Interlochen Center for the Arts Photography

Equity Arc is Creating New Pathways for BIPOC Classical Musicians

Summer study for young classical musicians has historically come with many barriers: application fees, the requirement to record multiple auditions with different repertoire lists, and the financial burden of tuition, which often totals around $5,000. These issues disproportionately affect BIPOC classical musicians, but Equity Arc is working to level the playing field and create new pathways to these enriching and essential opportunities.

Two years ago, Equity Arc partnered with the online audition platform Acceptd and 11 different U.S.-based summer music programs to create the Common Application for Summer Study, which allows students who identify as BIPOC to apply for free to any partnering summer program for which they are eligible through a single application and audition. In addition to waiving their application fees, all partner organizations commit to providing at least one full-tuition scholarship to a Common Application student.

The program has since expanded to 14 summer study partners, including Interlochen Arts Camp, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and Brevard Music Center. According to Equity Arc’s website, the 2022 summer season resulted in 156 applicants, 57 enrolled participants, and over $260,000 in scholarships awarded — a testament to the organization’s mission to “advance equity through collaboration.”

Brevard Music Center campus and Parker Concert Hall -- Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center

Brevard Music Center campus and Parker Concert Hall — Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center

Equity Arc’s executive director, Stanford Thompson, says that many of the partner programs “go above and beyond” finding other creative solutions to financially assist students, offering multiple full-tuition scholarships and other generous support to students. Together, administrators help get the program information to students and families, allowing them to compare summer programs, meet the admissions reps, and have a single online portal to easily apply to multiple summer programs instead of submitting multiple individual applications and recordings with various required repertoire.

“If we’re going to solve this issue of underrepresentation in classical music with musicians of color, then it has to be achieved in a collaborative way,” Thompson says. “Every camp wants to see greater diversity, but there are very few in the country that are at the levels that achieve good diversity.”

Equity Arc works with summer partners to determine equitable application and admission processes based on a range of factors, from a student’s socioeconomic background to the list of required repertoire and other costs, such as travel and supplies.

“Take for example, a more expensive camp like Interlochen,” Thompson explains. “It’s not just the cost of paying that tuition, but also the cost of getting to Northern Michigan, then having to buy uniforms, because Interlochen has a uniform policy. So even if you give students a full ride, shelling out close to $1,000 for a round-trip flight and the additional cost for uniforms and other associated expenses that they require as an instrumentalist — that ends up being a big problem.”

Equity Arc executive director Stanford Thompson -- Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Equity Arc executive director Stanford Thompson — Photo by Todd Rosenberg

As a parent of two young adult musicians, my family experienced nearly a decade of interaction with high-level classical and jazz summer music programs in the Midwest and on the East Coast. We remember well the financial burden associated with these summer music programs, the application fees, and the cost of travel and required supplies, which for us was frequently charged on credit cards with accompanying interest.

But summer study helps give young performers a new perspective on their own skill level, challenging them in a beneficial way. Thompson believes that introducing students to an environment of healthy competition and music immersion, like many high-quality summer music programs do, provides young musicians of color with a taste of conservatory life and the realities of studying at the collegiate level.

“I think about the four summers I spent at Interlochen and the perspective that gave me. It was really the training at Interlochen that gave me the confidence that I could compete at a higher level. And although my first couple of summers I was not one of the top trumpet players, it was very motivating for me,” he recalls.

Another major draw and selling point of top summer programs is the opportunity to receive masterclasses and lessons with highly sought-after faculty from top U.S. conservatories. These meetings can help pre-college musicians gain an edge in the application process by introducing them to college faculty and potential mentors, and providing them with advanced-level coaching before auditions. But what, then, is the outcome for deserving BIPOC students who cannot apply to or enroll in these schools, owing to socioeconomic barriers? Is it any wonder that the student body at most U.S. college conservatories remains overwhelmingly white and well-funded?

Students rehearse at Luzerne Music Center -- Photo courtesy of Luzerne Music Center

Students rehearse at Luzerne Music Center — Photo courtesy of Luzerne Music Center

Eventually Equity Arc plans to develop a similar application geared toward college conservatory admissions. Interest is growing among conservatory and collegiate partners after seeing the success that Equity Arc has had with the summer program initiative after just two years.

“Long term, I hope this initiative is more than just a common application that makes things easier and makes things free for kids to apply — but that this is the beginning of a new movement to really support these musicians throughout their developing years into adulthood,” Thompson says. “We want these kids to know that these places are also there for them. We fundamentally believe talented musicians of color are deserving of these same experiences as their white counterparts.”

Through the collection of data from partners and participants, Equity Arc is studying the long-term impact of these programs. Important questions relevant to the data are being raised, providing a path for programs and administrators to examine how they can improve on the success of the Common Application’s first two years. The success of this summer study initiative is evident; in one partner program, Kinhaven Music School, the student population went from 1% BIPOC students in 2011 to over 30% in 2023.

Plans to bring a similar initiative to the college application process could make fundamental changes to the student population at U.S. music conservatories and schools. With this, we might finally — and dramatically — begin to see the demographics of music education faculty, administrators, orchestral performers, and chamber ensembles reflect the cities and communities they claim to represent.


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