Category: Commentary

Eyes Wide Shut—The Case Against Blind Auditions

A blindfolded woman against a dark background. (Photo by Kirill Balobanov via Unsplash.)

Back in July, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called for an end to the practice of blind auditions. “If ensembles are to reflect the communities they serve,” he wrote, “the audition process should take into account race, gender and other factors.”

Unsurprisingly, this suggestion received heavy backlash. Between the Culture Wars, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the strong opinions of those in the music world, such a statement was bound to ruffle feathers. Pitting what’s seen as meritocracy in its purest form against the diversity standards of the day was doomed from the start. To progressives, Tommasini’s piece was hollow and missed the point. To conservatives, it was sheer blasphemy.

Tommasini’s suggestion came from a well-meaning place: one of newfound discomfort with the status quo. It would be ungenerous to discount the value of that response. At the same time, why diversity matters to classical music was not examined at all.

I’ve called for an end to the practice of blind auditions for years. To me, Tommasini’s piece was both unpersuasive and incomplete.

To make a contentious change requires the buy-in of many different kinds of people. One person’s call for “representation” is another’s outrage at “quotas.” I believe we can—and should—elevate this conversation past that endless, tiresome tug-of-war.

Rather than going in circles, I ask: what would have to be true for all of us to agree on the potential benefits of revising the process? 

What follows is taken in part from a piece I wrote in February of 2018, updated for relevance.


For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices.

For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices. Yet the merit-based method reveals one of classical music culture’s most problematic assumptions. It comes with a host of undesirable consequences — one of which recently blew up in our faces.

The assumption in question: How you sound is all that matters.

As a result of this belief, candidates aren’t interviewed. References are not required. When you walk into an audition, you aren’t allowed to speak or wear perfume. A rogue cough can betray your gender. Best not to wear clacking heels for the same reason.

As you enter the audition room in silence, a proctor announces you by number. You then play behind a screen. As a result, the judging panel doesn’t know the first thing about you. Not your age, your race, your gender. Not your pedigree, or where you went to school. Nothing.

Certainly, this process has had a tremendously equalizing effect. For starters: blind auditions have made it possible for women to make tremendous inroads into orchestras.

I believe I’ve been saved by the screen myself. At 23, I played for a concertmaster in the weeks leading up to an audition for his orchestra. He didn’t seem to take me very seriously. I left the coaching feeling a bit pessimistic about my chances. After winning the audition, he told me I was a “great artist.” I‘m pretty sure he wouldn’t have felt that way had he known it was me back there all along.

But in the wake of #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, I ask whether “how well you play” is really all that matters in the musical workplace.


Is “how well you play” really all that matters in the musical workplace?

Let’s get this out of the way. For a job in the field of musical performance, nothing matters more than how you sound. In this piece, I hope to make the case for letting other relevant things matter, too.

Tempting as it is, let’s not fall into an all-or-nothing false binary here. Sound doesn’t matter “less” by widening our circle to include other factors. The whole point here is additive.

Even if we believe that how you sound is all that matters, the meritocratic foundation of the concept itself doesn’t hold water. To pick a “winner” who “sounds the best” is not objectively possible. Sure, there can be a general consensus—but never a universal one.

That’s because there is no “universal best” to which all players aspire. In music, excellence at the highest level is measured in abstractions that are deeply, intangibly personal. My colleague Kevin Kumar wrote about this beautifully in his piece, The #1 Violinist in the World.

Consider the following: musicians generally accept that anyone who gets to the finals is qualified for the job, and would fit into the fabric of the orchestra just fine. This truth is especially consoling when the runner-up is you.

Sometimes, on a different day, things could have gone a different way. We all have off days: before auditions, I always used to tell myself, “I wish everyone the best. I just hope my best is better today.”

Plus, the composition of the listening committee can determine who comes out on top on any given day. Swap a committee member or two and you might have a different “best” player based on the collective, subjective taste of those listening that day.

The audition procedure of each orchestra also comes into play here. Does the conductor get to choose from among the committee’s top few? What if the conductor’s opinion is different from the committee’s majority vote? Who played “the best,” or “deserved to win,” in that instance? I’ve personally been both the subject of and a participant in these very situations on both sides of the screen.

The members of an orchestra playing music together.

Photo by Samuel Sianipar on Unsplash

At a certain point, “winning” an audition is like catching lightning in a bottle. My own mother once cautioned me against resigning from an orchestra for fear that I wouldn’t be able to “get back in.” While it would have been easy to take that as an insult, she was simply being realistic.

Compare that with the following anecdote. In my early twenties, I had a mentor who helped me prepare for auditions. I’ll never forget her telling me that I had to play with such conviction that the committee would have “no choice” but to name me the winner.

This was a motivating, inspiring, romantic, and idealistic instruction. It’s the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly, motivating you to maximize the one thing you can control: yourself. Your preparation level, commitment, passion, and nerves of steel. It’s exactly the kind of thing you need to hear when preparing for an audition.

But while my mentor’s guidance was both motivating and attractive, it wasn’t as realistic as my mother’s. And here’s the thing: neither of them were wrong. My mentor was right that I needed to do everything in my power to improve my chances. And my mother was right that my chances were exactly that: chances.

Given the above, surely there is room to take more of the person into account. Qualities, experiences, skills, and interests that would further the cause of art music above and beyond “how much more beautifully” the winner played than the runners-up.

Who knows what else they might have been able to bring to the table?

***

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music.

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music. Maybe how well you play isn’t where what matters begins and ends. After all, orchestral and chamber music are team sports. Are you likely to “play your best,” anyway, while seething with rage at—or being psychologically tortured by—your stand partner or principal?

When you audition for a string quartet, both musical and personal chemistry matter. What brings out the best in others is ineffable. It’s laughable to contemplate a blind, screened string quartet audition. Why should orchestral auditions be so different?

What other fields vet only one dimension of every job applicant? To assume that someone’s playing tells you everything you need to know about them is simply false. It’s naive at best and dangerous at worst.

Worshipping sound at the expense of character has had consequences beyond missed opportunities. Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players. But with no other vetting of any kind, many of them are as interpersonally difficult as they are musically skilled. Much of the time, they cannot stand each other, and dysfunction abounds.

Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players …. but much of the time, dysfunction abounds.

When orchestras have the great good fortune of hiring a player who also happens to be charismatic, generous, and full of good ideas, they go absolutely bananas milking that person for all they are worth. Imagine being able to harness that energy from not a small handful of serendipitous hires, but from an entire symphony’s worth of carefully-considered candidates. Imagine if the orchestral audition process included not only blind listening, an interview, and references, but also:

  • a trial lesson for an underprivileged, gifted child
  • public speaking
  • a chamber music concert and a new music concert
  • a thorough review of what the candidate brings to the table, including his or her capacity to serve as an effective advocate for the art form

I’m not saying these things are “more important” than sounding good. I’m saying: sound good, and

As a dear friend put: “even Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuit competition.” I’m the Co-Director of Salastina, a non-profit chamber music series, in Los Angeles. My colleague Kevin Kumar and I play and work closely with wonderful people who are superlative musicians—and… terrific advocates for music.

We value both. We believe in their mutually amplifying capacity. And we have faith in the long-term cultural impact of that belief.


Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process.

Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process. If the culture of classical music seeks to enhance its relevancy and diversify its ranks, a more comprehensive approach to auditions would be a wonderful place to start.

There’s something sad and insufficient about post-graduate educational efforts to diversify orchestras. Well-meaning as such designated residencies are, they do too little too late. It’s hard to imagine how a person of color truly improves his or her odds of winning a screened audition simply by having sat in a designated “minority residency” chair for a year or two. In 2016, the League of American Orchestras published this study showing that these residencies just don’t work on the whole.

At the same time, I see their value as baby steps. They have the potential to ever-so-slowly steer the Titanic of musicians’ opinions, thereby improving the chances for more meaningful conversations about orchestral hiring practices down the line.

When it comes to diversity, blind auditions haven’t been a complete bust. They have helped the advancement of women: Asian and white women like me. Beyond that, what truly impedes greater diversity in American orchestras is our insistence on the false assumption that sound is all that matters.

Recently, Irshad Manji wrote beautifully on the merits of diversifying the workplace in “White Fragility Is Not the Answer. Honest Diversity Is” for the Heterodox Academy (July 7, 2020). Her piece helped me reframe anew the friction between creating a vibrant, synergistic workforce and current orchestral hiring priorities.

According to Manji, “honest diversity… recognizes that each of us, whatever our labels, is a multifaceted plural.” Manji contrasts this with dishonest diversity, which “slices and dices individuals into categories, as if directing people to their assigned places.”

Does the following statement sound familiar? “We can have diversity or we can have quality. We can’t have both.”

It’s a mainstay of the culture wars. And blind auditions make a fertile battleground.

But what if a variety of more nuanced artistic skills were equated with quality when considering the sum total of a musician? Powerfully, Manji suggests: “Honest diversity starts with the desire for varied perspectives and rectifies representation to fulfill that desire. To begin the other way around — representation in the hopes of diverse thinking — is to incite needless friction.”

