to career success was largely because I work really hard. As a young officer, I was aide-de-camp (personal assistant) to one of the army’s senior African-American generals. He was a West Point graduate and he shared with me details of the extra hazing he had endured there and other experiences during his long career. Later on, I was executive officer (sort of a chief of staff) to one of the senior female generals in the army, a brilliant woman and gifted leader. I routinely heard snide comments about how she had achieved her position because she was “cute,” disregarding her decades of superior work. Despite these growth experiences, as a member of the IDEA Committee digging into the lives of band conductors who were/are female or people of color, and having some frank conversations with members of our committee, I realized I was never excluded or overlooked because of my color or gender. I never walked into a room and had people wonder why I was there and if some “program” resulted in me getting a promotion or a job. In other words, despite a lack of malice on my part and having had some enlightening experiences, I too had nevertheless benefited from white male privilege.

So, as the new school year kicks off, I hope when I walk into a classroom or rehearsal, I can do so with my eyes slightly more open and try to do my part to help every student experience the thrill of great music-making.

Next month in the next edition of Colonel’s Book Club, I will review Richard Floyd’s new book, The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making.

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