We were incredibly fortunate to have guest panelists Anthony and Demarre McGill for the opening session of our 2020 conference, Intersection of Music, Race, and Activism in Our Orchestras. Anthony, principal clarinet with the New York Philharmonic, also serves as artistic director of the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard, is on the Board of Directors for both the League of American Orchestras and the Harmony Project and serves on the advisory council for the InterSchool Orchestras of New York. His older brother Demarre, principal flute of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, is associate professor of flute at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and an artist-faculty member at the Aspen Music Festival and School. They have both been extremely active in cultivating educational opportunities for young musicians in underserved communities and working towards racial equity within our orchestral institutions.
During the protests and civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd, Anthony posted his #taketwoknees video, challenging fellow musicians to shine a light on racism by creating their own videos. His idea was a tribute to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests of police violence. In an interview with Tom Huizenga for NPR, Anthony said, “The issue got clouded and disregarded . . . because it was in the middle of a football game. And so I started writing about how people aren’t allowed to protest . . . quietly or loudly or peacefully either. We should be able to . . . use our voices as musicians and artists, whatever our strengths are. We should be using those to express what’s wrong so we can help make it right. We think we’re helpless and that things are hopeless, but there are ways we can actually pass on positivity and righteousness and beauty and good….we can protest and it can be okay.”
Demarre, in addition to posting his own #taketwoknees video, organized an “Arts March for Racial Justice and Equity” in conjunction with the Seattle Symphony musicians union, Seattle Symphony and Opera Players Organization (SSOPO), calling on the arts community to speak out against racism and police brutality and sending the message that black lives matter. “The racial issues that have always existed, but have received recent headline-grabbing attention, have inspired an urgency amongst many people to do whatever they can to fix the problem that has plagued this nation since its inception,” he said. “Fortunately, there are a lot of people trying to figure out how to finally right the wrongs that have been so ingrained in the fabric of this country.”
Both Anthony and Demarre began our discussion by emphasizing how critical early education and access to classical music are to increasing diversity within the field. If there is no realistic hope for young people of color to pursue a career in music, or the necessary economic support to do so, the pool of talent from which we are able to draw for our auditions will not be sufficient. They also spoke about the isolation of being the sole and only principal of color in their respective orchestras. We need to integrate our musicians more fully both as an example to our communities and for the well-being of our own members.
Needless to say, discussions surrounding our audition and tenure processes, which have produced little success in increasing the number of people of color onstage, have come to the fore in these past months. The dialogue about what changes we may need to consider is both necessary and long overdue. However, the McGill brothers, along with Weston Sprott, trombonist with the MET Orchestra and Dean of the Preparatory Division at the Juilliard School, have offered Ten DEI Action Items for Professional Orchestras that can be implemented without changes to our collective bargaining agreements. They simply require the will and monetary commitment to put them into action.
- In order to fully understand how our audition process is functioning we need to collect hard numbers on who is applying, auditioning, and being hired/tenured. The National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS) Orchestra Advisory Group is creating a form to collect and centralize this data. The form should be available this fall, initially to the 71 NAAS Partner orchestras (19 of which are ICSOM orchestras), and will then be disseminated more widely.
- Strive to program each season so that 25–30% of the repertoire was written by living composers, 15–25% was written by women composers, and 15–25% was written by composers from underrepresented heritages. These numbers assume overlap between these categories. (www.composerdiversity.com/programming)
- Commit to hiring people of color in upper management. The vision and resolve to make changes in our orchestras must come from the top down as well as the bottom up.
- Commit to hiring soloists, conductors, and substitute/extra musicians of color.
- Partner with Black for-profit and non-profit businesses, especially Black-run arts non-profits.
- Implicit bias training is a must for ALL employees and new hires. You don’t know you have a blind spot in your rear-view mirror unless someone teaches you how to recognize it and comprehend what you’re not seeing. Everyone needs the training: administration, musicians, ushers, etc.
- Perform a culture audit of the entire organization. The League of American Orchestras offers grants for audits and training through the Catalyst Fund.
- Does the mission statement of your orchestra mention a commitment to diversity? Adjust it to include serving and engaging with communities of color.
- Adjust your job postings to convey to applicants that your organization is committed to inclusivity.
- Create a budget specifically for DEI initiatives. If money is not earmarked solely for that purpose, it will most certainly be spent elsewhere and those initiatives will not come to fruition.
All these concepts could be implemented simply by agreeing to do so and putting aside the necessary financing, if any. We are in a unique moment in our history as a nation and within our orchestral field.
As Demarre said, there is a sense of urgency to right the historic wrongs of socio-economic exclusion and racism in our society. We have a moral imperative as a country and within the microcosm of our orchestral industry to address these injustices.
Note: the author is ICSOM chairperson.