She speaks of having the integrity to value more than diversity data points. I would add that valuing more than how a candidate sounds—on any given day, compared to those present, and to the ears of those who just so happen to be listening—is also a question of artistic integrity.

Valuing more than how a candidate sounds is also a question of artistic integrity.

Here’s where I felt The New York Times piece left itself vulnerable to criticism from all sides. It framed metrics as an expedient end goal. It piggy-backed off of the death of George Floyd to make a statement about the uncomfortable lack of black representation within American orchestras.

But it didn’t get into what really matters about diversity in a compelling way. The why of it all was shallow and implied. As a result, the piece came across as opportunistic on the one hand and inflammatory on the other. It didn’t invite the buy-in of people who all want “the best”—and “fairly”—but have different ideas about what that looks like.


Don’t get me wrong: winning a blind audition fair and square feels AWESOME. It’s a notch on your belt that feels about as objective as success can get. And believe me: we cling to these victories like our lives depend on them. (They actually do.)

Who would want to disband a club into which they’ve rightfully earned entry? It’s too easy—and all too human—for the ego to bristle at the prospect. It’s threatening, like the sudden devaluation of prestige, or the dismantling of personal identity. And that’s to say nothing of decades of back-breaking work, unrelenting focus, and significant financial investment.

I say the following with all due respect. Musicians use the idea that “how you sound is all that matters” as both a source of pride and a crutch. It excuses bad behavior. It justifies narrow-mindedness. And it’s its own kind of complacency.

Focusing only on “how you sound” excuses bad behavior and justifies narrow-mindedness.

What if expanding our values system to include other skills and qualities weren’t a devaluation of the importance of sound, but an invitation to go deeper? Manji put this idea beautifully: “wholeness, by definition, is not a zero-sum game.”

I suspect many orchestral musicians would welcome this kind of shift. How many of us have felt hamstrung, restless, under-utilized, and stifled as a result of the narrow requirements of our jobs? Greg Sandow observed in “Not So Satisfied” that orchestral musicians have slightly lower job satisfaction than federal prison guards. (Those with the highest? String quartet players.) At the same time, orchestral musicians boast the greatest “internal motivation.” My husband likens this phenomenon to “keeping a Ferrari in the garage.”

At the same time, how many administrators have earnestly tried to reverse-engineer additional opportunities for orchestral musicians? Inviting them to become more involved with things above and beyond rehearsals and concerts? Sometimes, these efforts have lovely results; other times, they fall flat.

Most of my 20s was about muscling my way into the orchestral world. Most of my 30s was about gradually transitioning out of it—in part because I felt so musically and intellectually constrained. It’s precisely why a friend and I started Salastina 10 years ago.

But not everyone can, or should, go there. Resources and chutzpah are finite. Perhaps it’s up to the larger institutions themselves to prioritize making musical practice less limited, and limiting, for musicians. Inviting more from us—and more of us—from the start would be a great point of departure.

Again, I come back to the concept of “honest diversity.” It is not self-motivated, either deployed in the service of earning woke points or clung to desperately as a key to survival. It’s not even simply a moral imperative. Rather, honest diversity is intrinsic to creating vibrant, meaningful, synergistic workplaces, cultural institutions, and art.  


As Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott wrote in “Advancing Inclusion: Creative Ways Musicians Can Take the Lead,” the job description for an orchestral position is usually limited to just two words. “Section Violin.” “Principal Clarinet.” “Associate Principal Double Bass” clocks in at four.

What if more thought and care were put into crafting musicians’ job descriptions? What if these job descriptions reflected the unique needs of each orchestra—and the communities they serve? What if skin color and gender diversity followed naturally from prioritizing different perspectives and life experiences as a part of the process, rather than an antagonizing insistence on ever-narrowing metrics?

What’s more, orchestral musicians tend to stay in their posts for decades. What if the creation of each job description were treated more like a mini-strategic planning session? One that takes into account where the orchestra is likely to be in five, ten, twenty, or even thirty years?

A cellist playing behind a curtain.

Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

It is my opinion that blind listening should always be an important part of the hiring process. But who knows how dramatically musical culture would shift if we valued a more well-rounded kind musicianship?

The days of a one-size-fits-all prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over.

So what to do? The days of a one-size-fits-all, un-nuanced, and even toxic prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over. It’s up to individual organizations and communities to determine how best to navigate hiring the most qualified candidates for their particular needs.

What kind of dynamics, literal and figurative, would change for the better? What kind of vibrancy would enter the field? What kind of relevance to today’s world would more naturally emerge from the art form?

What else might we not have to force quite so hard, if we could just loosen our grip on an assumption that’s as tenacious as it is problematic?

I’m feeling like it’s high time we found out.


I’d like to thank the following people for their many insights into this conversation, both recently and over the years: Derrick Spiva Jr., Reena Esmail, Simon Woods, Alexander Laing, Vijay Gupta, my husband Philip White, and my work-husband, Kevin Kumar.

Sounding and Writing Good: Composer Ethics When Writing for Children

Children blowing large bubbles in a public square in Prague.

By conventional classical music wisdom, high schoolers should not sing Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria. Their voices haven’t developed fully yet, they likely don’t have a lot of proper training, and probably don’t have enough musicianship to perform such a piece well. The Queen of the Night’s aria is a “good” piece of music, and therefore “good” performances of it are only achievable by someone truly skilled and equally “good”, but not a high schooler. Even on top of that, it is said that this aria would do harm to a high school singer’s health and training. They shouldn’t sing it, and moreover, they can’t sing it, which is to say that they could never sing it well. “It” is a good piece of music, not worthy of teenagers.

Following the line of logic where they can’t sing truly “good” music, it seems children should and can only sing “bad” music.

But then what should those high schoolers sing? What should even younger children sing? Following the line of logic where they can’t sing truly “good” music, it seems they should and can only sing “bad” music. Pop music maybe, which, to some people is bad music already. They should sing music that is “simple”, “easy”, “short”, or “fun”. However, this mentality poses an interesting question for composers tasked with writing music for children. If we are trained to write “good” music, how should we write for children?

There is a lot more discussion in the world of new music and in particular in classical academic spaces about how to write for “skilled” musicians. Musicians that are our peers in terms of education and perceived ability. If you were to ask any adult composer, they would probably say that they know more about music than any child does. Therefore, in a situation in which they write for children, there’s a way of looking at things where these subsequent pieces would be “lesser-than” compared to their “good” pieces – that children inhibit their full compositional prowess from coming to light. I think this is the assumption made by a lot of adult composers and directors and it is quite an ambitious assumption.

Many common assumptions that go along with writing music for children constitute terrible breaches in composer ethics that do incredible harm to marginalized children.

My belief is that many common assumptions that go along with writing music for children constitute terrible breaches in composer ethics that do incredible harm to marginalized children. These assumptions position children’s performance ability in negative terms (e.g. a high schooler can’t sing Queen of the Night). Assumptions like children being immature, innocent, or pure. Assumptions like “children’s performances cannot be as affecting as performances by the masters.” Assuming that children need adult care or that they need to be brought into the folds of classical music “for their own benefit.” I believed this last part once but then I was forced to sing in a men’s choir and be seen as a man in front of an entire state’s worth of choir directors – I felt like vomiting. Then, I was put in choir rehearsals where my back was so stiff and my breath painfully caught in my throat out of fear and panic. Beyond feelings of alienation or neglect, the results of others acting unethically caused physical pain in my body.

Children are assumed to always be immature, innocent, and pure.

So let’s look at those assumptions. Children are assumed to always be immature, innocent, and pure based on narratives used by patriarchy and white supremacy to make arguments that children (read: white children) need to be protected above all else. That alone is enough to destabilize this assumption, but as another counterpart to this, I think about children held prisoner within ICE detention camps or children that went to a protest recently and got tear gassed by police. These children have likely been through more than most people reading these words; are they really only capable of singing about rainbows and sunshine? Turning to notions that children’s musical performances are less impactful than “good”, “professional” performances, I am immediately struck by how many stories I’ve heard about parents crying upon seeing their children perform. I think those feelings should be recognized and valued, not written off.

Lastly, let’s look at the assumption that kids need us adults. Need us for what? Children’s music education is so often positioned as essentially “good”, that it can only benefit children. But why should our “rational” or “masterpiece” music be in their lives instead of, say, the pop music they might already listen to? Why do they need training in order to someday, hopefully (if they’re lucky and talented and work hard), perform that “good” music? It’s a complicated question, but there is so much more to be had in earnestly asking this instead of making assumptions and ignoring it. I’m sure that kids already find plenty of musical gratification in pop music; so why do they need Mozart, or any number of well-regarded classical composers? (Or us for that matter.)

Four children, whose faces are not visible, standing in a line

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

For better or for worse, we composers are in a position of power over the children we write for because we get to answer those questions. Not them. So, like a surgeon having power over a comatose patient, we can do serious damage if we neglect or refuse to care for the people left to our personal whims.

Composers are in a position of power over the children we write for because we get to answer those questions.

