Tag: diversity

Jessie Montgomery: Reclaiming Creative Play & the Process of Anti-Racism

Jessie Montgomery

[Ed. Note: Although Julia Adolphe’s talk with New Music USA Amplifying Voices composer Jessie Montgomery was recorded eight months ago, in November 2020, it is still an extremely timely conversation which is why we wanted to share it again now on NewMusicBox – FJO]

Composer and Violinist Jessie Montgomery shares how she has shifted her creative process since the pandemic began to cultivate a sense of playful freedom and reconnect with her childhood love of diverse musical styles. We discuss how systemic racism has affected Jessie’s perception of her own musical identity, and her thoughts on her growing role within the classical music community to represent Black women. Jessie offers advice on how to pace oneself while participating in the ongoing process of Anti-Racism work so that we can continue to care for our own health and creative vitality.

Nebal Maysaud: Rumored “Death” of Classical Music Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

[Ed. note: It has been a little over a year since the publication of Nebal Maysaud’s “It’s Time To Let Classical Music Die,” which is the most widely read article in the history of NewMusicBox. Many readers were drawn to its polemical title, which unfortunately was all that some people noticed rather than the concepts Nebal discussed in the article. One year later, Nebal reexamines these ideas in a candid one-on-one conversation with musicologist and University of Florida Assistant Professor Imani Mosley, discussing the relevance of classical music in 21st century America – and how to nurture a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable community that creates, performs, and appreciates such music. – FJO]

 

 

Imani Mosley: Thanks so much for this. I’m happy to get a chance to talk to you – and talk about this piece and contextualize it, and hear more about your thoughts on the piece itself and everything after. So before we talk about the piece, I’d like to talk about the response. Do you feel that your article was met the way you thought people would react to it? Did you find yourself surprised about dialogue that came about afterwards? Tell me about your reactions to how the piece was received and how people were talking about it.

Nebal Maysaud: I was expecting to receive almost no support – but not as much pushback either. I was expecting fewer people to even read it.

So in my first article I detailed a list of ways white people or people in power respond to marginalized individuals and people of color speaking out. So I was actually surprised initially to find a lot more support than I expected. I still do believe, just from what I’ve seen, that classical music as a field does still have a lot of conservative and neoliberal values.

But what I’ve seen also indicates that, while our structures and power structures reinforce these racial hierarchies of white supremacy, there are a lot of individuals who are aware of that and want to make a change in that power structure; and are not content with how we’re abusing people of color in the field of classical music.

So I was very happy to see that it received support. I was thrilled to get messages from people with varying degrees of interest, and who are in various stages in their careers as musicians. I heard back from some folks who studied classical music in college but left the field because of these systemic barriers.

It was really validating to get statements of support saying I’m not the only one who experienced what I experienced.

There was a great positive response. There were also, of course, negative responses – particularly once it started reaching conservative media, propagating it to a bunch of conservative sources.

One thing as a community I feel like we could and should be doing better is publicly expressing our support for writers who speak out – because a lot of the support faded away, but harassment didn’t. They calmed down quite a bit, but every so often, some conservative influencer shares it on Twitter and, you know, I get a few random messages. They can be hilarious: one time someone messaged me, “Screw you. I’m going to listen to Beethoven!” – and [at the time] I was listening to Beethoven.

IM: [laughs] I definitely can understand and empathize with that particular situation, as it’s one I find myself in fairly often. And there’s a lot to be said critically about those who take more left-leaning positions, as you say, about how their support and allyship manifests in these spaces. That’s a real and necessary conversation that definitely needs to be had. So I completely understand what you’re saying, and I’m sorry for the harassment. Unfortunately it comes with the territory but it’s obviously not something anybody should have to endure.

Since you kind of brought this up, I want to dig a little bit into larger ideas that we can break apart – and talk about those things have manifested in the past year. When you talk about classical music as a field, what exactly do you mean by that terminology. Are you talking about a framework, are you talking about institutions, pedagogy, works? When you use the terminology Western classical music, what is it standing in shorthand for?

NM: That’s a great question, and probably the biggest source of confusion for a lot of folks. My ideas and thoughts on this are constantly evolving. I said Western classical music; nowadays I’m trying to be more specific and say European classical music. But either way I am thinking of it less as a set of repertoire: so I am not going after anyone’s vinyl copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or anything like that; everyone’s welcome to listen to any kind of music you want; I am not advocating for any book burning or CD burning or score burning or anything like that.

  • At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer
  • We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer

Instead what I’m actually more focused on is the community and the tradition – and the power structures within that community. I’m barely talking about the music at all. Although the music can support those power structures it also doesn’t have to. At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret – to a degree: there are some pieces that have a racial slur in the title or are appropriative; obviously there are inherent problems with pieces like that – but say Bach’s work: what inherently about Bach’s music is racist?

It’s not so much about the music, but it’s how we position the music and how we play the music and specifically the idea that Bach is some sort of prophet, or his music is a gift from god. It’s what Evan Williams writes about in his series of articles on the myth of the composer genius. And it’s really a power structure that uses this myth of the composer genius to reinforce white supremacy in the field. It’s also a power structure that keeps people of color from being seen and treated as equals amongst anyone who wishes to practice the music or traditions established by these European musicians and composers.

IM: This is what I want to pull apart here. I can definitely understand why people would have this general confusion: there’s definitely this surface level desire to read any type of critique as saying “Let’s get rid of all music; let’s not listen to composers or what have you.” But what I want to pull apart here is: how does what you’re describing differentiate from white supremacy as a framework?

For me, the concern is that Western classical music is a tool that works within a white supremacist framework. I have a harder time allying myself with the argument that “Western classical music” (in scarequotes) is itself the white supremacy, rather than being used as a tool within a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist framework.

All of the structures which you’re asserting, they exist outside of classical music; they exist within cultural networks that are infused and tangled with whiteness. So do you separate this idea of classical music as tool versus “classical music as an idea is equivalent to, or analog to, an idea of white supremacy?”

NM: That’s a great question. And that’s also, I think, a position I’ve sort of evolved on. As I learn more about how white supremacy works, and how racial hierarchies work within white supremacy, I would agree that classical music is a tool for white supremacy. I’d say that classical music ended up developing into a tool for both capitalism and white supremacy – which in some ways are almost synonymous, or they work together.

IM: They work together.

NM: Part of a solution I proposed, which is really to try to minimize the effect of racism with classical music; we can’t get rid of racism entirely within this field, unless we get rid of white supremacy in general, and that can’t happen unless we get rid of capitalism.

True liberation means that we have to be united in our communities in every field, and every way. The only thing I want to push back against is this idea that classical music – or European classical music I should say, because there are many different types of classical music – and it’s a belief I’ve seen, that European classical music is separate from “these political ideas.”

Obviously to these folks, our lives are political apparently; but they’re political because we have a political system that dehumanizes us into products of labor.

We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

So I definitely do not see Western or European classical music as a unique entity of white supremacy that’s different from any other field.


This is just the beginning of the conversation between Imani Mosley and Nebal Maysaud. To hear the full conversation, listen on Soundcloud.

Reflections on Segregation and Representation in Choral Music

choral hymnal

In the wake of global demonstrations and protests against police brutality and racial discrimination, I have been reflecting on how unconscious bias effects the music field. It’s no shock to state that classical music in the United States is an overwhelmingly white activity, even as America is increasingly diverse. Recent research by The League of American Orchestras has shown the wide disconnect between the demographics of America as a nation and who finds representation in classical music. As a musician who predominantly works with vocal music and spends a good percentage of my time as a chorister and choral conductor, I’d like to use this opportunity to take a broad look at the choral landscape in terms of gender and ethnic diversity, confront what questions the existing research present, and share some resources and recommendations for potential ways to create space in choral music so that it might more accurately reflect the world we live in.

  • Choral music has unique diversity issues that are more subtle than those in the instrumental world.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Gender equity in choral music is an easier and more accessible topic than ethnicity.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Participation by singers of color, but especially black singers in non-genre specific choirs, is low in and often leads to tokenizing of those members.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Is lack of diversity in the visible leadership of classical music part of a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces to potential musicians of color that this genre isn’t for them?

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • It’s worth looking at our past programming and asking ourselves why we have programmed the way we have.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Most choirs audition for very specific kinds of skills that align with repertoire descended from the European classical tradition.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Representation leads to participation.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher

Choral music has unique diversity issues that are more subtle than those in the instrumental world. Because of my work as a publisher and composer, I am particularly interested in the representation of our programming as well as in leadership and overall participation. Unlike orchestral programming, many choral music programs consist of music by living composers. In fact, over 80% of the recommended repertoire from the ACDA National Repertoire and Standards lists were by living composers. Choral singing has fewer barriers for participation and the approach taken by any given choir can range from an egalitarian activity with which nearly anyone can participate to an elite one available only to the highly trained and educated.

My intention here is to offer a researched approach to representation as a call to action for equity and diversity in overall participation, representation in positions of leadership, and among composers.

Women in Choral Music

Gender equity in choral music is an easier and more accessible topic than ethnicity as female singers are in greater numbers than their male counterparts throughout the choral community. Since historically voice parts have been seen as synonymous with gender, and choirs are split evenly by voice part, choirs are generally evenly divided along gender lines. This relative parity is decently reflected among the aggregate of conductors across the nation. This survey of conductors from Chorus America shows that women lead nearly half of the choirs in the country, though the number is skewed towards youth choirs and K-12 school directors and dramatically diminishes when looking at community, college, and professional choirs. A survey of collegiate conductors in Wisconsin, for instance, shows that gender parity is lopsided in higher education, but still much closer in choral music than for instrumental conductors of orchestras and wind bands. 

Among composers, however, women are still quite underrepresented. I recently surveyed the music curated by the ACDA National Repertoire and Standards committees that were presented during reading sessions at the 2019 national convention, and women composers made up 21% of the composers on the suggested lists. That percentage rose to 26% when considering only living composers.

My non-rigorous look at composers on MusicSpoke (a marketplace where composers may sell their self-published music) shows only 20% of the composers are women, a percentage roughly matched in the representation of composers in the catalog for my own company. My guess is that these numbers generally represent the percentage of women composers in the American choral scene, an obvious disproportion to the percentage of women in both the choral community and the nation at large.

Ethnicity and Segregation in Choral Music

Ethnicity, however, is a much trickier topic to parse. First, there seems to be less overall research about ethnicity in choral music. Chorus America’s conductor survey notes, “Only 5 percent [of respondents] were African-American, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific, less than the proportion of minorities in the U.S. population; we don’t know how accurately these percentages reflect the population of choral conductors.” They add “fewer [respondents] are from the South as compared with the population as a whole,” which might indicate why there were so few black conductors in the survey in particular.

