Active Listening #5: Towers by Shelley Washington

Active Listening is a series that unites composers with audiences who care about social justice. The goal of this series is to inspire empathy, educate listeners, and offer steps to actively support each cause. Each composer has chosen to address a social justice issue they feel passionate about, and with each installment, actions which listeners can take are provided.  A new installment of this 10-part performance video and interview series will be released on the first Wednesday of each month through September 2019, featuring works commissioned and performed by pianist Lior Willinger. This project has been funded by an award from the Presser Foundation.

This installment of Active Listening examines the persistent challenges faced by people of color in the realm of higher education. The issue is deeply personal for Shelley Washington, who details how her experience as a woman of color in academic environments has been rife with crushing isolation and tremendous pressure. In her notes for the piece, she states, “Towers is for me, and for all those who reside in their own stronghold. Though we often feel confined to our own separate spires in our own separate kingdoms, I know that someday we’ll all be able to come down. Slowly but surely, we will all rise together.”

Towers by Shelley Washington

It’s no secret that classical music has a diversity issue. If we look at major orchestras, we also often notice a lack of diversity among the performing musicians and in the programming. The message sent by classical music institutions to the broader public is rather unwelcoming. In music schools, we question how diverse the faculty is and how inclusive the curriculum might be. Representation matters. We know the field of classical music needs to embrace change. It’s imperative we discuss how to become more inclusive and take the necessary steps to realize Shelley’s hope and vision of being able to “rise together.”

So what can we do?

Shelley offers the following:

  1. Take the initiative to learn about African-American history and examine the timeline of when we were allowed to go to the same schools as everyone else. It wasn’t too long ago, and being aware of that is important. 
  2. Speak up on behalf of your POC peers if the content provided by your teachers is exclusively white/western/exclusionary/etc. and ask them to include a more diverse curriculum. 
  3. Don’t always carry the expectation for your POC peers to speak up about issues regarding diversity–if a colleague or professor says something problematic that would potentially harm a POC colleague, don’t be afraid to speak up, even if you “don’t know how to eloquently word it”–speak up to defend your colleagues in the moment rather than issuing an apology on behalf of the speaker after the fact (“I’m sorry you had to hear that earlier…”) 
  4. Don’t just listen when a POC colleague speaks up about an issue–listen and internalize and think about why they said what they said–if they said something you didn’t quite understand, research! 

The recording of Towers is available for download on Bandcamp. All proceeds from the sale of this track will go to support the Sphinx Organization, whose mission is to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts.

We have the power and responsibility to build a more supportive and inclusive arts community. The future of our field is in our creative hands.

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