Librettist and Singer Aiden K. Feltkamp, who serves as the Emerging Composers and Diversity Director at the American Composers Orchestra, shares how they work with large institutions to identify & dismantle internal discriminatory practices and address unconscious biases. Aiden speaks openly about their personal experience transitioning, the impact that Gender Dysphoria (experiencing discord between one’s gender identity and one’s assigned sex at birth) had on their mental health, and how writing helped their healing process. We discuss our shared experiences of mental illness, or what Aiden and fellow diversity educators call Neurodivergence, the benefits of therapy; medication in treating Anxiety, Depression, and ADHD.
It is mid-August. In my profession (I teach college-level composition and music theory), that means it’s time to get down to the less lofty aspects of course preparation: ambitious ideas must be reborn as precise learning objectives, clear evaluation criteria, detailed weekly schedules, and finalized repertoires. As I comb the internet for pieces to use in the introductory orchestration course I will teach for the second time this fall, I am reminded of a familiar frustration: it is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.
Yes, IMSLP offers an ocean of free sheet music, and that’s to say nothing of the more carefully curated online resources such as Music Theory Examples by Women and the Composers of Color Resource Project. But this apparent abundance can obscure the many omissions. Looking for the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A minor for Orchestra? The piece was composed in 1898 and begins with a stormy opening theme — a perfect example of how to subtly strengthen the melody in a passage scored for low strings. (Can you hear the lone bassoon doubling those violins?) Yet, on IMSLP, you will find only piano reductions of nearly all of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works. A full score for Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77, is the lonely exception. Curious about delving into the orchestral works of Louise Farrenc? Her three symphonies, all written in the 1840s (easily old enough to be in the public domain) are nowhere to be found on IMSLP.
It is true that with a bit of determination and more than a few disposable dollars, these scores can be acquired: Musikproduction Hoeflich offers in its “Repertoire Explorer” series an edition of Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for a reasonable 18€; I eagerly bought it, but I’d have to think twice about requiring my students to purchase a copy unless I could find a way to make it a primary text for my course. In contrast, one must shell out over 150€ for the Hoffman/Heitman edition of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, rendering it highly impractical at best for classroom study.
I am grateful that these recent editions of long-neglected works exist, yet I can’t help but lament their inaccessibility, especially when compared to the ubiquity of freely available scores composed by white men. The simple question of why — why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall? — is an important one, but it is related to a larger truth: music educators who wish to fundamentally rethink their content often face significant practical challenges in the simple matter of accessing viable learning materials. The last few decades have seen significant progress toward building web-based resources for inclusive music pedagogy, yet there remains in many disciplines a lack of adequate resources — a major disincentive for teachers wishing to move beyond inherited repertoires and perspectives. In perhaps no musical discipline is this absence more glaring than in the study of orchestration.
Orchestration as an academic study occupies a nebulous place, residing somewhere between composition and music theory, two fields which are themselves often grouped together. (As an example, I teach in my conservatory’s Composition and Music Theory program, where all music theory courses are listed under the same “MCOM” prefix.) My introductory orchestration course that starts next week will include student composers, performers, and music educators. For many of them, this class may represent their most sustained exposure to full musical scores for mid-sized and large ensembles, so the choice of composers studied in this context could profoundly influence their notions of whose music is worthy of study. (For a fascinating and bracing study on this topic, see Cora Palfy and Eric Gilson, “The Hidden Curriculum in the Music Theory Classroom.”)
Textbooks wield a special kind of power in perpetuating the canon of composers that still dominate the music academy, and music theory textbooks have been heavily scrutinized in recent years. In his Music Theory Online article, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” Philip Ewell provides a racial demographic breakdown of musical examples in seven leading music theory textbooks, in which he reveals that, “of the 2,930 musical examples in all seven textbooks, 49 were written by nonwhites. This represents 1.67% of the musical examples from all textbooks.”
Orchestration textbooks have largely avoided such critiques, but they fair no better; they are actually a bit worse. The following chart presents a racial and gender demographic breakdown of the musical examples in three well-known orchestration textbooks:
|Textbook||Total # of examples||# of examples by non-whites||% of examples by non-whites||# of examples by women||% of examples by women|
|Adler, 4th Ed. (2016)||402||3||0.75%||3||0.75%|
|Blatter, 2nd Ed. (1997)||174||3||1.72%||4||2.30%|
|Kennan and Grantham, 6th Ed. (2002)||241||1||0.41%||1||0.41%|
The percentages shown in the chart are so extreme that they bear restating: fewer than 1% of the musical examples in these books are taken from pieces by non-white composers, and fewer than 1% are from pieces by women.
There is not a single example composed by a non-white woman in any of the books. In contrast, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is used in 10 separate instances, while Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony and Claude Debussy’s La Mer are each cited 9 times. The outsize representation of these familiar works extends to the disproportionate attention lavished on the expected composers. Mozart leads the way with 18 pieces featured in Adler’s The Study of Orchestration, followed by Beethoven at 17, then Ravel, Strauss, and Stravinsky at 13 each, with Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Wagner rounding out the tidy list of ten composers with 10 or more pieces in the Adler book.
