Orchestras Must Recruit More Black and Latino Musicians, Says Sphinx President

Wednesday, October 09, 2013 - 12:00 AM

Aaron Dworkin, president of the Sphinx Organization, at Carnegie Hall Aaron Dworkin, president of the Sphinx Organization, at Carnegie Hall

American orchestras are falling backwards when it comes to hiring black and Latino musicians.

Aaron Dworkin, the president and founder of the nonprofit Sphinx Organization, offered a stinging critique of the orchestra field in a speech Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, saying that symphonies aren't doing nearly enough to diversify their ranks through recruitment or fellowship programs.

Noting that four percent of orchestra players in the U.S. are black and Latino, Dworkin said that major ensembles routinely hold auditions without actively reaching out to identify candidates of color.

Dworkin was especially critical of the New York Philharmonic, saying that the orchestra has not had a black member in five years. It also does not have any Latinos. During the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein made a point of recruiting the violinist Sanford Allen, its first black musician.

"At what point are we actually going to all feel impelled to act in our professional capacities?" Dworkin asked.

A Philharmonic spokesperson responded, "We recognize this is a very important issue facing the orchestral landscape and classical music as a whole, and we are supportive of Aaron Dworkin and the Sphinx Organization’s efforts in this area. We look forward to continued dialogue with Mr. Dworkin in addressing these issues."

Dworkin called on every American orchestra to devote five percent or more of its budget to diversity initiatives and establish measurements for success. He also urged grant-making organizations to tie funding to improvements in minority recruitment.

The Sphinx Organization was founded in 1996 and provides instruments and free training to black and Latino musicians. Many of its alumni have gone on to careers as soloists and chamber musicians. But comparably few have become full-time symphony members.

Dworkin, a violinist, has criticized the orchestra field before. But his latest comments, presented as part of the Sphinx Organization's tenth annual Carnegie Hall gala concert, come at a crucial juncture. American orchestras have been hit lately with labor unrest, bankruptcies and concerns about shrinking audiences.

Ultimately, funders have the means to affect change, said Dworkin. "Of the over 2 billion dollars given to the arts in this country, not enough is specifically targeted to benefit underserved communities," he said. "At some point, the philanthropic community needs to seek out and provide major funding to new partners if they hope to realize the change they seek."

Below is a video of Dworkin's address, taped in a rehearsal:

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Comments [26]

Mr. Balio is one hundred percent correct. Major Orchestras and Opera companies conduct BLIND auditions so they are not focused at all on the ethnicity of the prospective musician. There are many fine Public Colleges with excellent music programs, take for instance North Carolina State University for one, they recruit from High School bands and orchestras throughout the region and if someone has real talent they can get scholarship money if their family cannot afford tuition. My first Cello teacher who eventually did a performance Masters at Curtis Institute came up as a scholarship student at N.C. State. Color should neither enhance or decrease the chances of a skilled musician to progress.
It is not the job of the local school to provide children with cultural experiences such as various types and styles of music. What in the world happened to parental responsibility.
I think I can answer that, when 75% of a particular population has out of wedlock children, many from teen aged mothers, how can these children be exposed to anything other than the dominant neighborhood culture they are immersed in. NO school can overcome the dominant HOOD culture, only a strong family can.
Bring back incentives for families to stay together rather than systems to reward out of wedlock children and we may well see more gifted minority children moving into the coveted seats of major Symphony and Opera orchestras.
Many minority students from suburban neighborhoods and even inner cities, with stable families do excel in music, but since the professional opportunities for musicians are so limited and competitive, most of these children eventually look towards music as an avocation rather than a profession.
My father was the Principal of an elementary school at 104th St. and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, in the 1950' and early 1960's. He was also a violinist who played with Borsch Belt Orchestras in the Catskills during the summers. He would frequently speak of gifted young students in his school who progressed with their musical studies. And his school was in the heart of a Manhattan Ghetto. However, back them the minority family was still a strong unit, and children could progress with praise and mentoring from a mother and father. That has mostly vanished today, sadly, in most inner city neighborhoods, through NO fault of the schools.
"It is the family, stupid," to paraphrase President Clinton. Charles Fischbein

