Last week I attended the annual conference held by the American League of Orchestras in Baltimore, MD, and I enjoyed listening to and participating in some very important discussions on race and diversity in classical music. I was one of 13 current/former diversity fellows asked to attend.
The first day was strictly social. After checking into the hotel the fellows attended a welcome reception where we were introduced to the organizers, as well as many of the people around the country working with orchestras in an administrative capacity. With so many different orchestral fellowships on the brink of creation nation-wide, these individuals talked with us about our experiences and how these programs can be successfully integrated into an orchestral organization.
On day two I attended a forum that was designed to tackle the issue of diversity in orchestras from a very hands-on, concrete plan driven strategy. The forum attendees were split into 5 groups, and I elected to participate in the group entitled "Establishing a Mentor Network". My teachers and mentors were an integral part of my development, so I went into this discussion eager to figure out how we can establish a national network of mentors and fellows, and I think the groundwork is off to a great start. The biggest challenge in this is identifying the talent, and while conservatories fuel orchestras, I'm under the opinion that we have to create professional musicians from the state college level if diversity is the priority. Black and Latino kids who go to Colburn, Curtis, and Juilliard, for example, are well on their way, but what about the kids at schools like Wayne State, Georgia Tech, and the University of Memphis? The talk was productive, and my contribution to it was to simply remember that there is talent everywhere - not just at the conservatories. Once this is recognized, a national mentor group can work to assist musicians of color in making something they may not even realize is a possibility possible. That was certainly the case for me.
Later that day the fellows were asked to participate in mock auditions with members of the Baltimore Symphony. No matter where you are in your career, I think mock auditions are always useful, and the practice of performing under that kind of pressure is essential to getting the job. I played well, and the comments I received from the panel are ones that I will take with me in my upcoming auditions.
That evening the Baltimore Youth Symphony program gave us a breathtaking performance, which included a symphony orchestra, New Orleans-style brass band, and even a percussion ensemble. I have to say that I wasn't sure how involved the BSO was in their community before visiting Baltimore, but after watching this performance it is obvious to me that they put education and community engagement very high on the priority list.
Now for the good stuff...
The next morning a special forum was held for the fellows on the topic of keeping an orchestral job after winning an audition. On the panel were musicians from across the country, including Anthony McGill of the New York Phil and Alex Liang of the Phoenix Symphony. While I respect the accomplishments of these musicians, the conversation felt like the art of assimilation to me. The general philosophy was that keeping your nose down and behaving are essential parts of the game. I get it, but I'm plagued with the idea that orchestras are only interested in diversity from a visual level. If you want more black people in your organization, you have to take their bodies as well as their MINDS. For example, when you say that I should dress "professionally" when on trial with an orchestra, what do you mean? Does carrying myself in a "respectful" manner mean playing well with my colleagues, or assimilating my behavior to your comfort? I'm not sure that I know how to effectively portray my thoughts on this subject, but I basically believe that we have yet to accept the fact that diversity should enhance and even change the CULTURE of classical music, not just the aesthetic.
The next forum discussed a research study on the 40 year history of fellowship programs. I will post a link when the study is published in August, but the main things I found most interesting were how some of the programs were born, and how musicians reacted. The program I went through was the Detroit Symphony Orchestra African-American Fellowship, and it was created in a reaction to the threat of an arts organization pulling a large amount of money from the DSO because of their lack of diversity. This also resulted in the appointment of a black musician who subbed with the orchestra regularly. In this case, the DSO had to feel a financial threat to move towards diversity. Does this precedent still exist today?
The day was concluded with a concert by the Baltimore Symphony, and the performance left me speechless. I hope to see more people of color on the stage and in the hall the next time I visit.
On the final day I took some time to see Baltimore and meet up with friends I hadn't visited in a while. The closing luncheon included speeches by DeRay Mckesson and U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, and they challenged all of the suits in the room to take a more active effort in being a part of the community they are surrounded by on the organizational level and the individual level. These were really great talks.
I know this is a little disjunct and summarize-y, but there was more information and discussions presented at the conference than I can put here. My major take-aways are as follows: