Where are the Black musicians in the country's largest orchestras?

It's unclear if Black representation in orchestras around the United States has gotten better since 2014, when the League of American Orchestras published a study on diversity and found that only 1.4% of orchestra musicians were Black. (Photo via Pixabay)

In 2014, the League of American Orchestras, a service organization representing professional and amateur symphony orchestras around the United States, published a study on diversity and found that only 1.4% of orchestra musicians were Black.

In 2022, it’s hard to say if that figure has gotten better or worse, said Jennifer Arnold, a co-founder of the Black Orchestral Network. Arnold spent 15 seasons playing viola with the Oregon Symphony and now is director of artistic planning and operations for the Richmond Symphony.

“There’s a real need to actually be transparent about what’s happening in the industry, in terms of Black people,” Arnold said. “We do not know how many Black people are in orchestras. And I say that as a representative of Black Orchestral Network. One of our calls is, let’s start collecting data. Let’s find out, have we done better than the 1.4% number that is going out there? That 1.4% is kind of based on well, “I see a Black person on that stage in that orchestra.” That’s not data.”

In harpist Ann Hobson Pilot’s experience, Black musicians in orchestras can feel isolated. She told a podcast produced by the Black Orchestral Network that when she joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1969, she was its very first Black musician.

“When I looked around the orchestra, I didn’t see anyone in there that looked like me,” she said. “And it was another 20 years before another Black player was hired, which is Owen Young, the wonderful cellist. And when I left 20 years later, Owen Young became the only black player in the BSO.” He still is.

The Black Orchestral Network arose out of ad hoc Zoom gatherings during the pandemic and after the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. But the participants decided to make it a formal organization. Alex Laing, who plays clarinet with the Phoenix Symphony, said they wanted to become “an advocacy group, a group to speak to the experience of what it is to orchestra — the verb — as a Black person and how to support that in all of the places that it’s happening, not just professional ranks.”

One of the first things they did was send out a call to action in an open letter titled, “Dear American Orchestras.” The website lists 60 Black orchestral musicians from around the country who signed it. “We took inspiration from what we’d seen from the theater world and the dance world,” said Laing. “We wanted to articulate a point of view and speak to our experience and then also articulate a vision for the future.”

Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a lobbying group and the organization that commissioned the 2014 study, said that orchestras in the United States have “traditionally been a pretty white space.”

The League has been looking at equity, diversity and inclusion in its ranks. “There is deep urgency in our field for change,” Wood said. He added that the League is currently working on an update to their earlier study.

Still, change comes with challenges. For one, the “blind” audition process, meant to avoid bias by having musicians play behind screens, is integral to the creation of gender parity in orchestras, but has not lead to an increase in Black musicians. The Black Orchestral Network’s Arnold said that’s because who is hired depends on who is invited to audition.

“A lot of orchestras aren’t transparent about the fact that they don’t have fully blind auditions,” she said. In other words, plenty of those who audition are able to bypass the screen.

The other roadblock to change is a tenure system, which means that job openings are often few and far between. Shea Scruggs, an administrator at the Curtis Institute of Music who formerly played oboe with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said there’s no shortage of qualified Black musicians for orchestral jobs, even though many people frame the lack of representation as a problem with the pipeline

“To say we need youth music programs, or it’s happening at the conservatory level; basically, to frame challenges around diversity in a way that absolves orchestras from being part of the problem” is an issue, he said.

Because there is a pipeline. The Sphinx Organization, based in Detroit, supports young Black and Latinx musicians, the Gateways Music Festival in Rochester features musicians of color from around the country, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recently appointed Jonathon Heyward, a 29-year-old conductor of color, to take over as music director in the fall of 2023.

Mark Hanson, president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra said that’s an excellent step, but the organization needs to better reflect its community: “Not just the orchestra itself, but the staff,” he said, “the board, our donors, our partners, and ultimately our audience.”

Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is addressing its lack of diversity by creating a Resident Fellowship program for two early career Black musicians this fall. Gail Samuel, the BSO’s president and CEO, said she believes diverse voices are essential for the survival of orchestras: “We need to commit ourselves and our organizations to changing the systems, and the structures, and the policies that have excluded Black musicians for far too long.”

Black Orchestral Network co-founder Laing said he hopes the questions they’ve raised will lead to a real change in mindset. “Who is this space for?” Laing asked. “Who is it designed to make comfortable? And whose presence in there upsets that? So, these are the conversations that we’re interested in having.”

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