String Section: Diversity

Mike Lawson • Commentary • December 16, 2013

Racial Diversity and the Symphony Orchestra

Dr. Aaron Dworkin of the Sphinx Organization.

I have long been intrigued by the lack of diversity in classical music, in part because I think there are a variety of reasons for it, some of which are not at all obvious. I recently had a conversation about this topic with Dr. Aaron Dworkin, the founder and president of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which encourages black and Latino students to participate in classical music. I am a member of the advisory board at the Sphinx.

Mark O’Connor: Aaron, I recently viewed a video of a speech you gave at Carnegie Hall entitled, “Address on Inclusion in American Orchestras.” I share your concerns about diversity. However, I want to take a closer look at the statistics you brought up in your speech. You said:

The New York Philharmonic has no fulltime black members and has not for over five years! There are also no Latino members of the orchestra. A decade ago, the Chicago Symphony hired the first black in the history of their orchestra, and he remains the only black member ever hired by that orchestra. In addition, they have only one Latino amongst their ranks. Nationally, only about four percent of orchestras are black and Latino combined. As it relates to repertoire, less than one percent of all of the works performed by orchestras are by any composer of color. And orchestras’ administrative leadership is even less representative of our society, with less than half of one percent of executive directors being either Latino or black.

The question is: What do these numbers really mean? The fact is that so few black and Latino musicians are winning auditions because so few are auditioning in the first place. To hammer home the obvious, when 100 skilled violists show up for an orchestra audition, and only two or three of them are black, there is only a two or three percent chance one of the black violists wins, statistically speaking.

The O’Connor String Quartet.

As you may know, Kelly Hall-Tompkins, an African-American violinist, is a member of my string quartet. She is also a member of a top-25 orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony. Recently, I learned that she has decided to quit the symphony, for reasons that are still unclear to me. She is only in her 30s, but apparently she cannot envision spending her life in that environment. Her departure reduces the black membership of that orchestra by 50 percent! Even after the New Jersey Symphony made Henry Lewis the first black conductor of a major orchestra in 1969, the legacy of diversity under his leadership is nothing to speak of.


Aaron Dworkin: Thank you so much for raising these important points, Mark. In essence, what you are describing delves directly into the issue itself. As you know, access to early music instruction in communities of color has been, and remains, a challenge. Our society does continue to experience a strong correlation between race/ethnicity and socio-economic barriers. As a result, far fewer young people of color are afforded exposure and then consistent access to any musical training.

I might disagree that the issue is a lack of desire, but rather, a lack of awareness and opportunity. At the same time, however, I do believe that as a field, we are doing painfully little to remove those barriers. We are not doing enough to engage or include communities of color _ an annual concert celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., coupled with a few visits to disadvantaged elementary schools does not constitute a systemic change.

Our introductory programs do not have the fundamental support to continue the pipeline all the way to college. Beyond music schools and conservatories, there are orchestras and teaching opportunities: our institutions are not doing nearly enough to specifically include those who have been historically excluded.  When the foundation is not there in terms of training and opportunity, how could we have a level playing field? If the latter is not “equal,” then we, as a field, cannot move forward, as evidenced by how little progress we have made.


MO: In my career, I have given more than 600 performances as a soloist with orchestra, and I have appeared on roughly the same number of country music albums as a session fiddler. I am afraid to say that diversity in country and bluegrass music is just as bad as, if not worse than, it is in classical music, despite the fact that black people have a much more extensive history playing country music than playing Mozart and Brahms. (In fact, at the turn of the century, nearly half of all Appalachian string bands included black musicians.) But these days, are there really that many black musicians who want to play Mozart, Brahms, Johnny Cash, and George Jones? I do not fault anyone who does not want to participate in making certain kinds of music. Frankly, I think it’s a good thing that we are freer now than ever before to make choices about the kinds of cultural activities we want to take part in.

On some level, looking at racial breakdowns of mostly white orchestras playing mostly white men’s music is as peculiar as looking at the racial composition of country music session players in Nashville, banjo players at bluegrass festivals, heavy metal guitar players in hard rock bands, or athletes in the National Hockey League. Doesn’t this mostly come down to what choices people are making for themselves?


AD: As a musician myself, I value tremendously the freedom to make choices in what I study or perform. My choices are driven by my musical and philosophical convictions, aesthetic preferences, and overall passion for my art form. I could not agree with you more: it is truly all about choices. Choices made by our music directors and artistic administrators. As an example, when the good majority of the season is programmed by our artistic leadership, who are often zero percent black or Latino (statistically), the choices are likely to represent something based on their experiences, geared toward the status quo in terms of our standards of programming and our homogenous audiences. The issue then becomes, how does an orchestra serve the community that it aims to serve? How does our world reflect not only our population, but also the growth trends, where most metropolitan centers are already becoming majority minority? If our orchestras are not reflective of our constituents, how might it be relevant to them?

I am afraid that choices in this case do have profound consequences: empty halls and an endangered form of art, which, otherwise, would have the capacity to transform lives, heal, inspire, and spark creativity.