Most of this article focuses on vocal music. This is because the combination of words and music makes acting unethically much, much easier. However, the principals I lay out here apply to all music written for children. Instrumental music can also carry a lot of meaning that creates unethical situations. For a short, hypothetical example of an ethical breach, in the case of writing a band piece for a school where most of the students are children of color, think about the ethics of writing a patriotic military march. The assumptions that you would be making here are that: a) these students do already or should feel pride in our country; b) that that feeling is undeniably a good thing; and c) that that’s a feeling your audience wants to feel. The resulting consequences are asking children of color (on your behalf and without consent) to glorify a military that has a history of murdering people that look just like them.

For an extended example, let’s specifically turn our attention towards high school women’s choruses. Of the contemporary repertoire available to women’s choruses, there is a staggering amount of sexist love songs (for examples, see Ron Nelson’s “He’s Gone Away” or David N. Childs’ “The Kiss”) – songs that position womanhood as directly related to love, songs that have the choir sing from the perspective of the man who is attracted to them, songs that remove all sense of selfhood (Patricia O’Toole wrote an article about this in the Dec 1998 issue of the ACDA’s Choral Journal).

Of the contemporary repertoire available to women’s choruses, there is a staggering amount of sexist love songs.

These love songs bring up a whole host of ethical questions even when we are just thinking about gender and age. Why do we, as adults, feel the need to create situations in which minors profess being swept away by the whims of love? Why do we, as adults, feel gratification on seeing children act out existence in a sexual framework? Why, as it so often is the case, do we choose really old poetry almost exclusively written by white people as our models of “good” love? Why should these songs make up most of the women’s chorus repertoire?

Let’s even go beyond that to the next logical step and think about the girls in these choirs that are attracted to other girls. They are not attracted to men in any way, so why should they be forced to sing about loving a man? By writing such music, we are literally putting words into their mouths that they won’t and could never mean. We are asking them to pretend that they are straight in a medium that promises “authentic” expression and communication. From the composer’s point of view, if we don’t consider the very likely possibility that not everyone in a women’s chorus is straight, we are not allowing those queer girls to give voice to their experiences. We miss the chance to allow these girls to feel good in their attraction and instead ask them to lie.

There are a couple of possible counter arguments here. One, queer people play straight characters in plays and musicals all the time. The key difference here is that children auditioning for theatre productions choose to do that – in normative choirs, children have no say about what music they are asked to sing. On top of that, theatre is explicitly disconnected from the actors’ personal lives. Choir music does not make the same claims. (See “Hive of Frightened Bees” by Andrea Ramsey and “Ner Ner” by Jake Runestad for examples.) Two, there’s a possible argument that the historical canon of “good” love poems are usually straight themselves, so we don’t really have a choice but to write straight love songs. But honestly, I don’t care about valuing “our” history when doing so can do violence to marginalized children. I care about kids more in this case because they are alive.

Furthering this women’s-chorus-love-song example, since most poets of these love poems are white (Look up Sara Teasdale for a popular example), these songs privilege the actions and standards of what white colonialism deems good, pure, and acceptable about love. For example, take the stock image of a white woman wistfully watching a man from afar while waxing poetically about the surrounding land we white people stole and that, in the present day, is most easily accessed by us. If music can only benefit kids, can only be “good”, this stock example shows that the benefit being talked about here is unquestioning assimilation of those kids into a society built upon colonialism and white supremacy. Ethically speaking, there is no way to justify that in a way that shows that we are doing good by the children who actually take the burden of performing this kind of music.

So what should you do instead? Perhaps you find poetry where a woman speaks of loving a woman or structure your piece in such a way that allows for any pronoun to be substituted in so that all attractions may be accounted for. I think this can be a great solution if you are writing for a very small choir where all singers can discuss and actively consent to this. But large choirs will still not get that chance – and anyways – positioning love as inherently tied to gender is a very heteronormative way of thinking about things in the first place. So in this particular case where maybe you want to write a queer love song, don’t focus on gender at all. Focus on material things that actually might be a part of anybody’s experience of romance, even children’s: the deep-felt meaning communicated in holding hands with your lovers, sharing a meal, waking up in bed one day and realizing that yes I like them. Maybe tea or fruit or water (see Dale Trumbore’s If I Say Yes).

Focus on material things that actually might be a part of anybody’s experience of romance, even children’s.

Here is where justice-driven composer ethics takes us. Consent is important (Alex Temple already wrote a piece for NMB that I find beautiful, so I won’t go into this further here). It is important that we acknowledge that music can hurt people. It is important that we recognize and really deal with the fact that we are writing music for people far removed and far different from us. We should not put words into their mouths without thinking about what we are doing.

Chorister singing

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Justice-driven ethics are important because, even while neoliberal social justice puts so much weight in abstract ideas, acting unethically in music has very material consequences. Leaving racism unchecked in the choir world has led to many choir directors only programming music by Black composers when their music is perceived as “sufficiently Black”. Ablest and cis-gendered notions of how bodies are “supposed” to work creates cultures where any form of bodily deviance is not tolerated.

Acting unethically in music has very material consequences.

I think one of my favorite authors, musicologist William Cheng, says it well in his book Just Vibrations. “[…] by attending to how our convictions, relations, and actions ripple through public spaces, we can achieve a sense of how we matter and what matters most.” If we do not attend in this way, you could say we are being selfish and narcissistic, creating work that ripples through only our private spaces, only our own experiences. We would not be caring for others. Cheng goes on to say that, “care ethics prioritize[s] embodied encounters and the precarities of lived experience,” we must “seriously [consider] feelings, pleasurable as well as painful.”

By traditional standards, children’s music is “bad” when compared to music of “skilled” performers, but on what grounds is that judgment being made? Some abstract idea of what music should be? How could we follow such an abstract, immaterial idea and know whether or not our music is good? Following Cheng’s lead, in writing this music we should not worry about whether our music “sounds good” according to traditional standards, but rather if our music sounds good-ness into the world. That’s what matters most. Because, after all, our music cannot claim to be “good” (as in ‘desirable’) if it does not sound (as into put into the air’) good (as inthat which is right or just’).

We should not worry about whether our music “sounds good” according to traditional standards, but rather if our music sounds good-ness into the world.

Children being told that they have no idea what they’re doing does not sound good. Deciding without children’s consent or knowledge that they should only sing music about subjects we as adults deem suitable does not sound good. Projecting images of innocence and naiveté onto children who might have experienced more pain than us does not sound good.

But holding hands? Tea? Sleep? Decolonization? Justice? Solidarity? Or, maybe even simpler, just the words of William Cheng’s mother, “Love! Optimism, happiness … closure.”

That sounds good to me.

Bringing Artistic Communities Together for Black Lives 

A collage of photographs of people involved in the virtual fundraising concert for Black Lives Matter on Friday July 31, 2020.

By Felix Reyes & Roya Marsh

When everyone saw the disgusting, undeniable murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police, we both took immediate action and joined the protests out in the streets. While the Black community has been dealing with these acts of injustice for generations, seeing the awful video of Floyd being murdered made us personally realize just how numb and conditioned we as a society have become to seeing these types of crimes happen on a daily basis by cops. For many around the country and around the world, witnessing Floyd’s tragic death was the breaking point when people finally stood up and began saying “enough is enough.” What follows here are our individual accounts of how we came to work together to organize an online benefit concert for Black Lives Matter this Friday, July 31 at 7-10pm EDT.

Roya Marsh: It is impossible to ignore cries for help as a Black butch woman and educator. I look at my students and wonder what world will be left for them and quickly I’m reminded that they are living right now. Blk Joy began, for me, as a poem–a concept that I had conceived in therapy and wanted to translate into written and spoken words. I had never imagined the impact it would have on my life and others, but had hoped that it would serve as a constant reminder of the joy Black people possess and deserve. I’ve been protesting the murders of Black people for over a decade and am constantly exploring new ways to effect change. This virtual fundraiser is just one way that we can perpetuate joy while simultaneously raising funds to support those that are constantly on the front lines.

Felix Reyes: During those first few weeks of protests, I reached out to Roya to see how she was doing in coping with all of this. At that point in late May we hadn’t seen each other in over two years, where she came out to my Lincoln Center debut concert in May 2018. Since we’ve reconnected it’s been great to really grow close with her these past couple of weeks. Coming from the classical/chamber music world I already knew of certain artists like Nathalie Joachim, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Shelley Washington, but I’d never actually had black musical friends to talk to on a regular basis. Now having been involved in these protests, educating myself, and reflecting on the current structure of musical institutions, both at the collegiate and professional level, it’s become very clear how disproportionate representation in programming and opportunities are between artists of color and their counterparts. From being able to afford private lessons growing up, to going to private music school/pre-college programs, we consider these things to be critical periods of time where students fully develop themselves as musicians, yet most Black and Brown families cannot afford the luxury of providing these educational opportunities for their children.