The racial and gender identities of the authors of orchestration textbooks are even more lopsided than the identities of the composers whose music populates the book. I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man. It’s worth noting that Blatter’s Instrumentation and Orchestration includes an unusually thorough bibliography containing related resources that reflect perspectives other than those of white men, including books on the history of the orchestra (Joan Peyser, ed. The Orchestra: Origins and Translations, New York: Schirmer, 1986), volumes on instrumentation (Sibyl Marcuse, A Survey of Musical Instruments, New York: Harper & Row, 1975), and several manuals about composing for individual instruments. And the internet offers numerous excellent tutorials on composing for individual instruments, such as Heather Roche’s excellent blog on contemporary clarinet writing. Yet when it comes to lists of books and blogs on orchestration, most look like this and this.
I gave a talk at this year’s Society of Composers National Conference called “Tossing the Textbook and Decentering the Canon in an Introductory Orchestration Course.” The talk focused on my efforts to move beyond the traditional orchestral literature in my orchestration class by relying on evidence-based pedagogical practices, such as using backward design, creating the conditions for meaningful student agency, and providing and receiving effective feedback throughout the semester. The pedagogy portion of the talk was met with a shrug; I was preaching to the choir about the why. How was another matter. The issue of access to scores and the challenge of finding adequate learning materials — along with the stark demographic statistics I provided about the orchestration textbooks — sparked engaging and sometimes passionate discussion.
It is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.
Why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall?
I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man.
We must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation.
So, what of the pieces that are old enough to be in the public domain, yet are still nowhere to be (freely) found? Why is IMSLP full of Robert Schumann’s orchestral scores but devoid of Louise Farrenc’s, replete with Gustav Mahler’s symphonies but virtually empty of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s? Farrenc’s three symphonies were written in the 1840s, but the Hoffman/Heitmann critical editions were published between 1998–2000 and thus will remain protected for decades. Unless you can get yourself to the Bibliothèque nationale de France to peruse the original manuscript of Farrenc’s Symphony no. 3, or to the Philadelphia Free Library’s Fleisher Collection to pore over the microfilm, the critical editions are the only game in town. Similarly, many of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works are available only as recently published, and sometimes costly, critical editions.
These critical editions are invaluable resources; their editors deserve to be credited and compensated for their expertise. I only seek to point out that, as of today, I can choose to invest in Schott’s critical edition of Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony but I can also access many earlier editions for free. I don’t have that choice with much of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Louise Farrenc for the simple reason that their orchestral work wasn’t thought to be worth publishing until relatively recently.
Some editors and publishers are working to make these scores more accessible. The French site ComposHer strives to increase access to scores by women composers; its recent edition of Emilie Mayer’s Faust-Ouverture is freely accessible under a Creative Commons license and includes a full set of parts. Another publisher, Serenissima Music, restores and digitizes original editions of hard-to-find pieces and posts them to IMSLP; it is courtesy of Serenissima that we have access to the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert. (Serenissima has also partnered directly with IMSLP to print and sell physical copies of some of these reprints under the Petrucci Library Press imprint.)
We should feel a sense of urgency to join these efforts to make more scores of public domain works accessible. Imagine the possibilities for cross-disciplinary student projects devoted to creating usable and accessible editions of scores for Emilie Mayer’s first and second symphonies, or modern editions of Vicente Lusitano’s book of motets, Liber primus epigramatum. These projects would bring together music scholars from various disciplines and would galvanize students and faculty toward a common and profoundly meaningful goal.
We also must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation. Though alternative learning resources exist, textbooks continue to be important and influential forces in defining the values and boundaries of a discipline. It is encouraging that W. W. Norton has contracted Rosa Abrahams, Philip Ewell, Aaron Grant, and Cora Palfy to write a new music theory textbook, The Engaged Musician: Theory and Analysis for the 21st Century (projected 2023), which Ewell describes as “a modernized, reframed, and inclusive textbook based on recent developments in music theory pedagogy.” The field of orchestration is in dire need of a similar textbook, with the backing of a publisher willing to help with the costs of reprinting copyright-protected musical excerpts by BIPOC and women composers in addition to curating selections from the public domain.
So many of our students and colleagues want to move beyond the canonic composers. Let’s keep working to get them the resources they need.
[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.
Co-hosts of the Trilloquy podcast Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship share their experiences with depression, therapy, medication, cannabis, creativity, and addiction. They also discuss how they continue to navigate their professional and personal relationship following Garrett’s controversial termination from American Public Media, the original owner of Trilloquy and parent company to Minnesota Public Radio, where the two worked together as broadcasters and Garrett served as the only Black classical music host. Scott and Garrett share how they put their relationship first, how they stay motivated in their work to decolonize classical music, and the importance of being vulnerable and honest in conversations surrounding mental health.
In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”
Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.
American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”
“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”
But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.
This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.
In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.
And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”
In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”
“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.
The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.
Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.
A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”
And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.
Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”
NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.
Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.
Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.” The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”
After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.
“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”
One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.
Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”
These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)
In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.
And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.
Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.
But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”
According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)
Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.
Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.
And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.
And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.
But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.
What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.
Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.
This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.
In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.
One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.
“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”
Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.
Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.
In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.
For many students, the traditional music theory core curriculum is an undesirable and yet unavoidable part of their college music experience. It becomes something to be suffered through, survived rather than savored. A critical source of this frustration is the disconnect between their musical lives inside the classroom and those outside it. Despite the fact that the majority of our students do not listen to Western art music regularly, nearly all of the core curriculum is based on it. Consequently, as students progress through their degree, they must endure the constant friction between the music they want to study and the music they have to study, between music they value and what music theory as an institution values.
In “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy,” I described how a theory curriculum devoted to a single style is inherently limited and inherently limiting. When we restrict ourselves to Western art music, we forgo the opportunity to speak about basic yet essential musical elements such as groove, timbre, improvisation, and post-production in styles where these are powerfully foregrounded.
Why then do we as a discipline remain so averse to change? Despite the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and the advent of new styles, new techniques, and new technologies of music creation, the topics we teach and the examples we use rarely reflect this. Instead, today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students, as those our teachers used as students, as those our teachers’ teachers used as students. The theory curriculum at too many institutions remains largely standardized and largely stagnant.
This is a problem.
Our unwarranted privileging of Western art music—a style constructed by white people as white, despite the historical and ongoing participation of people who aren’t—enables the dismissal of other styles of music and the people associated with those styles through unfavorable and unfair comparisons. How do we reconcile this with our many statements extolling the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity? Why do we continue to rely on a deeply flawed pedagogy?
We continue to rely on the traditional pedagogy for three interrelated reasons. First, given our extensive training in Western art music, we’re reluctant and often unable to divest ourselves from its contents. Second, because institutions prioritize research over teaching, we prioritize research over teaching. Finally, we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness of the curriculum because we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness in our lives.
When we rationalize our use of the traditional pedagogy by appealing to its contents, we attempt to transform a subjective preference into an objective truth. The specific set of skills that one acquires through studying Western art music becomes the necessary set of skills for any consequential study of music. But basing an entire core curriculum on any single style requires making major concessions about the musical elements we can talk about and the informed ways we can talk about them. Being able to harmonize chorales “correctly” means nothing if you’re looking to get up, get into it, and get involved. Conversely, asking if you can take it to the bridge won’t help you avoid parallel fifths.
Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why. Simple historical inertia—the replication of what we were taught as students—isn’t sufficient. If we appeal to “art for art’s sake,” we need to be explicit about whose art and, consequently, for whose sake. We need to talk about the metrics being used to determine what counts as art, who selects these metrics, and their reasons for doing so. We need to talk about how white male identity politics has shaped Western art music.
Our decision to use the traditional pedagogy is also motivated by how this impacts our careers. Institutions place a disproportionate weight on research relative to teaching, and this incentivizes perpetuation in the classroom, rather than innovation. Because the classical style is highly codified and relatively easy to teach, we can allocate more time and energy to research while still hitting established learning goals. Unfortunately, our longstanding pedagogical dependence on Western art music has conditioned us to expect certain results without asking if they matter, much less how they do, or to whom.
Contingent faculty have even less institutional incentive—and often less agency—to challenge the curriculum at the schools where they teach. The instability of employment and higher turnover rates means that any traction for innovative pedagogy is hard to establish and harder to maintain. In general, changes to the status quo, when they occur, tend to be fairly isolated.
Nevertheless, theory’s established historical pedigree does not absolve us from the moral necessity of questioning what it is we’re actually doing in the classroom. Well-established marginalization is, after all, still marginalization, and the generation of predictable results does not in itself mean that we are teaching our students what they should be learning. The bald assertion that the traditional pedagogy provides any and all necessary and fundamental knowledge needs to be defended, and I don’t believe it can be.
We present music almost exclusively by dead white European men under neutral course titles like “Basic Musicianship,” allowing the two to conflate into a tautological definition of what qualifies as “Real Music,” and re-inscribing racial and gender hierarchies in the process. We present Western art music as an unassailable good and our teaching of it as unassailably good. We present Western art music as an intellectual art form, a high art form, a better art form, and we do this in the service of an ideology that positions white identities, ideas, and ideals as superior.
We want to continue using the traditional pedagogy without acknowledging how it upholds white supremacy because we don’t want to acknowledge how we uphold white supremacy. We consistently downplay or deny the privileges whiteness provides and we consistently downplay or deny the ways we protect those privileges.
Today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students.
Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why.
Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. ... Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist.
Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. Studying Western art music is not racist in itself. Teaching Western art music is not racist in itself. Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist. Requiring all students to use a white lens to approach, understand, and critique music is racist.
As Michelle Ohnona and I wrote in “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” we need to engage with music and with the social and cultural mechanisms that shape it. We need to look past individual intent and acknowledge the cumulative impact of supporting a pedagogy that holds that a core curriculum based solely in Western art music is acceptable. To present this status quo as the natural order of things, without critique, is to uphold white supremacy.