Second, there is an ethnic segregation of participation, leadership, and programming, between ‘non-genre specific choirs’ (usually referred to simply as ‘choirs’) and ensembles that predominantly perform music of a specific idiom, especially one outside of the European classical tradition, for instance, ‘Gospel Choir.’ A great deal of ensemble singing is done in Churches, which also tend to be segregated along ethnic lines. 

Social and creative solidarity among a like-minded community is totally understandable. I see no issue with those who care to focus on or specialize in a specific type of music, nor do I think there’s any problem with gathering among those who share cultural experiences and values. What I am interested in looking at is how this segregation affects non-genre specific choirs. This could, perhaps, be a problem of terminology. Perhaps most ‘regular choirs’ are actually ‘European Classical Choirs’, or ‘American Classical Choirs.’ However, it’s been my experience that most ‘regular choirs’ are interested in exploring a wide breadth of repertoire including pop music, gospel, folk-song arrangements, as well as music from the classical tradition.

As an example: New York City, like many of America’s large urban areas, is a ‘minority-majority’ population. White people make up only about 40% of the city’s residents. That number rises to 50% if only considering Manhattan. Looking at this photo of the Oratorio Society of New York it is clear such demographics are not proportionally represented. This ensemble’s demographics aren’t unique in New York among non-genre specific groups, but I mention them specifically because of a major recent project: performing and recording a new oratorio written by Pulitzer prize winning composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell (both white) based on the writings of William Still (a black abolitionist). For this project, the soloists were all black performers, an appropriate choice for a work about the underground railroad. This choice, as can be seen from this photo of the performance, created a dramatic demographic shift among the performers, at least doubling the singers of color in the performance.

But where do they go when the performance is over? Participation by singers of color, but especially black singers in non-genre specific choirs, is low in and often leads to tokenizing of those members, especially when black music is being performed (or in this case, music on black themes). Such othering is a big part of choral segregation and is not unique to black musicians. We separate and essentialize ‘ethnic’ music and look to composers of color, even those born and raised in the US, to provide that work. Non-idiomatic pieces are often overlooked in favor of music with a more ‘world music’ flair, pushing composers of color to write music that matches their ethnic backgrounds, whether it’s their preference or not.

I’ve experienced this myself. As a first-generation American of Middle Eastern ethnicity, I find this experience particularly frustrating. I can count on one hand the number of other Middle Eastern choral directors and composers I have met. I am frequently asked by strangers about choral music on Middle Eastern themes or that utilize Middle Eastern idioms, asked to pronounce or translate Arabic and Farsi, and have even been told that when I sing minor seconds, they exhibit a low, eastern tuning. (To set the record straight, I know almost nothing about Middle Eastern music theory and speak neither language of my parents, but I am decently conversational in Brazilian Portuguese.) Is my music influenced by my experience as a first-generation American and person of color who finds themselves between cultures? Absolutely. My takeaway from these type of interactions, however, is that my music training in the western classical tradition, especially the avant-garde and experimental music on which I focus, isn’t of value or interest and that I would be better served to pursue the music of ‘my culture’ than the music in which I actually specialize.

While composers of color are dominant in genre-specific groups (black composers in gospel choirs, for instance), they are disproportionately represented in concert programs of non-genre specific choirs. Referring back to the survey of Repertoire and Standards from the 2019 ACDA National Conference, composers of color only make up 14% of the total curated pieces. This includes a category called Ethnic and Multicultural music, a broad and ill-defined category that seems to include folk songs, Jewish sacred music, and gospel, among other music by people of color. This category is, I believe, an intentional outlier, and 60% of the chosen rep is from composers of color. Removing the Ethnic and Multicultural category as an outlier, only 8% of selected repertoire in all other categories was from composers of color (10% if only considering living composers). There were no recommended pieces by composers of color in both the youth and middle school choir categories.

Among visible leaders on the national choral scene, approximately 45% were women, and 25% were people of color. This number is considerably higher than the representation of women composers and composers of color in the Repertoire and Standards, but, particularly considering people of color, is markedly lower than the 40% of the national population who are people of color. It’s hard to say how this might or might not reflect the demographics of the choral field on the national level. 

Considering the intersection of ethnicity and gender only compounds the lack of representation. Looking again at the ACDA Repertoire and Standards, women of color make up only about 25% of all composers of color, making them 10% of the total composers. Among the MusicSpoke composers, there are only two women of color and none in my own company’s catalog.

Asking questions

Looking at the above information, I start to have some questions:

Why does this cultural segregation occur? Are there factors, like the tokenization mentioned above of minorities, that leave people of color discouraged from what is perceived as a white activity or push them to form choral communities of their own that feel more welcoming? Is that lack of diversity in the visible leadership of classical music part of a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces to potential musicians of color that this genre isn’t for them?

Is such segregation even sustainable? The American League of Orchestras points out “With more than one-third of all Americans belonging to a ‘minority’ group, it is increasingly difficult to be successful without incorporating diversity in your overall organization.” Who we have in the audience will reflect who we are onstage, especially for avocational groups where the majority of the audience are the friends and family of performers. Ticket sales are a big part of supporting our ensembles, as is public funding, both of which are in jeopardy if the performing group does not engage with the population the public funding supports. 

Another, perhaps more contentious question: is the representation of women and people of color a problem in choral music? As it is now, it seems the representation of leaders in the choral world and its programming isn’t that far off from the demographics of the field as a whole. If, for instance, the percentage of composition students is accurately reflected in the professional world, then perhaps the issue to focus on is education. According to DataUSA, only a little more 50% of students to receive an undergraduate degree in composition are white. Sound and Music (a British organization) shares that the percentage of women composers is over 50% for those with the General Certificate of Secondary Education and steadily decreases the further along in education one goes. 

In terms of composer representation, it’s worth looking at our past programming, dissecting the demographics of those composers, and asking ourselves why we have programmed the way we have. Are there creative perspectives that are missing? Where are we looking for repertoire? Why have the curators picked the music that ultimately becomes available, and where else might we search? 

The data I’ve shared might not be enough to draw the definitive conclusion of systemic discrimination or pervasive unconscious bias, but it points in that direction. This series of asking ‘why’ isn’t endlessly recursive, resulting in a “turtles all the way down” situation. When I ask myself these questions, I inevitably come to the systemic racism that has structured the world of concert music that more highly values musical characteristics from the European Classical tradition. 

If the majority of choirs are truly ‘non-genre specific,’ then what happens if we re-examine our inherited values of music from the European classical tradition. How have those values defined for us what ‘good’ music is? What doors might such a re-examination open? 

Most choirs I have participated in audition for very specific kinds of skills that align with repertoire descended from the European classical tradition. Sight-singing is often highest on the list, a skill favoring those with a formal education in western classical music. Why have we selected certain musical abilities and neglected others? Do we audition a person’s ability to learn by ear? For their versatility of sound? The ability to improvise? Having such skills in our ensembles might open up new performative opportunities. 

Finally, what creative opportunities have been missed because of the influence of these unexamined values? From my perspective as a performer and composer of new and experimental music, it’s worth noting that such a reconsideration of values has been a huge part of innovation in music in the past (Cage, minimalism, etc.) and might be worth considering for our own creative evolution.

If our goal is to have the various levels of representation (particularly gender and ethnicity)  in the choral world match those of the nation, then we’ll need to look at why there are so many fewer women and people of color being represented in ‘mainstream’ choral music. Overall involvement, for instance, does not necessarily address the issue of segregation. Would a greater degree of visibility at the professional level make a difference in young musicians receiving the encouragement and mentorship they need to pursue careers in classical music? There is a question of where the responsibility lies in feeding the populations of future musicians and looking at strategies for how that can be accomplished. Education and mentorship are certainly an essential part of this equation, as are removing socio-economic barriers that disproportionately affect people of color.

Resources and suggestions for getting started

The Institute of Composer Diversity shares these guidelines for incorporating a more extensive range of representation in concert programming. What stands out to me is their suggestion to “Program to your potential audience as well as to your usual attendees,” which aligns with the previous question about audience sustainability. Their guidelines also suggest a kind of aspirational programming: it might not reflect the current state of the choral field, but by programming how we want our field to look, that is to say, if we want the creative voices in the choral world to reflect the country we live in, we can guide the evolution of our ensembles to include everyone in our community. As ensemble leaders, we decide whose music is visible, we decide which of our audience members will look at our programs and see themselves reflected in the names of the composers and the faces of those on stage.

Considering that the choral world has such an emphasis on the music of living composers, it’s interesting to note that the Institute of Composer Diversity suggests nearly 50% women composers and 50% people of color for groups that perform mostly new music. If you’re like me, your first reaction to those numbers might be deep resistance. It’s helpful to remember that the math here does not add up to 100%. Gender is not an ethnicity, and vice-versa; this is a suggestion that asks for an intersection of demographics. When I saw this suggestion from a colleague, I thought, “This seems unrealistic and looks like SO much work,” a task compounded by our national curators not yet following these recommendations. 

Outside of programming, these numbers could also be applied to the visible leadership of our ensembles, looking beyond conductors to our board members and other officers. Especially at the national level, there is a logic in having those who represent the most popular extra-curricular activity in the country look like the people they represent. There is evidence to support the idea that increased representation of minorities in leadership increases engagement of minorities in the community. It seems reasonable to me that the more one can ‘see’ themselves doing a thing by having it modeled for them, the more one feels encouraged to participate themselves. In short, representation leads to participation.

Here are some other resources for those interested in researching repertoire they might not have looked into before:

The choral world has worked hard over the last several years to address issues of inequality and disadvantage for women and people of color, and it shows. There’s a lot to be proud of in terms of how much progress has been made in the choral world during the last century. In many parts of the field, there is gender parity, and people of color are finding more representation, on the whole, than in the instrumental world. We still fall short of accurately representing who we are as a nation within the choral world, but the progress thus far has made choral music one of the more inclusive fields in classical music. Our work is not yet done. My hope is that, by looking inward at these unique aspects of diversity, by examining issues of segregation and inclusion, and by shaping our ensembles to reflect the world around us, choral music can be a model for the rest of the classical music world as we move towards a creative world that is as diverse as the population that potentially feeds its future.

Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.


Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

Working to Create a Plurality of Voices Within Classical Music

Audience members in large concert hall

When I was a 17-year-old violinist and pianist, a committed music educator asked me if I’d ever considered conducting. He invited me to lead from the piano, and eventually, to properly conduct a movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in performance. As soon as I was on the podium, I realized that this was my path. It was exhilarating to serve as a conduit for my peers’ music-making, to focus on the big picture, and to shape sound in this exceptionally collaborative way. By thoughtfully identifying potential in me and continuing to give me opportunities once I demonstrated aptitude and drive, this caring educator ensured a strong start to my trajectory as a conductor and musician. Without this early encouragement and experience, I likely would never have picked up a baton.