In hindsight I think this raises a broader concern about the flaws in our institutions to provide adequate access to proper music education in communities of color, which then leads to a severe lack of diversity in different musical perspectives, thus leading to fewer black musicians going to/pursuing careers in music. To be able to have various representations in outlooks, views, and culture I feel should be considered essential in our field, in order to push music to progressively evolve with the times, be relevant, and best represent the voices of all artists that currently contribute to that musical landscape. There are so few Black classical/chamber musicians in our field, and so Roya immediately was the first person that came to mind when these protests started, and since then we’ve been working as a team to build this fundraiser together.

Roya Marsh: When conceptualizing what artists would be amazing additions to this event I knew exactly who to reach out to. There’s an incredible amount of talent in New York City and I am honored to call many of these artists my friends. Mahogany L. Browne, Whitney Greenaway, Jennifer Falú, Elliot Bless, and Elena Pinderhughes are all fantastic artists that use their platforms to promote the fight for Black lives on a consistent basis. Their work takes place both on the ground and behind the scenes, so it will be amazing to showcase their talents for our audience!

Felix Reyes: When I started getting involved with these protests I began to follow organizations like Warriors In The Garden, Freedom March NYC, Strategy For Black Lives, and BLM Greater NY. From the beginning I’ve been able to see firsthand all of the amazing work these young groups of activists have been doing in swaying the narrative and leading the charge here in New York City on Black Lives Matter (BLM), while also pushing for legislative change. I knew that once Roya and I started playing around with the idea of this fundraiser event that we had to reach out to each of these organizations, in order to have them be involved in some kind of way.

We both feel that especially in this moment there’s a real need for an event like this, where if we could bring in these organizations to talk to the various communities within the arts world, groups of people, that we could create a real special experience that can provide a space to educate people about current initiatives, legislation, and other important events coming up relating to BLM. As artists now more than ever it’s essential for us to use our platforms to elevate those who need to be heard, and in understanding that this was the precipice to the idea for this fundraiser.

Roya Marsh: As an educator, I transitioned to a virtual workspace back in March and have been exploring new and improved ways to interact with the world online. The world is learning that activism looks different for everyone. There are tons of ways to assist in the movement and financial help is a major component. Blk Joy has been an excellent vehicle for giving in this time; we were able to fundraise and give a scholarship to a young Black scholar for her first year of undergrad. Although there is a distance that exists between us, the poetry community has committed to holding space and so many wondrous events have been birthed to assure the work continues. The artists can perform from the safety of their homes and still be doing the necessary work of using their platforms to stand firm in solidarity with the movements for Black lives. We’ll get to pop in and out of folks’ respective spaces while the viewing world can be comfortably seated on their couches!

Felix Reyes: It’s hard to believe that we’ve been able to organize such a huge event like this in a matter of 3 weeks. It was only in mid June where we both had talked about the idea of this fundraiser, and now that we’re actually putting it on it’s been a bit overwhelming all of the work that’s needed to go into an event like this.

It wasn’t too long after that I had also received news from New Music USA that Pathos Trio, an ensemble I manage and co-founded, was going to be awarded a New Music USA project grant. For us the timing couldn’t have been better, and so once we found out this great news I began brainstorming the logistics of how we could utilize our new platform with New Music USA and immediately approached Vanessa Reed (New Music USA’s President and CEO) with the idea for the event. She immediately loved it and jumped on board in having New Music USA support and help promote this event to their fullest capability. I had then reached out to Alan Hankers and Marcelina Suchocka (the rest of Pathos Trio) with the idea for the fundraiser, and they agreed to let myself and Roya use our trio’s platform to co-host this event and provide additional technical support if needed. I made it clear with both Alan and Marcelina that this event is meant to amplify all the black voices involved, and so Pathos Trio’s role in all of this would be to simply facilitate the broadcast of their messages and education about BLM to as many people as we possibly can.

Roya, coming from the world of poetry, also started to think about other spoken word poets who she personally knew that could potentially say poetry for the event. In finalizing her thoughts she reached out to some of her closest allies: Mahogany L. Browne, Jennifer Falu, Whitney Greenaway, and Elliot Bliss, all of whom are award winning speakers, writers and some have been featured on NBC, PBS News, BET, and more for their amazing poetry work.

Thinking about musicians of color who have been actively vocal on the issue of BLM, Nathalie Joachim, Allison Loggins-Hull, Jessie Montgomery, Darian Donovan Thomas, and Kendall Williams all immediately came to mind. Whether it’s performing electronic music centered around ACAB, to performing flute duos on Freedom Schools of the 1960s, or performing steel pan tunes related to black struggle, each of these amazing artists have had something to say. We wanted to give them, along with these other great speakers and organizations, the dedicated space for them to do just that – express themselves and educate those watching about what they can do to help within the broader BLM movement.

Roya Marsh: The hope isn’t just to raise awareness, but to enact change and demand visibility and respect for our Black lives. It isn’t enough to just repeat a phrase over and over as we have seen the numbers of lives lost grow exponentially. We must commit to doing all that we can to promote the survival and prosperity of ALL Black lives. After our event, proceeds will be donated to groups of activists that continue to risk their lives and their safety to assure that the ills of white supremacy, including racism, state sanctioned violence and murder against Black lives comes to a halt.

For those of you reading we hope you can join us on Friday, 7/31 from 7pm-10pm EST on either Pathos Trio’s/New Music USA’s Facebook page, or on New Music USA’s YouTube channel to catch this amazing live-stream event and consider making a donation towards our campaign to raise $10,000 for these amazing activist organizations!

Facebook Event Page:
https://www.facebook.com/events/209625513684273/

Donation Page:
https://www.blkjoy.com/blmevent

Leveraging the Quarantine to Create an Online Music Camp

Young composer at keyboard wearing headphones

“So is your father an entrepreneur to have worked with you through all of this?” asked Benjamin Taylor, composer and founder of the Music Creators Academy.

“That would be my mother.”

I remember my heart racing two months prior to that call on one of my regular walks around the neighborhood with my mother. Only a day before our walk, my plans to attend the Brevard Music Center’s Summer Institute had been canceled due to COVID-19, and we were already planning out the logistics for me to host my own summer camp.

“The demand is there,” I said, “I’m evidence enough of that! But this could be the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken…”

The Composers Collaborative Project (CCP) is an online series of lectures designed for the benefit of composers of all ages and skill levels. It has been my project of the last three months, and my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills. The CCP currently features fifteen professional composition professors and freelancers – each teaching a 90-minute masterclass tailored to their individual strengths and passions. It has been one of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and fulfilling things I’ve ever attempted.

April 6th. The first email of many. If I was going to make this thing work, I would need a business entity. So I reached out to Steve Goldman, founding member of the National Young Composers Challenge (NYCC), in hopes of establishing a sponsorship or partnership. I wrote the email, took a deep breath, and pressed send.

Even though no professional partnership emerged from the conversation, Mr. Goldman was incredibly supportive and put me in touch with another NYCC judge, Dr. Alex Burtzos. Luckily for me, Dr. Burtzos had experience organizing festivals. He suggested that the best chance I had at seeing the project succeed was to turn it into a fundraiser. And with that, he introduced me to New Music USA’s Solidarity Fund. Though the Solidarity Fund would end earlier than I had expected, my mother and I decided to follow Dr. Burtzos’s advice, and – encouraged by their Solidarity Fund and other programs – evolved the project into a benefit for New Music USA.  And with a warm conversation and a plan secured with their Development Manager Miles Freeman, my next step would be to find our teachers.

From the beginning, I was concerned that it would be difficult to find anyone interested in giving their time for the project. What I discovered instead was the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming. I started with teachers that I knew, and reached out to others they recommended from there. In a short time, we had enough support to schedule two weeks of masterclasses!

“It’s common for young composers to think of established composers as superstars. In reality, most composers are relatively unknown outside of the new music community… They will generally be excited to hear about your interest in their work, and much more open to donating their time than you might think.” – Alex Burtzos, on our call

As a high school student, it’s intimidating reaching out to any college professor. Imagine now if that professor was a Grammy award winner, or was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, or is known around the composition world, or has judged the competitions you’ve entered, and so on! The humanity of the people I have worked with has been one of the most surprising parts of this process.

An example involving my initial conversations with Dr. Marcos Balter comes immediately to mind. I always do my best to research a person’s title before reaching out to them. In his case, I made the mistake of using ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Dr.’. When, in the next email, I realized my mistake and apologized, he responded that it was no problem at all and that I could call him Marcos! I was blown away.

With the panel of teachers squared away, I needed to build a website. In many ways, this was a family affair. I worked on the layout and graphic design, my sister took care of the photography, and my mother wrote out the copy. Stuck in the house, my sister and I worked with what we had to create professional-looking backdrops: we rearranged my room and created props out of old manuscripts and an easel from years ago. The end result, I must say, I am very proud of.

Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp. This brings us back to Benjamin Taylor’s quote from the beginning. Days before launch, I traded details with Joseph Sowa, a professor of the Music Creators Academy. He described his program as “a band camp with a heavy dose of creativity” for middle- and high-school students. I was antsy for sure; nervous at the prospect of competition. Nevertheless, both Dr. Sowa and the project’s founder, Benjamin Taylor, were incredibly kind, and given our conclusion that the two programs were meant for different audiences, we agreed to support one another in what ways we could.

