Orchestras Move at Adagio Pace in Hiring Black and Latino Musicians

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Sphinx Virtuosi perform at Carnegie Hall

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.

Guests:

  • 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?