Facing the Scarcity of Ethnic Diversity in the Concert Hall
Black and Latino orchestral players make inroads, but void remains
Aaron P. Dworkin has the gifts and the credentials to excel. He studied under legendary Russian violinist Vladimir Graffman, finished high school at the elite Interlochen Arts Academy, and received both bachelors and masters degrees in violin performance from the University of Michigan. “In all those situations I was in, I was either the only minority at all, or one of a handful,” he told Strings in 2003.
“I started asking myself why that was the case, why I lost focus in practice, why I felt alienated, why in attending performances I was the only minority in the audience, let alone onstage.”
To encourage more black and Latino participation in classical music, Dworkin in 1996 founded the Detroit-based nonprofit Sphinx Organization. Sphinx presents several programs exclusively for young black and Latino string players, most notably the Sphinx Competition, which awards scholarships, master classes, instrument loans, performance opportunities with major orchestras, and even a recording deal with the Naxos label for the grand-prize winner.
But despite Sphinx’s best efforts during the past 14 years, the rate of minority membership in established professional orchestras remains almost unchanged. According to a 2007 survey of 195 members of the League of American Orchestras, which represents 1,000 ensembles, black and Latino musicians comprised just 1.9 percent and 2.7 percent of orchestra membership, respectively.
According to 2007 US Census figures, Hispanics (the largest minority population) comprise 15.1 percent of the US population; blacks comprise 14 percent.
The statistics raise the question: why does black and Latino participation in professional orchestras remain disproportionately low?
Few Job Openings
It’s certainly not for lack of training or ambition. Violinist Danielle Belen—a Mexican American who won first place at the 2008 Sphinx Competition—has found opportunities. “It’s steady [work],” says Belen, an assistant concertmaster of New West Symphony and Colburn Conservatory Orchestra and a teaching assistant to Robert Lipsett at the Colburn Conservatory of Music, “so you’re not wondering where your income next week is coming from.”
Still, as symphony budgets freeze up and veteran members cling to their tenured jobs, openings in orchestras become rare. That infrequency not only is a challenge for musicians looking for long-term employment in a relatively high-paying industry, but also a hurdle for orchestras trying to diversify their personnel.
Dworkin says orchestras could boost black and Latino membership gradually if more offered initiatives like those embraced by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which has supported Sphinx by lending its hall and musicians to the organization’s annual performance competition. Along with dedicating a series of regular subscription concerts to music by black composers, the DSO has been implementing the African-American Orchestral Fellowship Program. The fellowship program invites a young black musician to play with the group for one to two years and receive training in performance and audition techniques.
Even when orchestras are hiring, additional hurdles stand in the way of increasing black and Latino membership. Dworkin points to the screened-audition process. “Screened auditions serve a purpose in helping to diversify orchestras relative to gender,” he says. “But when you look at identifying someone to be part of an ensemble and move it forward, more than just a ten-minute, aural snapshot behind a screen should be taken into account.
“What a player brings in cultural background should be a part of many factors that go into the [hiring] decision, although not the key factor.”
The solution, Dworkin says, could be to take down the screen for the final round, or keep the screen and base a part of the overall score on a candidate’s knowledge of repertoire and the ability to conduct residency work or educational outreach in the community. “I don’t think screens should be put to the wayside,” Dworkin says. “But do we want additional information about the candidate? Yes, we do.
“Part of the information that’s relevant—cultural knowledge—should be part of [the hiring process], even a small part of it.”
The Role of Community Building
Orchestra membership is a reflection of the pool of candidates, says League of American Orchestras spokesman John Bence, who echoes the sentiment that minorities might be missing from the concert hall because of a lack of educational and cultural opportunities.
“To get into an orchestra, the performance level has to be very high,” Bence says. “To get to that, you have to start early. There has to be home support and money for lessons and instruments—that plays a large part of it, and many kids don’t have the opportunity. The decrease in public education [funding] and support for the arts is also huge factor.”
A survey of 500 post-secondary institutions by the National Association of Schools of Music appears to support that conclusion. According to the NASM, black and Latino men each account for about four percent of all music majors, and black and Latino women each account for nearly three percent. The fraction of those graduates who ultimately go on the audition circuit after graduation is correspondingly low.
To Belen, the disconnect between minorities and orchestral jobs can be felt even at the community level. For talent to develop to a professional level, “it has to be grown within our communities from a young age,” she says.
Still, other than a handful of orchestras—one being the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel—Dworkin says “no one is making diversity a top priority.”
But as orchestras look for ways to fill the hall, the scarcity of black and Latino composers, players, administrative staff, and board members impedes the organizations’ ability to connect with local communities that are becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. So-called minorities now number 100 million Americans. In large border states—including California, Texas, and New Mexico—these minorities soon will comprise the majority of the population.
Diversity is needed, Dworkin says, “not for political or feel-good reasons, but for very pragmatic reasons.”
The 13th annual Sphinx Competition will be held February 3–7 in Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan. For details, visit sphinxmusic.org.
5 Ways Sphinx Is Passing on Its Legacy
1. Tahirah Whittington
1999 Sphinx Competition first-place laureate
Member of the Ritz Chamber Players and Core Ensemble. Performed on Alicia Keys album, among other artists. Solo engagements include a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, and a performance at Carnegie Hall in 2007 as a part of the Sphinx Gala Concert. Member of the Young Eight, an all-black string octet that reaches into underserved communities.
Studied with: the Juilliard School, Joel Krosnick
2. Joseph Conyers
2004 Sphinx Competition second-place laureate, inaugural 1998 Sphinx Competition semifinalist, 2008 Sanford Allen Award inaugural recipient
Instrument: Double bass
Member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, former principal bass of Grand Rapids Symphony and the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. Co-founded MusicAlive!, a nonprofit that exposes underserved kids and adults to classical music in Savannah, Georgia.
Studied with: Curtis Institute of Music, Hal Robinson, and Edgar Meyer
3. Mariana Green-Hill
2005 Sphinx Competition second-place laureate, 2009 Sanford Allen Award recipient
Co-concertmaster of the Soulful Symphony, which performs in collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony, and member of the Young Eight. Alumna and artistic director of Project STEP (String Training and Educational Program), which trains black and Latino students in classical music.
Studied with: Juilliard School, Mannes College, Stephen Clapp, Ann Setzer, and Ida Kavafian
4. Christopher Jenkins
2005 Sphinx Competition third-place laureate
Member of the Haven String Quartet, associate principal of the Miami Symphony Orchestra. Collaborated with Itzhak Perlman, Ron Leonard, the Guarneri String Quartet, Mikhail Kopelman of the Borodin Quartet, Sanford Allen, Jesse Levine, and David Geber of the American String Quartet. Dean of the Sphinx Performance Academy since 2007.
Studied with: Manhattan School through the Sphinx Music Assistance Fund, New England Conservatory, Harvard College, Michael Tree and Karen Dreyfus
Photo Credit Tia Williams
5. Harlem Quartet
Members: Violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez, and cellist Desmond Neysmith
First-place Sphinx laureates comprise this elite quartet, which serves as principal faculty at the Sphinx Performance Academy at Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts, and as visiting faculty at the Sphinx Preparatory Music Institute at Wayne State University in Detroit. Released the album Take the “A” Train (White Pine Music) in 2007.