Black musicians call for an end to racism in the classical music industry

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Arnold, founding member of the Black Orchestral Network.

By Nadira Jamerson | word in black

(WIB) – Every few months, the claim that Ludwig van Beethoven was black pops up on social media, and people get excited about the possibility that one of the greats of classical music is a brother. No one knows for sure what secrets Beethoven’s family tree contains. But it also reminds us that at school we never learn the names of the equally talented classical musicians and composers of Beethoven’s time. who were for sure Black.

Fast forward 300 years since Beethoven’s bewigged era and it turns out that black composers, conductors and musicians are still being marginalized and erased from the realm of classical music.

That’s why on Monday, May 9, 2022, the Black Orchestral Network, a “collective of black orchestral musicians dedicated to creating an inclusive and equitable environment for black people in the orchestral realm” is hosting a Solidarity Day.

The network, which is made up of members from more than 40 orchestras, wants to end pervasive racial bias in the classical music industry, including around auditions and tenure.

“For it to be 2022, and for orchestras to have zero or one, black person in communities that are often majority black cities — like Detroit or Chicago — doesn’t work. Blacks can do anything. What can’t we do? It just doesn’t stick.

JENNIFER ARNOLD FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE BLACK ORCHESTRAL NETWORK.

According to 2014 data from the League of American Orchestras, black musicians made up less than 2% of all orchestral musicians.

Alongside the day of action, Arnold and other network members penned an open letter, which provides the framework for a future where black artists can “see and focus on the history and future of orchestral community”.

“It’s a call to action. It gives a bit of history about how we got here and the little things we’ve seen in orchestras that have affected our lives as orchestral musicians,” says Arnold. “Truly, this is a call to action for managers, board members, music directors, funders and our union — to say enough is enough. We’ve had these conversations for 40 or 50 years. Let’s move. It’s time to move.

One of the Black Orchestra Network’s immediate plans is to increase the amount of data collected on the inclusion of black musicians in the field. Without data, Arnold says there’s no way to gauge who is being supported by the funding given to these orchestras.

“In the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians, which are the most important orchestras in the country, we don’t know how many [Black people] are in these orchestras. One of our calls to action is to collect data, so we know how many people are in these orchestras.

Additionally, the open letter supports the implementation of auditioning behind a screen to ensure fair criticism throughout the audition process. Through this process, the musician’s skin color cannot be seen. Only the quality of their game is heard.

Although many orchestras have promised to implement this practice in the past, Arnold says most orchestras do not.

“Several years ago a group of us, some of us who were part of that founding group, went to the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians, and we suggested that they use screens . At the time, they actually ratified in their conference that they were suggesting all orchestras keep their screens on throughout the audition. That was at least five years ago. This has been suggested before, and very few orchestras still do it.

The exclusion of black musicians from orchestras is partly due to the tenure process of many orchestras, which allows musicians to occupy their seats for forty or even fifty years. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many orchestral musicians have retired or found other professions. There are currently an unprecedented number of open seats in orchestras across the country, and Arnold says those seats need to be filled with black musicians.

“We’ve never seen so many openings in the orchestra, and if we don’t diversify these orchestras now and welcome black people in now, these chairs will be filled for the next forty or fifty years,” she says. .

Overall, Arnold says black musicians are tired of waiting for the unmet improvements they were promised years ago. Solidarity Day is a symbol for everyone that they must act now.

” We talked. The resolutions have taken place. Nope cash arrived. Now we’re at the point where we’re saying that’s no longer acceptable. We will – we will push for change, we will shout for change and demand change.

JENNIFER ARNOLD FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE BLACK ORCHESTRAL NETWORK.

She says she and the rest of the Black Orchestral Network want black musicians to know that there is a place for them in classical music and that there are people fighting for their success.

“It’s really important for black people to realize that we have a space here – we’ve had a space here. We are here. This music is for you,” says Arnold. “It’s also important that young people realize that this is a career path. The main reason I’m doing this is because it’s a career path that I love and my life has been so enriched by music. I want to make sure there are more opportunities for people who follow.

Arnold realizes that due to the persistence of prejudice, the industry may never give enough recognition to black musicians. Either way, she says, the Black Orchestral Network plans to continue using its platform to create an inclusive environment where black musicians can work together to meet the needs of other black musicians.

Alice P. Darby