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Flipping the Narrative: How To Build the Orchestras We Actually Want

As classically-trained musicians living in a world that is constantly progressing and innovating, it seems that it is the duty of young artists to use our platform to create real change, and to do our best to fix the damage that the historical practices of this form of entertainment have inflicted on vulnerable communities for centuries. That’s right, it is time we flip the narrative of what classical music has traditionally represented by dismantling the classist and racist principles that have been associated with it since inception and ditching the practices that perpetuate those. For myself, this meant understanding and getting excited about alternative approaches to a career in music using tools I’ve gathered from my experiences across the U.S.

While hailing from Austin, Texas middle and high school music programs, a large part of my own musical journey was influenced by time spent at the University of Southern California, where I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Oboe Performance and a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. My time at USC coincided with some of the most politically and socially turbulent times that this generation has gone through (and continues to go through), and I felt pursuing this minor would help provide context to the issues that I had seen first-hand in orchestras. Now, after living in Chicago for a year working on my Master’s degree at Northwestern, I am able to reflect on the ways that the different cities I have lived in, each with inherently different industry cultures, approach the teaching and dissemination of classical music, and how this influences the reception - or lack thereof - of orchestral music by diverse audiences.

One of the biggest roadblocks we face when trying to learn anything new is access to materials, resources, performances, etc. Historically, classical music has catered to those with wealth and status, often excluding poor people and people of color. While in Los Angeles, I always admired how LA Philharmonic concerts at Disney Hall made everyone feel welcome by not imposing any sort of strict dress code. On top of that, its Green Umbrella concert series features new music written by young and living composers, which keeps young people interested in classical music returning to hear something new and exciting. In contrast, Chicago’s Symphony Center feels a bit different. It is similarly beautiful and extravagant, but it is also traditional, from the musicians in white tuxedo jackets, down to the ushers wearing fancy red and black suits. While neither LA Phil or Chicago Symphony concerts are free, it has always felt like the environment of each venue contributes to the diversity of attending audiences. The beauty of both is that come summer, they turn to outdoor venues that are usually more affordable, as well as more casual, allowing all attendees to feel like they can fit in. Making classical music less of an event as often as possible could in turn bring more people out to shows.

I believe that representation of women and minorities in the orchestra is directly tied to the ideas above: that access and opportunity granted from a young age to receive the same concert experiences and education opportunities as those with greater resources (i.e. money) is essential. Simply put, greater access = greater and more diverse representation throughout the arts. Although implementing a blind audition process over the years has decreased bias, it still doesn’t change who gets the opportunity to sit behind the screen in the first place. I loved going to LA Phil concerts while at USC and watching the all-women oboe section, because I still cannot think of another major professional orchestra that does not have at least one male oboist; this example of representation is something that continues to inspire me and my colleagues, as it wasn’t until 1930 that the first woman was appointed a tenure-track position in a major American orchestra. Closing the gender gap in orchestras is fantastic and makes me hopeful for the direction of the field, but if none of the hires are women of color, then what does that say about the systems in place that keep them out long before music is even involved? In a report by the League of American Orchestras in 2016, women make up ~46-49% of the musicians in professional orchestras, and even more strikingly, less than 15% of all musicians in these orchestras are African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and other non-white backgrounds. The foundation for who gets access to the arts in the first place, and how we go about making it more accessible and wholly representative, desperately needs to be reevaluated.

Today, we are at a point where we have the space and the knowledge to finally turn the world of classical music into one that is diverse and acknowledges the harm we have inflicted on women and Black and brown folks in the industry. I am most certainly not an expert in all of the work to be done in the orchestral realm to make it as diverse and inclusive as possible but I am learning as I go along. I have adjusted my career goals accordingly, thanks to what I learned during my time at USC, while also immersing myself in different orchestral environments since. Community engagement and nonprofit work in underserved communities is important to me, and I will continue to work towards finding my place within that. As much as I love performing, I don’t want to be part of an institution that doesn’t wholly believe that everyone deserves to be there; we’re not there yet, and that is a hard pill to swallow after dedicating a majority of your life to the art.

Get involved or learn more about some great initiatives here:

Education Through Music (ETM) - Los Angeles and New York

Kids in a New Groove - Central Texas


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