Note: historical quotations in this article use outdated language that may be jarring for the modern reader.
“There is not now, nor has there ever been, a representative number of blacks and other minorities within the ranks of North America’s symphony, opera and ballet orchestras.”
This statement was made at an ICSOM conference in 1989 in a presentation by Daniel Windham, the Music Assistance Fund’s executive director. The MAF was created by the managing director of the New York Philharmonic in response to an observation made by a new NYP board member, Mrs. David Rockefeller, who asked, “Why are there no Black people out there?”
Mr. Windham’s 1989 speech at our conference in Aspen clearly addresses the concerns of inequitable representation that we still face today. Do any of these statements made then by Windham sound familiar to you in 2021?
- “Despite such intended corrective efforts as the Affirmative Action Program, ‘blind auditions’ (behind a screen), and the Minority Assistance Fellowship Program, the number of black and minority musicians in ICSOM, OCSM, and ROPA orchestras has not increased significantly.”
- “For every vacancy in a major or regional orchestra, there may be upwards of 150–200 applicants . . . at most, [a] half dozen are minority members.”
- “Clearly a big part of the long-term solution to this problem lies in training efforts by the public schools, conservatories, and our symphony organizations, which lead to increased numbers of minority students taking up orchestral instruments at early ages.”
- “We must find new hiring programs and techniques which address both our social and artistic concerns.”
A copy of Windham’s entire presentation, including the question and answer session, is provided on pages 28–39 of the 1989 conference minutes, https://www.icsom.org/conferences/docs/1989-minutes.pdf.
In reading his presentation, I was dismayed that we are still hearing the same concerns expressed at ICSOM forums as were expressed by Mr. Windham thirty years before. It is very disheartening to see that our industry has not moved on as hoped; in fact, during the time since that presentation, an entire new generation of ICSOM musicians has joined our ranks, while the number of minority players employed in our orchestras has barely changed, if at all.
It was inspiring to see that those ICSOM delegates at the 1989 annual conference made the motion to adopt the paper upon hearing this presentation. The delegate who made this motion was Atlanta Symphony’s Michael Moore, who is still on ICSOM’s governing board in 2021 as our treasurer.
The 1989 conference minutes state that “discussion included information on implementation of this effort; clarification of potential effect on present audition procedures; defining of affirmative action i.e. establishing criteria and hiring those who meet criteria; clarification by author on purpose of statement,” and that the motion was passed unanimously.
While exploring ICSOM’s online archives, I was extremely proud to see that our founders made a firm stand in 1963 in support of diversity. Our organization’s very first press release included the assertion that “We support equal employment opportunities for Negro musicians in America’s symphony orchestras, as well as, an end to segregated audiences.” This early press release also announced the actual formation of ICSOM, showing the high level of importance in proclaiming a statement regarding diversity at the same time that it introduced our organization to the public. (Note: see pages 15–17 of the minutes.)
The minutes from this June 8 session, which was held in Rochester NY, showed that “discussion took place of implementation on integration in symphony orchestras” and that their press release with this supportive message about diversity was in the form of a motion that was passed unanimously by the delegates.
In addition, another motion that was made and carried at ICSOM’s June 1963 meeting took a firm stand regarding hiring procedures, as follows: “Moved and seconded that the [sic] lCSOM support the inclusion of a non-discrimination clause in every symphony collective bargaining agreement.” (Note: see page 18 of the minutes)
To underscore the importance of ICSOM’s stand regarding diversity, the minutes from a follow-up ICSOM session in St. Louis in September 1963 state that a “press conference was held with a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch” and that the press release, which was approved by the delegates, included the statement that “the group re-emphasizes its insistence on equal opportunity for Negro musicians in America’s orchestras as well as an end to segregated audiences”.
The fact that ICSOM made this strong stand regarding racism in advance of our country’s 1964 Civil Rights Act was incredibly powerful to me. More statements in support of minority musicians continued, which I discovered by searching a bit more at ICSOM’s online archives.
The cover story of the January 1969 Senza Sordino, written by Buffalo Philharmonic’s then principal oboist Rodney Pierce, reported about a summer educational program for minority students in Buffalo public schools: “Shortly after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, several musicians from the Buffalo Philharmonic met together to discuss what musicians might do to help bridge the communication gap between the black and white communities.”
In a Letter to the Editor with headings “Help for Black Musicians” and “Apprentice Plan” which appeared in the April 1969 issue of Senza Sordino, Bay Area cellist Richard Anastasio described the need for orchestras to provide on-the-job training by establishing “a reasonable number of orchestra-apprentice scholarships approximately equal to the yearly salary of the regular orchestra member and offer these scholarships to advanced Negro instrumentalists.”
From the 1971 ICSOM conference in Seattle, the motions from the minutes include that: “It was resolved that a speaker’s bureau be formed by each member orchestra to provide information and counseling to students who contemplate symphony playing as a career. Emphasis should be placed on solving those special problems of musicians from minority backgrounds.”
These historic records from the early days of ICSOM show the desire to improve diversity in our industry. However, when fast forwarding to nearly twenty years later, we can see that there was still a long path ahead.
Editor Debbie Torch’s article “Black Musicians in the ICSOM Orchestras” in the June-August 1989 issue of Senza Sordino (Note: see https://www.icsom.org/senza/issues/senza275.pdf) reveals this struggle in great detail, giving statements from several of our minority musicians.
Part two of her article appeared in the December 1989 issue and addressed outreach programs by several ICSOM orchestras: Alabama, Atlanta, Boston, New York Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Symphony.
Now, as we circle back to the 1989 ICSOM conference, we see that Mr. Windham’s presentation ended with this caution: “Clearly, as this essay only begins to demonstrate, there are major challenges ahead on the road to achieving racial balance in our field—a goal worthy of pursuing despite the obstacles. Indeed, ways and means must be found to accomplish this end if our institutions are to remain viable into the 21st century.”
And here we are, now into the third decade of the 21st century, having the very same discussion. Why have we not seen more progress in this area since this presentation was made 32 years ago? How can we do better? Recently I spoke with Kenneth Thompkins, principal trombone of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a former DSO fellowship musician, who provided an insight that encourages thoughtful planning. “The lack of diversity in orchestras was recognized many years ago. It seems that how orchestras see themselves within their communities is part of the struggle. Do orchestras see value in having orchestra membership truly reflect the demographics of their communities? If the issues of representation on the stage and programming are only discussed and implemented following horrific tragedies (George Floyd, Dr. King), that is reflexive not thoughtful. To achieve a more diverse symphony will require sustained thoughtful work to recognize, cultivate, and welcome diverse talent.”
Ken also relayed that all parts of the organization must be committed to improving diversity: staff and management, board and donors, conductors and musicians. Hopefully all of these discussion points will encourage conversations, as we cannot move forward effectively unless we understand the past.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson once said that “Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.” We are decades overdue in addressing the issue of diversity, and I encourage all ICSOM orchestras to have these conversations now!
Note: the author is ICSOM president.