The 2020 presidential election once again laid bare the ongoing thrall of white grievance and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. We can’t be impartial about this—oppression within education is a reflection and a reinforcement of oppression within society, and when we fail to address injustice, we ensure its continuance. Let us push back against the claimed inevitability of this insupportable curriculum.
The best thing we can do for our students is to embrace an engaged, transformative pedagogy in which, as bell hooks eloquently writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” This requires at least a realignment and probably a rethinking of what higher education is supposed to be.
With a transformative pedagogy, we recalibrate our classrooms into spaces where we acknowledge the humanity of our students and are explicit about how the work we do in the classroom relates to their lives outside of it. We talk openly with students and with each other about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of identity-based oppression. That this call to arms isn’t a new one only underscores its urgency. That these discussions aren’t necessarily easy only underscores their urgency.
As we teach students how to hear, interact with, and think about music, let’s also teach them to think critically, ask questions, self-reflect, and to care enough to do so. Let’s open their ears, eyes, and minds to voices and people that have been marginalized, to the stories that surround and support the notes, to the unheard music. We need to teach the humanities as a practice you take out into the world.
As with any enterprise involving the sowing of seeds, some will germinate immediately, some only after the passing of several years, and some not at all. This is okay. Now is the time for planting.
“I guess no music schools will accept the repertoire that I’m playing for my graduation recital, right?” My student paused, and then gazed back into his webcam. “I can take a year off, I guess.” His voice, heavy with frustration and disappointment, trailed off.
“Yeah,” I replied, not really thinking about it. “Most schools require Bach and Sor, at least. You might have to take a year off to learn that repertoire—”
I stopped, suddenly considering my own reaction to my student’s question. We both sat silently for a moment, considering the personal, artistic, and financial implications of a gap year. We both knew this wasn’t a feasible option. Even over Zoom, his posture seemed to collapse under the weight of this potential setback. No—this couldn’t be the answer.
My student, Matthew Briehl, is currently working on repertoire for his graduation recital at Arizona State University, where I’m an assistant professor. He’s committed to learning and highlighting the music of Black composers, and—with my enthusiastic approval—he has made the decision to only program works by composers of color on his graduation recital. His dedication demonstrates a level of initiative that few students possess. As an educator, this is something that I seek to encourage and cultivate within my studio. Yet, by encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers—an initiative that most music schools would seem to support, at least based on their recent statements—I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged those who aspire to apply for graduate study, festivals, competitions, and other opportunities.
In response to recent tragedies and the subsequent protests and public outcries, most major conservatories have made statements that condemn systemic racism and affirm allyship with individuals identifying as Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). These institutions have publicly declared intentions to create “a welcoming home for African American colleagues [and] all people of color” (Yale School of Music); to “tear down systemic racism and injustice” (The Juilliard School); to “embrace diversity, inclusion and equity” (Cleveland Institute of Music); and to “forge a new path of systemic inclusion” (San Francisco Conservatory of Music). There are many more I could include—I’m sure you’ve encountered similar language in statements issued by other leading performing arts organizations.
To be clear: These are admirable, worthy goals, and I’ve chosen these schools as examples because of their prominence. Many institutions have already detailed specific actions that will lead to measurable changes in both culture and curricula. But, in exploring these lists, I have yet to see any mention of audition repertoire. Institutional change is necessary, yes; but, if admissions requirements already exclude BIPOC, then institutional changes will remain surface-level and will do little to improve diversity and representation within our industry.
For auditioning classical guitarists, most music schools require: a piece by Bach; a major piece from the classical or romantic era; a 20th century work; and, occasionally, a contemporary piece. Among the programs I know of there isn’t one audition repertoire list that places emphasis on music by BIPOC and/or female composers. It is important to recognize that these lists often determine the repertoire that students select to learn during their most artistically formative years. Why take on additional repertoire that won’t contribute to educational and/or professional advancement?
I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this problem, too. I acknowledge that I have been complicit in this area of systemic exclusion, and I intend to create meaningful change within my own program. Previously, I have based my audition requirements on those of other US-based guitar programs without giving sufficient thought to the kind of program I seek to cultivate and the values I intend to uphold. But, my student’s recent comment forced me to recall my own days of learning and perfecting repertoire that I didn’t really relate to. As a Korean woman, it was exceedingly rare that my prepared audition repertoire could include music written by anyone I could identify with. As a performer, I’ve upheld a commitment to performing music by diverse composers. Further, I commission new works in an effort to expand the classical guitar’s contemporary repertoire so that it better reflects our current time and audience. As an educator, I strive to promote these values, and I intend to do better.
I’m proud of my students who seek out repertoire composed by BIPOC and women composers, and I’m grateful to my student who compelled me to confront a significant blind spot. I’m committed to making a change, and I want to show him that his voice and experience matter. We can—and must—become more inclusive.
