Confronting the System

The Second in a Two-Part Podcast Series on African-Americans in Classical Music

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The classical music arena has a reputation for being a color-blind meritocracy. But the numbers tell a different story. Just about two percent of the nation's orchestra musicians are black, according to the latest data. Those numbers aren’t significantly different in the worlds of opera and chamber music. That lack of ethnic diversity is increasingly a sore point as barriers come down in other fields, from corporations to Hollywood to the White House.

In the second of two podcasts on diversity in classical music, Terrance McKnight talks with three prominent decision-makers and experts in classical music: Alison Scott-Williams, the Associate Vice President for Diversity and Campus Life at Juilliard; Ed Yim, the director of artistic planning at New York City Opera; and Mark Kent, the Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where he oversees the Talent Development Program.

This podcast was produced by Brian Wise.


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Comments [12]

Joie Anderson from New York City

Dear Terrance ~ Hope you were at the Grand Finals Concert given by the winners of the Metropolitan Opera Audition winners yesterday. All the singers were staggering, but the two that blew the audience away were Michelle Johnson, a soprano from Texas and a bass baritone, Ryan Speedo Green. They were both black. I go to the Met regularly, but when Michelle sang Dove Sono, the audience was more quiet than I have ever heard it. They were riveted! You should definitely have them on your show. Plus they were charming and their parents were so proud!

Mar. 14 2011 09:57 AM
An expat pianist from New York

Ed Yim is in denial about American racism. There are countless African-American classical musicians who are trained, qualified, and discriminated against. White Americans have proven time and time again that they must be forced to hire African-Americans. Otherwise, they won't. Why is it that so many of us enjoy success abroad, but in our own country we can't get work? It's a disgrace! Like it or not, we are still talking about contracts, income, and economics. White males still have too much control over who gets work and who doesn't.

Mar. 11 2011 08:13 PM
Adam Tobin from Brooklyn

Among whom does classical music have a reputation of being a color-blind meritocracy? I actually laughed out loud when I read that sentence.

Mar. 04 2011 11:52 AM
Anita/ Florida

One crucial problem is the lack of music appreciation classes in inner city elementary schools. As a child in Harlem, I was fortunate enough to hear Beethoven, Schubert and Ravel which led to music lessons and years of personal enjoyment for me, if not so much for the neighbors.

In addition, there were at least two, if not three, radio stations airing classical music and related shows at all times. Today, I cling to WQXR on my laptop and a local college radio station, featuring acid rock, reggae and jazz between Chopin and Brahms. Most record stores had a wide array of classical LPs. You'd be lucky to find one rack of CDs today.

Enough nostalgia, but I'd like to end by saying that I am encouraged by the fact that at the last concert I attended, I counted more black faces, not in the orchestra mind you, but in the audience. Things are looking up..

Mar. 04 2011 11:33 AM
Michael Meltzer

Correction: The name of the pianist I cited is spelled "Yin Chengzong" and "Yin Chengzhong" on the web.

Mar. 04 2011 10:43 AM
Michael Meltzer

To Bill:
Many of us who are senior members of the Jewish community had immigrant parents with little education, but culturally they themselves had been raised with tremendous respect for education. When they got to America, there were unprecedented opportunitites for their children and they wanted their kids to have "everything they never had," especially, education.
I may be wrong, but that's what I see in the current Asian communities. Perhaps the immigrant parents are a little intimidated by Carnegie Hall & Lincoln Center culture. Around 2003, I attended the Carnegie Hall recital of Yin Cheng Song, who had been the most important pianist in the People's Republic before he defected to us in the 1980's. There were 3,000 Chinese in Carnegie Hall. You're correct that it was a rarity. They were a model audience, none of the bad manners associated with yuppie newcomers, for instance.
If education is not strongly supported at home, it's an uphill battle. In the 1960's, I taught piano at the now-defunct Williamsburg Settlement Music School in Brooklyn, to underprivileged kids who only paid $1.00 per subsidized lesson. Some did not practice enough, telling me that at 5 PM, their parents kicked them out of the living room to turn on the TV.
To expect the educational system to overcome that kind of obstacle is asking a lot.