When I did not yet have the knowledge, connections, or awareness to pursue focused opportunities, this active encouragement steered me toward a professional career. With few female conductors in the public eye to serve as role models, I was exceptionally fortunate to have champions who intentionally propelled me forward. Today, I often still find myself the sole female voice in a room, and I see an even bigger lack of other types of diversity within my profession. How can we all work to bring a plurality of viewpoints to every area of our art form?

The American classical music industry’s funding and governance model makes us exceptionally averse to risk. In a typical season—3-4 mainstage operas or 6 subscription symphony programs—there is very little margin for error. Audience disappointment could very quickly mean the death of a donor-reliant organization, and industry leaders are under pressure to make choices that are perceived as safe and reliable. Often, this means hiring artists who fit the mold, adhering strictly to approaches that have worked in the past.

Compounding this conservative strategy, top-level hires are often chosen by board members, who generally are not industry experts and may feel insecure in their ability to select the right person. This uncertainty encourages safe choices that remind us of what we already know, further constricting the viewpoints represented in our field. In order to break this cycle, we must make an effort to go outside it.

The need for a plurality of voices within our field has become dire. If we do not begin to represent our communities and the world around us, our institutions cannot continue to evolve. As organizations across the nation attempt to deal with this issue, many continue to face roadblocks, despite incremental efforts. How do we break the cycle and move the culture of classical music into the 21st century?

I’ve had many wonderful conversations on these topics over the years, and would like to offer particular thanks to Jim Hirsch at Chicago Sinfonietta, Tracy Wilson and Julie Heard at Cincinnati Opera, and Afa Dworkin at Sphinx Organization for sharing their thoughts with me as I worked on this essay.

The Value of Diversity

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a diverse group of employees and leaders creates more successful – and profitable – companies. Studies within the corporate world have shown that a business model enriched by a variety of outlooks and experience can capitalize on more creative ideas, a deeper understanding of a wider range of consumers, and the introduction of new problem-solving methods. However, the traditional classical music industry faces a particular challenge: our model is largely built on finding individuals who can fit within an existing structure—musicians with particular technical skills, adhering to very specific stylistic conventions. This often means that musicians coming from outside an established training background must fold themselves into existing practices. As a result, rather than encouraging new ideas—as might be the case in a typical business model—non-conformist behavior is discouraged.

Jim Hirsch, CEO of Chicago Sinfonietta, has endorsed the value of bringing new styles of playing to the concert hall. One approach to tackling issues of diversity is simply acknowledging that there is not just one valid way to perform a given work. Consider the new interpretative ideas brought to standard repertoire by culturally specific organizations like Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. We tend to choose a single type of interpretation and believe that it is the only approach, but great art can come in different forms. We can see a clear representation of this by hearing performances on period instruments, or by comparing today’s practices to historical recordings. The way Mahler’s music was performed one hundred years ago is very far from our approach to it now. That older approach may be more ‘authentic,’ but it is not necessarily better. We have found something that speaks more clearly to our time and to our audiences, and that practice may continue to evolve.

Start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music.

Another, simpler way to increase a diversity of viewpoints in our performances is to promote and proliferate new work—to start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music. If a work of art embodies plurality from its nascence, it will likely continue to encourage diversity throughout its existence (see last week’s article on Shaping the American Operatic Canon).

The Porgy Problem

Opera companies have begun to make a concerted effort to promote a wider range of stories on their stages. Recently, operas about black baseball players and boxers, the wrongfully-accused Central Park Five, a black seamstress in New York, and the civil rights movement have necessitated the hiring more of more diverse on-stage talent. There have also been popular operas that feature gay and trans protagonists, individuals fleeing war in the Middle East, and more. It is wonderful that these new stories are making it to our stages. However, they are often accompanied by “The Porgy Problem”—the hiring of artists only for a racially specific project such as Porgy and Bess, while continuing to pass these artists over for standard work. While attempting to exercise plurality, companies are inadvertently creating a segregated environment within the artistic product.

The importance of actively battling this segregated approach to programming became apparent during the casting process for Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming season. COT’s audition announcement always includes a statement of interest in artists from underrepresented backgrounds, but this season also features the world premiere of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride, which follows a young African American woman during the Civil Rights Movement. The audition pool leading up to Freedom Ride included more superb artists of color than I had heard in the last several years combined. Sadly, artists’ or managers’ assumption that we would only want them for this project often limited the audition repertoire presented or included on their resumes.

As we were casting a leading role in Freedom Ride, a manager reached out to us about an outstanding singer who turned out not to be the right fit for the proposed role. At the time, I was actively seeking someone for a Russian-language project down the line. This singer seemed ideal, but since the agent did not propose her for anything other than Freedom Ride, I assumed she either was not available or did not have the requisite Russian language background.

I found the singer exceptional and decided to inquire. I am glad I did – not only was she available, she had sung this very Russian role before. This incident confirmed the importance of making a concerted effort to seek out diversity for every production.

16 members of the cast of Freedom Ride on stage in costume, some carrying suitcases.

The cast for the 2013 Marigny Opera (New Orleans) showcase of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride which will receive its premiere with Chicago Opera Theater in February 2020 with conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and director Tazewell Thompson. (Photo courtesy Dan Shore)

Intentionality

In conversation with colleagues who specialize in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) issues, one theme surfaced again and again: intentionality. This idea, of going out of one’s way to create opportunities for diversity, resonates strongly for me. My own career was greatly affected by others’ commitment to this concept.

The conductor who first pushed me onto the podium, college conducting teachers who generously gave me lessons at no cost, mentors who came to my rehearsals and performances to offer feedback – all allowed me to try, to fail, and to learn from the experience. Established conductors overlooked my youth and relative inexperience, giving me opportunities to lead and to learn. They put me in front of major ensembles, in positions for which I would never have deemed myself qualified, and would never have sought out on my own. In every case, a leader’s intentional choice to give me an opportunity to prove myself allowed me to move forward in my career. Without these opportunities to work in environments that pushed my musical boundaries, I would never have grown as an artist.

Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.

Now, as I seek out young artists for various positions, I try to make a point of looking outside the box. Though it is impossible to be aware of the entire field of options and some of the best candidates may fly under the radar, it is our responsibility as artistic leaders to anticipate this and seek out those individuals whose plurality will make them an asset to the room, even if their differences give hesitation. Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.

Intentionality in Action

Alongside individual industry leaders, institutions can ensure that intentionality is at the core of their practice. At Chicago Opera Theater, we have taken some basic steps as an organization to put this concept into action. The first has been to include diversity initiatives in our strategic plan, which forces us to regularly examine and track whether our staff, board, artists, and audiences represent the diversity of our city. We have engaged in active dialogue on these issues by joining a cohort of companies, including Minnesota Opera, for annual conversations and sharing of ideas. We are actively working to recruit a highly varied pool of applicants for staff positions, our Young Artist Program, and our Vanguard Composer Residency. We believe it is important to make the changes from the inside out—focusing not only on who is seen on our stages, but also on ensuring that behind-the-scenes decision-makers represent a variety of communities. To ensure that our progressively diverse team is able to communicate and work together productively, we are including cultural sensitivity and harassment training in this season’s activities.

These actions are a start, but there is still a long way to go.

Programs and Initiatives

Albeit slowly, the field is trying to change. Organizations like Sphinx and Opera America, initiatives like Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion and National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition, and programs like The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Fellowship are all moving the needle. In addition to grants and mentorships for women and people of color, these programs meet three critical needs: institutional recognition for those who fall outside institutional norms, the creation of a sense of community for those who feel marginalized, and training for groups that have been denied access to certain resources.

The greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition.

Of these, I feel the greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition. When I took part in The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute, I already had a decade of highly varied experience under my belt, but was having trouble getting noticed by larger organizations and agencies. In searching for new management, I reached out to many individuals and institutions, only to be ignored or quickly brushed off. It was understandable—managers get hundreds of emails from artists; I did not fit a typical profile and they had not heard of me. However, the Hart Institute resources included mentorship by a retired leader from a major artist management firm. He was impressed by my resume, and immediately asked why I wasn’t represented by a bigger agency. When I told him that, lacking connections with major decision-makers in the field, I was having trouble getting management agencies to notice me, he suggested I write again, but this time including his name in the subject line. Suddenly, every agency I had emailed before responded—to messages with the exact same materials and content. Within a few weeks, I was choosing between four leading management companies.

Those of us in a position of power can easily make a difference by serving as references for emerging artists, making an effort to actively advocate for artists from a plurality of backgrounds. For an under-appreciated artist deserving of recognition, intentional advocacy and acknowledgment from a leading institution can make an enormous impact.

Six of the female conductors participating in the Hart Institute posing in tuxedos with batons for a photo shoot as two others help them adjust their positions for the camera.

Participants in the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute. (Photo by Karen Almond / Dallas Opera, courtesy Verismo Communications.)

A Sense of Community

For me, one of the most valuable results of programs like the Hart Institute has been the opportunity to build a community of other conductors who have had similar challenges and experiences. The camaraderie that forms among a cohort can help build an essential network among artists. The existence of a cohort also ensures that an artist does not feel the constant pressure of being “the other,” or the burden of representing an entire race, gender, or culture. Building a supportive community allows an artist to flourish.

The importance of community-building goes beyond what we see on stage. In some of my earliest leadership roles—as Music Director at Harvard University’s Lowell House Opera and at Juventas New Music Ensemble—I worked in partnership with incredible female directors on the administrative side. These were women my age, whom I admired and from whom I learned a great deal. My colleagues were my role models and my biggest champions. In all levels of our organizations, ensuring that our artists find individuals who are like them—people with whom they can immediately find common ground on a visceral level—is essential. The more inclusive our environments, the more connections can be created among administrators, boards, audiences, artists, and our immediate communities.

Building Networks

At Cincinnati Opera, along with several other companies, this concept of community is also used in a broader sense. By hiring affiliate artists who are well-connected within a certain cultural sphere, an organization can use that artist’s network to identify and attract top talent. In Cincinnati, bass Morris Robinson emerged as a regular collaborator with a knack for establishing rapport with just about anyone—whether an opera connoisseur or a total novice. Robinson is also seen as a major role model for many African American opera artists, and is very aware of the top emerging talent. The company hired Robinson as Artistic Advisor—a role that involves him in many aspects of the organization’s artistic vision and outreach.

Eric Owens serves in a similar role at the Glimmerglass Festival, where the company benefits from the combination of his exceptional experience and expertise in opera with his access to a larger network of artists who may otherwise be overlooked. Both Robinson and Owens are operatic giants, who would be assets to any organization regardless of their race, but their backgrounds serve additional benefits—bringing new perspectives, new networks, and greater access to new communities for these organizations.

