In the past few years, racial awareness has been gaining momentum across America, causing many to recognize that we have systems in place that are both implicitly and explicitly biased. Much has been done at the state and federal levels to employ more people of diverse ethnic backgrounds; however, unequal racial representation still exists in many smaller communities.
The classical music community is just one example of this; the majority of people in this profession are of either white or Asian descent. Take the New York Philharmonic as an example. African Americans make up approximately 25 percent of New York City’s population, yet there is only one Black member in the 106-person orchestra. Orchestras don’t necessarily reflect the racial diversity of their surroundings, because many musicians travel from around the world to take jobs in the US. However, the New York Philharmonic does reflect the ethnic make-up of many major US orchestras, which casts a discriminatory light on classical music itself.
The lack of racial representation isn’t restricted to just symphonies and orchestras — most composers, chamber musicians, conductors, and soloists are not people of color either. To improve this unfair reality, we must find creative solutions to racially diversify the classical music community as a whole, because things won’t change if we stick to the conventional methods of the last five hundred years.
Most professional classical musicians started playing an instrument at a young age, or at least in their teens, as it takes years to get to a place of competency for this type of music. Needless to say, it takes even more years and hard work to reach a level of professional playing where one can be employed as a teacher, orchestra member, or soloist. The ground rule really is that the now-adult musician reached this goal because they more often than not received some sort of training as a child or teenager.
Sounds ridiculously obvious? Of course, except for the fact that many American children don’t have that luxury because their families cannot afford an instrument, let alone a teacher. Many public schools require musical instruction in elementary school, but it simply isn’t enough to support an aspiring classical musician. One solution to this issue is to bring more well supported classical music opportunities to racially diverse groups of children, opening doors to potential futures in the music industry.
Starting with younger people isn’t the only way to knock down the boundaries for people of color. The National Alliance For Audition Support (NAAS) is dedicated to helping Black and Latinx musicians secure jobs with orchestras through “mentoring, audition preparation, financial support, and audition previews.” By giving customized lessons and instruction, the NAAS is helping musicians achieve their goals while diversifying America’s orchestras.
On the flip side, professional orchestra recruiters can do their part by specifically seeking out musicians who identify as people of color. Since recruiters play an important role in the selection process, they should also make a commitment to seek out and bring in these qualified players.
I am not the only one who is thinking about how we can diversify the classical music community. From renowned orchestra conductors to artistic directors and administrators, musical leaders across the country are looking for ways to change things, and rightly so. The lack of representation in the classical music world must change, even if it only gets a little better each year, because every step in the right direction inches us closer to a society where racial equity isn’t just the goal, but the standard.