MO: I believe diversity in orchestral membership would improve if orchestras featured a greater diversity of musical ideas and styles. If, in the last half-century, American orchestras had performed American music a majority of the time, I think we would have seen significantly more black composers and performers. It makes me think about the old idiom, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Doesn’t the horse’s willingness to drink depend partly on what is in the water as well?

In some ways, Aaron, I think you are relying on an outdated belief that the appeal of classical music is largely dependent on opportunity and education. We do know what an orchestra is today – we see it at our schools, in our outreach programs, and on the Internet. Plenty of educated people are simply refusing to take part in it. And comparatively speaking, classical music feels stagnant. People have heard the masterworks too many times. People are seeking cultural experiences that are relevant to their lives.


AD: I think what you are describing directly delves into the previous point I made. The reason that orchestra concerts are not popular is largely due to what is being presented, as well as how. When faced with a prospect of a two-and-a-half-hour concert in an environment which does not permit much emotion, verbal response, or audience participation, along with the fact that the music we are about to hear does not represent our heritage, we choose other options. That is the unfortunate reality for the vast majority of our field. However, classical music does have a tremendous amount of value: the offerings are enormous, vast, and diverse.

The Sphinx Organization encourages young black and Latino orchestral musicians.

I would love to see orchestras program more American music, as there is an absolute wealth of beauty and ingenuity in the volumes that we have available to us today. It would be tremendous to see American composers of diverse heritage on stage, being introduced to audiences in our country and abroad.  It would also be invaluable if we would collectively pause for a moment and think about the fact that we are attempting to preserve a poignantly outdated model of a symphony orchestra in the 21st century.

When we consider how far our society has come, in terms of creativity, invention, technology, and immense resources available today, we must admit that what we present on stage is archaic and not terribly inspired. It is not engaging to view a conductor’s back for a long period of time. It is not engaging to hear a recurring cycle of symphonies by composers of yesteryear played by every major orchestra.

Imagine if we looked at the way in which we market our concerts in ways similar to car companies: one of my favorite examples has been looking at a Ford ad in The New Yorker and comparing it to a Ford ad in JET Magazine. Same product, same integrity, but a different look, different source, and different feel. I imagine our excellent orchestras on stage, performing works by emerging composers of color, narrated by artists of all backgrounds, alongside displays of stirring visual art by young people of all backgrounds, while a conductor’s face on an oversized screen is visible to every audience member, where they can empathize, feel, and participate in the whole experience, being able to react to what they hear.


MO: I believe early music education is also relevant to this discussion. Please correct me if I am heaping too much praise, but it seems to me that the African-American community is one of the most creative, expressive, and musical communities of all the cultures in this country. Coming from a culture that is more creative and individually expressive than most, why would a young African-American musician dedicate years and years to an orchestral instrument, only to end up buried in an orchestra section forever? African Americans have innovated a disproportionate number of musical styles and modes of expression. I can’t imagine many of them throwing their own cultural innovations in the ditch to pursue old music from white Europeans practically 100 percent of the time.

But to return to the point we were discussing before: Indeed, we should have given much more attention to American music in the classical world all these years. Orchestras have doubled down on the short-term fix of European masterpieces written hundreds of years ago, seeing just how many more decades of play they can squeeze out of them while ignoring the long-term goals of our own musical culture. The fact is that things change, people change, tastes change, and music reinvents itself. Take an example from country music: Even the great George Jones, the king of country, opened for Alan Jackson and George Strait later in his career.

Similarly, the masterworks can “open” for new works by American composers in this country. We must let our art develop and have a place to flourish. I have had Mozart pieces open for my concerto performances, and frankly, not only did it feel right, but also audiences enjoyed it. But this kind of thing happens far too infrequently, and I believe it is why the orchestra is barely hanging on. As we have discussed, it is also a factor in maintaining the homogeneity in orchestral membership.


AD: I agree wholeheartedly with your point about not integrating American music. The point that you make about the lack of instructional materials and early repertoire by composers of color is also an important one. Rachel Barton Pine has been working to compile an important collection of early repertoire by composers of color, which is incredibly interesting. Sphinx requires works by composers of color in its competition guidelines. There are important efforts conducted, which have produced some results. They are just not enough: it would take a conscious effort on behalf of all of us _ teachers, students, music schools, youth ensembles, orchestras _ to change the status quo and look at our art form as a reflection of our society. For centuries, our field has told a single, one-dimensional, formulaic story about itself. That story needs to evolve. In the words of the incredible Chimamanda Adichie: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story… we regain a kind of paradise.”


Mark O’Connor is a multiple Grammy Award-winning composer and violinist who teaches at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and directs an internationally renowned Summer String Program at the Berklee College of Music.

O’Connor has authored the O’Connor Method for violin, viola, cello, and string orchestra. In addition to promoting standard technical acquisition, the O’Connor Method incorporates American music and styles into a holistic approach to musical creativity, improvisation, music history, and cultural diversity. More information on the New American School of String Playing, teacher-training seminars, O’Connor Method Camps, and O’Connor’s residencies can be found online.

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