Networks can also be built through lasting institutional partnerships. At Chicago Opera Theater, we are using the shared thematic goals in the opera Freedom Ride to partner with Chicago Sinfonietta, who will serve as the orchestra for this production. The hope is that this partnership will expose us to new players whom we can bring back for many future productions.

The responsibility is on us all

Though the need for institutional changes can feel overwhelming, there is much we can do as individuals. Artists can use their influence, experience, and knowledge of various networks to make a difference. We can make a point of encouraging and mentoring emerging professionals who face the same challenges we faced early in our careers. We can recommend our colleagues to others in the field. We can promote and perform relevant and forward-thinking programs.

Consider your own daily artistic choices

Consider your own daily artistic choices:

What is the makeup of the students in your private teaching studio, and have you made an effort to seek out students who are representative of your community?

When programming a recital, are you (and your students) including works by composers of varied backgrounds, just as you would make sure to include works by composers of various periods?

If you are a stage director, when deciding on the place and time to set a standard work, do you consider non-traditional narratives, and do you take the time to present these narratives in an informed way?

As a librettist or composer, do you seek out subject matter outside mainstream narratives?

When making recommendations of artists for gigs, do you include individuals of varied backgrounds, just as you would include individuals of various strengths, so those hiring have a fuller gamut of choices?

About which artists do you speak to non-musicians?

Whose social media posts are you sharing?

Think of your personal network of colleagues and friends – is it representative of our world?

To whom do you go for advice or to share your latest achievements?

No single action will be enough. However, if each one of us takes ownership of these issues, committing ourselves—intentionally—to a diverse industry on every level, we can make a difference. Symphonic and operatic performance are examples of revolutionary artistic achievement. If we actively choose to work, again and again, to create plurality within our art form, we can ensure that this momentous artistry has the widest reach possible, and continues to captivate audiences through relatable, relevant and meaningful experiences. Homogeneity will alienate us from our constituents and push us into elitist obscurity. Plurality, on the other hand, has the potential to build a lasting link between creators, artists, producers, and audiences, ensuring that the awesome power of our art form persistently resonates across all social, cultural, economic, regional—human–boundaries, allowing music to fully embody its greatest strength—the ability to unify.

Shaping the American Operatic Canon

Two actors in chairs during a stage performance

The last decade has seen an explosion of new American opera. In 2010, productions of American operas written after 2000 represented 5% of total productions by Opera America Professional Company Members; by 2018, this number more than tripled to 18%, and is on track to rise.

We are entering a time of opportunity to develop an American operatic canon and leave a musical legacy for future generations. But how do we discover and train the next generation of composers and librettists? How can we shape a legacy that represents the many voices within contemporary American society? Given the exceptionally high level of training necessary for operatic composition, how do we ensure that limitation of opportunity does not hinder a diverse pool of creators? While we are moving in the right direction, I believe that professional American opera companies and leaders within the field can take a more active role in cultivating the next generation of opera librettists and, more specifically, opera composers. We owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and to this Golden Age for American opera.

Gaining the Skillset

Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings.

Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings. In addition to being masters of shaping sound, opera composers must be exceptionally skilled at writing for the voice, impeccable at setting text, and in full command of large-scale form. Just as importantly, they must be people of the theater—actors and stage directors—able to shape dramatic timing, impetus, subtext, and flow seamlessly through music. Furthermore, opera composers must understand the operatic creative process—the enormous collaborative mechanism essential for the work to reach the stage successfully. For the rare composer who manages to come by all the necessary knowledge and skill, understanding the business side of opera poses another hurdle—writing a great work is not enough to ensure it is performed. In the end, many qualified composers are disillusioned, and others not ready for the challenge find no opportunities to develop the necessary tools.

There is no traditional path for opera composers and no clear training ground. University programs must focus on the general skills composers will need before they even begin to think about writing opera. Many of the skills that are essential cannot be taught in a traditional classroom, and must be gained through observation and experience. It is therefore unsurprising that some of the most prolific and skilled composers on the scene today have had unconventional paths that allowed them to obtain the necessary tools. Many of them came to opera only after years in other artistic areas. Jake Heggie’s background in theater—as pianist, coach, and even administrator—contributed to the varied skillset necessary to become America’s preeminent opera composer. Mark Adamo and Ricky Ian Gordon also have backgrounds that combine theater and composition. That multifaceted background is also a defining characteristic of the now long-established Philip Glass, who had worked in film, dance and experimental theater.  Up-and-comer Dan Shore likewise came to opera as a playwright, composer, pianist and coach.

In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.

These composers all had exceptional opportunities to gain the skills necessary for writing opera, but they represent a very narrow sliver of American culture and society. It is essential for any composer who wants to write opera to have an extensive background as a dramatist, wordsmith, orchestrator, and musician. But currently, this expectation is also impractical, unreasonable and highly exclusionary. In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.

The state of training for opera composers

Over the last decade, a small number of composer training and development programs in the American Northeast have emerged to fill this training gap. American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), the most comprehensive of these undertakings, provides a three-year certificate course to composers, librettists, and dramaturges. The participants meet weekly in New York City to study vocal writing, text setting, the collaborative process, dramaturgy, and various other ins and outs of writing opera. ALT has additionally produced some wonderful work through their development programs for new works—I recently had the privilege of being involved in the exceptionally detailed, multi-year development process for The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, a phenomenal opera written by composer Justine Chen and librettist David Simpatico.

Additionally, American Opera Projects’ Composers and the Voice works with New York City-based composers and librettists in workshops on writing for various voice types, dramatic training, and mentorship from top creators in the field. Opera Philadelphia has also maintained a well-resourced training program. Concurrently, Opera America has taken an active role in developing new work, including the organization of the New Works Forum, dedicated grants for women composers and, as of this season, grants for composers of color.

A number of the most successful composers who have emerged from these opportunities have not had a traditional profile and have brought new experiences and musical languages into our field. One standout example is Kamala Sankaram, who has an unconventional background as a psychologist, soprano, accordionist, sitar player, and even voiceover actor (to hear some of her crossover work, check out her band Bombay Rickey). Kamala received training from the CLDP at ALT and support from producing organizations like Beth Morrison Projects—a company that has championed contemporary chamber opera for the last decade and a half. Likewise, Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little are two composers who took full advantage of Opera Philadelphia’s training program to build enormous skill and embark on major careers. Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves immediately made an impact, and David T. Little’s rock-inspired Soldier Songs is being performed by mid-sized opera companies throughout the country.

It has become clear that the combination of comprehensive, multi-faceted training, together with championing by smaller new music initiatives, can give a composer the initial skill-building needed to move on to a major operatic career. American Lyric Theater, and to a lesser extent, American Opera Projects, had recently become the principal programs providing longer-term, comprehensive training for opera composers and librettists. But the collaborative nature of the work requires that participants be available for regular face-to-face meetings. This is a highly limiting factor, not just culturally and geographically, but also financially, as New York City continues to be prohibitively expensive for most artists. As of 2017, ALT does provide partial cost-offsetting stipends to aid participants who want to commute or relocate, but this does not resolve the many other job, family, or personal limitations that may prevent someone from moving. Furthermore, centering training in just one American city by nature limits cultural and musical representation within the field, gearing operatic writing toward New York City’s musical and societal views and tastes, which (for better or worse) are hardly representative of most of this country.

Becoming a composer already poses massive barriers to entry for individuals of limited means or from non-traditional musical backgrounds. Geographic limitations and lack of training opportunities makes these barriers insurmountable and simultaneously limit the scope of the stories and voices heard by American audiences.

From the 2017 White Snake Projects premiere of Julian Wachner and Cerise Lim Jacobs's opera Rev. 23 at Boston's John Hancock Hall (photo by Kathy Wittman, courtesy Verismo Communications)

From the 2017 White Snake Projects premiere of Julian Wachner and Cerise Lim Jacobs’s opera Rev. 23 at Boston’s John Hancock Hall (photo by Kathy Wittman, courtesy Verismo Communications)

The field’s responsibility

Professional opera companies across America can and should do more. In order to ensure a future for opera, we must promote stories told by a variety of individuals, who represent the many regions and cultures of the United States, and bring a breadth of musical backgrounds to our field. Opera’s strength throughout the form’s history has been in its ability to unite the arts in an effort to tell powerful, moving stories. Those of us in the position of running opera organizations can take ownership of ensuring the art form’s continued impact by nurturing the next generation of opera composers.

Opera’s strength has been in its ability to unite the arts to tell powerful, moving stories.

At the time when most of the operatic classics were written, composers were working within fully government-funded European opera theaters that produced many new works each season. These organizations could take the risk to invest in new compositional talent, allowing creators to experiment, to have ample rehearsal time (which, in turn, allowed rewrites and further experimentation), to develop relationships with the same performers over an extended period of time, and to have the permission to create several flops while honing the skills to compose a masterpiece.

Today’s structure, especially in the United States, is much more rigid. Most companies produce a total of only 3-5 operas a season (including standard repertoire), so the competition is fierce and the programming limitations extreme. There is rarely a sufficient workshopping or development process for new work. It is also nearly impossible for larger American opera companies to commit to a new work, unless it’s by a proven composer and on marketable subject matter. Furthermore, unsuccessful performances of new work lead to general audience disillusionment and skepticism of pieces outside the standard repertoire, making future commissions even more risky. Most companies cannot afford to take a risk on a brand new composer.

But we can do much better—we can develop the composers of the future by providing them with the tools necessary for success.

Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers.

Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers. Emerging opera composers largely do not have access to regular rehearsals, administrative support, and the behind-the-scenes structural and decision-making processes of a producing organization. Minnesota Opera, founded partially by composers, stands apart by engaging in a rigorous and systematic development process for the new operas regularly seen on its stage. However, Minnesota’s focus is on single works, and the pieces produced are usually by already established composers, not those who are just embarking on a career. Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative and Forth Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase provide very short-term mentorship opportunities on specific short works. While very important for the field, these short-term initiatives do not provide the comprehensive training essential for emerging opera composers. As I began my tenure as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, I realized that a vacuum exists, and with it, an opportunity to make a difference in helping to ensure a future for our art form.

At Chicago Opera Theater (COT), we are attempting to do our part through the newly formed Vanguard Initiative, a two-year, fully comprehensive residency program that provides composers with the myriad tools necessary for a successful career in the field. The program is geared towards skilled composers who want to venture into the world of opera, but have not yet had sufficient opportunities to do so. One composer is chosen annually, provided a stipend, and invited to embark on a two-season comprehensive study of opera. The training includes a survey of the canonic repertoire, detailed examination of operatic fachs, attendance at a large number of operatic productions at various institutions, access to the administrative side of an opera company, and ample networking opportunities. Most importantly, the Vanguard composers learn the full scope of the interpretative process by attending full staging rehearsal processes for different productions and observing contrasting interpretative styles. The composers also work with our young artists and an experienced librettist, dramaturge and director as they develop a new, full-length opera.

