Orchestras Move at Adagio Pace in Hiring Black and Latino Musicians

Thursday, May 22, 2014

When news broke that Anthony McGill would be the New York Philharmonic’s next principal clarinetist, much of the attention centered on the political intrigue – that he was filling a longstanding vacancy and the perception that he'd been "poached" from the Met Orchestra. But there's also this fact: McGill, a widely respected musician, will be the Philharmonic's first African-American principal player – and part of the roughly two percent of U.S. orchestra musicians who are black.

In this podcast we ask why efforts by the orchestra world to improve minority representation remain slow in producing results – and whether McGill's hiring could set a broader example. As we hear, racial and ethnic diversity is good for orchestras not only ethically, but also potentially financially: Funding is increasingly attached to programs that feature minorities and the communities where orchestras perform.


  • Aaron Dworkin, the president of the Sphinx Organization, which gives opportunities for young black and Latino string players through an annual competition, scholarships and study grants.
  • E. Tammy Kim, a writer for Al Jazeera America who recently wrote a major feature about diversity in orchestras.
  • Burt Mason, the principal trombonist of the Chamber Orchestra of New York; he's also subbed in the New York Philharmonic and is starting Ovations Concerts, a project aimed at promoting diversity with musicians of color and emerging artists.

Segment Highlights:

On McGill's Hiring:

Dworkin: It is a great step forward in the field. From Sphinx's perspective, we want to make sure that this isn't just the rare occurrence that it currently is but the beginning of what hopefully is a groundswell of building inclusion in our nation's orchestras – especially the top orchestras. We have not just a minor, but a significant under-representation of our communities within the ranks of our major orchestras.  


Lack of Resources and Role Models for Young Black Musicians

Mason: For a lot of minorities, you'll either see them being more interested in jazz or marching band. It's an interesting thing. When I was in high school, playing trombone was not the most popular thing you could do. When you're studying and dedicating your time to this, and you look around you, it can be sort of isolating sometimes, and that can be discouraging if you're not into what you're doing.

Kim: Socioeconomic reasons are often proffered to explain why there aren't many minorities in classical music. That holds to a point. It is also true that people without access in their families and communities, if they're exceptional, can also draw on other kinds of resources. Nevertheless, that initial moment of the public school experience is still cited by so many people who have succeeded in classical music today.


How the Hiring Process in Orchestras Can Change

Dworkin: We believe there should be additional criteria in the audition process [beyond the performance itself]. We think that innovation, creativity, cultural background, repertoire knowledge, teaching ability – additional criteria such as these should be part of the audition criteria. If you do have two equal candidates and you're looking to see what you want to bring into your orchestra, then you can look at these additional criteria.


What Will Motivate Orchestras to Become More Inclusive:

Dworkin: From our perspective, orchestras need to make a financial commitment, a resource commitment to tackle this issue. That may come in the form of recruitment, it may come in the form of fellowships for musicians of color, it may come in looking at the repertoire of orchestras: Less than one percent of the works performed by orchestras in America are by any composer of color. So it's not just membership onstage, but it goes deep into the ranks of the music directors, the staffing of orchestras.

Kim: Having a diverse orchestra is also a business decision. It's about saving your orchestra from demise at the hands of a market that is not kind to classical music right now by many estimates, and by appealing to your community, and your community is increasingly diverse. So it's good for the New York Philharmonic musically, but it's good for them perhaps economically.


Listen and weigh in: What, if anything, should American orchestras do to become more inclusive?


More in:

Comments [19]