Oct. 14 2013 09:41 PM
A. Luna from Bronx, NY

I'll give you a clue as to why there are very few latinos in the orchestras...because they are there already!!! I know of many Hispanics in orchestras. They just don't look or act latinos. Sorry to bust your bubble but not all look or act like they are represented in the media (which still portrays Hispanics in a disgusting stereotype!). Hispanics (latinos)are a people not a race! Thanks to the internet I can enjoy Hispanic, Spanish and European classical music by Hispanics for Hispanics (search, they are out there!).

Oct. 14 2013 01:06 PM
A. Luna from Bronx, NY

I'll give you a clue as to why there are very few latinos in the orchestras...because they are there already!!! I know of many Hispanics in orchestras. They just don't look or act latinos. Sorry to bust your bubble but not all look or act like they are represented in the media (which still portrays Hispanics in a disgusting stereotype!). Hispanics (latinos)are a people not a race! Thanks to the internet I can enjoy Hispanic, Spanish and European classical music by Hispanics for Hispanics (search, they are out there!).

Oct. 14 2013 01:06 PM
Carol F. Yost from New York City

I agree that schools need to do more to train students in all the arts. However, I also feel that the major cultural venues, not just orchestras, need to do more to diversify. That includes opera and ballet. I am shocked at the scarcity of Latino or Black performers in those fields. As a white person, I am embarrassed and ashamed of this. I love classical music, but I feel my attendance makes it look as if I approve of this state of affairs. I also feel I am missing out on what Black or Latino persons could bring to opera, ballet, orchestra. I am missing their vision, their heart, their experience. The same way that Caruso was incomparable, but he had to be known for us to be enriched by his art, so there must be very many people of color who are equally incomparable, but we all lose because we do not know of them.

I also notice that Asian performers, especially of Far Eastern extraction (I hope that is a respectful reference), are plentiful among instrumentalists, especially piano and string instruments, but you don't see so many of them among the classical music singers.

Once, at a panel discussion about diversity at a VOX program sponsored by the now-closed and lamented New York City Opera, I spoke from the audience about the fact that Lincoln Center companies, both ballet and opera (NYCO was there at the time), just did not have many people of color. Now, I know there IS racism in the field, because quite a few other people in the audience, especially elderly ladies, called out to me, "Ma'am! Ma'am! You're wrong!" This is because they knew of a few, very few, famous black singers. Of ballet they probably knew none. One lady hissed in my ear as we went out, "But what if they can't dance? [Besides] nobody wants to see black snowflakes!" I'll never forget that. I'm always looking to see more places I can speak out about this.

Oct. 11 2013 09:46 PM
Carol F. Yost from New York City

I agree that schools need to do more to train students in all the arts. However, I also feel that the major cultural venues, not just orchestras, need to do more to diversify. That includes opera and ballet. I am shocked at the scarcity of Latino or Black performers in those fields. As a white person, I am embarrassed and ashamed of this. I love classical music, but I feel my attendance makes it look as if I approve of this state of affairs. I also feel I am missing out on what Black or Latino persons could bring to opera, ballet, orchestra. I am missing their vision, their heart, their experience. The same way that Caruso was incomparable, but he had to be known for us to be enriched by his art, so there must be very many people of color who are equally incomparable, but we all lose because we do not know of them.

I also notice that Asian performers, especially of Far Eastern extraction (I hope that is a respectful reference), are plentiful among instrumentalists, especially piano and string instruments, but you don't see so many of them among the classical music singers.

Once, at a panel discussion about diversity at a VOX program sponsored by the now-closed and lamented New York City Opera, I spoke from the audience about the fact that Lincoln Center companies, both ballet and opera (NYCO was there at the time), just did not have many people of color. Now, I know there IS racism in the field, because quite a few other people in the audience, especially elderly ladies, called out to me, "Ma'am! Ma'am! You're wrong!" This is because they knew of a few, very few, famous black singers. Of ballet they probably knew none. One lady hissed in my ear as we went out, "But what if they can't dance? [Besides] nobody wants to see black snowflakes!" I'll never forget that. I'm always looking to see more places I can speak out about this.