Opera companies have a responsibility to take part in ensuring the future of our art form. While most organizations are unable to create something as extensive as the Vanguard Initiative, or program a season of world premieres, we can all do our part. Providing some opportunities to standout local composers and/or librettists is a low or no-cost opportunity to engage with the next generation of creators. Simple initiatives like granting access to staging rehearsals, mentorship, and networking opportunities with guest artists, as well as free tickets to performances can be a start. Pairing young artist programs with local composers could be a mutually beneficial training opportunity. Smaller, more nimble organizations and new music ensembles can make producing brand new work by first-time opera composers a priority. Larger producers can seek out partnerships that allow them to identify composers and offer full development support for new work. Perhaps more extensive collaborations with university graduate composition departments, like Pittsburgh Opera and Carnegie Mellon University’s Co-opera, can be explored. At COT, we are also hoping to plant the seeds of opera composition for a younger generation: our Opera for All educational programming works with Chicago Public School children, who collaborate with a composer and professional creative team in writing and producing their very own opera.

Larger opera organizations can further help promote new work by partnering with smaller, less risk-averse startup companies. MassOpera in Boston recently modeled a successful partnership, working with Washington National Opera to workshop Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye’s Taking Up Serpents, which went on to be premiered at WNO last season. This year, MassOpera will also workshop Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride in partnership with Chicago Opera Theater. The synergy makes sense—MassOpera uses their access to flexible emerging artists with new music experience to give composers and larger producing organizations the development process necessary for success. Beth Morrison Projects has had similar successful workshopping collaborations with university departments across the nation.

It is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer.

There is no single means of promoting new work, or of fostering a new generation of diverse compositional talent. But ultimately, it is essential that opera companies, no matter their size, ask themselves how they can support a new generation of creators. We are in the midst of a Golden Age for opera in America, and we have an opportunity to empower those who will define the American operatic canon. As leaders of operatic institutions, it is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer. The resources are at our fingertips, but we must make developing new work and supporting emerging creators once again a priority for our field, shaping the operatic canon through the plurality of today’s compositional voices.

Am I Not a Minority?

Hands on a piano, with a heart tattoo on the left hand.

Introduction

Contemporary classical music is a field overrun with socially conscious and politically liberal musicians. Moreso, the community pays great attention to the need to increase diversity for minority composers, but do people of color see those benefits? If musicians today put so much effort into increasing diversity in their programming, then why are there so few composers of color? While white minority composers see progress, people of color are left behind.

The field of Western classical music as an institution suppresses Black and brown voices while utilizing tokenism to prevent public outcry and protest.

The Problem: Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy

This article isn’t just about me. I’m not asking for personal inclusion in a field of exclusivity. Instead, I’m hoping to use my experiences as a victim of racism to highlight the fundamental institutional abuses Western classical musicians sanction on composers of color.

The fact that this field needs greater diversity is no secret. Many prominent new music organizations express a yearning for more works by minority composers. But composers of color still face significant barriers in our careers despite the overwhelming public calls for good will.

This irony might seem baffling, but Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution that increased visibility will not be effective in liberating all minority composers. Instead, a complete restructuring of how we as contemporary classical musicians view classical music is necessary.

With this article, I express nothing new. Instead, I add my account of racist experience into the ever-growing library of minority musicians who have written similar accounts to how they perceived and reacted to their own oppressions within the field of classical music.

Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution.

Artists such as Anthony Green, whose article “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” provides a clear example of how new music communities continue to discourage Black composers from gaining stability and stature as new music composers. And Elizabeth Baker’s article, “Ain’t I a Woman Too?” Which was a direct influence on my article, and beautifully expressed many of my own frustrations with the lack of inclusive feminism in our white-centered musical landscape.

The information I present in this article is not new, but I’m hoping it will be expressed clearly enough to help my minority colleagues understand that they are not alone in their experiences, and for more privileged readers to better understand how deep classical music’s racism really is. This article will provide the background information needed to understand the remaining articles in this 4-part series, which will more carefully analyze issues such as orientalism, class, and resistance.

Far more composers are doing good work in building sustainable futures for minority artists than are listed here, and they are heroes building a new framework that is more inclusive and more freeing than classical music’s institutions will ever be. Just because these barriers exist in classical music to keep it as white as possible does not mean that we have to accept these truths and play within their system. In fact, I want to use the information I share in this article to argue that we can and should create something better.

The Myth of the Composer-Genius

One of my good friends and colleague Evan Williams has already written a wonderful article titled “The Myth of the Composer Genius,” which I encourage you read. Dr. Williams examines the cognitive dissonance between the belief of composers being artistic geniuses chosen by God to share their gifts with the world and the reality that composers get their skill through work, practice, and opportunity.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field. The conflation of “genius” and “white man” means that no minority will be viewed as a real genius, and hence not a real composer.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field.

While one can argue that the definition of genius is being expanded today to mean anyone, its expansion creates a top-down approach to breaking down these barriers. A top-down approach means that you grant access first to those with the most privilege and move down. Instead, Black feminists and their organizations such as the Combahee River Collective recommend a faster, more effective bottom-up approach. This method seeks to eliminate oppression by focusing on the most oppressed first, and is based on the understanding that when the most oppressed are liberated, then everyone above them is liberated as well.

Trickle-down Social Justice

The classical music field is squarely rooted in the top-down approach. And like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

Like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

This approach grants most opportunities for increased diversity and visibility to minorities with the most privilege. In a white supremacist society, that would be white minorities. Specifically, white women.

First let me say that women in general have an abysmal and unacceptable representation in the Western classical music field. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra examined the repertoire performed during the 2014-2015 concert season by 22 of the largest American Orchestras and found that only 1.8% of works were composed by women.

According to The Guardian, “New statistics have shown up the ‘inexcusable’ fact that only 76 classical concerts among 1,445 performed across the world from [2018] to 2019 include at least one piece by a woman.”

It’s possible that among new music chamber groups, the statistics might be better, but there is still an undeniable bias towards men in this field.

Many of you reading this article know these statistics. And maybe you are doing good work in commissioning and performing works by women composers. But structural oppression runs deep enough that heightened visibility will not close this gap quickly enough.

In order to have a full understanding of our landscape, we need find statistics on our most oppressed. Not only do we need statistics on women, but how about women of color? Non-binary composers? Non-binary or third gender composers of color? Black composers? Black women composers? LGBT+ Black women composers?

All of these minority groups, and more, deserve to be free enough to create artworks of their own. But as it stands, the only minority group being paid much attention (and even for them, it’s not enough) is made up of white women.

Where are the Statistics on Composers of Color?

Surely if I google “statistics on composers of color” I should be able to get some results. Instead I get more statistics on women composers. And here I find the perfect metaphor for how different minority groups are conflated.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone. While it is true that increased opportunities for a single group can help expand others, that situation only occurs when the single group being supported is more oppressed than the other groups. For example, increased opportunities for Black women will lead to more opportunities for other women of color. But supporting white women will not have the same effect. This belief only works when taking a bottom-up view of decolonization, not for trickle-down social justice.

This is what I mean by trickle-down social justice. By making white minorities the center of diversity attention, you have a system where the pool of privileged folks utilizing the culture and labor of PoC is growing, enabling further oppression of those with the fewest means to success while claiming a progressive, anti-racist label.

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough. But people of color have no reason to trust that white women will be any less racist than white men. Dr. Monica T. Williams explains this mistrust more deeply in her article, “How White Feminists Oppress Black Women: When Feminism Functions as White Supremacy,” pointing out that “True feminism has the power to transform society, but too often what is advanced as feminism is actually White supremacy in disguise – a counterfeit we sometimes call White Feminism.”

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough.

The institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding are worlds apart from the experiences of white women. And one shouldn’t invalidate the other. Anyone interested in expanding access to classical music education and careers to all minorities should be mindful of the institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding and work to utilize their privileges to dismantle them.

A cartoon of a mother and child, both with text bubbles. Mother says, "Brahms could be worse, Calvin." And the child replies, "Brahms could be a lot better, too!" (Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission)

Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission

The Institutional Barriers that Keep Composers of Color from Succeeding

Not all people of color are the same. We each have our own successes and failures within this field. Some would argue that the current push for diversity supports their careers while others insist that current work is not enough.

I have observed a few patterns of behavior that many people of color face. These microaggressions are a few ways in which opportunities were kept from me and other people of color.

The classical music field does not value Black and brown voices. We exist as oriental decorations to the white-centered narrative which controls the space. Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Western classical music’s initiatives to diversify their compositions do not challenge the system’s white supremacist roots. Despite heavily influencing white cultures, PoC are rarely allowed our own space. Exceptions are made at the expense of tokenizing the few non-white composers they allow in their space.

In my experience, I’ve had to follow a set of unspoken rules if I want to be taken seriously as a Western classical musician.

1. I am not allowed to be too “radical” in Western classical music.
2. I must depend on white funding and institutional support for my projects.
3. I must work within an institution, never against it.
4. I must never express anger or resentment at my treatment.
5. I must remain calm when harassed by a white individual.

These unspoken rules silence people of color. At the same time, they allow us enough space to exist in the presence of white musicians. It creates a shield from criticism while upholding white supremacy. Musicians of color tend to face severe consequences if they hold contempt for one of these rules.

Rule #1: I am Not Allowed to Be Too “Radical”

Those with stature in classical music institutions claim that slow change is happening. Ultimately, they decide how much change they want to see in their institutions. If this change involves them losing their stature, or diminishing the meaning of their stature (which is necessary for our liberation), then it will be deemed too “radical” and will either be ignored or ridiculed.

As minorities, any ideas which do not fit the status quo are ignored. People of color are allowed to have (monitored) voices in this field, but they must have the approval of the larger, white audience to take root.

White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

But white musicians do not need approval from people of color to express their ideas and are encouraged to steal the labor of musicians of color. White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

I personally have seen my work and my ideas taken by a white man, who essentially claimed credit for the work I’ve done. This practice goes further into how we treat material, where white composers are comfortable taking stories and religions from non-white cultures and appropriating them in their music.

Rule #2: I Must Depend on White Funding and Institutional Support

In a capitalist society, success is based on money. Artists need to focus on money in order to afford themselves stability. To create art without needing to profit off your labor relies on a privilege that not everyone has.

