For many reasons, an orchestra needs to represent and support its community. Viewing the mission statement of our organizations provides proof of this. Most include a phrase such as: “We strive to inspire, enrich and serve our community.” A study of demographics shows that our country has become more diverse over the years, and will continue to do so, with the Census Bureau reporting that already in 2012, a majority of children under the age of one belonged to minority groups. Musicians could benefit from stepping back for a moment to ask how our organizations rate in terms of diversity.
I’m certainly not alone in thinking that we in the orchestra world should be working on issues of diversity. Several orchestras and related organizations are already taking action—just looking close to my home, three projects come immediately to mind: the new orchestral training program in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Sphinx organization in Detroit, and the “Mosaic Scholars” program in the Grand Rapids Symphony . And these three cover a number of different facets: professional orchestral experience, a solo competition, and pre-college music training. But I wanted to escape the narrow confines of my own perspective, to gain a better understanding of what’s working and what more needs to be done.
To gather information, I turned to four ICSOM musicians who live across our country, in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Houston, and Los Angeles. I started the conversation with the request, “What can be done to improve diversity in orchestras?”
Joseph Conyers, Philadelphia Orchestra (Bass) and invited speaker at the 2015 ICSOM conference
To me, diversity in American orchestras means diversity in every aspect of who we are and what we do. I actually don’t think the solution is complicated at all.
I’d answer your question with another: “What does your organization look like now?” So much focus is put on diversifying the stage and the audience that we rarely look at our institutions internally, where there could be opportunities for diversification. This includes our staffs and particularly our boards—the place where most institutional decisions are made. The board and the staff play such a large role in directly connecting with the community that if there are diversity gaps there, then you will have diversity gaps in all “outreach” efforts.
When serving under-resourced communities, many of which in urban areas have high numbers of people of color, a real environment of community support must exist to allow for those in programs such as Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Program or Atlanta Symphony’s Talent Development Program, and most recently the PMAY Artists Program in Philadelphia, to find success. Becoming a classical musician is hard enough for someone who does have all of the “right” ingredients (starting at an early age with a supportive environment). Once started, one must make sure these students have proper guidance and support. A huge undertaking? You bet. But this is a true and authentic investment in the orchestra’s community—not a temporary program. Otherwise, without giving the students the support they need, we’re setting false expectations for these young people—and ultimately setting them up for failure.
Finally, I’m a staunch believer in casting the net. You can’t just pick four kids, give them the right ingredients, and expect for those exact four to end up on the stages of American orchestras. Those students will have to develop and find their own intrinsic motivation, the grit, and the determination that all those on stages across America know it takes to end up there. Some students have those innate necessary qualities, while others do not. Therefore, the support of music education on the grandest scale possible is paramount. It’s why I’m a staunch advocate for music education. I didn’t find music—music found me! And against many odds, those students whom music discovers will begin to find a path to success—particularly if they are in an environment where the world is on their side. What a great testament to orchestras if every orchestral community could play such a role in that narrative of success for those students!
Alberto Suarez, Kansas City Symphony (Horn) and ICSOM Delegate
Thank you so much for contacting me about this topic. It is a great subject, and I like the question that you pose. A question I think we should be asking is: “What can musicians do today to improve diversity tomorrow?”
I feel that most musicians are caught up in their individual journeys and sometimes forget that as part of the community we serve, we need to make the change happen and not wait for our orchestra management to create the program for us. The path is complex and full of many different social and economic barriers. The more we as musicians look beyond these barriers the more we can help our community. The answer is mentoring.
I feel there are two types of mentors: musical mentors and life mentors. We may not be qualified to be life mentors, but surely as musicians in professional orchestras we can be musical mentors. We need to expand our reach and help all youth but especially the ones who are under served. We can do this by volunteering with other non-profit organizations, speaking to groups about our careers, performing in community ensembles, or starting chamber ensembles geared towards demonstrating what can be achieved through the arts.
Judy Dines, Houston Symphony (Flute) and former ICSOM Delegate
I think an interesting question to ask is: “How do we spark in young people a lifelong interest in playing classical music?” There are a lot of kids (at least here in Texas!) doing music in schools, but not continuing on when going to college. It takes a leap to go from something that’s fun to do, to something that you can’t do without. I had a recent experience of talking to a group of about 20 high school flutists, who were mostly Hispanic. I asked if anyone was going on to college as flute majors, and nobody raised their hands. It seemed to me that most hadn’t even considered it, or that the thought didn’t even occur to do so. I had a few say that they might continue to play or they might minor in flute, and major in business, computers, etc. Most said that they wouldn’t continue with flute after high school. There were some very talented flutists there—I’m hoping I was able to plant a seed!