You might argue: “Cool idea, but isn’t it a CLASSICAL guitar program?” Yes, it is a classical guitar program; however, in this context, the descriptor “classical” describes an instrument and specific style of playing. What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?
I often perform pieces that require live processing using Max/MSP and Ableton. Many wouldn’t define these works as strictly classical; however, these pieces make significant demands on the artistry and technique that I’ve only obtained through “classical” training. I teach my students the artistic and educational value of investing in contemporary works that represent the time in which we live, particularly works that incorporate technology. I also encourage my students to commission new works and engage in mindful programming—sometimes, you might have to exert a little more effort, but I assure you, BIPOC composers have contributed incredible, worthwhile works to the classical guitar repertoire. They’re there if you look for them.
Further, it’s important to recognize that classical works in the traditional canon often do not represent the background or experience of a student, particularly those who identify as BIPOC. This isn’t to say that the canon doesn’t hold educational or artistic value—I continue to teach these works, and I do not seek to condemn their validity or diminish their significance. Rather, I argue that we can and should expand opportunities for our students to engage with works that hold personal significance. We need to recognize that exclusive audition repertoire lists and recital requirements severely limit these opportunities.
Our industry and institutions have so much to gain if we truly open ourselves to the diverse voices that exist—and have existed for centuries!—within classical music. So, I challenge my colleagues across the country to examine their required repertoire lists for both auditions and graduation recitals. Ask yourselves—who do these lists exclude? Who do these lists benefit or advantage? How can I make these requirements a better reflection of our current time? How can these lists further institutional and/or industry goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion?
I pledge to make the following changes to my own audition requirements at Arizona State University:
Master of Music
- Three solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). *It is strongly encouraged to play at least one composition by a BIPOC or a female composer (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
- Applicants can also choose to demonstrate one (1) of their own compositions or an arrangement *optional
- OR a curated (themed) recital program could be submitted directly to the guitar faculty
Doctor of Musical Arts
- Four solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). The chosen works may all be by BIPOC or female composers. *It is strongly encouraged for a Doctoral applicant to include one piece by a BIPOC and a female composer. (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
- As per the Master’s audition requirements, original compositions/curated (themed) programs would be accepted as well
Here are some examples of current audition requirements at major music schools within the United States:
I would like to mention that Manhattan School of Music includes a female composer Joan Tower and a Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu as examples of pieces to play for the auditions.
Celebrating Holland, Bebey, and Casseus
If you have no idea where to look or even begin, please refer to the resources included at the end of this article. Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color. In the paragraphs below, I’ve highlighted three BIPOC composers.
Justin Holland (1819-1887) was an African American classical guitarist, composer, and arranger from the 19th century. Justin Holland’s classic method book is perfect for beginners. Referring to methods of Sor and Aguado, he says “They are poorly adapted to the use of beginners. All of the great Masters (Sor, Aguado, Giuliani) … Some omit elementary explanations, some harmonics, others have no mention of the great number of musical embellishments constantly occurring music…” Which I totally agree with. These Sor and Aguado books lack many important rudimentary explanations––so, if you don’t have a skilled teacher, these very popular method books can be a disaster for young guitarists. The first 15 pages of Holland’s method book carefully explain what it takes to play the instrument (fret visual mapping, posture, etc.) and to learn music (music theory, how to count time, etc). His original work Andante demonstrates his immense talent, and you can also see that he was a skilled arranger (Prof. Ernie is an amazing artist).
Francis Bebey (1929-2001) was a Cameroonian composer, guitarist, and writer. His works are very impressive—I especially love his composition Black tears. There is a lot happening in this piece––chromatic harmonies and African rhythms—and the emotions keep shifting to such different places, high then low, it’s dissonant for a moment and then it’s not—we are jolly for a moment—ah—not anymore. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a piece, and it requires a tremendous level of musicianship to execute well. “Black African Music is not meant just for the ear but for all the senses and faculties of the body. It reflects Africa’s vision of the world on earth and the world beyond, a world of change and movement, a world in permanent search of betterment and perfection.” (Bebey 1974) I’ve listened to this piece over and over again, and I’m in love with it.
Frantz Casseus (1915–1993) was a Haitian-born composer, guitarist, and arranger who emigrated to the United States in 1946. He was also the teacher of Marc Ribot (who is one of my favorite guitarists and who wrote a great article about Casseus). He had an active performing career which sadly came to a halt in the ‘70s due to tendonitis in his left hand. His composition Haitian Dances from the mid-20th century incorporates classical writing combined with Haitian folk songs and jazz. It’s one-of-a-kind and absolutely gorgeous, and I’d love to see this piece valued as a 20th century major work. This quote from Ribot sums up the perpetual problem Casseus faced during his career: “… [He] lived as a black man in a United States whose southern racists wouldn’t let him stay in the hotels where he performed and whose northern liberals had difficulty accepting his work as classical, preferring to hear it within a “folk” context when they heard it at all.” (Ribot 2003). Let’s not be those “northern liberals”—it’s fantastic, worthwhile music.