Oct. 11 2013 09:46 PM
Frank from UWS

There are certain historical injustices that the system must allow for. Black musicians must be encouraged to take auditions, screened or not. It's about getting a wider pool of blacks to audition, not giving them an unfair advantage.

You can't put this all at the feet of education systems. Orchestras simply need to try much harder too.

Oct. 11 2013 09:41 PM

I'm at a loss, as all auditions in the US are conducted from behind a screen, ensuring color-blindness and gender-neutrality. Orchestras are the shining example of equal opportunity and meritocracy.Would he make the same demands of professional sports who enjoy far more generous public money support?
If there's a problem,indeed, as was pointed out, it starts at the grade and high school level, where the hard work starts.

Oct. 11 2013 07:45 PM
Brad from New York, NY

The Omaha Symphony has put its money where its mouth is for the past 10 years with the hiring of Music Director Thomas Wilkins. It's not just the NY Philharmonic we need to be worried about when it comes to classical music -- and its practitioners -- reaching broad, culturally representative audiences. In fact, it could be argued that it's even more important in the hinterlands. http://omahasymphony.org/

Oct. 11 2013 04:21 PM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

Aaron Dworkin, the president and founder of the nonprofit Sphinx Organization, has some very good suggestions to symphony orchestras, schools and foundations. However, I think they could also be directed at recording companies that have no shortage of Black and Latino musicans on their rosters, who are reaching in-cities children and who are not facing the finacial challages found in the classical field.

The irony is that there is a direct line between between some poplular music (ie: hip hop, rap etc.) and opera. Massenet, Debussey, Strauss, Mozart, Berg, Weil and many others others tried to marry words, music and speech into a form which seeks greater clarrity and trasparency to the audience.

Oct. 10 2013 08:32 PM
John J.Christiano from Franklin NJ

Concetta, I understand your comments, but I don't think "white" culture is deliberately demonized. When I was growing up all I heard was Italian folk music, Louie Prima, Julius LaRosa, Sinatra, etc. When I got into high school everything broadened. It's the same in the city neighborhoods. Each has its own "flavor" but it's the schools that will broaden the horizons to other genres. The key is a good, well-rounded music program.

Look at Wynton Marsalis. I'm sure he wasn't raised on Haydn's E-flat Trumpet Concerto. Somewhere along the line he got "religion".

Oct. 10 2013 03:42 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Hi Concetta,
I'm ready to start a kerfuffel too! I thought we would be able to start one yesterday when they aired that silly "Clash of the Titans" program, but probably not too many people listened to it - I know I didn't want to hear it again!
Anyway, I don't know why orchestras are getting blamed for this; if we do not have adequate music education in our schools, soon there will be no one to recruit. That's what it comes down to - education and exposure to the arts.

Oct. 10 2013 03:25 PM
Concetta nardone from Nassau

I wonder if the demonization of western culture in our schools has something to do with this? Evil white man, white culture, etc.
Carol, can we start another kerfuffel with this. I have been bored lately. Only have the government to rant and rail against but that only raises my blood pressure.

Oct. 10 2013 03:02 PM
David from Flushing

This year, there have been population reports that nearly half of the children under age 5 are non-white. We have already seen a decline in school bands and those that survive have often done so by dropping Sousa for pop music. I doubt one would find many school choirs bellowing out Palestrina or Mozart these days as well. School music programs are often not promoting classical music.

In 16 years or so, when their audiences (including myself) have died off, orchestras will likely not be hiring anyone. I would never encourage a young person to consider a classical music related career at this point, and perhaps it is best that few are even interested.