John Lofton, Los Angeles Philharmonic (Bass Trombone) and ICSOM Delegate
Your question is an evocative one that brings up issues with strong sentiments. With respect to achieving a more diverse representation in the orchestra world, a few concerns have to be allayed, primarily whether or not your orchestra/community sees that as a value.
Some regard a push for diversity as social engineering or a lowering of the standards. With respect to the former, the viewpoint that we live in a zero-sum reality presumes a more deserving candidate gets passed over. The fact is that every job is a zero-sum reality and when orchestras hire subs and extras—because of their talent and professionalism—the standard of winning an audition is modified to accommodate a need.
Each orchestra has to decide how to prioritize the pursuit of a diverse representation and whether or not that adds value artistically and/or fiscally. There are short- and long-term benefits that may be realized. For example, there are grants specifically targeted for African-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American, and Pacific Islanders that orchestras could avail themselves of. In a longer time frame, we are experiencing changing demographics in our communities. In 2011, for the first time in the USA, minority births outpaced the births of the majority population. Considering that most of our orchestras represent urban centers, the potential exists to put our arts genre on the radar of a population of subscribers, donors, talented arts managers, and board members previously not considered.
One of the issues hindering greater minority representation on stage is that there are very few jobs available for anyone, and winning a job is an exercise of improbabilities. The improbable becomes the impossible when there are so few minority auditionees in queue. It seems that some sort of mentoring is a key element to augment those numbers. It can take many forms—from performances in traditionally underserved parts of our communities to teaching— all with an eye toward creating a larger pool of auditionees.
Again, this first and foremost has to be a value for it to be a success.
After receiving these responses to my question, my view on diversity in our orchestras widened. Now my thoughts extend beyond the concert stage: not only to colleagues with whom I share that stage, and the featured soloists and composers on our concerts, but also to those who serve on the orchestra’s board of directors, the audience for our various programs, and young musicians in our communities, whose exposure to and participation in music could create an improved quality of life. I would urge us all to take a moment to reflect upon what is going well and, more importantly, what can be improved. Who knows? Maybe several comments in this article will spark a creative idea that could bring forth positive movement.
Note: To give an idea of how ICSOM orchestras are already addressing diversity on stage, here are descriptions of two programs, one well-established and one nascent.
By Valerie Little, Minnesota Orchestra ICSOM Delegate
Starting in September 2017, the Minnesota Orchestra will offer a two-year program designed to enhance the orchestral careers of African American, Latino American, and Native American musicians, and to encourage greater racial and cultural diversity in the orchestral field. Auditions will be open to musicians playing violin, cello, flute, trombone, bass trombone, and tuba. The fellowship musicians will attend orchestra rehearsals (both on stage and in the house), perform with the orchestra as determined by the section principal, have regular lessons with Minnesota Orchestra musicians, have an official musician mentor from another section in the orchestra, participate in formal and informal mock auditions, and receive a stipend to take outside auditions. They will also participate in education and outreach work, including presentations, school visits, work with community partners, and Young People’s concerts. They will serve on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, work with community partners, join Development meetings with funders as appropriate, and receive formal reviews with feedback from the audition committee and the section three times per year. Initially a single musician will be selected. A second fellowship musician will be chosen beginning with the 2018-19 season, with the intention of continuing with two overlapping fellowship positions.
By Monica Fosnaugh, Detroit Symphony Orchestra ICSOM Delegate
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra Fellowship Program was established in 1990 and was designed to enhance the careers of African-American orchestral musicians. An individual can participate in the program for up to two years. The DSO Fellows have the opportunity to perform with the Detroit Symphony for 18 weeks of the season, for which they are paid the DSO weekly rate, and participate in 18 individual lessons, for which they receive a stipend. During non-playing weeks, the Fellow is expected to observe DSO rehearsals and performances. The Fellows also provide outreach services, such as Training Ensemble sectionals or school presentations.
The program was designed to include a strong emphasis on audition preparation. The Fellows are required to hold a minimum of three mock auditions and observe any DSO auditions that occur within the Fellows’ instrument group. They must take at least one non-DSO audition, for which they receive travel assistance, and take any DSO audition that occurs within the Fellows’ section during their residency.
Since its inception, 16 musicians have participated in the program, and many have gone on to hold positions with orchestras and educational institutions worldwide. These organizations include the Detroit Symphony, Phoenix Symphony, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, New Mexico Philharmonic, Knoxville Symphony, Michigan Opera Theater, and Mahidol University in Thailand. Currently, the DSO has one Fellowship musician in the bassoon section, and will be auditioning for an additional position in the string section this fall.