It’s Not Just an Access Problem – Orchestras Aren’t Creating Safe Environments for Black Musicians

For decades, American orchestras have struggled to increase the number of Black musicians on their rosters. In a study released by The League of American Orchestras in 2023, Black people represented 2.4% of musicians in surveyed orchestras – an increase from their findings in 2014, where Black musicians totaled 1.8%. And while this is seemingly small progress, the work needed to ensure this growth was no small undertaking. The efforts that have helped to move the needle include the implementation of orchestral fellowships, refining outdated orchestral practices, and providing multiple means of entry to a group of musicians who have historically been left out of the conversation.

Black musicians’ low participation in American orchestras often begins with issues of access and resources. It is expensive to become a working classical musician, and even more expensive if you want to play in a professional orchestra. In addition to owning a quality instrument, attending summer festivals to extend your training year-round, and taking auditions that can cost upwards of $1,000 per trip, you also have to have access to the knowledge that will help you be successful during this process. This information is usually held by teachers and mentors with professional orchestra experience, who can shed light on the ins and outs of navigating blind auditions and advancing through multiple rounds. Yet the cost of lessons and coachings with these teachers places this critical knowledge behind a paywall.

But the ability to circumvent these obstacles is not the only reason why the percentage of Black people in American orchestras is almost stagnant. As conversations and efforts to diversify American orchestras continue to evolve and change, a factor that must be considered is whether or not Black musicians are staying in these positions. There is substantial work being done to bring Black people into orchestras, but there also needs to be valiant work done to keep them there.

As a former orchestral fellow myself, I can acknowledge the work that has been done by a few institutions to help remove the barriers to Black classical musicians becoming full-time orchestra members. However, when these strides have had a virtual net-zero effect on the number of Black musicians in orchestras, we must consider the issue from a different angle.

There are some aspects of being a classical musician that are universal, like struggling to make a living wage in the early stages of your career, or balancing multiple gigs, rehearsals, and students. But experiences that are unique to Black musicians – feelings of isolation, misalignments between personal ideology and the institution, or a desire to create more change from outside the concert hall – are often more indicative of why some are choosing to leave their orchestral job.

I spoke to four Black orchestral musicians who all wished to remain anonymous. While their opinions do not represent those of all Black orchestral musicians, their experiences provide insight as to why some Black musicians are leaving the orchestral profession.

Katie Brown performs with the 2019 Gateways Music Festival orchestra -- Photo courtesy Katie Brown

Katie Brown performs with the 2019 Gateways Music Festival orchestra — Photo courtesy Katie Brown

Entering a space companionless is an experience that is far too familiar to Black orchestral musicians. Taking the question “who all gone be there?” to heart, one learns to expect that there will be no Black people in the section or at the rehearsal; it’s a pleasant surprise if there are other Black people. No matter how long you’ve been active in the field of classical music, the isolation of being the only one in a space is a difficult aspect to get over for a lot of Black musicians. When thinking about the longevity of a career, the notion of being perpetually uncomfortable is overwhelming.

The choice to endure workplace discomfort or leave to find an environment that is more naturally inclusive varies from person to person. Musician A is a fully-tenured orchestral musician, who shared, “I wouldn’t go into a major orchestra as a POC with the idea that I will be socially comfortable there right away.” But they also offered some validation and encouragement: “Don’t be too disillusioned if you get there and don’t feel [instantly comfortable].”

Musician B, a full-time musician abroad, expressed similar sentiments. “I warn of the perils of tokenization, isolation, and pressure, which will be applied to you to be a spokesperson for DEI initiatives despite your comfort or experience level.”

Making the field of classical music more equitable for Black people and people of color became more heavily spotlighted due to the racial unrest of 2020. Orchestra fellowship programs like that of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra are helping to level the playing field, as well as programs like the Sphinx Orchestral Partners Auditions, which allows applicants the opportunity to play for a panel of orchestral musicians from around the country.

