Orchestras around the country, including the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, have little to no African-American representation, especially for instrumentalists.
This week, WBFO’s Nick Lippa is highlighting some local African-American classical musicians starting with Dr. Rick Fleming, a trombonist and conductor who currently teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College.
Fleming has developed quite the resume, playing for the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and Frankie Valli. As a conductor and band director, he has been active since the early 1990s where he stocked up accolades at schools in Orlando. His road to his position as director of bands at Buffalo State started with an education based in classical music in Mississippi, where football is the law of the land.
“A neighbor right across the street from me played for the Cleveland Browns. The neighbor around the block from me played for the Chicago Bears Super Bowl team. They were really good athletes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one,” Fleming laughed.
“I tried out for football early on. I was neither fast nor big nor very coordinated. So I got cut from the football team after like a day or so. And then I joined band, because a couple friends of mine got in band. I actually started band late by most standards. I think it was eighth grade. That’s kind of late.”
It wasn’t long before Fleming was playing in marching band and other ensembles.
His high school band director at the time happened to be the principal tuba player for an orchestra in Jackson. Through him, he was exposed to several classical works.
“A lot of the classical stuff like, I heard the Dies Irae from (Hector) Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. He was sitting in the band room playing it. I didn’t know what it was,” Fleming said and then started singing the melody.
Fleming said his teacher gave him free lessons in the summer and helped provide a solid foundation on the trombone.
He went on to participate in groups like All-County Band, but at the time Fleming said he wasn’t in love with the music. He just enjoyed being in band.
Fleming got a band scholarship and attended Mississippi Valley State University where he played with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra as a sophomore. That’s when everything started to click.
“I never shall forget, I heard the first trombone solo out of the Mahler Third Symphony and it just made me fall in love with music. Not band, music.”
Once he graduated, he went to Ole Miss to get a performance degree and for a few years played in Tupelo, Mississippi—an area whose claim to fame is the birthplace of Elvis.
It was during these years he took on a wide variety of jobs, including one with a rodeo band.
“It was the H Bar H rodeo band,” Fleming said. “And the guy who led the band was named Bart Cummings. Great tuba player, but crazy guy. When I first saw him, these were his words because I had this little tie, ‘Get that goddamn tie off!’ Then he tells the guy, ‘Tell him I’m just kidding.’”
It’s experiences like these that help provide a different kind of education.
“I played in that group for two summers traveling around in a Subaru. To the day I don’t like small cars because it was just painful to ride in. So we travel around in a Subaru. Go to place like Paragould, Arkansas and Paris, Tennessee. Just really off the beaten path of society. So I was playing that. A Friday and Saturday night gig. It paid $200.”
To this point, it was Fleming’s social life, teachers, and exposure to works like Mahler’s Third leading him to pursue a career in music.
During this time, Fleming said he didn’t know of any African-American classical musicians. “I remember when I was a junior in college, Empire Brass came through and did a concert there. And one of the founding members of the Empire Brass was a black gentleman. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I just didn’t see that.’”
That gentleman was trumpet player Charles Lewis Jr., who now is the associate professor of brass at the Berklee College of music in Boston.
“I remember when I was a junior in college, Empire Brass came through and did a concert there. And one of the founding members of the Empire Brass was a black gentleman. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I just didn’t see that.’”
Founded in 1972, the Empire Brass Quintet gained international notoriety by consistently booking concerts, holding several recording dates, teaching at Boston University, and visiting schools. In other words, they made sure they were seen, like on this episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
To this day, the Empire Brass continues to have African-American representation in their ensemble. Tuba player Kenneth Amis first met the group at a summer camp in Massachusetts. He saw their performance and decided to pursue studying with them at Boston University.
In addition to becoming a member of the Empire Brass in 1993, he went on to help create the MIT Wind Ensemble and is currently their assistant conductor.
“Sometimes you have to see one to be one,” Fleming said.
From rodeo band member to middle school teacher to getting his PHD in music education with an emphasis in wind band conducting from Florida State, Fleming eventually made his way to Buffalo in 2001.
Reflecting on his decades of experience, Fleming said the key to seeing more African-Americans in orchestra starts with better music education in urban schools.
“Typically, classical music is like anything else. You start in a pool. The pool gets smaller, the pool gets smaller, the pool gets smaller until you get up to the elite,” he said. “If you don’t have any kids in that pool in the first place, then the chances of them getting up to the elite are slim. When they are closing instrumental programs in urban settings, that’s not good for this.”
“If a kid does not have the background, then chances are of them getting in to a solid school of music are slim. Therein lies the ‘it.’ If you just really want to just drill down to the real essence of the problem, it’s music programs in urban settings. Unfortunately, instrumental music, band, orchestra, chorus, things like that, it’s almost becoming a suburban perk. That is, from my perspective, the iceberg underneath the water.”
It is common knowledge music departments are often the first to be considered for school cuts. It’s no different in the city of Buffalo. Just a year ago, City Honors planned to cut 5.5 teaching jobs in order to pay for 16-teacher aides. The music department would have lost two teachers and faced threats of being disbanded.
After protests and a labor dispute between the Buffalo Public Schools and teachers union, an arbitrator ruled in favor of keeping City Honors teachers from being removed.
In 2013 there were music cuts that included seven teachers while ending programs in 14 schools, along with cuts in four others.