This brings me another one of my favorite stories from this whole experience. Somehow neither I nor Dr. Sowa had told Dr. Taylor that I was a high school student. When we had our call and I referred to him as “Dr. Taylor”, he laughed and responded, “Should I call you Dr. Weinbaum?” He thought I was a composition professor! Now that’s a compliment if I’ve ever received one.

Launching the website and social media accounts brings us to where I am today. For the past few weeks and for the next few weeks, I have dedicated myself to promoting the event however I can: Email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, group chats, etc. I have had to stretch myself to get my head around many of these platforms; nevertheless, the results have been promising so far, and I continue to hope for the best!

Regardless, my heart still races. People generally prefer to wait until the due date to sign up for an event like this (as I have discovered talking to many people), and so I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute. If that doesn’t keep someone in suspense.

The lectures will take place from July 20-31 and registration will remain open throughout. If you are interested in learning more about the Composers Collaborative Project, please visit our website or send me an email. I would love to hear from you!

Website: www.composerscollaborative.com

Email: [email protected]

How Can Artists Respond to Injustice? Thoughts from Seven Musicians

Protesters waving banners directly in front of police covered with shields.

We know that music is not enough. No artistic response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor can adequately address the capaciousness of these injustices. But what does “more than music” mean? Is it the non-musical activities that many are engaged in right now – donating to bail funds, protesting in the streets, raising awareness that black lives matter, fighting to defund the police? Or is it about attempting to uncoil the racism that is tightly wound into our musical institutions, whether that be petitioning symphony orchestras to program African-American composers, calling on conservatories to center black music in their curricula, or diversifying the personnel and repertoire of new-music ensembles? It certainly can’t just be posting black images to Instagram. As I absorbed the constant proliferation of information and advice on social media, I knew I wanted to hear from artists I believed in, who have been thinking deeply, and for many years, about the role of musicians in enacting social change. Here are some of their thoughts.

Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z, George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan, Nathalie Joachim

Top row: Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z;
Bottom row: George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan (photo by Arielle Pentes), Nathalie Joachim (photo by Eric Patrice O’Brien)

Marcos Balter, composer

I am still being paid my full salary as a tenured professor, and none of my commissions have been canceled. So, I have made a commitment to spend as much of my income as possible on donations to worthwhile causes, especially bail funds and organizations that push for legislative changes regarding police brutality against black individuals. I have also been donating my time advising several music organizations on initiatives that not only show solidarity but also promote concrete change while examining their own culpability.

You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it.

Accountability is key right now. You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it. And, I’ve been mentoring and teaching black composers, and fundraising for initiatives that combat the innate racism in classical music for a long time now. As a black composer, none of this is charitable for me: it’s a duty and a matter of survival. This is not a movement, and we should not conflate what is in the news with what is new. It’s old, very old, and it needs to end.

Eun Lee, clarinetist and founder of the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished theme this year is “Red, White, and Blues,” and it’s all about civic engagement and voting rights. If anything, all of this is just creating a doubling down, because voting is one of the few tangible things that people can be doing, either making sure that they themselves are voting, or making sure that other people are registered. Also, the census is huge right now, particularly for communities of color. What’s really important is to take a step back and look at the macro picture, and think through, how did we get here? What are the underlying causes? There’s this phrase flying around a lot for coronavirus, that the disproportionate impact on black or minority communities is due to “underlying health conditions.” Well, what were the conditions that created the underlying health conditions, and what can we do to start picking away at that? And it’s so unsexy, but the census helps a lot.

How did we get here? What are the underlying causes?

There’s this analogy that I’ve used, of a car, to represent different levels of music engaging with social justice. Level 1 is the hood ornament, and that’s a lot of what people are responding to, when there have been deservedly negative reactions to Blackout Tuesday, and these large organizations all of a sudden assuming these stances and posting these things. Because it feels like that hood ornament, where it’s superficial, you don’t really know what’s behind it or what’s going to come out of it. Level 2 is the engine in the car. The car is still parked, but there’s actually some undergirding of it that is the ethos of whatever work that you’re trying to engage in. By and large, The Dream Unfinished has been at the engine stage: our board is incredibly diverse, our staff is incredibly diverse, all the musicians that we contract, all the composers that we feature. So in that sense, everything that it’s made up of is reflecting it, but it’s still not actually doing the work. Level 3 is when the car goes into gear and you’re moving things. It’s only really been recently that, as an organization, we’ve found ways where we can get to moving the car. One of the hopes that we had for this season was, when we were planning on doing live chamber concerts, program them all in communities that have had historically low voter turnout and having voter registration available at each of these events. So that it’s not just a concert about something, but you can actually do the something at the concert.

 

Jonathan Bailey Holland, composer

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.  I have been trying to not get Covid19.  I have been trying to figure out how to parent/work from home/stay healthy/make money/make art. I have been trying to temper my personal devastation of watching the insanity of a reality show that our country’s non-leadership currently embodies as it quite literally tramples on the freedoms, liberties, and beliefs that founded this country, and that attracted the immigrant ancestors of those non-leaders here in the first place.  And I am understanding more clearly the idea that fundamental change means exactly what we are seeing happen – everything must be upended because it is all designed to perpetuate the things that we are once again reacting to, and will continue to do so for another 400 years, if we are fortunate enough to not destroy our species and planet in the meantime.

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.

In terms of supportive actions within the music world, I think we need to stand back and have a more thorough conversation on all sides of the issue.  Classical music, as an art form, is rooted in western European traditions.  I think it is fair to say that most of the institutions that brought the art form to this country were primarily interested in simply bringing the work closer to American audiences.  That is not a fault, just a reality.  So to suddenly be asking for more representation is skipping a few steps.  Shouldn’t we be asking for more of a connection to the country/city/community in which these institutions are based first, assuming that is what is wanted from patrons (i.e. all of us) who have been happily partaking of what these institutions have offered thus far anyway? Perhaps, once the particular institutions that want to make those connections have done so, then we can have the conversation about who is being heard or presented.

IMO, a better way to deal with the question of representation is to remember that art is about communication, and specifically about an individual artist communicating through their art.  What and how they choose to communicate should matter most.  And institutions should stand firmly behind their choices of whomever they invite to the table, and patrons can then decide with their wallets.  After all, art is also not free, regardless of who is making it.

 

Pamela Z, composer/performer and media artist

I’ve been feeling saddened, overwhelmed, and frankly exhausted by the news of late–especially in light of the situation we’re all already bearing. But I don’t think I have anything constructive to offer outside my heartfelt appreciation for those who have had the courage and initiative to take some kind of action or speak out against injustice.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers—or even artists in general—are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field. I suppose there are people in every field who are stronger than others on that count. And, it’s also true that the same racial and gender imbalances that exist throughout our society are clearly present in “the world of new/classical music,” even though I think a lot of presenters and organizations have been making efforts to change that.

But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any solutions or advice to offer here. Other than, I guess, keep working at making those changes. Keep aware of those issues and keep trying to think of ways to counter them.

 

George E. Lewis, composer and musicologist

I cannot profess surprise at any of the revelations that have been dominating the media lately. A few years ago at the University of Minnesota, I was on a public panel with a close relative of Philando Castile. For me, that earlier murder, George Floyd’s murder, and those of so many other black people, all simply fold into the daily litany of anti-black, internationally instantiated micro- and macro-aggressions from state-sponsored and privatized vectors of white supremacy that I have experienced at least from the age of nine, and with which I, and now my teenaged son, need to contend.  Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with naïve class-trumps-race denials. However, there is no number to call, no app to download, to express solidarity—not even a single “protest movement.”

So, even in the face of a growing Afro-pessimism, what people might want to do is to fight to transform their own communities where they can, with a sense of vigilance against anti-blackness, and a militant incredulity at those who would deny black subjectivity and humanity.

In opposition to an influential view that polices the borders of music to deny its crucial implication in urgently needed political and social change, we have philosopher Arnold I. Davidson’s quote from AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie: “Artists teach people how to live.” So how do we do that? To fulfill that mission, scholars, critics, curators, teachers, composers, performers, and other musical people might start by teaching themselves, retooling for a new reality, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Sara Ahmed, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson.

A creolization of the field is needed.

I am quite gratified to see, among so many people, mostly much younger than myself, the same kind of creolizing identity dynamic I have suggested for contemporary classical music, where the myth of black absence retains its death-grip. In response, a creolization of the field is needed, one that recognizes that its current identity issues amount to a kind of addiction—one that, like other addictions, you have to overcome to survive.

Courtney Bryan, composer/pianist

Being on the street is very, very important: people are standing up for our rights, it’s a super vulnerable moment in our country right now. But I’m also thinking about the different roles everybody can take on, whether it’s a role as a healer, or a role as an organizer, or someone who can share information.

