African-Americans currently make up less than two percent of larger orchestra members in the United States. That lack of representation is a struggle for many groups, including the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The dream of many aspiring musicians is to, one day, play with a prominent symphonic orchestra. Once a musician has completed years of school, potentially accrued a substantial amount of debt, and studied the repertoire necessary to audition, you may be vying for one spot among more than 100 applicants.
It’s not uncommon for a professional musician to audition over 20 times before finally landing a job. As Cincinnati Symphony principal viola player Christian Colberg once said, “From a statistical chance, it’s probably easier to get into the NBA."
Candidates from across the globe apply for positions at A/B level orchestras, racking up many costs for preliminary round candidates. Once you arrive, auditions are often screened. This is so the audition committee won’t be able to identify you by race, religion, or sex.
So if you are an orchestra like the BPO and have no African-American instrumentalists, how do you address the issue?
“We can play more music by African-American/Latino composers and woman composers. We can hire more people as our soloists, as our guest conductors,” said BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta.
Exposure to classic music itself is a priority as well.
“We know that not all schools are able to provide [music education]. We’ve stepped in,” said Falletta. “We now offer free concerts for every person in the Buffalo school system, from first grade through sixth. They come every year. Other orchestras offer one concert in their entire educational experience. One in the fourth grade.”
A 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras found that between 1980 and 2014, the proportion of non-white musicians on the stage saw a four-fold increase. This was driven mostly by an increase in musicians with an Asian/Pacific Islander background.
African American and Hispanic/Latino musicians still make up less than 3% in larger orchestras, although their numbers are doubled when it comes to smaller orchestras.
That same study points out it’s the opposite for conductors. African American and Hispanic/Latino backgrounds are more likely to be employed by larger orchestras than smaller. This lines up with a recent BPO hire.
Last year, Jaman Dunn was named the BPO’s first-ever assistant conductor and outreach coordinator. The audition process for that was a bit different.
“[There was] the preparation of the scores for the conducting component, preparing mock questions they might ask you in the interview process, and then we had to do a presentation for the (BPO) Diversity Council. So knowing a piece well enough to be able to relate it to any audience regardless of classical music training or background,” said Dunn.
Otis Glover is co-chair of the BPO’s Diversity Council, which was founded in May of 2016. He says diversity has not been reflective in the music that may be known or appealing to communities of color.
“Yes, they do recognize certain names. The question is how often are those artists of color brought in to the various philharmonic performances unless it’s a special noted occasion in the community or recognized in the Hispanic, black, or minority community in terms of celebration?,” Glover said.
That is one of the main reasons Dunn was hired. In addition to knowing the classic repertoire, his knowledge of film and video game scores can aid him in providing relatable material to younger audiences.
But it is his own development as a young musician that may be most beneficial to his current position.
Dunn began playing violin at the age of eight at a selective enrollment public school in Chicago.
“I always like to point out to people how strongly peers opinions can sway someone at that age as to whether or not to think about pursuing something or not. So I was always tell my educator colleagues, try to nurture any child’s interest despite what their peers may say. Because all of my peers were like, what is this boring thing? But I was really enamored with it,” Dunn said.
On May 8, Dunn will be leading a side-by side performance of the BPO with The Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. BAVPA students will also receive coaching lessons from BPO musicians leading up to the concert.
“Community outreach is a huge thing for me also because I went to a nonprofit musical school ‘Merit School of Music’ which was in Chicago as well,” Dunn said. “I played violin there all the way up through high school. All-City Programs, which was a division of Chicago Public Schools that allowed Chicago Public School students to play on Saturdays in larger groups with other students from other schools.”
“That kind of experience, and the kind of experience of special programs where we teach children, is going to result in some of them choosing a musical profession,” said Falletta. “Because they will see themselves as having that possibility.”
Many of these "special programs" incorporate the Diversity Council, which consists of 15 members from across the community who are African-American, Latino, Hispanic and members of the BPO.
“What we do is reflect that diversity in the broader city. We make sure we are all inclusive in that we which do to be representative of the BPO,” said Glover.
For young minority musicians without resources, the Council raises funds each year for scholarships for the BPO’s Summer Studio program.
“One of the things that the board of trustees recognized and realized early on is that diversity is important in terms of the orchestras continued success moving to the future,” said Glover. “That success is predicated on being able to have a representation that is in partnership with the BPO and the board that would be more reflective of the broader Western New York Community.”
The Council has also sponsored Sphinx Competition winners at area churches, where young black and Latinx classical string players have had a chance to compete in a recital setting.
Churches have become a popular place to connect with the community. Glover said the BPO has been putting on quartet performances there.
“(They) basically give them the understanding that those who are in schools playing various instruments in bands and orchestras,” he said. “There is a vehicle for them to continue and the musicians try to encourage that with their performance.”
The BPO also has to take in to consideration how classical music is adapting for newer generations. Dunn believes the term "classical music" needs to change.
“I’ve had musicology professors in the past that have talked about this.” Dunn said. “It’s one of those weird things where we refer to classical music as this large umbrella, but we also refer to it as the classical period where Mozart lived or early Beethoven and Haydn. And so I feel classical music needs to change. I don’t know what it needs to change to, but I feel like the term needs to be changed in to something that more correctly relates to all of the things that tend to fit under the umbrella.”
With budget cuts seemingly always looming, Glover said what has to happen is a broader in depth commitment from those funding communities from various political sources. He wants to see music get serious budgetary consideration.
“The challenge is, that those who are the funding entities do not prioritize it in the same manner as they do the various other curriculums,” Glover said. “That has to change and that comes through the education and the valuing and they’re able to see the byproduct of that which is being instructed by the teachers and that which is offered by the various schools. Right now as I said, you may have three, maybe four schools that have performing bands and orchestras and they really have done well considering the money has not been as supportive as their talents have been.”
Glover said they are going to have to convince parents that music is a viable entity.
“When they have the PTA/PTO meetings that should be on the agenda. In terms of as they’re speaking, in terms of the various other subject matters, that should be as inclusive and as supported as the other subject matter,” he said.
Members of the Council have been active for more than three years now. Glover said he’s willing to take criticism and listen to anybody who wants to have a discussion on how they can improve moving forward.
“I’ve heard someone say, ‘The BPO has failed to do that in the past.’ Well, we are talking about the present for the future and my philosophy is that failure cannot cope with persistence,” he said. “With every failure, that increases the probability of success. So we learned from that which may not have been done and that which we may have to do and started doing the things that will allow us as a council to lend to the mission objective of the Philharmonic.”
Glover believes there are future African-American professional musicians out there, but said they will remain hidden unless the resources necessary are provided.
“What we must do is continue to be that spark that lights the darkness and bringing it forward so that it’s something that those who have yet and have not experienced the talents that are in the minority communities and those of color that there is a form and an opportunity they can access and that they can be a part of to share their talents with a broader public,” Glover said.
Falletta said she believes they will see more and more diverse populations come in to orchestras in the future, but in the meantime they can continue on as public advocates for music education.
“If every child in fifth grade had an instrument in their hands, whether it’s clarinet or tuba or violin, their lives would be changed,” said Falletta. “And I’m not talking about becoming professional musicians because that’s not for everyone nor should it be. But, it enriches their lives. It helps their brains develop. It teaches them skills like self-confidence and realizing that good things take time and work. Cooperation. The feeling of accomplishment of making something good happen. Those are life skills and you can learn them from playing an instrument. My dream is that every fifth grader would be given an instrument and lessons and let that be a brilliant and radiant part of their lives.”