As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues; beyond this, we need to adapt and move forward as society makes progress. We can’t just shout the buzzwords “diversity, inclusion, and equality!” and then not take initiative when we have opportunities to do so. We cannot continue to dismiss diverse voices because they don’t adhere neatly to our “classical” definitions. I’m planning to do better. Are you with me?
I’d like to thank Liz Lerman and Deanna Swodoba for inviting me to ASU’s transformation group and for helping me to recognize systemic abuse. A million thanks to my student Matthew Briehl who has inspired me to make changes. And another million thanks to my dearest friend Hilary Purrington who has generously helped with this article.
Bebey, Francis. “The Vibrant Intensity of Traditional African Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 2, no. 2, 1974, pp. 117–121.
Ribot, Marc. “Frantz Casseus. BOMB Magazine, January 2003.
Grenier, Robert. “La Mélodie Vaudoo. Voodoo Art Songs: The Genesis of a Nationalist Music in the Republic of Haiti.” Black Music Research Journal 21, no. 1 (2001): pp. 29-74.
Back in July, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called for an end to the practice of blind auditions. “If ensembles are to reflect the communities they serve,” he wrote, “the audition process should take into account race, gender and other factors.”
Unsurprisingly, this suggestion received heavy backlash. Between the Culture Wars, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the strong opinions of those in the music world, such a statement was bound to ruffle feathers. Pitting what’s seen as meritocracy in its purest form against the diversity standards of the day was doomed from the start. To progressives, Tommasini’s piece was hollow and missed the point. To conservatives, it was sheer blasphemy.
Tommasini’s suggestion came from a well-meaning place: one of newfound discomfort with the status quo. It would be ungenerous to discount the value of that response. At the same time, why diversity matters to classical music was not examined at all.
I’ve called for an end to the practice of blind auditions for years. To me, Tommasini’s piece was both unpersuasive and incomplete.
To make a contentious change requires the buy-in of many different kinds of people. One person’s call for “representation” is another’s outrage at “quotas.” I believe we can—and should—elevate this conversation past that endless, tiresome tug-of-war.
Rather than going in circles, I ask: what would have to be true for all of us to agree on the potential benefits of revising the process?
What follows is taken in part from a piece I wrote in February of 2018, updated for relevance.
For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices. Yet the merit-based method reveals one of classical music culture’s most problematic assumptions. It comes with a host of undesirable consequences — one of which recently blew up in our faces.
The assumption in question: How you sound is all that matters.
As a result of this belief, candidates aren’t interviewed. References are not required. When you walk into an audition, you aren’t allowed to speak or wear perfume. A rogue cough can betray your gender. Best not to wear clacking heels for the same reason.
As you enter the audition room in silence, a proctor announces you by number. You then play behind a screen. As a result, the judging panel doesn’t know the first thing about you. Not your age, your race, your gender. Not your pedigree, or where you went to school. Nothing.
Certainly, this process has had a tremendously equalizing effect. For starters: blind auditions have made it possible for women to make tremendous inroads into orchestras.
I believe I’ve been saved by the screen myself. At 23, I played for a concertmaster in the weeks leading up to an audition for his orchestra. He didn’t seem to take me very seriously. I left the coaching feeling a bit pessimistic about my chances. After winning the audition, he told me I was a “great artist.” I‘m pretty sure he wouldn’t have felt that way had he known it was me back there all along.
But in the wake of #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, I ask whether “how well you play” is really all that matters in the musical workplace.
Let’s get this out of the way. For a job in the field of musical performance, nothing matters more than how you sound. In this piece, I hope to make the case for letting other relevant things matter, too.
Tempting as it is, let’s not fall into an all-or-nothing false binary here. Sound doesn’t matter “less” by widening our circle to include other factors. The whole point here is additive.
Even if we believe that how you sound is all that matters, the meritocratic foundation of the concept itself doesn’t hold water. To pick a “winner” who “sounds the best” is not objectively possible. Sure, there can be a general consensus—but never a universal one.
That’s because there is no “universal best” to which all players aspire. In music, excellence at the highest level is measured in abstractions that are deeply, intangibly personal. My colleague Kevin Kumar wrote about this beautifully in his piece, The #1 Violinist in the World.
Consider the following: musicians generally accept that anyone who gets to the finals is qualified for the job, and would fit into the fabric of the orchestra just fine. This truth is especially consoling when the runner-up is you.
Sometimes, on a different day, things could have gone a different way. We all have off days: before auditions, I always used to tell myself, “I wish everyone the best. I just hope my best is better today.”
Plus, the composition of the listening committee can determine who comes out on top on any given day. Swap a committee member or two and you might have a different “best” player based on the collective, subjective taste of those listening that day.
The audition procedure of each orchestra also comes into play here. Does the conductor get to choose from among the committee’s top few? What if the conductor’s opinion is different from the committee’s majority vote? Who played “the best,” or “deserved to win,” in that instance? I’ve personally been both the subject of and a participant in these very situations on both sides of the screen.
