The 21st Annual Sphinx Competition and SphinxConnect conference were held at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center, January 31 to February 4. ICSOM has been a supporter of the Sphinx Competition since 1998, and this year President Paul Austin and I attended, along with AFM SSD Director Rochelle Skolnick; Susan Ayoub, Secretary-Treasurer of Detroit Local 5; Alfonso Pollard, AFM Legislative-Political Director and Director of Diversity; and Tino Gagliardi, President of New York Local 802 and member of the AFM International Executive Board.
The conference was filled with thought-provoking panels, live music performances, and master classes. The Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, an all Black and Latino orchestra, comprising professional musicians from orchestras and institutions all over the country, performed twice under the direction of guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto at Orchestra Hall, home of the Detroit Symphony. The first-place competition winner of the Senior Division was Venezuelan violinist Rubén Rengel; and the winner of the Junior Division (17 and under) was cellist Levi Powe, from Tucson, Arizona.
Having attended the League of American Orchestras’ (LAO) conference in June of 2017, Paul, Rochelle, and I became involved with the LAO Diversity Forum, which brings together activists in and around orchestras—to exchange information and perspectives and to take collective action. Created in conjunction with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Diversity Forum has been exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in American orchestras, in order to better understand the barriers to achieving greater diversity among musicians in orchestras. Four task forces that had been formed in the 2016 Diversity Forum are working to promote DEI in orchestras:
- Build an Audition Support System: Create a national fund to provide travel, financial support, and orchestra audition training to pre- and early-professional musicians from under-represented communities, also establish a mentor network and audition training initiative. Co-chairs: Howard Herring (CEO of the New World Symphony) and Stanford Thompson (Executive Director of Play On, Philly!)
- Strengthen Music Education Pathways: Determine orchestras’ optimal roles in strengthening local music education. Co-chairs: Lee Koonce (President of Gateways Music Festival) and Leni Boorstin (Director of Community and Government Affairs at the Los Angeles Philharmonic)
- Support Increased Board and Staff Diversity: Identify strategies and resources to support the diversification of orchestra boards and staff. Co-chairs: Shea Scruggs (Director of Music Admission and Assistant Dean at the School of Music, Ithaca College) and Jim Hirsch (CEO of the Chicago Sinfonietta)
- Promote Organizational Readiness: Explore how existing orchestra organizational cultures help and/or hinder diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and what can be done to develop highly supportive cultures. Co-chairs: Alex Laing (Principal Clarinet, Phoenix Symphony) and Megen Balda (Executive Director of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies)
At this year’s Sphinx conference some of the initial results of the first task force, now called Audition Readiness Initiative, were announced. With funding from the Mellon Foundation, early professional musicians of color will be provided with financial support for travel to auditions, reimbursement of potential lost income, lessons, and mentorship; and an audition ‘boot camp’ will take place at the New World Symphony facility in Miami, Florida.
Organizational readiness—cultures that support diversity—was the topic of several panels, not only pertaining to orchestras, but also academic institutions, arts management, and non-profit foundations. “The Orchestra as an Inclusive Institution” was one of the final discussions, moderated by Alex Laing. In addition to Rochelle, the participants were; Weston Sprott, trombonist from the MET Opera Orchestra; Anna Kuwabara, Executive Director of the Albany Symphony; and Justin Laing, Managing Partner, Hillombo, LLC. This panel examined the audition process. Since the advent of screened auditions in the 1970s, the number of women musicians has now become nearly equal to the number of men, musicians of Asian descent are at 9%, yet musicians of color remain at an average of only 1% of our orchestras. Why? Many colleagues in ICSOM orchestras with whom I have spoken maintain that musicians of color do not advance past the screen because there are not enough qualified candidates of color in the ‘pipeline’. The attendees of the Sphinx Conference would beg to differ. They believe there are plenty of highly qualified musicians of color and that implicit bias is part of the problem. And our ICSOM orchestras that truly hold screened auditions—where the screen does not come down in the final rounds—have the highest proportion of musicians of color.
Beginning in the early 1970s, a number of our ICSOM orchestras began fellowship programs for musicians of color in the hope that these programs would help encourage diversity onstage. In practice, the necessary awareness and cultural readiness to support them did not exist, and in truth, these early fellowship programs did not affect the proportion of musicians of color on stage, which has remained at 1%. We again have several minority fellowship and education programs, most notably in Detroit, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis and one just beginning in Los Angeles. But are we any better prepared to make a success of these initiatives?
I believe this is a crucial opportunity for ICSOM to engage in authentic and meaningful self-examination. The issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion apply to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, education, religion and socio-economic status. The orchestral experience is most rewarding when there are diverse participants, inclusive environments, and equitable conduct at every level of our institutions—musicians, conductors, guest artists, repertoire, audience, staff, boards, and management.
I propose that ICSOM form a Minority Network or Caucus from within our own membership to help us examine and consider the barriers to diversity and inclusion that may lie within. Is there implicit bias somewhere in the audition process? What role should a Music Director play in promoting diversity? What is ICSOM’s role? What are our responsibilities as orchestral musicians to our communities and to our own institutions?
These will be challenging and uncomfortable questions, but the time to ask them is long overdue. With the help and guidance of our own members, I hope to discuss what a more inclusive culture in ICSOM would look like and explore what ICSOM’s role in orchestral diversity might be.