However, some Black classical musicians do not believe these efforts are enough to overcome deep-seated institutional racism and create sustainable career opportunities. Musician C held a principal seat before leaving the field. Their experience is that “orchestras maintain a level of white supremacy that largely goes unchecked or unchallenged across society.” While we’ve seen strides to program more historically excluded composers or diversify guest artists, the overall change is slow moving in a field that is beholden to tradition. Though down 15% from a 2016 study, the Institute for Composer Diversity still found in 2023 that nearly 70% of music programmed by American orchestras was written by deceased white men.

Musician D, a full-time musician who left their orchestra, corroborates Musician C’s assertions: “Orchestras are inherently colonized and weren’t built to support Blackness. Though some efforts are being made to change largely half-hearted DEI campaigns, Blackness may never be fully appreciated as a long-term, foundational aspect of orchestras.” Pragmatically, this is most clearly seen in the ways American orchestras treat American music. As orchestras continue to uphold European classical traditions through most of their programming, the intrinsically American music by composers of jazz, gospel, and country music struggle to find a place in the concert hall. On their first concert in 1842, the New York Philharmonic, the first orchestra in the United States and one of the oldest in the world, did not include one American composer. This lean toward European heritage while dismissing American culture naturally sets the precedent of being unsupportive of Blackness.

With waning confidence in historically white classical institutions to make considerable reform that will positively affect the experiences of Black musicians, some Black people have moved to enact their own changes in hopes of making a larger impact. The Gateways Music Festival, founded in 1993, is an all Black orchestra festival that brings together classical musicians from across the African Diaspora with the goal of “challenging the status quo and preconceptions about classical music at the highest levels.” The Sphinx Organization, founded in 1997, has been doing radical work to make sure Black musicians are in a position to be heard, affecting significant change across the field of orchestral playing. Their work includes an annual competition, workshops, and resources dedicated to increasing the number of Black and Latinx artists in classical music.

The goal of the International Society for Black Musicians, founded in 2020, is to “facilitate the unlearning of centered whiteness in the scholarship of music,” which has created a community of Black musicians who can celebrate their artistry across multiple genres of music. And the Black Orchestral Network, founded in 2022 to support Black orchestral musicians, is dedicated to “cultivating community, lifting our voices, and telling our stories.”

While the onus should not be on Black musicians to affect change in a system they did not make inequitable, Black leaders have, in good faith, created spaces for weary musicians to seek refuge in a slowly changing field. But while some Black orchestral musicians are advocating for change from within, others leave, hoping to affect change elsewhere or pursue loftier goals. Musician C says, “Orchestral training is often based in people-pleasing, so I decided to leave playing in orchestras full-time so I could develop my autonomy and take it to a place where I could make a holistic impact.”

In this time of reform and rebuilding, orchestras must do their due diligence to create safe spaces for historically marginalized musicians to feel comfortable.

Similarly, Musician D states, “From my perspective, more orchestral musicians would divest from the Western orchestral tradition if they were given an opportunity to do something more meaningful and impactful for historically marginalized communities and individuals…I knew that it was time for me to leave my orchestral career when I found an opportunity to spread my message of a decolonized ecosystem to broader audiences.”

Outside of the work environment, Black orchestral musicians must also grapple with outdated hiring practices, like the threat of being denied tenure. This reality was most recently observed in Josh Jones’ story. Just shy of becoming the first Black musician in the institution’s 40 year history, Jones was denied tenure with the Kansas City Symphony in May 2023. What began as glowing reviews of Jones’ talent in initial meetings quickly turned to complaints that “improvement in the various issues was not sufficient.” Though the orchestra was unwavering in their stance that race was not a factor in their decision, it is irresponsible in this time of advocating for equity and inclusion to take their statement at face value.

Playing in environments that are isolating and not welcoming can make even the best positions feel unsustainable. In this time of reform and rebuilding, orchestras must do their due diligence to create safe spaces for historically marginalized musicians to feel comfortable. Black people deserve to feel at ease at work, regardless of the field. For orchestras, when the data indicates that attrition is mirroring growth, intentional change must be implemented to retain Black musicians in their ranks.


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