Inside the Battle to Diversify Orchestras, One Costly Audition at a Time

By Sameer Rao Dec 27, 2018

Music lovers of all ages and identities pack United States symphonic halls every December to see their local orchestra perform holiday classics like “The Nutcracker,” the score to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Messiah.” For those who can’t afford prohibitive season ticket costs or don’t go to a school with a vibrant music program, these concerts may the only orchestral performances they attend all year.

But it is unlikely that most audience members of color will see musicians who look like them on the stage. Traditional U.S. orchestras, like many elite arts institutions, look nothing like the cities that host them. In a 2016 study, the League of American Orchestras found that non-White musicians only made up a little over 14 percent of orchestral ranks.

The study, which was based on 2014 figures, found that Black musicians made up just under 2 percent of orchestra musicians but were 12 percent of the U.S. population. Latinx people comprised 17 percent of the overall populace but only 2.5 percent of orchestra players. Indigenous and Alaska Native peoples constituted 5 percent of the U.S. population, but just .1 percent of orchestra players. MENA people were not included in the study. And at 9 percent, Asian orchestra musicians exceeded their U.S. population of 1 percent.

In April, to boost the number of Latinx and Black orchestra players in the U.S., the League partnered with The Sphinx Organization and New World Symphony (NWS) to launch the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS). Bolstered by a four-year, $1.8 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, NAAS is the first major national diversity initiative to focus on auditioning—that chaotic space between education and employment.

The program offers a range of supports to help musicians of color truly compete for the limited number of orchestra slots that sometimes come with union backing, five- or six-figure salaries and a path to tenure. NAAS matches participants with mentors, offers them three-day training intensives with professional musicians, provides them with travel stipends and places them in pre-audition showcases. 

“Our hope is that [us covering] such items as airfare for an audition, an additional seat for a cello, a new set of strings, a private lesson or coaching may encourage musicians from communities historically underrepresented in the classical music professions to take more auditions," says Mellon program officer Susan Feder. "We hope they gain experience in doing so, and that they either land permanent positions or become eligible for substitute positions."

Diversifying an Institution Designed to Exclude

According to NWS president Howard Herring, orchestras simply weren’t designed for the masses to enjoy. “Orchestral music is Eurocentric and hierarchical. Those two forces have defined its essence and progression for several centuries," he says. "The people who were in charge of bringing the music together and to the public—or, in the early days, bringing it to private settings—were very much of a specific culture.”

In this “specific culture,” only monarchs and churches commisioned composers to develop and stage their works. But as European monarchies began to recede, composers were forced to consider the popular appeal of their work. For instance, in 1791 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart created “The Magic Flute” to transcend a royal audience.

The United States, which declared independence 15 years before “The Magic Flute,” eventually became the home of the “Big Five” orchestras: the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras. These institutions, along with smaller orchestras, followed the country’s racist social codes. Music publishers rarely accepted Black composers’ pieces. Chapters of the American Federation of Musicians, one of several unions representing classical musicians, frequently segregated their ranks. Concert halls did the same to their audiences. Upon leanring that Black conductor Paul Freeman planned to guest-conduct at the Atlanta Symphony, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The last bastion of elitism. Glory Hallelujah.”

Despite their exclusion, some Latinx and Black musicians were able to excel. Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, who incorporated Aztec elements into his compositions, premiered “The Visitors” in New York City in 1957. After winning a 1932 contest, Florence Price became the first Black woman to have her work performed by an American orchestra—the Chicago Symphony put on her “Symphony No. 1 in E minor.” William Grant Still, popularly known as the dean of African-American classical composers, was the first Black person to conduct a major American symphony orchestra and the first to have an opera televised by a national network. 

Of course this rich history doesn’t insulate Black and Brown musicians from racial bias. “It’s inevitable, once you are identified—and you always are identified because of race—there’s a certain different expectation,” Dr. T.J. Anderson told The New York Times in 2014. “You know that you’re not going to be commissioned by the major artistic institutions like the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.”

The Big Meeting Behind the Bigger Alliance

Orchestral organizations have been grappling with racial and gender parity since at least the 1980s. But in 2015 the League and its partners decided to focus on audition support. At what president Jesse Rosen calls the big meeting,” the League and the Mellon foundation gathered 45 musicians, scholars, arts administrators and other orchestra stakeholders to establish task forces around industry equity issues. The need for mentorship often came up at the meeting. So did the economics of auditions.

“We heard musician after musician stand up and say [that] the cost of auditioning was simply prohibitive,” Rosen recounts. “Auditions—if you do five or eight a year and you’re looking at airfare and hotel—add up. And if you’re a freelance player, which many people are before they enter an orchestra, you need to turn down work and create some space in your schedule to really prepare for the audition."  

