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Shifting Power in American Orchestras

I have dedicated my professional career to providing an equitable music education experience to those who face barriers to receive it. Almost all of our students and families that I have been serving through Play On Philly are of color (African-American, Hispanic and Southeast Asian) and lower middle class or below. I usually speak about the inequalities of opportunities that this population receives and have built a socially conscious orchestral training program that removes all the barriers of access: tuition, quality instruments, professional teachers, and musical supplies delivered to their community at no cost to the families.

Our students consistently compete at the local and national levels, many of them studying music at the collegiate level and many more of them interested in building a life as a musician, educator and mentor. However, I have become more worried about what happens when they leave our “bubble” that is filled with peers, teachers, administrators and board members that truly understand their circumstances and enter a field that is dominated by white supremacy and unconscious bias.

Most of my white friends and colleagues in this field are very progressive, however our conversations about the lack of diversity revolve around the poor training and achievement of classical musicians of color. They ask: How could you expect musicians of color to earn spots at our top conservatories or win jobs in our major orchestras if they aren’t competitive enough and don’t show up for the auditions? I ask: How could you expect musicians of color to earn spots at out top conservatories or win jobs in our major orchestras if they are never given the opportunity to succeed?

Very few understand how white supremacy and unconscious bias have not allowed the percentage of musicians of color in American orchestras to grow above 4.5%. In other numbers, that percentage represents 374 musicians that are not identified as white or Asian, 663 as Asian and 6,246 as white. Twenty-five years ago, the percentage of musicians of color hovered around 2.5% (2014 Orchestra Statistical Report – League of American Orchestras).

Often when I present the angle that the issue could reside in those who have power in this field (the white musicians, music directors, administrators and board members), I am often met with white fragility, rather than an openness to truly understand the challenges through a different lens. However, the culture of the field positions white people and all that is associated with their journey to their positions as the ideal construct. That is why the solutions of forty years ago are still the same today: “Let’s build a program to make the people of color better musicians.”

We are already outstanding musicians and we have been for many decades. Let me explain using another historical example: The first woman to be appointed to an orchestra in the United States was harpist Edna Phillips in Philadelphia in 1930. Between 1930 and 1975, the percentage of women in orchestras grew to only 5%. Today, orchestras are 49.1% women. It is not that women finally started to “get good” between 1975 and 2015, it is simply that they were granted the opportunity to apply their musical abilities in the American orchestral setting. White men finally shared their power with women.

The new question should be: “How can those in power be encouraged to continue to share their power with musicians of color?” The white supremacy and unconscious bias that I speak of is the idea that white people are better than those of color. I have heard from too many orchestras and conservatories around this country that the only way they can imagine diversifying their institutions would be to lower their standards.

These people have fallen into thinking that abilities of white people on the stage, in the administrative offices and at the board table are the norm and that people of color are an inherent deviation from that norm. Unfortunately, that attitude makes them believe that potential musicians of color wouldn’t be good enough, promising administrators of color aren’t as skilled, and future board members of color wouldn’t be able to contribute.

So, as we strive to have our orchestras (including administrators and board members) reflect the true nature of our communities – with different races, perspectives, orientations, and life experiences – the time to make different decisions is now.

How will this field change if we can’t identify that the transfer of power must begin now? And how can we help today’s decision makers truly understand that we exist?

Challenge our complicity with and investment in racism. Everyone is needed to become aware and continually seek to identify ways to make change. Training in cultural competency and unconscious bias for the entire organization will help teams understand the challenges musicians of color face and help provide a new lens to see opportunities to those challenges.

Embrace and build new networks of people of color. You can’t engage people of color if you don’t know any. How much of your time is spent with people and communities of color?

Trust that we do exist. We are fine musicians. We are effective managers and visionaries. We have money and influence. It is condescending and patronizing to believe otherwise. We don’t always need scholarships or entry-level jobs to gain experience.

Make a different decision. Someone made a different decision for Edna Phillips and someone else must make a different decision today and tomorrow. The quality of the orchestra won’t diminish. And making that decision is free.

We need to move forward in the next forty years and beyond the slow progress made in the past half century. If the percentage of women versus men in American orchestras can reflect the percentage in the country today, then I know we can have our orchestras reflect the demographics of our country tomorrow.

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