At a certain point, “winning” an audition is like catching lightning in a bottle. My own mother once cautioned me against resigning from an orchestra for fear that I wouldn’t be able to “get back in.” While it would have been easy to take that as an insult, she was simply being realistic.
Compare that with the following anecdote. In my early twenties, I had a mentor who helped me prepare for auditions. I’ll never forget her telling me that I had to play with such conviction that the committee would have “no choice” but to name me the winner.
This was a motivating, inspiring, romantic, and idealistic instruction. It’s the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly, motivating you to maximize the one thing you can control: yourself. Your preparation level, commitment, passion, and nerves of steel. It’s exactly the kind of thing you need to hear when preparing for an audition.
But while my mentor’s guidance was both motivating and attractive, it wasn’t as realistic as my mother’s. And here’s the thing: neither of them were wrong. My mentor was right that I needed to do everything in my power to improve my chances. And my mother was right that my chances were exactly that: chances.
Given the above, surely there is room to take more of the person into account. Qualities, experiences, skills, and interests that would further the cause of art music above and beyond “how much more beautifully” the winner played than the runners-up.
Who knows what else they might have been able to bring to the table?
Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music. Maybe how well you play isn’t where what matters begins and ends. After all, orchestral and chamber music are team sports. Are you likely to “play your best,” anyway, while seething with rage at—or being psychologically tortured by—your stand partner or principal?
When you audition for a string quartet, both musical and personal chemistry matter. What brings out the best in others is ineffable. It’s laughable to contemplate a blind, screened string quartet audition. Why should orchestral auditions be so different?
What other fields vet only one dimension of every job applicant? To assume that someone’s playing tells you everything you need to know about them is simply false. It’s naive at best and dangerous at worst.
Worshipping sound at the expense of character has had consequences beyond missed opportunities. Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players. But with no other vetting of any kind, many of them are as interpersonally difficult as they are musically skilled. Much of the time, they cannot stand each other, and dysfunction abounds.
When orchestras have the great good fortune of hiring a player who also happens to be charismatic, generous, and full of good ideas, they go absolutely bananas milking that person for all they are worth. Imagine being able to harness that energy from not a small handful of serendipitous hires, but from an entire symphony’s worth of carefully-considered candidates. Imagine if the orchestral audition process included not only blind listening, an interview, and references, but also:
- a trial lesson for an underprivileged, gifted child
- public speaking
- a chamber music concert and a new music concert
- a thorough review of what the candidate brings to the table, including his or her capacity to serve as an effective advocate for the art form
I’m not saying these things are “more important” than sounding good. I’m saying: sound good, and…
As a dear friend put: “even Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuit competition.” I’m the Co-Director of Salastina, a non-profit chamber music series, in Los Angeles. My colleague Kevin Kumar and I play and work closely with wonderful people who are superlative musicians—and… terrific advocates for music.
We value both. We believe in their mutually amplifying capacity. And we have faith in the long-term cultural impact of that belief.
Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process. If the culture of classical music seeks to enhance its relevancy and diversify its ranks, a more comprehensive approach to auditions would be a wonderful place to start.
There’s something sad and insufficient about post-graduate educational efforts to diversify orchestras. Well-meaning as such designated residencies are, they do too little too late. It’s hard to imagine how a person of color truly improves his or her odds of winning a screened audition simply by having sat in a designated “minority residency” chair for a year or two. In 2016, the League of American Orchestras published this study showing that these residencies just don’t work on the whole.
At the same time, I see their value as baby steps. They have the potential to ever-so-slowly steer the Titanic of musicians’ opinions, thereby improving the chances for more meaningful conversations about orchestral hiring practices down the line.
When it comes to diversity, blind auditions haven’t been a complete bust. They have helped the advancement of women: Asian and white women like me. Beyond that, what truly impedes greater diversity in American orchestras is our insistence on the false assumption that sound is all that matters.
Recently, Irshad Manji wrote beautifully on the merits of diversifying the workplace in “White Fragility Is Not the Answer. Honest Diversity Is” for the Heterodox Academy (July 7, 2020). Her piece helped me reframe anew the friction between creating a vibrant, synergistic workforce and current orchestral hiring priorities.
According to Manji, “honest diversity… recognizes that each of us, whatever our labels, is a multifaceted plural.” Manji contrasts this with dishonest diversity, which “slices and dices individuals into categories, as if directing people to their assigned places.”
Does the following statement sound familiar? “We can have diversity or we can have quality. We can’t have both.”
It’s a mainstay of the culture wars. And blind auditions make a fertile battleground.
But what if a variety of more nuanced artistic skills were equated with quality when considering the sum total of a musician? Powerfully, Manji suggests: “Honest diversity starts with the desire for varied perspectives and rectifies representation to fulfill that desire. To begin the other way around — representation in the hopes of diverse thinking — is to incite needless friction.”
She speaks of having the integrity to value more than diversity data points. I would add that valuing more than how a candidate sounds—on any given day, compared to those present, and to the ears of those who just so happen to be listening—is also a question of artistic integrity.