Mar. 04 2011 10:22 AM
Bill from NJ

The real issue with classical music and african american musicians is complex, a lot of things intersect to make their presence in classical music a small one.First of all, music education in the schools has been decimated and the first places it tends to get cut is in school districts where many African American kids are educated. How can kids go into something they aren't exposed to?

More importantly, classical music education is elite in the true sense of the word, to be able to get to any kind of level requires levels of financial support and other kinds of support that make it very much an upper income bastion in terms of music students. It isn't just African Americans, in the top tier of student musicians you are going to find very few working class musicians of any ethnic background, with some exceptions.

Asians are interesting, because while like among African Americans listening to classical music is not a big deal, they represent a huge percentage of the kids in music education at all levels. Go to concerts at Carnegie Hall or Avery Fisher, and the audience is overwhelmingly older and white, and from what I hear from people in other places with large Asian populations, you don't see many folks from that background in the audience. Queens college has a music series, right in the middle of one of the largest Asian enclaves around (Flushing), and you see very few Asian audience members. The reason you see so many Asian kids in music education is because many of their parents believe that playing an instrument is associated with moving up in social class and also because they believe it helps give a leg up when applying to competitive colleges, and some believe that playing music increases ability to get good grades, so it is not necessarily what it appears on the surface.

If we are going to get more kids of African American or other underrepresented groups into classical music, it is going to take effort, it is going to take getting these kids exposed to the music and then finding ways if they express an interest to support them. Music schools will tell you they eagerly encourage kids from underrepresented groups to come there, at all levels, but most of them do very little to do the kind of outreach and support that would allow a child from those groups to be able to actually pursue it. The real racism isn't in orchestral hiring, the real racism is people assuming that a kid from an African American or hispanic background has equal opportunity to experience the music or to actually pursue it and being oblivious to the kind of privilege it takes for a kid to pursue it.

Mar. 03 2011 11:19 PM
Al Luna from Bronx, NY

"you listen to that music 'cause you want people to think you're smart, right?" A co-worker asked me that question. Hispanic, just like me. Classical music is thought of as some else's music.
Maybe some people are just not interested in their culture enough. Like NY/NJ "guido" culture is not really Italian culture. And God help you if you don't keep it "real". Are you a race traitor because you listen to classical music? Have we lost the gift of melody?

Mar. 03 2011 12:05 PM
Paula Thompson from Louisiana

I am listening to this presentation as the mother of a classically trained opera singer, Marsha Thompson. Yes, while music may be color blind, it seem as though persons with the ability to choose singers for an opera are not color blind. It seems that black singers still are not hired enough by opera houses here in the US to sing major roles. Why should they have to go to Europe to be hired? They have an audience here in the US if only they will be hired. Some may say that African Americans do not go to the opera. I say, hire them, and we will come. We want to see some of our singers on the stage also. Many great voices are going to waste waiting to be hired.

Mar. 03 2011 11:55 AM
David from Flushing

Orchestras tend to reflect their audiences as, after all, they are members of the groups that value classical musical. As audiences do not reflect the general population, neither will the orchestras.

Living in a primarily Asian area of New York City, I can see far more interest in music education and classical music than I have observed in "white" areas. Classical music and indeed traditional culture in general do not enjoy the same status in every ethnic group. It is not surprising that the audiences at Lincoln Center are the same as visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (excluding school groups.)

The present day musical culture of the United States is mostly based on African-American music and not that of Western Europe. No one should be shocked if African Americans gravitate towards popular music.

Mar. 03 2011 11:13 AM
The African-American Voice in Classical Music from Washington, DC

Thank you so much for this wonderful series. I look forward to following this and sharing it with my network.

Patrick D. McCoy
The African-American Voice in Classical Music

Mar. 03 2011 10:37 AM
gina ballinger from Graz, Austria

all the way over here i am touched by the honesty, integrity that comes to me across space! thank you : )

Mar. 03 2011 05:26 AM

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