Oct. 10 2013 01:03 PM
Carrie from nyc

The schools and the home are the incubators for life...no matter what color you are. It is rare, very rare, for a child, never exposed to classical music, to aspire to and dedicate one's life to the perfection of the art...and in order to play in the Philharmonic or sing at the Met, one certainly has had to do so.

Oct. 10 2013 12:45 PM
John J.Christiano from Franklin NJ

Bob from Georgia....It's not as hard as it sounds. Colleges are always upgrading their instructional tools. At the college where I work, we still have 10 perfectly good electronic pianos gathering dust in storage. Two years ago when we remodeled our chem, physics and bio labs, we tossed out tons of scientific equipment.

Elementary, mid and high school teachers would fall to their knees in tears to see this waste. Why does it happen? Because state funding procedures make it so burdensome to reallocate these assets. No one wants to be bothered with the paperwork. So, it sits in storage until the property tags dry up and fall off and everyone forgets how/why it got there. Then it goes in the dumpster. Sorry, but I'm getting angry just telling you about it!

Oct. 10 2013 12:28 PM

As noted above, Allen quit the Phil for freelance recording work and later. Broadway. The few other blacks capable of possibly landing a Phil job were busy in the recording studios. While there is a plethora of Asians currently studying at Juilliard and Curtis, there are few blacks. If a taste for classical music is not widespread in the 'hood, the NY Phil can't be blamed for its lack of black musicians. As again noted above, where is the arts program in the NY Public Schools? Racial quotas in orchestras are simply not acceptable.

Oct. 10 2013 12:02 PM
Alex from Brooklyn

Somehow, so-called "multiculturalism" has become an accepted foundation of social thought. Under the multiculturalist regime, using scarce educational dollars to teach European-oriented music to African-American and Hispanic children is regarded as hegemonic and oppressive. Even if more money were available, it would not be used to give kids a solid foundation in what is known as classical music. The multicultural foundation also discourages people from crossing tribal lines in determining the direction of their lives and careers.

Certainly it is possible to synthesize multiculturalism and a more traditional humanism in which the accomplishments of each group belong to all. For now, such a synthesis has difficulty competing with multiculturalism in the political arena, though it is consistently evident in artistic initiatives.

Oct. 10 2013 10:33 AM
bob from Georgia

I agree with those pointing to the dearth of music instruction in schools. I was privileged to play the clarinet in our school band. I wasn't very good; but 50 years later I still love to listen to the music we played. Of course buying or renting a clarinet costs money. So how can children from the less affluent families get the opportunity to not only listen to, but to play some classical music?

Oct. 10 2013 10:15 AM
Frank from UWS

I think Dworkin's point is there *are* musicians out there to recruit - at least from his organization. It's that orchestras never approach him when they're conducting searches for new players.

The feeder chain is part of it too - if K-12 education lags in inner cities (where the majority of blacks and Latinos live) then there won't be enough candidates to choose from. But orchestras could do other things: why aren't there any pieces on programs by black composers (aside from token MLK Day programs when they dust off William Grant Still's music)? And why no black executives among orchestras? If you have black leadership, they may have more understanding of how to bridge some of these divides.

Oct. 09 2013 08:03 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Why are orchestras being blamed? If we had better music education programs in all our schools, there would certainly be a more diverse group of musicians to recruit. What we need in this country are music programs similar to the El Sistema program in Venezuela.

Oct. 09 2013 06:18 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

David brings up a valid point. Inner city kids are flooded with their own cultural and ethnic brands of music, but without the music programs in schools, how will they know any other? Will you win over all of them to the classics. No. How about 2%, 5%? I'll take that!

Here at the college where I work, out student and faculty population is about 85% African American/Hispanic/Carib. and so forth. I am the only white guy in the "neighborhood" (LOL). I have WQXR coming out of my computer all day. I aim the speakers at the open doorway. You would be amazed how many people stop in the hall, just for second, give a quick listen, smile and go on their way.

The interest is there. We just have to figure out how to deliver the goods!
Remember that scene from the Shawshank Redemption? We need to flood the musical prisons with the classics.