Frankly, the conversations I’ve had with classical musicians on issues of economic oppression make it obvious why “class” is in the name. The first step to being a classical musician is to amass a massive debt in exchange for education. Some might argue that it is the nature of higher education today and something everyone, regardless of what they study, goes through.

But then why are we expected to continue paying thousands of dollars for other experiences outside of our education? We live in an environment where doctoral degrees are assumed to be a necessary stepping stone toward one’s future, and universities are taking advantage of that baseless assumption by sticking a disastrous price tag on those degrees. If the field as a whole believes that higher education is necessary for a composer’s growth, then why is it inaccessible to most on grounds unrelated to merit?

Festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

Higher education barely scratches the surface. On top of spending an exorbitant amount of money on 8+ years of academic study, composers are expected to spend several thousand more dollars to attend something similar during the summer months. Summer festivals are seen as places where one can acquire prestige and network with similar musicians. But these festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

And yes, to me and anyone with my level of income, those who can afford these festivals are rich.

What’s almost worse is the expectation that lower-income folks will apply for scholarships and perform extra labor to receive (partial) funding instead of creating new avenues for opportunity. In this regard, we are expected to work within the institution to beg for funding instead of creating our own opportunities for career development.

But let’s say that despite all odds, despite being unable to afford the education and festivals, you still become a prominent composer. How will you get money? By and large, you will be steered only towards resources for minorities – which grant most of their funding and visibility towards white women.

Many of these organizations do not have anything to offer PoC; because PoC fall under the umbrella of “minority”, we end up in a position where white minorities monopolize the crumbs of tokenism within institutional structures.

Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

The field of classical music relies on institutions, endowments, universities, people who can afford to commission new work, and other high-paying clients. Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

Rule #3: I Must Work Within an Institution, Never Against It

If I rely on white institutions, then I can’t be too radical or else I will lose my avenues for funding. If I want funding without beholding myself to the whims of an untrustable elite, then I need to find alternatives to gaining capital outside the framework of an institution.

But rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it. After all, wouldn’t working against institutions mean that you’re against them, or the way they function? These institutions offer spaces for PoC to exist, but to suggest our independence risks exposing the foundational flaws and abuses these organizations graft onto their minority followers. They fear we will expose them for the fraudulent practice of using token visibility to shield their own white supremacist roots while claiming to be progressive.

So they work to silence the minorities who, without any more options, reject the prescribed system of tokenism in exchange for real methods of artistic creation that allow for sustenance on their own terms.

Rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it.

This silencing depends on enabling racist behavior, on pointing out whatever flaws one can find or make up about a person of color, and trusting that it will tarnish their reputation, despite those standards never applying to a white individual. The effect reverberates around the miniscule classical world, and anyone who depends on the institution, and believes in it, will have no reason not to believe it and thus shun those who work against an institution.

A meme created via imgflip.com with the caption "WHITE MUSICIANS WHEN POC ARE TALKING ABOUT RACISM" showing someone with their face buried in the ground.

Rule #4: I Must Never Express Anger or Resentment at my Treatment

These last two rules go hand-in-hand, and emphasize classical music institutions and their affiliates’ pervasive use of tone policing. White musicians love giving the minimum to PoC and using that exposure to shield themselves from criticism.

PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists.

In essence, PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists. That sliver of progress is used against those who advocate for real, substantive change.

Rule #5: I Must Remain Calm When Harassed

In that same vein, PoC are demonized when we do express anger, even when being harassed. I have these as two separate rules because rule #4 applies on a meta level where I must always at least pretend to be in a state of contentment with the institutions of classical music and their efforts to increase diversity.

But this rule is more specific.

Every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers.

In my experience (and I’m sure this is the case for many other PoC as well), every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers. I can think of so many examples, especially on social media, where as soon as anger is shown, as soon as white folks actually see the consequences of their constant abuses, or even evidence that there is constant abuse, the entire case is dismissed under the excuse of belligerence.

These experiences have led me to be labelled as racist, sexist, anti-semitic, transphobic, islamaphobic, and other labels which I work to fight against.

Conclusion

I have written very little about music, which will be covered in a later post. With this article, I wanted to show how pervasive white supremacy is in the classical music world, and explain the background into other arguments I intend to make in this series. Arguments such as the following: white composers using Middle Eastern stories in their composition is colonization; trans, non-binary, and third gender composers need their own space unique from cis-women led spaces.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color. But the musical output takes it a step further. In my next article, I will explore several examples of how white Western culture steals and appropriates from other non-white cultures, and how Western classical music embodies that colonization.

Ethical Artistry: Are we really asking ourselves these tough questions?

Outdoor string quartet performance

A little background: For more than two years, I worked to co-curate the Intricate Machines project with composer Phil Taylor and the Aizuri Quartet. Along the way, we had many discussions ranging from the pragmatic details of venue and budget, to deep artistic conversations about musical values. Our process challenged many of the assumptions we had about concert curation and presenting routines, showing us that no single set of guidelines apply to every project, and that decisions we made at every stage—from instrumentation to venue to repertoire—encompassed “lessons” that weren’t unique to us, or even to concert curation in general; instead, they were part of larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists.

So here we are. In a nutshell, over the next four weeks I will discuss the types of projects we pursue and who they benefit (Part 1); I will illustrate the complexity of certain decisions we face when running ensembles and curating concerts (Part 2); I will consider various ways we tend to evaluate our work (Part 3); and, I will argue that our efforts really do matter in terms of how we affect and reach others through our artistry (Part 4).


Pursuing Projects, Finding the Balance, & Reckoning with Artistic Guilt

It came as a surprise when I realized I’d been organizing, presenting, and performing contemporary music concerts for more than a decade. Sometimes these were really special projects near and dear to my heart, but more often they were rather pedestrian, fulfilling some calendar quota at a summer festival or university.

From a very young age musicians get lulled into the routine of these events, from holiday concerts in grade school to those tedious group studio recitals.

Later, in universities and conservatories, we perform degree recitals where our artistic choices are filtered through a rubric of academic requirements. They are often structured with a sort of formula or routine. For example, if you do a quick google search for “voice recital degree requirements,” dozens of similar rubrics pop up. (Here are a few from the University of North Texas and San Francisco Conservatory.)

These sorts of prescriptive recital curricula have strong educational value, ensuring that any student working through a degree program will develop targeted skills. Voice students, for example, will have practiced singing works in different languages, different mediums (e.g. art song, aria, oratorio, etc.), and different historical periods, and this will help in a variety of professional areas where they may later work.

Yet, in spite of their pragmatic design and pedagogical value, our students easily conflate that ticking off these sorts of checkboxes is the essence of what we are meant to do as artists. In fact, these recitals are not an end unto themselvesthey are meant to develop our skills so we have the versatility to pursue other far-reaching artistic endeavors!

When I first started curating concerts outside of school, I struggled to make this distinction. I was swept along in the entrenched patterns I trained under, and it was all too easy to keep my head down and just go with the flow—Hey, just tell me where/when the gig is and I’ll be there!rather than asking if my concerts and artistry were really reaching people in powerful ways.

Crowd Out w/David Lang

A performance of crowd out for 1000 untrained voices by David Lang, performed in Chicago, 2014
David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities

If we’re not careful, we can easily take for granted the ways in which our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience that may or may not have an intimate knowledge of the musical world we inhabit. Because of this, we not only have a chance to connect to our audiences, but an obligation to help guide their concert experience in meaningful ways. If we don’t embrace this responsibility and challenge, we miss the opportunity to showcase the beauty and relevance of our unique artistic world, or worse, we risk turning people off from it.

Our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience.

Why Am I (Are We) Doing This?

This is one of the toughest artistic questions we face, and one easy to run from when we curate a project. It is often easier to follow the steps of a well-defined rolelike gigging as a freelancer, enjoying the active musicking of performing in a community choir, or working as an employee in a professional ensemblethan it is to invent or craft our own projects.

But, at other times we do choose to step outside of these defined roles, pursuing projects in which we invest our own time, money, and mental energy. In these cases, what is the driving force? Is it a career boost? Is it a musical opportunity we don’t have elsewhere? Is it part of curatorial duties we fulfill with an ensemble? Is our project centered around an aesthetic idea, or a collection of repertoire and artists? Is the project fulfilling a social or cultural need in the community? Or maybe it’s a combination of these (and other) factors.

Understanding and deeply connecting to your project’s underlying artistic goals can inexorably guide your work. Your belief and passion is the basis around which others will connect to your ideas. Whether your project centers on a social movement, a set of composers, or even a vague artistic notion that you imagine but struggle to articulate in words, your conviction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982), a choreographic rendering of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Come Out, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2006 BAM Next Wave Festival.

 

For those unfamiliar with Fase (and with early Steve Reich), this setting lasts over 50 minutes, as each of the four Reich scores is played in its entirety. Unlike many of Reich’s later works, these early pieces are extremely limited in their materialrepeating a few small musical cells over and over and over, in phasing repetition. Keersmaeker’s choreography is similarly minimal and repetitive, focusing on a few gestures and movements that cycle again and again, closely mirroring the musical architecture in long, unvaried, stretches.

In other words: it’s long, extremely intense, and fairly boring in the sense that it provides very little variety or reprieve. But, for me, it was also nothing short of brilliant and inspiring!

Keersmaeker’s work had such conviction and dedication to its concept. Meanwhile, Keersmaker and Dolven performed with virtuosity, focus, and determination, sweeping me up in the experience, in spite of the fact that it was long and psychologically intense![1]

This was the type of concert experience that illustrated the visceral power of art and made me want to be a composer. Today, curating my own projects, I try to harness the type of conviction I saw in Fase as I craft projects to try and reach others.

Your convinction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

Unfortunately, as much as conviction can positively guide our artistry, a lack of conviction in programming ideas can also detract negatively. Sometimes our programming can be sort of lazy and half-hearted (e.g. going through the motions, checking off the boxes, etc.). At other times, we feel indifferent, making curatorial choices that are sort of random, or which we feel are minimally relevant. Perhaps scariest of all, we can take a nihilistic view that no programing decisions we make will really matter or affect others in a meaningful way.

I can’t force you to be morally optimistic, but I think a lot of us as artists and listeners have experienced moments of powerful personal reflection and transformation at a concert, and these moments seem to fly in the face of artistic pessimism. Whether it is towering sound giving us chills and goosebumps, or the depths of a haunting piece that ravages our emotions, or some unique communal experience we felt while participating together in a live musical event, it often feels like these revelatory moments result from musical conviction, not from coincidence.

In a word, if we ask ourselves, “Why am I even doing this?” and spend some time really thinking about our answer, I suspect it might guide us towards a sense of conviction that will reach others in a powerful way.

Who Does My Project Benefit? Be Honest, Not Guilty.