Charles Murrell from Boston

The fact is black heritage vastly influenced Europeans through out their discovery of classical music, which predates any Anglo saxon,European or Caucaision heritage is one no man can deny. "Music of the Spheres" as demonstrated by Plato was something he learned, amongst the other "Black Arts" that almost got him executed, but found him fame and notariaty as it became more understood. Wasn't it Brahms who wrote a letter to his "nappy headed, aggressive" friend Beethoven who was obsessed with rhythm much like the music that had an influence on the classical arts from its european emergence? As America is considered, I agree, Dvorak would be dissapointed in its brash denial of self. I don't think this article seems to demand that orchestra's become "black" by nature, but be fair. Allow works of all composers, especially of the diverse (as most leading orchestras and conservatories claim to be including) fabric of our home country. I wonder if more diverse music and particulary, music of the African diaspora, was presented at concerts; would concert goers too become more diverse? What if we followed Bernsteins approach of educating this new audience and in the spirit of inclusion, showed the influences Mr. Zick spoke of in the article that blacks have made in not only classical music, but American classical music? What if a fourteen year old child knew that it was Chevelier whom had the deepest influence on Mozart (who quoted a whole cadenza from his proverbial teacher), and more so, that influence was a man of color? That's different, I understand, and does conflict with upholding the European tradition, but even the immigrants who fled to America understood the importance of breaking certain traditions, may I remind you.

Oct. 13 2015 03:59 PM
Rick Robinson from Midwest

The barriers to entering the professional world (tower) of classical music... as an African-American... are often exacerbated by intense hostility to classical music in the community and even one's own household. Nothing will turn that around until WE can open up as a community to "soft music". And further, at the audition level, is the fact that a musician must be in part so metronomically and consistently precise, in tune, dynamic and with great stamina, we must be like a MACHINE. This does not appeal to, nor is it possible from many musicians. It is rare, but makes performing together as an orchestra EXCELLENT. I know this because I was a black member of a major orchestra for 2 decades: and I LOVED it.

Jun. 03 2014 11:10 AM
Al Luna from Bronx

Fred, yes, you are right! The Bronx is a very diverse borough! Kate, there are some pretty smart people in the Bronx. The 70's and 80's was a long time ago. Please by all means, visit all the great Bronx neighborhoods. Even the South Bronx has had a great resurgence. I just spent a great couple of days in the City Island/Orchard Beach area!

May. 27 2014 10:33 AM


"The days of relying on white patrician families for support are long over..."

Actually, for all practical purposes, Europeans and European-Americans still provide the vast majority of the financial support for classical culture.

As DuckDeadeye pointed out, classical music attracts certain demographics.

The future of classical music will depend on East-Asian and White support.

May. 25 2014 11:27 AM

Just an observation here. I attended a free concert on Saturday afternoon (two Beethoven violin/piano sonatas, two Bach solo violin pieces, and a Brahms scherzo). The audience numbered ~50. There was one black person. A very few Asians. Maybe some Latinos? (I wasn't looking for stereotypes.)

This was in the DUMBO area, so the entire area hosted a variety of ethnicities enjoying the Brooklyn Bridge Park area, just not the Bargemusic Family Concert.

More blacks and Latinos in the audience at classical music concerts (including at free concerts) might lead to more black and Latino classical musicians/orchestra members.


May. 25 2014 12:53 AM

Kate, not everyone in the Bronx is Black or Hispanic... (or other non-white group). I feel like you lumped all Bronxites into a box there....

May. 23 2014 10:57 PM
Tim from The Bronx

Unless the orchestra are actively discriminating against (certain) minorities based on on skin color (which would be illegal) and not simply selecting the best qualified musicians, I don't see what the problem is. In fact, it seems to me that basing any decision about hiring on skin color would be racial discrimination....

@Al Luna. Thumbs up. With my Mexican heritage would I count as a Latino even though I don't "look Mexican"?

PS There are lots and lots of kinds of "white people"....

May. 23 2014 10:53 PM

@ Kate
Good sentiments. But there's still a great divide between "the world of orchestras" and "world-class orchestras."

Most of the players in world-class orchestras have studied in world-class conservatories -- there's that education/availability thing again.

There's a lot that can be done in "the world of orchestras" that will take a long time transferring to "world-class orchestras."


May. 23 2014 09:24 PM
Kate from New York, NY

And all those screeing about how this is racist against white people, this isn't such a big deal, "hood culture", bla bla etc, Dvorak would be ashamed of you. Let's go find great new musicians.

May. 23 2014 05:09 PM
Kate from New York, NY

Just a touch Stormfront in the comments section, huh?