Here’s where I felt The New York Times piece left itself vulnerable to criticism from all sides. It framed metrics as an expedient end goal. It piggy-backed off of the death of George Floyd to make a statement about the uncomfortable lack of black representation within American orchestras.
But it didn’t get into what really matters about diversity in a compelling way. The why of it all was shallow and implied. As a result, the piece came across as opportunistic on the one hand and inflammatory on the other. It didn’t invite the buy-in of people who all want “the best”—and “fairly”—but have different ideas about what that looks like.
Don’t get me wrong: winning a blind audition fair and square feels AWESOME. It’s a notch on your belt that feels about as objective as success can get. And believe me: we cling to these victories like our lives depend on them. (They actually do.)
Who would want to disband a club into which they’ve rightfully earned entry? It’s too easy—and all too human—for the ego to bristle at the prospect. It’s threatening, like the sudden devaluation of prestige, or the dismantling of personal identity. And that’s to say nothing of decades of back-breaking work, unrelenting focus, and significant financial investment.
I say the following with all due respect. Musicians use the idea that “how you sound is all that matters” as both a source of pride and a crutch. It excuses bad behavior. It justifies narrow-mindedness. And it’s its own kind of complacency.
What if expanding our values system to include other skills and qualities weren’t a devaluation of the importance of sound, but an invitation to go deeper? Manji put this idea beautifully: “wholeness, by definition, is not a zero-sum game.”
I suspect many orchestral musicians would welcome this kind of shift. How many of us have felt hamstrung, restless, under-utilized, and stifled as a result of the narrow requirements of our jobs? Greg Sandow observed in “Not So Satisfied” that orchestral musicians have slightly lower job satisfaction than federal prison guards. (Those with the highest? String quartet players.) At the same time, orchestral musicians boast the greatest “internal motivation.” My husband likens this phenomenon to “keeping a Ferrari in the garage.”
At the same time, how many administrators have earnestly tried to reverse-engineer additional opportunities for orchestral musicians? Inviting them to become more involved with things above and beyond rehearsals and concerts? Sometimes, these efforts have lovely results; other times, they fall flat.
Most of my 20s was about muscling my way into the orchestral world. Most of my 30s was about gradually transitioning out of it—in part because I felt so musically and intellectually constrained. It’s precisely why a friend and I started Salastina 10 years ago.
But not everyone can, or should, go there. Resources and chutzpah are finite. Perhaps it’s up to the larger institutions themselves to prioritize making musical practice less limited, and limiting, for musicians. Inviting more from us—and more of us—from the start would be a great point of departure.
Again, I come back to the concept of “honest diversity.” It is not self-motivated, either deployed in the service of earning woke points or clung to desperately as a key to survival. It’s not even simply a moral imperative. Rather, honest diversity is intrinsic to creating vibrant, meaningful, synergistic workplaces, cultural institutions, and art.
As Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott wrote in “Advancing Inclusion: Creative Ways Musicians Can Take the Lead,” the job description for an orchestral position is usually limited to just two words. “Section Violin.” “Principal Clarinet.” “Associate Principal Double Bass” clocks in at four.
What if more thought and care were put into crafting musicians’ job descriptions? What if these job descriptions reflected the unique needs of each orchestra—and the communities they serve? What if skin color and gender diversity followed naturally from prioritizing different perspectives and life experiences as a part of the process, rather than an antagonizing insistence on ever-narrowing metrics?
What’s more, orchestral musicians tend to stay in their posts for decades. What if the creation of each job description were treated more like a mini-strategic planning session? One that takes into account where the orchestra is likely to be in five, ten, twenty, or even thirty years?
It is my opinion that blind listening should always be an important part of the hiring process. But who knows how dramatically musical culture would shift if we valued a more well-rounded kind musicianship?
So what to do? The days of a one-size-fits-all, un-nuanced, and even toxic prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over. It’s up to individual organizations and communities to determine how best to navigate hiring the most qualified candidates for their particular needs.
What kind of dynamics, literal and figurative, would change for the better? What kind of vibrancy would enter the field? What kind of relevance to today’s world would more naturally emerge from the art form?
What else might we not have to force quite so hard, if we could just loosen our grip on an assumption that’s as tenacious as it is problematic?
I’m feeling like it’s high time we found out.
I’d like to thank the following people for their many insights into this conversation, both recently and over the years: Derrick Spiva Jr., Reena Esmail, Simon Woods, Alexander Laing, Vijay Gupta, my husband Philip White, and my work-husband, Kevin Kumar.
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.
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 institute of composer diversity, which includes a database of composers as well as recommendations around programming for different types of ensembles.
- Music by black composers, replete with educational resources and a director of living black composers
- Sound and Music has some interesting ideas around correcting historical bias when hosting competitions.
- A recent list of non-idiomatic music by black composers by Marques L. A. Garrett
- MuzikSea, a publishing company focused on choral music by Southeast Asian composers
- PanaMusica, a company with a selection of choral works by Japanese composers
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.
Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
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.
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?