As artists, it is important to have autonomy and freedom. And, pursuing any kind of curation or concert project takes a lot of work. So we shouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing projects that deeply interest us, or that will benefit our career in an obvious way. (After all, we’re the ones putting the work inwriting grants, calling venues, renting equipment, and so on!) Furthermore, many of us see the value of projects oriented towards community or social justice, but are reticent to involve ourselves if we feel the projects won’t meaningfully contribute to our own artistic life and goals.

We shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty about any of these positions, but we also should be willing to face the music and admit that some projects we pursue primarily benefit ourselves, and some more widely engage with others.

Wrestling with this balance is largely the crux of what Elliot Cole discusses in his article “Questions I Ask Myself.” Cole notes how much of our musical work as contemporary composers is often structured around personal gain and value systems defined by the specialization of our field, rather than being focused on what it provides to communities outside of the field. Cole’s honesty, and his willingness to engage with these questions, are important steps to take in measuring the impact of our artistry. Are we lost in a monotonous flow of formulaic concerts and accepted practices for artistic work? And are we putting too much weight on awards-based paradigms as the main criteria of evaluating artistic work?

In thinking about many of Cole’s specific questions, and about my general query of who our concerts benefit, we might bear in mind two important considerations. First, we should evaluate our artistic efforts and impact according to a broad and long-term view. In a lifetime spent in the arts, we have a chance to pursue certain projects for ourselves, focusing on individual growth, career gain, and other personal considerations, while other initiatives we pursue primarily benefit others as we provide education, access to music, community engagement, and so on.

Second, the purposes and impacts of any one project can be manifold, meaning the event you are investing so much time and effort into can ideally benefit you and others at the same time. In fact, many times we start a project focused on its benefit to our career or artistry, but as it grows, we may find ways for the project to have a wider outward impact.

When Phil Taylor, the Aizuri Quartet, and I began work on the Intricate Machines project, our passion for presenting five powerful, recent, string quartet works guided many decisions. Audiences on our tour connected deeply to our conviction for the music, which had spawned the project in the first place. But the project also evolved over time, and we ended up leading composer guest talks at five different universities, as well as multiple outreach events with the Aizuris coaching teenage and collegiate string musicians. In the end, our project benefited our careers, while also impacting audiences and communities on a wider level.

If you look at your own career (or ensemble or series, etc.) what balance do you strike? Are your projects exclusively career oriented? Or, are you devoting substantial time towards community ventures, but putting your artistic growth on hold as a result? Is there a middleground you can find?

Maybe the core of the amazing artistic project you are pursuing (e.g. a recital, recording, commission, etc.) can stay the same, but you can find additional ways for the project to impact (or be accessed by) communities that might not otherwise experience it. Or, maybe the community project you spend so much time on can start to include repertoire or curation that will simultaneously benefit your career in a direct way.

These ideas and suggestions take time to pursue, and they may not apply to every project. But, when we take extra steps to think deeply about our artistic work, we often improve both the quality of our projects and the scope of their impact.

For me these two central issues—conviction in concert programming (“Why am I doing this?”) and audiences who are potentially impacted (“Who does my project benefit?”)—are an important litmus test. Some groups are striking a great balance in their work, while others, it seems, are hardly taking these issues into consideration.



1. I think others experienced the work in a similar way. John Rockwell, writing for the New York Times remarked, “It is dry, austere and long, the movements inevitably lacking the shimmering resonance of…Mr. Reich’s scores. But in its intensely focused way it’s still a masterpiece.”

Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music

People sitting in a restaurant watching a violinist perform center stage

“Something’s wrong!” my mom cried. “My headphones malfunctioned! My video sounds blurry!”

I put on her new, fancy headphones and watched the video. It was the singer in the plaza. It sounded crystal clear. I had been there.

“What do you mean it’s blurry?” I asked.

“There’s a lot of noise! It didn’t sound like that in real life!”

“Um, that’s exactly what it sounded like in real life,” I retorted, frustrated with her imaginary tech issue. My mom looked hurt by my dismissal of her problem. This wasn’t going well.

And then it dawned on me: Perhaps arguing was futile, because we hadn’t heard the same thing in the first place. In real life, my mom had experienced a soulful musician playing her favorite songs amidst an ambient backdrop. I, on the other hand, experienced a cacophonous soundscape of live music plus wind, laughter, chimes, talking, traffic, footsteps, car engines, drive-by radios, overlapping accents, multiple languages, paper cups and plastic spoons colliding with metal trash cans, and more.

Thanks to high-quality headphones, my mom could now hear the noisy background, too. But her rude awakening was my realtime reality, and likely that of many other autistic folks.

Hi again, colleague, I’m glad you’re here. In my last post, “An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague,” I referred to the music world’s “unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility,” gave you a primer on autistic etiquette, and introduced this four-part series as a “no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter.” I alluded to my fear of asserting my own needs and declared it time for all arts professionals to improve autistic accessibility in our concerts, rehearsals, and interactions.

Today, I present you with the heart of this series: an organized, actionable reference guide to help you enact a permanent framework for autistic accessibility in your musical efforts. These tips aren’t just for organizations and presenters; they are also for musicians, students, teachers, and other music-adjacent allies. If you are not autistic, consider this required coursework.

The reason I began this post with an anecdote is twofold: 1) It nicely illustrates some of the sensory processing discrepancies between allistic and autistic people, and 2) It prioritizes autistic stories. As a conscientious ally, it is critical to listen to autistic stories, learn about our diverse lived experiences, and consider how our needs may coincide with or differ from your own. Without that context, even the best list of tips couldn’t help you.

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My own guide will be rife with gaps and even contradictory information that another autistic person may not agree with. As I mentioned in the last post, “if you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person.” I bring my own set of experiences, identities, and privileges to the table (queer, non-binary, second-generation, biracial person of color, Cambodian, Chinese, and Greek, American citizen, thin, able to drive, sighted, hearing, physically able, financially secure family, elite college education, etc.), and you will have to adjust to your audience’s particular needs. I am not an autism expert; I am merely a student of my own autistic experience.

The Guide:

I came up with the acronym SCALE to help you remember the five main themes in this guide to improving autistic accessibility. You will eventually forget most of the tips, but if you can remember the main themes (SCALE), you may have an easier time filling in the blanks and adding your own points.

S – sensory needs

Sensory needs are one of the most discussed hallmarks of the autistic experience. Many autistic people experience sensory hypersensitivity, resulting in the magnified perception of sound, smell, touch, taste, and other senses. This overstimulation can be not only painful but dangerous, causing disorientation, loss of balance, shutdown, meltdown, and other cognitive or physical impairments. On the flip side, many autistic folks experience hyposensitivity, which may cause us to seek extreme, additional sensory inputs for stimulation.

Given that it is neither practical nor feasible to simultaneously accommodate all autistic sensory needs at the same time, what, then should you do? In my experience, err on the side of reducing sensory input. As the writer of the Autisticality blog says: “It’s worse to have too much input than not enough. If you don’t have enough input, you might be bored, restless, or uncomfortable…In contrast, having too much input can be actively dangerous.”

  • Be conscious of the venue’s lighting, temperature, acoustics, seating, and restrooms. Any of the following could be devastating for an autistic person:
    • Fluorescent lights, strobe lights, very bright or very dim lights.
    • A reverberant, cavernous space, which can make sound bounce off the walls, especially when there’s a crowd or amplified sound. I feel physically sick from being in spaces like this and certainly cannot handle conversation.
    • Restrooms with extremely loud flushes or hand dryers.
    • Loud music, bass, and people. Be mindful of appropriate sound levels.
    • Air conditioning and heating. Not just the temperature but also the noise of the units, the blowing sensation, and the way that impacts the room, sound, and individual seats.
    • While it’s best to provide a scent-free space whenever possible, at least take care not to spray or otherwise adorn the space with scents. If there is a critical, artistic reason to include a scent, make sure guests receive a warning in advance.
  • Specific musical sounds and extended techniques can be jarring for an autistic person—including high-pitched registers (violin, coloratura soprano, etc), harsh static, sound walls, and crunchy attacks. However, I am not advocating for the removal or banning of these sounds in your composition, programming, performing, and classroom efforts! As with everything discussed here, we autistic people do not agree on what bothers us, and removing one thing can be taking away another’s greatest pleasure. As a violinist and 21st-century composer myself, I understand how tricky these needs are to negotiate, and rest assured that you’ll never manage it perfectly. But if you can provide warnings to audience members in advance, that communication can go a long way.
  • Limit competing noise. If we are watching a concert and meant to focus our attention on the performer, be mindful of additional sonic inputs as much as possible. These can distract an autistic person. Examples:
    • Outside conversations
    • Music from other rooms bleeding in
    • Loud A/C, slamming doors
    • Buzzing speakers.
    • The same rule applies to classrooms, meetings, and even social interactions. I have skipped class and left concerts many times due to jarring, competing noise making me anxious.
  • List the potential sensory triggers in advance. If I know one part of the program will be too loud for me, I can step out for that part, rather than suffering in my seat with no way out and possibly experiencing a meltdown.
  • On the flip side, consider offerings things to stoke sensory pleasure! Not only can this increase an autistic person’s enjoyment, but it may also help to soothe us. Stimming is a term used to describe the “self-stimulating” things autistic people do to cope with external stimuli. I recently went to an event that offered fuzzy pipe cleaners and Play-Doh for people to use in their seats as wanted or needed. It was delightful, and certainly helped soothe my anxiety during the intense discussion.

C – cognitive needs, clarity, and communication

Cognitive differences—that is, differences in mental processes that encompass skills like attention, memory, executive functioning, decision making, and awareness—are another predominant marker of the autistic vs. allistic experience. Cognitive needs are tricky to illustrate but still require devoted attention and effort from allies. Because it can be hard or inappropriately taxing for an autistic person to explain why a particular aspect of something is difficult, allistic people are often left to either take our word for it or dismiss it. This puts us in the position of having to prove our impairment or the severity of our need to an allistic gatekeeper. Don’t do that. It’s dehumanizing, embarrassing, and ableist. Never make assumptions about another person’s cognitive needs.