So why does it seem like music programs are becoming a ‘suburban perk’ if they are not already?
The Buffalo Public Schools deal with different problems that need additional funding.
A Buffalo News article released last November talks about the challenges of teaching a student base that speaks 83 languages. It asks, ‘Where do you find qualified teachers who speak those languages?’
Hiring aides who are multi-lingual becomes a priority. Cuts in other areas often follow.
Teachers like current Hutch-Tech band director Amy Steiner, who was considered one of the top 25 music educators in the country by the Grammy Foundation in 2018, would argue music helps with students who don’t speak English. That is exactly what she did in 2013 when she was band director of International School 45.
Fleming said the issues Buffalo Public Schools face today are almost the same from the day he arrived nearly two decades ago.
“The challenge here is that people are not looking at it programmatically,” Fleming said. “Which means to say we got a music program means that we got theater programs. This elementary school now feeds this middle school. This middle school now feeds this high school. You see how it goes? That has been the tried and true way of having a productive music school. A music program, notice I’m using that word program, and that program includes beginners all the way up to the advanced. And that’s unfortunately what’s missing. I think money is a part of it, but I also think people valuing it is as much of the challenge as money. It has been my experience, what people value they support.”
Fleming said schools often will pay high amounts of money for sports programs as financial challenges present themselves. He feels it reflects societal values.
“Look at the number of sports stations you have on TV. ESPN, ESPN 2… I’m not knocking it. I was at the gym watching it myself. But you don’t have that in the arts,” Fleming said. “The United States has good arts not because of, but in spite of. Because a few people who value it and put money in to it. Collectively, I don’t see it being valued in our country.”
While conducting in Hungry, Fleming had time to reflect on cultural differences when it comes to classical music.
“We went to the opera (one) night. The thing that was so surprising, you had young people coming there,” he said. “They were dressed to the nines. I’m thinking, ‘You don’t see that in the United States. Not that demographic. You see older people.’ And it dawned on me. This is their art form and they value it.”
This segues to another issue—the perception of a professional instrumentalist. Fleming said typically, middle class African-American parents don’t push their kids in to music professionally.
“They’ll let them be in band or chorus or orchestra. But they want them to get ‘real careers in the world’. Being a doctor or lawyer or whatever the case may be,” Fleming said. “You have that stigma also on classical music with middle class blacks. They’re like, ‘Son, okay you are going to go to Julliard and spend a gazillion dollars a year and you going to get a job paying $55,000 a year? Really? Does that makes sense?’ Because that’s true. Even if they get in to a ‘B’ orchestra that’s going to be in-between $50,000-$60,000. If you pay $60,000 a year to go to school, you could come out with a debt of $200,000 plus… Some people don’t see it as a practical career.”
And then there’s a matter of access. For a kid to join an orchestra, you have to secure an instrument.
“Well, that becomes a major hindrance,” Fleming said. “If a kids going to do well, mom and dad would have to secure lessons. That becomes even more of a hindrance. If a kid wants to play basketball, they get to climb up, and I’ve seen it, on the light posts outside. Take the spokes out of an old bicycle tire. Nail it to that post, and now you have (a place to play) basketball. The real thing is access. It’s just access, it really is.”
So what happens if you do pursue a passion for classical music? What happens after you get your degree(s)?
“It’s hard to secure a position in a major orchestra that can pay you enough money to pay your bills,” said Fleming. “There are not a lot of them and we are very fortunate to have the BPO. But the rigor of that audition man, you could have 200 people for one job.”
Fleming took a lesson from African-American trombonist Stephen Wilson years ago who at the time played in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
“He said to me, ‘I took 24 auditions before I landed a job.’ Could you imagine someone saying 'no' to you 24 times before you get a job?”
In a September 1985 article in Ebony magazine titled, ‘What’s Behind The Shortage Of Blacks In Symphony Orchestras?’ Wilson is quoted saying he had 24 auditions with major orchestras and in two instances felt his color, not his talent, was the determining factor.
That same article quotes Daniel Windham, who at the time was the educational activities director of the New York Philharmonic. He said, “If the opportunity for receiving an introduction to classical music is missing, then how can someone have a notion that this is a potential career?”
“You got to get to a decent school. If you are going to study trumpet, you need to get to a school where there’s a good trumpet teacher there. And then, if you are going to do graduate work, you need to get in to a graduate school that has a great orchestra,” Fleming said.
“The key is, that a lot of people don’t understand, not only do you need to learn how to play, but you need to learn their orchestral rep. And very few colleges got orchestras that can play a Bruckner or a Mahler… They have to get to a place where they can play in an orchestra and learn that rep. Therein lies the ‘it.’ So when they get ready to play an audition, that’s not the first time they’ve ever played Petrushka or Mahler or Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. So early training is the key.”
While the overall issue is complex, Fleming thinks one thing is straightforward. If there is more access, you will see more representation.
“Don’t go to a B or A orchestra and go, ‘There are not any African-Americans’. You go to the city and go, ‘Let’s see, how many thriving string programs are there? How many of these kids are in a good solid instrumental program?’ That’s what you start counting. You don’t go to the orchestra and go, you don’t have it. No. That’s backwards. How many of them are having an opportunity to go to a good school, a solid school to study. That’s where the counting starts,” Fleming said.