5 Questions to Katie Brown & Dalanie Harris (Classically Black Podcast)

Violist Katie Brown and double bassist Dalanie Harris, co-hosts of Classically Black Podcast, discuss their growing media platform with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The podcast presents the Black experience in classical music, calls out problems in the field, and offers solutions with humorous insight. Although it is a podcast primarily for Black classical music professionals, Classically Black Podcast fights exclusivity and provides a broader audience a look into this unique world.

First, thank you for this podcast! You say it started as personal processing, but it has become a frank and hospitable influence. What were your original goals for Classically Black Podcast, and how are they evolving?

KB: Originally, we had a couple of goals. First, we wanted to help change the stigma surrounding classical music as being an elite art form. Classical music is art, but it is not high art. We wanted to help make the field of classical music and discussions therein more accessible. Second, we wanted to create a virtual space where Black classical musicians can dwell and feel seen. In sharing our personal narrative in classical music through the Black perspective, we have created a community of Black musicians who feel united across our respective institutions, through the Black experience. While these goals continue to manifest, creating a community of Black classical musicians has led to us also creating platform to speak openly about the issues facing Black classical musicians in the profession. Our candid and open conversations aim to help our listeners understand that what we face is far more than the buzzwords “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” One of the most recent ways this is demonstrated is in Episode 60 where we speak about why there aren’t more Black people in classical music. When we record, we have a good time but are hoping to evoke change.

DH: One of our main goals when we first started was to create a space where Black classical musicians were not only visible, but highlighted year round. Katie and I both found that the gatherings of Black musicians we went to (Gateways Music Festival and SphinxConnect) were things that we both looked forward to every year. Even though we couldn’t create a physical convening, the podcast was a way for us to create that same type of community that celebrates, unifies, and uplifts Black classical musicians. As for how these goals have evolved, I think as we gain more traction, we’re realizing that our voices can not only be used to connect Black musicians to each other, but to connect Black people to the classical music world, and vice versa. With that being said, we strive to use our podcast as a platform that celebrates Black popular culture and classical music by showing how those two worlds relate to each other. We also try to use our voices to bring attention to issues within the classical music world that affect Black people.

Dalanie Harris--Photo by Richard Desinord

Dalanie Harris–Photo by Richard Desinord

Have you been surprised by any listener responses?

KB: The most surprising listener responses have been from those who we would never expect to listen. There are musicians from professional orchestras across the country as well as other classical music influencers who have endorsed our work. While I am proud of the work we are doing, it is reassuring to be affirmed by people who both the field and I hold in high esteem.  I think this goes to show that more people enjoy a laid back approach to classical music than we think.

DH: I think the most surprising listener responses have come from people who have really established careers in the classical music field, and whom I really respect. It’s not that I don’t see the value in what Katie and I do, but in our episodes we generally approach classical music in a very colloquial way. To me, our episodes just feel like a conversation between me and my friend, so getting a message from a member of a major orchestra saying how much they enjoy and appreciate our show was both amazing and totally unexpected!

Classically Black Podcast is proudly Black, and you also make a point of highlighting the economic structures that perpetuate broad racial inequity. How can the Classical music community discuss and use resources better?

DH: Katie and I not only talk about classical music colloquially, but we also talk about issues in classical music in a very straightforward way. I think the classical music community would greatly benefit from having more of these candid conversations, with the understanding that they may be difficult to have. Furthermore, I think the classical music community could benefit from taking a more holistic approach to addressing inequity in the field.

Each institution seems to focus on the issues that affect them, without addressing the fact that many of these issues are connected across the board. For example, orchestras wonder why their audiences and musicians are not diverse, but do not engage diverse communities beyond the level of post-collegiate fellowships that benefit the few Black students studying at top conservatories. Conservatories wonder why their minority student enrollment is so low, yet do not look toward their pre-college divisions to support and prepare Black students to be competitive in the conservatory application process. Pre-college programs seek to diversify their enrollment, but do not reach out to programs for low-income/underrepresented students to bridge the gap between them. Programs for low-income students give students as many resources as they can, but do not call on organizations higher up the totem pole to make meaningful contributions that will allow their students to succeed. And the cycle continues.