So how can you validate the cognitive needs of autistic people and make your efforts more autistic-friendly? Communication and clarity are your friends! Here are some basics:

  • WE LOVE (and need) DETAILS! Include as many details as you can, whenever you can. This goes for your concert invitations, announcements, and interactions. Information that’s extraneous or obvious to you may be crucial or non-obvious to an autistic person, and clarifying details can help us feel safer.
  • Location: Share not only the address or name of the venue, but also directions, a map, parking instructions (including the cost), directions to the entrance, where the wheelchair-accessible entrance is, and how to find the specific room. The more photos and visual descriptions of the building, entrance, and room you can include, the better.
  • Venue Specifics: Tell us what to expect.
    • Is it wheelchair-accessible, both inside and out? Include whether some parts of the venue are accessible but not others, so folks can plan accordingly. It is incredibly important to communicate this info in advance.
    • Will there be seating for fat people? Couches, benches, and other forms of sturdy, wide, armless seating can be more accommodating for fat people than flimsy fold-up chairs. Note: “fat” is not an insult, but these 11 fat-shaming phrases are. (Source: Nakeisha Campbell for The Body Is Not An Apology blog.)
    • Restrooms: Provide gender-neutral restrooms. If the venue doesn’t have any, write “All-Gender Restroom” on a piece of paper and stick it to the door. Make sure that at least one gender-neutral bathroom is wheelchair accessible. Whatever the bathroom situation is, though, make sure to communicate in advance.
    • Is anything banned, like food, drinks, or selfie sticks? Who can we contact if we need an exception? Will anything be for sale?
  • Basic Protocol: Autistic folks do not always follow the same social conventions as others, nor do we innately understand the same “rules” as allistics. Try to provide any rules, implied rules, guidelines, dress code, and any other relevant information in advance.
    • Examples of less-obvious things to communicate: Expected arrival time, how long parking usually takes, if we’ll be expected to check our coats or take off shoes, if seating is assigned or first-come-first-serve, if we are not supposed to clap between pieces, etc. (You will get better at learning what details are relevant as you practice.)
  • Detailed schedule: For concerts, provide a program or communicate what the run of the show is. Include information about any pre or post-concert talks, break lengths, meet and greets, places for refreshments, etc. If you don’t know at the time of program printing, try offering a separate insert as guests enter.
  • Tell us, for better or for worse: Is this a scent-free space with quiet areas, soft light, moderate temperature, and comfy seating? Great, please let us know in advance! We won’t know about all these good things if you don’t tell us. On the other hand, will there be harsh fluorescent lights? Does the room get hot and stuffy? Is there a part of the concert that gets extremely loud? Then, you must also let us know.
    • Never omit information for fear of people not showing up. Every autistic person has a different concoction of needs and sensitivities, and while the information you share may cause one person to decline, it may cause another to attend. For example, I’m not bothered by most heat, so if I knew an event would get hot, I actually wouldn’t be deterred. But without factual, detailed information, we are left to our own guesswork, and I usually default to expecting the worst and skipping out.
    • Being upfront about both positive and negative details can also help autistic people plan accordingly—i.e. bring earplugs, sunglasses, or dress in layers.
  • A Complex Chain of Steps: Keep in mind that the cognitive processing of autistic people may cause us to consider each event or action as a complicated chain of micro-steps. For me, something as simple as getting a drink of water can send me in a stressful spiral, as I consider the potential aspects of the water, the steps I must navigate in order to get it, the short-term effects of hydration, whether I will bother other guests, whether it will impact my seat comfort or exit time, and more.
  • When in doubt, make an announcement. If there any changes, do your best to communicate. Don’t take any understanding for granted.
  • The cognitive (and sensory) barriers add up. It is not uncommon for autistic people to feel relaxed at the beginning of an event and utterly discombobulated by the end.
  • Check in with us. Autistic folks may not always speak up for themselves, due to hurdles with cognitive processing or fear of drawing negative attention.
  • Just because someone hasn’t complained doesn’t mean you’re being accessible. Many autistic people feel uncomfortable complaining, have trouble explaining their needs, or are used to being brushed off. Moreover, if you haven’t put effort into your autistic accessibility, autistic folks may not have experienced one of your events in the first place.

A – aids, accommodation, and assistance

No event will exist with perfect conditions for every autistic person, but something you can always do to help is provide assistance and aids. The more you know about autistic pain points, the better you will be able to anticipate needs.

  • If the event will be loud or crowded, consider offering disposable earplugs. My music school provided earplug dispensers in all of the classrooms.
  • Whenever you have aids to offer (earplugs, etc.), make sure these are either publicly or very obviously and easily available upon request. You could even try offering them to guests upon entering the building.
  • Designate a space in the venue as a “quiet room,” “escape room,” or “sensory-friendly room.” An autistic person may get overstimulated, anxious, or experience other challenges during a concert, and it would be a relief to have a safe place to take a break.
  • Provide language and communication aids. When screening a video, turn on closed captions. Many autistic people have trouble processing auditory language.
  • If applicable, consider providing name tags — some autistic people struggle with reading and recognizing faces
  • Many theme parks provide attraction and accessibility guides that list rides with sensory warnings, wheelchair accessible areas, baby-changing stations, and more. You could do a similar thing for your events, including gender-neutral bathrooms and other information.
  • Offer (compassionate) personal assistance: Provide and make sure guests know of a compassionate, designated point person they can speak with if they have a concern. If your event can manage, consider having the point person check in with special guests throughout to offer anything or see how they’re doing. To be clear, I am not advocating that organizers visually pick out guests with “probably special needs.” But if someone has designated themselves as needing special assistance, or if they have already sought help at the event, then it may be nice.

L – language

Never underestimate the importance of affirming language. Our words and the mediums we use can signal (explicitly and implicitly) who is welcome in our presence and at our events.

  • Do use affirming language. Autistic, autistic person, on the autistic spectrum, and uses a wheelchair are examples of generally appreciated terms.
  • Avoid ableist language, including: handicapped, handicapable, confined to a wheelchair, crippled, gimp, stupid, dumb, weak, idiot, mentally challenged, mental problems.
  • Avoid the phrase “differently abled.” Your intentions may be good, but many autistic and other disabled folks find it condescending. Unless a disabled person specifically requests otherwise, default to “disabled.”
  • Ensure that you, your materials, announcements, and staff never use derogatory language, whether autism-specific or otherwise. This can immediately signal that your space isn’t aware, safe, or welcoming. But if you use affirming, inclusive language in most areas but aren’t great with autistic language yet, someone like me may give you a chance, as your overall inclusion gives me hope that you are willing to learn.
  • Let go of the slurs and condescending phrases you’ve unknowingly grown used to (as many of us have) and learn affirming alternatives. This post on the Autistic Hoya blog about Ableist Terms and Alternatives is a good place to start on the ableism side of things.
  • As mentioned in the “A” section, provide closed captions and other language aids when screening videos.
  • Explicitly normalize the welcoming of autistic people and behaviors. This may seem small, but it can make a huge impact. It’s one thing to privately do things to make autistic folks feel safe, but if an autistic person feels like a secret exception in the larger context, it can be alienating. Example: If you have a sensory-friendly room available, tell everyone, and don’t make it awkward. Instead of saying “We have a sensory-friendly room available for guests with autism or other people in need of escaping this concert [insert audience chuckles], but seriously, most of the concert will be fine, unless you’re really sensitive,” try “We have a sensory-friendly room available in the back of this hall, which includes beanbags, toys, and quiet space. If you’d like to go in at any point, just go straight there, and a volunteer in a red vest will provide any assistance.”

E – expression and embodiment

One aspect of autism that cannot be erased is our unique way of embodied expression. As mentioned earlier, stimming is a natural response to emotions and other stimuli. It manifests in infinite ways, including waving arms, flapping hands, pacing, spinning, clapping, rubbing things, repeating words over and over, making noises, wiggling eyebrows up and down, and more.

Unfortunately, many autistic people are taught that their stimming is unacceptable, either explicitly (via behavior-changing “therapies,” admonishments, being teased,) or implicitly (being praised for “normal” behavior, etc.). This results in massive amounts of shame among some autistic individuals. The irony is, stimming is far from unhealthy, and stifling an autistic person’s ability to stim can actively harm us or lead us to meltdown. Stimming is a beautiful thing, as long as it’s not harming anyone else, and we often use it to show excitement or cope with stress, negative emotions, cognitive dissonance, and sensory discomforts.

To accept an autistic person, you must accept stimming.

But it goes without saying: It is not always possible to encourage all forms of stimming simultaneously at every event. There will have to be some balance and negotiation. Here are some ideas:

  • Can you allow areas for freer motion? Consider designating spaces for this, if not already available. The sensory-friendly room could be such a place. If your event is outdoors, or if it is casual, stimming should be acceptable regardless.
  • Consider holding a special, dedicated event for autistic folks that includes ample space to move freely.
    • This is NOT a substitute for making your regular events more accessible. In fact, many autistic people prefer to attend the general events.
    • Many organizations already hold sensory-friendly events, but most of them are tailored toward children. While this is certainly valuable, keep in mind that autistic adults want welcoming programming too. When every “autism-friendly” concert, event, or activity is for kids, it sends a message that 1. You don’t see autistic adults or validate our existence, 2. We should have grown out of it, or 3. You don’t think we are monetizable.
  • Do not ban or draw attention to specific behaviors that you may consider unusual, distracting, or rude. Not everyone will like this, but I do not recommend banning cell phones, fidget spinners, notebooks, or other things like that. If you do so, you may be removing a person’s accessibility aid, stimming aid, or self-soothing mechanism.
  • Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that you absolutely must allow jumping jacks and cell phone use in the front row of your audience or classroom. After all, what would you do if an autistic person’s front-row jumping jacks were causing sensory distress for another autistic person? Point is, needs and civilities are a constant negotiation, and it will never be perfect. However, I’m willing to bet that autistic folks compensate and negotiate on behalf of neurotypical and allistic folks significantly more than the other way around. I highly recommend reading Nick Walker’s Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism post on his Neurocosmopolitanism blog for further ideas on how to negotiate a variety of conflicting needs.

Recap:

S – sensory needs
C – cognitive needs and communication
A – aids, accommodation, and assistance
L – language
E – expression and embodiment

I hope this guide points you in the right direction as you develop your framework for autistic accessibility. But it is far from complete. Though I spent over fifty hours drafting this guide and incorporated both my own experiences and those of various peers, online friends, and blogs, I am still coming across experiences I left out, glossed over, or contradicted.

So colleagues, please promise me the following:

  1. That you will continue listening to a diverse range of autistic experiences.
  2. That you will humbly accept critique from autistic people without being defensive.
  3. That you will start somewhere. I do not expect you to immediately apply everything tomorrow. Don’t let that stop you from taking small steps, starting conversations, and paving the way for future accessible possibilities.
  4. That you will apply this guide not only to your music world but also to the other aspects of your life.
  5. That you will send this guide to your collaborators, co-workers, teachers, peers, and/or anyone else whom you think needs to read it.

Really, please share, and most of all, please use this.

Come back for Part 3 next week, in which I will do a Q&A and troubleshoot case studies.

PS: If you share this guide and have the energy, I would appreciate credit! I’m Chrysanthe Tan (@chrysanthetan), and you are reading this on NewMusicBox (@NewMusicBox).