Oct. 09 2013 02:27 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

My take on this is, sure, we can use as many musicians as we can get. But I see most minority musicians coming from poor school districts where music programs are the first to be cut when budgets are squeezed.

Here at the college where I work, there were 18 electronic pianos in storage, having been replaced by newer models. I had to beg to get these donated to some needy school program here in the city (we have 10 left).

It drives me crazy to think that there is one more Wynton Marsalis, Pepe Romero, Enrique Granados, etc., going undiscovered in our inner cities.

A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems centered around music an musicians. Part of the dedication read.....

"Play on! Sing always! For the death of the world will not come in earthquake, fire, or flood, or the pestilence of war, but in silence."

Oct. 09 2013 02:02 PM
David from Flushing

There are different cultures in the US and they tend to have their own preferred music. Asians are well represented in orchestras---why is that? There is a stigma in some communities in liking aspects of other cultures. We have all heard of the slur of "acting white" against those of cosmopolitan interests.

Oct. 09 2013 01:57 PM
Steven Cohen from Brooklyn

My first thought after reading this was how about diversifying the hip hop and rap fields...

I read the two other posts and it did lead me to thinking about how you address this sort of thing in a more fundamental way. Why aren't more people of color moving up the pipeline, acquiring the skills to compete for positions in these orchestras? I can't help but echo those other posts that ask about what kids in public schools learn? If these kids aren't getting music, the chance of developing a wider base of interest from people of color is going to be a rough ride. And add to that, the fact that this music doesn't really speak to most kids from a cultural perspective. All this means that the schools need to get music into the hands and hearts of kids. I think Mr. Dworkin is calling out the wrong folks. Doesn't the Philharmonic have programs for youth? Don't they have some sorts of school partnerships? But in the end, they're never going to be able to make things happen on enough of a scale to make a difference in the sorts of ways that a public school system can, if they were to provide quality music instruction.

And the idea that they should create an affirmative action sort of program to place players of color into the orchestra is unlikely to happen, by the way. For anyone who knows this art form, they have screened auditions and the best player in that blind process wins. Changing that sort of culture is not really a reality.

So Mr. Dworkin, when are you going to address your concerns to the Mayor of Los Angeles or New York, or other schools cities that have given up on the idea of music for all children? I think that school teacher who posted about this is on the right track. Taking on the New York Philharmonic seems to me to be a sort of less than brave thing to do.

Oct. 09 2013 09:58 AM
Sylvia Carter from Long Island

As a former New York City music teacher, I agree with the above post that Mr. Dworkin's comments are probably misdirected.

In New York, you have a mayor who killed off the funding that made this most difference for music, something called Project Arts. Now there are hundreds of schools without a certified arts teacher. When I first started teaching, there were orchestras and band programs at every high school and junior high school. Today, the system is an embarrassment when it comes to arts instruction and all the Tweed administrators do is defend Bloomberg instead of working to bring real instruction back to all kids.

If Mr. Dworkin want to get serious about advocating, he should get systemic and take on those who have sent the arts reeling because all they can do is test, threaten teachers, and close schools, namely our outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And, knowing the school system, you can be sure some official from the NYCDOE will post a vigorous defense of their stewardship of education, including the arts. Ask them why so many schools have nothing...

Oct. 09 2013 07:55 AM
John Porter

Interesting about Sandy Allen. While he may have been recruited by Bernstein, he left to make more money by playing jingles.

If we're going to lay the blame at the feet of orchestras, including the NY Philharmonic, then perhaps you could blame them for not doing enough to ensure that black and latino school children, who comprise the majority of those in urban school districts, have a full music and arts education.

How many schools in a city like New York even have a qualified music teacher? I do tend to think that Dworkin should be directing his message toward people like Michael Bloomberg, etc., who control the schools.

If he really wants to be bold, with this sort of stinging critique, have the guts to take on the people, like school board and mayors who control urban schools. That's where the problem resides. The NY Phil is a tiny player in all of this.

Oct. 09 2013 07:36 AM

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