There is a desire to work within the system we have been functioning within for so long, and, in my opinion, this could be to our detriment. Each of the aforementioned institutions are rungs on the same ladder, and many of the issues they are having surrounding inequity are intertwined. I truly believe that working in collaboration with each other across an array of platforms will allow us to utilize our resources more effectively.

KB: If we want to see a true change in classical music in the way resources are utilized, classical musicians with power and resources have to step back and reflect on what it truly takes to address the problems we are facing. For example, if we want more diverse audiences in our halls, are we programming works to draw in new audiences? And once they are there, are we cultivating experiences for them to have meaningful takeaways? Further, are we truly interested in paving the way for these new audience members to return?

Let me show you what I mean: So you want to have more young Black people in your seats. So, you program An American Port of Call by Adolphus Hailstork. But instead of just doing that one piece, you have Hailstork do a pre-concert talk on his work and the adversities he faces as a Black composer in a white-dominated space. You might also have him do a masterclass on pieces written by young black composers from a local university or better yet, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). Then on a separate weekend, you program a couple of the pieces from this masterclass that the young composers have perfected. And perhaps you pair it with music by Mendelssohn and Jessie Montgomery; both young composers and revolutionary artists of their respective times. When you program these young composers, their family, friends, and colleagues will come to the performance, showing the community that you really care about these issues; that you realize not only are there not a lot of Black composers due to access and quality instruction, they are also not being programmed. When you continue to program these composers, your results will be manifold: you show the orchestra members the importance of expanding the canon, you’ll show the community the importance of having works programmed by composers that reflect the community, and you provide a point of access to an otherwise closed-off field. Resources become money wasted if they are not used in meaningful and innovative ways.

Katie Brown--Photo by Richard Desinord

Katie Brown–Photo by Richard Desinord

What episodes do you recommend to brand new listener?

KB: This is a tough question because our episodes vary so much. I would say this: if you want to get a feel of us in our most confident selves, listen to our most recent episode. If you’re a history buff, you can hear our take on a composer’s life through our “Triflin’ Music History” series. (I recommend Episode 11 where we talk about Debussy, a composer who we both dislike. This will explain the disdain we express in future episodes.) If you want to get to know us, I would recommend Episode 1, Episode 6, or Episode 29. Here, we have more concentrated conversations about who we are in classical music.

DH: Three episodes I would certainly recommend to any listener are (in no particular order):

1. Let’s Talk About It: Black Achievement in Classical Music (Episode 60)
In this episode, we talk about the achievement gap in classical music at the collegiate level and beyond, and what factors go into this disparity.

2. Break Up With It (Episode 66)
In this episode, Katie and I discuss the stigma around taking time away from your instrument, how time away can have an effect on our mental health as musicians, and what our personal experiences with taking breaks have been.

3. Bach Was a Gospel Artist Too ft. Richard Desinord (Episode 18)
This episode features our friend Richard, a PhD candidate in music theory at the Eastman School of Music who is writing a dissertation on Neo-soul and Contemporary Gospel music. We have a great conversation about his musical upbringing, his experience studying music at a Historically Black University, teaching in underrepresented communities, and studying Black music in academia at an elite institution.

At your recent SphinxConnect conference Q&A, an audience member asked to hire you as consultants to her classical music organization. What future partners or initiatives you are keen to join? How can people contact you?

KH: That was such an exciting moment! It really made me feel like we are being heard. While we don’t have anything formal in the works now, we are excited to team up with organizations who are passionate about having real conversations in order to change the classical music narrative.

DH: I would love to collaborate on an initiative that allows us to put on an event so we can engage broader audiences. We’ve had the pleasure of presenting at a conference and hosting a live show, but giving more presentations, facilitating conversations amongst the classical music community, hosting pre-concert talks, and even collaborating on inclusive programming efforts are all things I’d love to see Classically Black be involved with in the future. We can be reached at [email protected]