I’m working on an opera with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Other collaborators are Charlotte Brathwaite, Cauleen Smith, Helga Davis, Sharan Strange, Sunder Ganglani, and Matthew Morrison. It draws from histories of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and a black Shaker eldress from the 19th century named Rebecca Cox Jackson. Now that we’re resuming the project, we’re also processing what’s happening right now, what happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all these recent killings from police or vigilantes. The themes behind the opera are freedom, spirit, love, home, and sanctuary. But we’re also trying to figure out what the process is. There’s the end goal of writing an opera, but we are also all discussing as a group how this process can also be something where we can directly help people.

The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now.

People need to eat and they need somewhere to live. There’s the illness. Our country is on the brink of fascism, people are trying to fight for the survival of the country itself, and people are trying to survive from this virus that, had the government taken the precautions, didn’t have to get to the point it is at now. The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now. My way is always through music: what is it through music that can be done? Or among artists: where we can look out for each other and make sure that people have what they need to survive?

 

Nathalie Joachim, flutist, composer, and vocalist

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the families who have lost someone. Not just the most recent families, but also the families that have to relive their own trauma every time something like this happens. As a society, especially in this moment of constantly sharing these videos over and over, we forget that these are families that have lost someone. Not enough time is being spent honoring the fact that they are people who have been lost. Not enough time is being spent creating beautiful space and open space.

This moment, in every sense — not just this racial moment, this economic moment, this health crisis moment — all of the things that are happening to all of us in this time are about revealing who we actually are. In a way I feel like it’s a blessing because you cannot change until you have a reckoning with yourself. You can’t. Anybody who’s deep into therapy knows that that work is really hard and ongoing and it’s not, “I went to therapy for four months and now I’m cured!” It’s an ongoing, lifelong commitment to continually reckoning with who you are. And not shaming yourself for who you are, but seeing yourself for who you are, and seeing what you can do to better manage being a person walking through this world. What can you do to be better?

I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are.

Honestly, I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are, and to make a commitment, in this moment, as Americans, to come together and continually, day after day, week after week, reckon with who we are. It’s not about shaming you for your past or all of the things that you should have done. It’s about seeing what you haven’t done and to take whatever the steps are for you to make a change for yourself.

We have been here before, and the only thing that hasn’t happened is a complete and utter reckoning with ourselves: who we are as a country, how we got here, why we are like we are, why we keep coming to this place. People don’t want to do the work, because it’s hard. But  when it becomes a way of life, it becomes less hard. It becomes less hard constantly. For a while, it’ll be hard, constantly. And it’s going to hurt.  But radical change, that’s it: you have to just accept where you’re at and figure out something to do to move forward that is more than lip service, that is more than likes and clicks, that is about you reaching deep into yourself and saying, “You know, we haven’t been doing the work. We say we’re about diversity and equity, but we haven’t really done anything. And our leadership doesn’t reflect that, and our actions don’t reflect that, and our programing doesn’t reflect that.” That’s just a reality that needs to be contended with. And honestly, when it comes to the arts, it’s just not that hard. It’s not that hard to hire black people. It’s not that hard to commission black artists. It’s not that hard to create space.

I hope that everybody in our industry is really thinking about how to come out of this changed for the better.  Not in this every-man-for-himself hustle, but in a way that allows us to create an infrastructure that supports all of us. We have to care about one another, we have to see one another, we have to embrace everybody that is a part of this community.

If you look through time, almost every major artistic movement that has happened in every field has coincided with some major change or event that has happened in the world. We have always been called to respond, to be first responders for our communities; it is so important for us to see ourselves as that now. To lean into it, and to lean into one another.

Emerge, Bridge, Connect

growing_tomatoes

The task of “emerging” artists is to slowly grow into their industry. To create their community, one conversation at a time.

This process relies upon human hugs, handshakes, and the, “Oh! I’ve heard so much about you and how amazing that we’ve just run into each other at the same tuba and microtonal keyboard concert!” But during quarantine, this spontaneous growth of our root networks has slacked for some and completely stalled for others.

Throughout 10 weeks of quarantine, I’ve felt the urge to isolate myself completely, definitely more than “being safe” necessitates. Some of it comes from fear, or from lack of confidence.

By shutting out my friends and connections, I put off the psychological work of believing in myself, promoting myself, and sometimes even writing music.

I am isolated in Los Angeles, where I daily write morning pages, grow tomatoes, and sprout lettuce from a severed romaine stem. The tomato plants are stalling at about 3 inches high, and the romaine has shot up 8 or 9 inches, almost defiantly.

I started therapy. I exuberantly shaved half of my head.

I cook complicated as well as simple dishes, and voraciously type into a document called “Ak’s growing cookbook.” I first opened it in 2016 when I began my masters in composition and started trying to remember the dishes I would create.

I still write music, but quarantine gave me the motivation to hit the gas on my side job. I’m seizing my new path with passion. After months of silence, I’m listening to music again (at hilariously low volumes) while I organize my to-do lists.

It’s a relief to be a beginner again. I am energized by the fact that I can develop new skills over the course of a few weeks. We (all of us), truly, no longer have to be disheartened, thinking that every worthwhile skill must be taken up at age 3 or 5.

I sometimes doubt if I can call myself a composer when I’m spending more than 50% of my time on my side-hustle as a freelance writer / virtual assistant. But as more emerging artists turn to other forms of employment, we will challenge our own notions about what artists are supposed to do. We will redefine how we spend our time and intellectual resources.

And having a double-barreled profession title doesn’t make us any less creative. We will still call ourselves what we know we are.

In fact, bridging professional worlds may force us to confront the shortcomings of existing arts institutions. We may actually gather wisdom from people working outside the arts.

As I learn more about the small businesses who are my clients, I fantasize about bringing what I’ve learned back to the arts. Someday, I tell myself, the skills I’m gathering will coalesce into purpose and benefit the artistic community.

In the meantime, they are helping me survive.

***

While grieving human-to-human music-making, don’t lose touch with those who inspire you.

We are grieving together. Performers are grieving lost performances, composers are grieving lost premieres and commissions. And although the next concert series won’t be able to hire us, we can still send a friendly note checking in on staff members and performers.

In the end, we need to remember that we create community. Your “new music” community might just be a handful of friends. They might not even listen to new music. They’re probably the people who make you feel safe and supported. We shouldn’t wait for a group of (possibly intimidating) people to find and accept us. Right now we just need people, not “important” people.

When you have energy to spare, offer it up to your friends.

Most of them will say, “Oh, thank you for reaching out!” with a genuine sigh of relief. The relief is gratitude for that one thing you did: you gathered the materials — which you can both use, now, to build bridges between each other. When you return to that pit of loneliness, craving people, or just craving — your friends will walk back towards you along the bridge.

Maybe performers, composers, and commissioners can pick up the emotional pieces from projects that have fallen through. Maybe we can focus on getting to know one another. Maybe we actually can still make something together, even if it’s two different batches of odd, dry-looking bread. If we can spare the time for each other, our relationships will be that much deeper. Our community will thrive.

In our subsection of Los Angeles, we are making a return to the hyper-local. We are bartering homemade lemon cake for toilet-paper, a haircut for homemade pierogies, or a Zoom weight-training session for original “relaxation” music. The personality of it all feels delicious. Money never left me feeling this way.

Our hyper-local sound-making leaves me with a newfound curiosity about the lives of the people living in my neighborhood.

At exactly 8:00 pm every night, a steam vent opens and my neighborhood explodes with shouting, bells, and the banging of pots and pans. It’s cathartic. (A Ph.D. student could write about the importance of our exuberant yowls: a post-verbal communication style.)

Even without a (musical) performance, here is an audience.

Yes, we’re buffered by a bit more space. But sound forms a transient bridge between us.

“Thank you, health-care workers!” my neighbor shouts at the top of her lungs. Sometimes her toddler shouts the phrase after her, a tiny yet powerful voice breaking through the dusk.

This is the kind of sound-making I want to be a part of.

It requires us only to be where we are.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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Pandemic, Blind Spots, and the Story of Ignaz Semmelweis

Doctor Semmelweis examines a patient.

SEMMELWEIS, a music-theater work I created with my writer collaborator Matthew Doherty, premiered in a fully-staged production in Budapest in 2018. The work centers upon the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the 19th-century Hungarian physician being talked about a lot these days as the pioneer of hand washing and antiseptic procedures in preventing the spread of deadly infection. Until May 31, 2020, the complete work is streaming for free online.

Until twelve years ago, I had never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis.  One day, I read a passing mention of him in a book about innovators, with a very brief summary of his significance: Working on the front lines of a devastating epidemic, and watching midwives’ practices closely, he came to believe that the deadly disease was being spread to healthy mothers on the unclean hands of their doctors. Having tried as hard as might to tell the world, he was ignored, even scorned, and died alone in an asylum, ironically of the very condition he’d found the simple solution for. Though medical personnel learn the basics of his legacy in their training, Ignaz Semmelweis remained an obscure figure to most, until around March 2020.