As a young white classical music fan, I'm happy to see more diverse representation in opera and I hope we see more of it in orchestras and audiences. The days of relying on white patrician families for support are long over and we need to include everyone if we want to have a future. (Plus it's just good manners to be nice to fans and musicians of every ethnicity and background.) There could be geniuses in the Bronx we don't know about because musicians there don't have the same opportunities as kids from Scarsdale. I agree that we should hire the best regardless of race, but we should have more diverse orchestras and if it's that hard finding talented black and Hispanic musicians, we're doing something wrong.

Commentors, instead of being outraged at someone talking about racism because you think everything's fine, be outraged that there is racism when everything should be fine, and it's not. We have work to do and it starts with hiring the best of every background.

May. 23 2014 04:54 PM
Al Luna from Bronx, NY

Okay. I guess if a musician is Hispanic but does not look or act "Hispanic" that does not count. What do they want? Dress in a Puerto Rican or Dominican Flag just to make the liberal HR departments feel good?
"Look at Us, we practice diversity!", then expect you to act out a sick stereo type, while they pat themselves in the back. Please just hire musicians for their worth and talent. Judge people by who they are, not by what you think they should be, "latinos can only play percussion!". How would this article be received in latin countries that have a thriving orchestras? Is this in NYC only? Heck,there's a Philharmonic in Puerto Rico! Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia! Argentina! Again, is this a case of political correctness gone horribly wrong!

May. 23 2014 10:04 AM

OK, this is what bothered me when I first saw the headline.

It seems to me that it's an equality/education problem. There are many Asians in orchestras/major orchestras and there are more (than in the past) female members.

It all comes down to education and education accessibility (and the perception of both).


May. 23 2014 02:30 AM

Life expectancies keep improving. Maybe 20 years is more realistic. Maybe people can try to make some changes in the next 16 to 20 years.

(I hope I'm around in 20 years -- as a curmudgeonly 79-year-old paleface who will still be attending live performances.)

May. 23 2014 01:33 AM
David from Flushing

Perhaps a more pressing issue is the audience of senior palefaces that will be largely gone in as little as 16 years. Will anyone care about the makeup of the orchestra then?

May. 22 2014 09:50 PM

Bernie from the Upper West Side doesn't seem troubled by the issue of the scandalous overrepresentation in our orchestras of Jewish men and women playing music composed by European Christians.

Or do American orchestras still need to make reparation for the infamous death camps they all ran during World War II? Remind me, Bernie: where were those camps located? Forest Hills? Skokie, Illinois? Shaker Heights, Ohio? the Upper West Side?

I thank whatever deity Bernie cares to name that he and his like can always be relied upon to find a new way in which the goyim make life a misery for their victims. If he and other courageous voices from the ghetto of the UWS weren't so vocal, people might have to endure a few hours of silence, bereft of the music of their endless (better make that "endlessly deceitful") kvetching and kvelling.

May. 22 2014 08:07 PM

I think there are two distinct situations here -- what can the orchestra world do, and what can world-class orchestras do?

For the first, repertoire knowledge and teaching ability as *second* critera might be effective.

For the latter, I feel it has to be performance oriented. That's going to be the harder nut to crack -- until education availability creates an equal playing field, well it just won't be equal.

We can get there, with education and hard work (such as some from the podcast are doing). My $0.02


May. 22 2014 07:48 PM
Dave S. from New York, NY

@Bernie from UWS

Believe it or not, Beethoven, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Dvorak, Ravel, etc. were also White.

Classical music is a very European/European-American genre; both in composition and audience.

Take a look around the next time you go to a concert.

May. 22 2014 05:30 PM
Bernie from UWS

@Dave S. - let me guess, you're a white male. If you weren't you wouldn't be spouting such remarks. The fact is, whites have had a long run as the dominant group for centuries and now the balance is seeing some correction. Get used to it. Orchestras should reflect how society looks.

May. 22 2014 05:06 PM
Dave S. from New York, NY

Finances aside, why is it ethical to actively seek out "minority" representation in classical music?

Are there not plenty of qualified European or European-American candidates who are already interested?

When we European-Americans become the minority in America, we will still be over-represented in this genre because we are the main group with interest in this music.

Have some pride for (y)our heritage.

May. 22 2014 04:07 PM

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