Bring in the Minorities: Why Representation Matters in Classical Music

When I moved to Arkansas from Las Vegas, Nevada, I underwent a culture shock of sorts. Living in a predominantly black and hispanic community in Las Vegas, I was shielded to how much race actually affected people’s day-to-day life, my own included. I heard the occasional “police shoots a black man” headline, but any worries that I had were quickly replaced by which one of my friends had the coolest figurines, or if I could get my grandmother to give me a dollar for the ice cream truck. In short: I was ignorant.

I want to take you back to my first encounter with the classical music world: when my family moved to Arkansas. We moved in with my cousins, who were already established in the state, bringing the total number of children to seven.

The thing with young kids is if one has something, does something, or even says something, all of the others will soon follow suit–one push and they all come crashing down. The year before my family moved to Arkansas, my cousins had started taking music lessons, so before long, I picked up a violin and started going, too.

It was an exhausting five-hour round trip drive for music lessons, but in spite of the fatigue and car sickness, I loved it. The feeling I got from playing as a member of the orchestra was amazing, and it filled me with contentment and a sense of wonder. However, even amid all of those good memories, a jarring dissonance rang out.

“I never had a black friend.” This is what one of the white girls said to my cousin at one of our midday orchestra breaks. Although it was hard to believe, when I first heard the remark, I took it at face value: the girl had never, in all of her life, had one black friend. But looking back on it, I realized that wasn’t what she was really saying. Yes, we were “down south,” but there were enough African Americans around for her to associate with and become friends with. What I believe she was saying was that she’d never had an African American sit down in a chair right next to her and play music, which is sad and a little bit mind-blowing. She could’ve said it a bit differently, maybe, “I never played with a black person before,” or maybe, “This is the first time I’ve seen a black person play an instrument,” but she didn’t.

The Cello Section

The Cello Section by Vxla on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It seems like a peculiar choice of words to use: what does “never having a black friend” have to do with music? A lot actually. The music community is a tightly knit one, where knowing the right people can make or break your career, so her comment of never actually having a black friend is true to form–black people and other minorities aren’t a significant presence in the music world.

As I’ve grown and become more immersed in the classical music world, I’ve seen the same thing over and over again. Competitions are filled with only white and Asian competitors. The advertisements for music programs and renowned summer festivals are filled with all white students, occasionally showing a person of color. When I go to an orchestral concert, I see a plethora of white people in the ensemble with only one or two people of color, if that–not to mention everyone in the audience. My feelings can range from mild intimidation to nearly debilitating anxiety when faced with these types of circumstances, causing me to question if I should apply for a program or participate in a concert. And I know I’m not alone.

I’m not here to tell you some African-American injustice story that you’ve probably heard more than once and in various forms, but I do want to share with you my experiences as a young musician and what I see as the state of diversity in the classical music world. “Yes,” I hear. “We do need more diversity. Bring in the minorities!” However, there are underlying problems that can’t be fixed by just bringing in more minorities.

Let’s jump back in time to the 1950s. It’s the beginning of the civil rights movement, and America is in turmoil, restless and perturbed. At this time, there are a preponderance of startup theaters, music educational programs, dance companies, and museums for, and run by, Latinos and African-Americans like La Farándula Panamericana (The Pan American Troupe) and the American Negro Theatre (ANT). Amid all of the strife of the day, there are people who are trying to bring healthy and meaningful change to the world. Fast forward a couple of years, and you’ll see both the ANT and The Pan American Troupe gone, just like many others of that era. The combination of political hounding by the government, social disruption, and economic instability brought about by commercialization and co-option contributed to the downfall of these organizations, but what these recurring themes do to minorities is the more important question.

A scene from the American Negro Theatre's "On Strivers' Row" stage production

A scene from the American Negro Theatre’s “On Strivers’ Row” stage production. Photo courtesy Collection, Photographs and Print Division, Schomburg Center, NYPL

There are many studies that reveal the gulf in minority involvement when it comes to music, but not too many that reveal the effects of underrepresentation. It is hard to scientifically measure what people feel, so they get cast off for other (often times vaguer) explanations, but the fact of the matter is: the world of the arts is an uncomfortable place for minorities. Obviously, that can’t be the only reason, but being “the only” in any setting can be nerve racking, and being “the only” within the brutal and highly competitive world of classical music is a recipe for disaster. With institutions that feature minorities as the majority, like the 1950s startups, this problem is effectively negated and everyone is happy… or are they?

In 2015, Anne Akiko Meyers tweeted using the hashtag #ReverseDiscrimination, which she promptly deleted about twenty minutes later. She was asking if you had to be black to solo with the newly started Chineke! Orchestra, the first professional orchestra in Europe in which the majority of the members are black and minority ethnic musicians. This attitude that all minority groups are in some way racist or discriminatory to white people is crippling to the arts. Not only is it discouraging minority involvement, but it also encourages discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.

“Why do they have to branch off? Don’t the big organizations have programs for minorities?”

This is true: there are many branches in the mega-organization tree specifically for minorities, but there’s one thing that we need to remember: Being a branch or another side project is demeaning for anyone, including minorities. I personally want to see them as their own independent trees. Yes, they may struggle in the shadows of the bigger trees, but with perseverance, support, and a bit of luck, they too can be mighty oaks in the world of the arts.

Change is hard for humans to deal with; our nature is to kick, scream, and fight with all that we’ve got in order to remain in our old ways. Even when we are willing to accept change, it still takes time. Things like blind auditions are helping to speed this change along. However, I believe that we need to do more than stick up a curtain and hope for the best.

Sphinx Virtuosi

Sphinx Virtuosi–Photo by Kevin Kennedy

Being active in your local minority organizations is a great first step. Don’t have anything local? Consider donating to one of the bigger organizations like the Sphinx Organization or the Chineke! Foundation. They also have many opportunities for involvement in their many musical programs: at the moment of writing, Sphinx has an open teacher position and a liaison opportunity for its annual competition.

What about those of you who aren’t old enough to donate or teach? You can still advocate for the minority cause by simply being welcoming to kids in minority groups. Maybe you see that they’re having some trouble with a particular passage: they might not ask for help, but they will deeply appreciate it if you offer it anyway. A simple smile and hello can go a long way to making people feel included.

As you’ve seen in my personal experience, things aren’t at an optimal place for minorities in classical music, but I believe if everyone pitches in, whether that be donating, participating in programs, or simply being welcoming, that the state of the music world can and will be improved.