Today, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can scarcely imagine how, back in the midst of a horrendous and baffling 19th-century pandemic of childbed fever, which killed as many as one in three new mothers, something so simple—clean hands—could be have been so foreign as to not even merit consideration as a potential solution. It was not even worth trying, as far as the medical establishment of the 1840s seemed to be concerned. Remember that these were dedicated and brilliant people who seemed ready to try anything in their desperate hunt for the cure, people who had worked their utmost all their lives to be able to save lives. But the hypothesis of this one Hungarian doctor working then at Vienna’s top hospital, that there was something deadly on the doctors’ own hands, was too far-fetched for them?!  How could this be?

What struck me about the story is its demonstration of our incredible human capacity for denial. Doctors were being introduced to a truth that could simply not be tolerated: that their patients, new mothers and their babies, had all along been dying because of something transmitted via their own “healer’s” hands, that the harder they had worked to try to solve the problem—cycling between performing autopsies in the morgue and examining mothers in the obstetrics ward—the more death they were causing. The longer it took doctors to accept the truth, the more deaths they caused.

One can surely empathize with the intensity of their mind’s desire to have this not be true. For many physicians, when they ultimately could no longer deny this sickening truth, the psychological impact was devastating; suicides occurred. Sheer self-preservation in the short term was a powerful force in holding open this gaping blind spot, until it could finally be denied no longer. But this took decades, the changing of a generation, and mountains of more evidence, including the landmark germ theory of disease finally put forth in the 1880s.  Emotion held sway over logic for decades, even with the world’s top medical minds, with countless deaths resulting.

Our human history is filled with such examples of stubborn blind spots.  In our own time we have seen issues like the climate crisis, racial and socioeconomic injustices, and LGBT rights take decades and generational turnover to uncover our eyes. As hard as it is to even accept the unpleasant reality that the environment we will leave our children is badly deteriorated and getting worse, that their lives will be less abundant, safe, healthy, and peaceful than ours have been, harder still is it to face up to the likelihood of our own collective and individual culpability, to recognize how indulgent we’ve been, how much we will have to relinquish of our treasured status quo, in order to stand even a chance of reversing it.

Facing such massive anxiety-inducing possibilities, the mind desperately looks for any glimmer of hope that this may not be true. And one self-soothing response is to act as though it weren’t true, continuing our status-quo behaviors, even leaning into them, for the short-term psychological self-preservation that a fantasy-reality might provide. Sadly, of course, this worsens the problem, just as it did for the doctors of Semmelweis’s time. The attitude of the time was that a good doctor’s smock should be so filthy it can stand on its own when removed, as a sign of how much he (doctors were all male at that time) worked.  Soiled and foul-smelling hands were a point of pride, a mark of toughness and selfless dedication. These norms were very hard to break, just as we continue to be terrible as a society at recycling, avoiding disposables, and energy conservation; just as even the most progressive among us unwittingly harbor unfair biases.

The Semmelweis story also speaks to our response to others’ denial. We can choose empathy, for we are all equally capable of living in denial. Semmelweis, in his desperation, could not muster much empathy, and instead denounced non-believers harshly. He was shunned as a raving lunatic. Denial had something to sustain itself, an imperfect prophet of the truth, and a foreigner no less. Thankfully dismissible! Could diplomacy and patience have changed minds sooner and saved lives?

We are surely all living in denial, right this very moment, of some new dreadful blind spot that will appall future generations. We are the next generation’s clueless, biased dinosaurs. By its very nature, a blind spot is something that goes unnoticed. But someone will notice it, at some point. How will we treat them? Who will be the first to believe them? Who won’t accept it, and why not? How will we deal with them? And if that someone is our own self, is there any hope for us, or will we go down in history as villainous, the problem rather than the solution?

As artists, we consciously and unconsciously process the often intangible or hard-to-articulate emotional lines of the things we experience and learn about, and it’s this that’s so important about art, because human beings and our society are complicated. Emotions matter in all human affairs, usually a lot more than we’d like to think, and can be the hardest part of all for us to understand. Fear, hubris, misunderstandings, mistrust, inertia, guilt, chauvinism, political loyalties, memory, and fear are all working on us all the time, threatening to get the better of our relationships and efforts. Art explores the intangible realms of emotion, and in shining light there, perhaps helps us recognize them and their effects on our thoughts and actions.

One thing this pandemic is making so clear to us is how deeply our fates are intertwined. Our front-line health workers, the sick, our economy, and society, are all facing huge uncertainty every day. The answer may be out there in someone’s head, and it may not be the person we imagine. Will we listen to them?


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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From the Corner (Home) Office

Edgar and Rosie

Every day, I look forward to seeing Edgar and Rosie. Before you worry that there’s been a social distancing breach, I should clarify that Edgar and Rosie are the geese that live on the roof of the office building across the street from my apartment. They are fat, loud, happy geese that patrol the air along the short block between the milk factory and the real estate office. Each day at around 10:30 am they glide ungracefully onto that roof and we sit there staring at each other for a few moments. In those moments I wonder silently to myself if everything will be okay.

Typically, this scene unfolds during one of the many virtual meetings that fill up my calendar. Check-ins, board meetings, one-on-ones, sales pitches, introductions, happy hours, planning for in this time, in this time, in this time. This time that marches on. This time that makes us pause. This time that we fill up with fear or sorrow or dread or joy or hope or love.

At the beginning of March, when I moved out to Boise from Seattle to become the new Executive Director of the Boise Phil, I was preparing myself for the toughness of change, the steep learning curve of a new job and the loneliness of figuring out how to live in a new city. It’s laughable now to think about how I worried whether I had the right shoes as I stare out the window of a different kind of corner office and wait for the consistency of the neighborhood geese.

The anxiety of starting a new job has been replaced by the constant flood of information and an inner monologue that wonders who is doing what and when and how and should we do it too and have you talked to so-and-so and is it safe? Through that din, I am reminded of something I was asked just a few months ago during a meeting at the Hibulb Cultural Center on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington, “What does it mean to be an orchestra? How do you know you are you?”

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to answer those questions. We take for granted that we exist. We have these monuments built around us to hold up our pristine performances, our egos, and the high tower of art that we like to perch ourselves upon. (I’m the first one to admit to my perching.) This pandemic has taken most of that away and left us with the question: How do you know you are you?

So what does it mean to be an orchestra? What could it mean to be an orchestra? Who are we?

Orchestras turn ideas into sounds and experiences.
There is so much to observe and process during This Time – from the individual to the collective. The range of sounds an orchestra can create, the skills of the musicians, and the weight of our institutions can uniquely interpret and help us all sort out this experience. After this is over, we must ask ourselves what ideas do we champion? Whose experiences do we memorialize? How can we help our community heal? How do we write our history?

Orchestras show up for and stand with the community.
What if “community engagement” was the job of the institution and not the job of one department? I really do believe that an orchestra’s purpose is to be in service to its community through art. That means everything from curating stories that are meaningful to the specific place where you live (which is why we need orchestras in every corner of this country) but also to share those stories outside of the concert hall, directly in the places that we all actually live, work, and play.

Orchestras add wonder and spark curiosity.
The most magical things orchestras do is to surprise us with new ideas and ways of thinking, especially with works we’ve heard a thousand times and thought we knew. If we looked at every experience as an opportunity to add wonder and spark curiosity how would we change?

Orchestras create love tsunamis.
This last one is inspired by the many conversations happening inside the Boise Phil right now. One of the cultural shocks I’ve experienced moving to Boise is the sheer abundance of kindness and warmth that the team shares with each other. Our musicians have started to send each other little gifts of food or wine or plants, especially to folks who are living alone, just to show that they are thinking of each other. The board practices this too – our treasurer literally cheers for, texts, shouts out, and love bombs people throughout the organization for their good work. It’s moving, it’s infectious, and we should always do this, not just in This Time.

Of course, SO MANY orchestras are already doing many of these things. This isn’t questioning what kind of education programs or community advisory groups or initiatives already exist – what I’m asking myself right now is: can these ideas be at the core of what it means to be an orchestra? Will this help us understand who we are? And what kind of incredible art could this inspire?

Edgar and Rosie honk wildly at a flock of passing geese and I remember that I have 72 more emails anxiously waiting for a reply. I’m grateful for the perspective that this pandemic has brought because we have some big questions to answer and lots of love tsunamis to start surfing.

Edgar flies

6 Strategies for Using Time Effectively During COVID-19

Juhi Bansal essay

When the first chatter about Coronavirus started in the U.S. about seven weeks ago, I was in Hong Kong. There they were better prepared for it, having gone through the SARS pandemic in 2003. People went everywhere in facemasks, cleaning protocols had been increased in every open public place, and many non-essential venues had already been closed back in January. Schools that had already been shut for much of the year due to the protests managed to switch early to online teaching. At that time, there was still a hope that Covid-19 would remain quarantined into a small number of affected cities.

Clearly, that hope was misplaced. I returned early to the U.S. when countries all over the world started locking down their borders, to find that the situation was becoming very serious here as well. This brings us to now – friends, family, colleagues all locked down in different cities, performances and projects canceled, and perhaps more worrisome than anything is the uncertainty that permeates the whole situation. How long will this continue? Will friends and loved ones catch this? Will I catch this? How can I make up for the lost income through this time? My fears come from both the personal and professional directions and mingle in anxiety-inducing ways.

I feel incredibly lucky in that so far no one close to me has become sick, so my most critical fear, while still looming, has not developed into an immediate crisis. And looking at the situation in places like India, where more than 400 million people are struggling to find food as a result of the lockdowns, I’m reminded just how lucky we are simply to have reliable shelter, food, and our health. My worries seem so small compared to the intensity of problems facing so many people. Many of the issues I face are things I can actively work to address, and so that has become my focus through this lockdown.

The personal side is perhaps the more easily handled. I’ve had to make peace with circumstances I can’t change. I worry about family and friends spread out around the world and have instituted weekly Zoom dates to check in on everyone. I worry about family nearby getting sick, so we are religiously practicing social distancing and obsessively cleaning. I and my husband are both working from home through most of the day, so to battle the claustrophobia of being indoors we go for lots of walks and take frequent yoga breaks while working. With myself (a composer) and my husband (a pianist) now both working from home, there is now music in our house around the clock and not a lot of silence. To create a quiet space in our home, I invested in an affordable set of noise-reduction headphones. I’m worried every time I hear about the lack of supplies available locally at hospitals, so we have been donating masks and blood.

Professionally and economically, my concerns are more within my control, so I have been trying to treat the lockdown as an opportunity rather than an imposition. While I am certainly frustrated about canceled concerts and events, one unexpected bonus has been the time that lockdown has created where normally I would have none. (In less-stressed moments, I can almost pretend that this is a composer retreat – after all, there are few distractions, many opportunities to go for long walks, an instrument and computer at my disposal throughout the day.)

In my lockdown-imposed, self-guided-composer-retreat, these are the strategies I’ve found to make the best use of time:

1. Reconnecting with the music community

One big part of this has been using this time to reach out and connect with my community, particularly since I tend to fall off the radar in the middle of a normal season. This has involved email, social media, Zoom calls, and phone calls to see how old friends and colleagues are doing, to catch up about life and what each of us is working on.

2. Self-directed composing – writing for fun, writing as gifts, writing in styles I wouldn’t normally

I’ve been taking some of the time during these past few weeks to write short pieces as gifts for friends, colleagues, and mentors, and – as these are self-directed projects, they don’t come with a lot of compositional parameters in the way that commissions sometimes do. So I’ve been using this as an opportunity to stretch myself in terms of technique – writing in styles that I wouldn’t typically, limiting the materials I can use in unusual ways, pushing myself to write to tightly restricted sets of performance standards. Not only is this forcing me to dig deeper before I put pen to paper, but also pushing me towards ideas I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It has been a challenging process, but a great one to break out of the habit of reverting to what comes easily, and to express gratitude to people in the community who have helped me in the past.

Cimbalom inspiration

Stravinsky wrote on cimbalom for many of the same reasons.

3. Discovering and listening to new music

I’ve been listening to a lot more music – the number of virtual concerts appearing in the last few weeks has been wonderful. Everyone from the Met to LA Opera to NPR to American Composers Forum to individual artists are streaming music online, in versions ranging from full productions to solo living-room concerts to virtual ensembles. It’s been a great chance to not only hear new music but also to peel back the veil from some of the larger companies and artists and see them making music in the simplest possible ways. It has also given me the chance to dig through lesser-known music on other platforms – YouTube, Spotify, iTunes – specifically to create playlists for music by women composers in various genres, something which has been a passion project of mine for a while.

Free livestreams from the Met

The Metropolitan Opera is offering free livestreams of many operas.

Free livestreams from the Met

NPR’s website with an up-to-date list of virtual concerts from many genres

4. Tackling freelancer administrative tasks

I have to admit that website maintenance is not usually the task at the top of my list during a normal season, but it is nonetheless an essential one. In catching up on administrative work, I’ve updated my website, created and uploaded long-overdue projects to YouTube, prepared, sent out and shared digital scores, and caught up on social media.

5. Learning new skills and technology

The speed with which so much of the world has had to switch to teaching and learning online means that the number of online classes and webinars available for almost anything increased exponentially over the space of a few weeks. From learning new technology to methods for structuring online teaching to software and apps to use in making and disseminating music, there are suddenly not only quick ways to learn things but more importantly, often live people on the other end you can reach out to with questions. Many organizations have additionally made recorded lectures and classes available for free in response to Coronavirus. Udemy, Coursera, edX all have extensive lists of courses in various fields, as well as recorded lectures from renowned speakers such as Leonard Bernstein, Toni Morrison, and Carl Sagan. I’ve been working my way through a variety of these offerings to improve my online teaching, to expand my skill set in terms of business and marketing, and to learn from authors speaking about the craft of writing in ways that suggest interesting analogues for the writing of music.

6. Contributing to the larger community

This final point is admittedly a little esoteric, but in watching the ways this crisis is playing out across multiple communities, I’m reminded of what it means to be a part of each one, and I feel driven to help in any ways that I can. Of course, this pandemic impacts me as a musician, but also as an Indian watching the fallout there, as a Hong Konger seeing the repercussions there, and as a teacher watching the impact on my colleagues and on my students. In whatever ways I am able, it has been important to me to contribute something – tutoring students struggling with the sudden digital switch in their class environments, sharing what supplies we have at home with friends and neighbors, trying to raise awareness of the unintended side-effects of lockdown on the most marginalized people.

This is a strange time to be living through, and one that is stressful in visceral, uncomfortable ways; but for myself, I’m trying to mitigate this fear by finding opportunities to control what I can. While I very much look forward to the return of things to normal, at least as a freelancer and a musician I feel like this is a situation where we can make our own opportunities if we are creative about it. None of this allays my fears for loved ones, fears about sickness, about the economy, or lack of hospital beds, or anything like that – but these are at least ways of focusing on what is in my hands during this unprecedented situation.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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Beginning Again

Beginning again

I am, once and for all, the eternal beginner. – Gustav Mahler, 1909

I read this sentence over a century after it was written, six months after leaving an abusive relationship and trying to begin my life, in general and as a composer, again. At that time, everything felt new and nigh impossible; going outside, now ironic, talking, composing, teaching. The quote, later misremembered to “each day I must begin again,” helped reframe my efforts. It helped address the fudge ripple swirl of PTSD running through the classic combo of anxiety and depression and got me to breathe. It gave each day a chance to be another start, without carrying over the baggage from the days prior. Each beginning grew from the foundations of the previous. Life was rebuilt.

When the pandemic arrived, the practice of being an eternal beginner again held particular relevance.

Train to return to attention whenever you become aware that you are lost. And then just do it. Place attention and rest. Return and rest. Again and again. – Ken McLeod, “Forget About Consistency”

As a composer and artist, there is the perpetual problem of the blank page and how to go about filling it. The creative life is one nonstop beginning and the only way to learn your unique way of addressing that blank page is to practice, practice, and practice. And then do it again. I approach a blank page as an architect. An elaborately constructed structure lays out a guideline for the notes so when I become lost, I know where to come back to.

As in music, as in life; in March I returned to structure.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
– Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”

On March 9, I returned from the Darkwater Women in Music Festival. On March 11, the schools I contracted with closed. On March 13, I began again. My schedule was reconstructed to divide the day into manageable chunks, the to-do lists were divided by day, week, and month, and that became the framework to adjust as work from home orders came in, restaurants closed, schools closed for the remainder of the year, concerts and festivals were canceled or moved online.

The arts and artists have all started offering new support in the face of the closures. In my base of Seattle, funds were immediately set up and continue to support local artists. The Artist Trust website currently lists 20 links for funding or resources, many of them new. Live Music Project, an organization which normally posts all local live concerts in the area switched gears mid-March and started focusing on livestreaming concerts worldwide. Where before there was an endless fount of places to look, the search for events started from scratch with an empty Google doc. Two weeks later there were over 100 concerts listed. Further away, LA harp and cello duo and current collaborators, Strange Interlude, have joined in the livestreaming concerts and like many artists friends, local and across the world, have started new projects and posted messages of hope, continuance, and support for each other in the face of uncertainty and loss.

Life has abruptly divebombed into new and unfamiliar territory in this time of corona and we all have beginnings to confront and come up with. We are bombarded with contrasting messages: use this time to create a masterpiece; to do nothing and grieve; to connect with everyone; to meditate alone; the list goes on. Despite all that, begin in a way that makes sense for you. Know what works and if you don’t, experiment. Read all the articles about working from home and try some. Then adjust and retry. Start a weekly brunch and connect with people if that’s your jam but don’t feel pressured. Start a new project addressing the fear of the unknown future. Or, give yourself a weekly laugh by featuring every dinosaur-themed piece of clothing you own on Fridays. Treat each day as a new start or if struggling, every hour. Figure out what you need to carry yourself through the next few months and try again.

In the message of the Joni Mitchell song I heard every night as a child, there is no going back, only forward, and so I look ahead, create my structure, and begin.