When asked why NAAS decided to begin with Black and Latinx players, Rosen cites “a pretty complex web of characteristics."

"I don’t think I would say to you that we have this all figured out," he says. "I think that, for now, we made the right decision to start here. But we have our eyes open to the many different dimensions of diversity that matter."

Cue The Sphinx Organization, the last piece of the NAAS puzzle. Whereas the League offers a nationwide network of orchestras and NWS provides educational infrastructure, Detroit-based Sphinx operates with the express goal of advancing diversity in the arts. It does this through a mix of programs, including curricula that centers artists of color in underserved schools, a competition for young Black and Latinx string players and a conference around arts diversity and artist incubation.

Sphinx Organization artistic director and president Afa S. Dworkin says that everything the nonprofit does, both in-house and through partnerships with local entities such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, is designed to address the structural problems of the entire classical musical pipeline. “Our schools do not currently have any consistent access or quality training throughout the pipeline, from elementary to high school,” says Dworkin of the Motor City. "Some schools we’re in have wonderful [no-cost] weekly lessons and opportunity for [growth]. But even if kids do take lessons, parents often can’t afford to send them to private lessons at a level required for a young person to have a shot at classical music."

Tailor-Made Support

At this point, NAAS is focused on the part of the semiprofessional part of the pipeline. It’s open to students who are at least two years into their undergraduate educations and are seriously job searching. One of the first participants, Emilio Carlo is a Black, Puerto Rican and Dominican violist from The Bronx who has had two fellowships by the age of 24. NAAS funds have helped him maintain the frequency of auditions that he needs to get a quality job. "No fellowship or program is going to guarantee you anything,” he says between back-to-back performances of “The Nutcracker” with the Dayton Philharmonic. “At the end of the day, it’s about who can take the most auditions and last the longest. There’s no getting lucky; it’s so much hard work, planning, sacrificing and—seriously—a lot of self-doubt.”

Other participants have named the NAAS intensives as key to their ability to overcome the self-doubt that harms their chances. The program allows them to do individual mock auditions before a panel of professionals and get one-on-one lessons to address specific notes from the reviewers. The intensives also include training with performance psychologist Noa Kagayama, who instructs at the intersection of musical rigor and performance anxiety at Julliard and on his blog, “The Bulletproof Musician.”

“Being able to have a one-on-one lesson and have professionals available for four days to just talk to, is really nice," says Magali Toy a Guatemalan-Canadian student cellist at the Manhattan School of Music who had done two NAAS intensives.

The Dreaded Screen

Aside from the cost of auditions and the need for mentorship, people interviewed for this story most often named the screen that separates judges and candidates during their auditions as an issue. Orchestra auditions typically involve multiple rounds behind a screen. But for final round auditions, desicionmakers often remove it. Critics say that this choice can trigger a panel member’s unconscious bias, which is especially damaging to women and people of color.

“You don’t want anybody to [feel like] they got the job [just] because of who they are,” says NAAS advisory council member and Kansas City Symphony principal horn player Alberto Suarez of tokenism. “If we can remove the visual and just go with what we hear, that’s going to be the fairest environment for everyone to judge.”

“Most times, everybody in the final round could sit in the orchestra and be fine," adds Stanford Thompson, a trumpet player and the founder of the classical music education program Play On, Philly! “But once the screen goes up, will they give the opportunity to a musician of color? Or might their eyes, hearts or both steer their decision? Will the eyes tell the ears that a woman carrying a tuba doesn’t sound powerful enough? Will they say that musicians of color ‘are just missing this one thing’?"

Jeri Lynne Johnson, an award-winning conductor and founder of the Philadelphia-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, challenges the fundamental idea that orchestras should be exclusive. “My view is that an orchestra should not be a gatekeeper to an artistic product,” she says. “[If] orchestras can transform themselves from gatekeepers into partners, I think orchestras will find people running towards them. It’s democratizing classical music for everyone.”

Protecting Dreams

One could understandably ask why it makes sense to fight for racial equality in an increasingly irrelevant art form. But beyond the rhetoric about how more diverse hiring will reinvigorate the medium, the dreams of classical musicians of color are at stake.

Predictably, most of the people interviewed for this piece had a personal experience with racist microaggressions and low expectations. For instance, a search committee chairman once told Johnson that she didn’t receive a music director job because they “didn’t know how to market” her. NAAS-supported violinist Carlo learned that parents at his predominantly White youth orchestra would give his mother strange looks and refuse to make room for her to sit down.

These kinds of offenses, mixed into the unrelenting chaos of a competitive job market, can do something far more harmful: break musicians’ spirits. 

“When I was auditioning I tried to stay positive, but going to the negative side [was] possible,” says Suarez, the Kansas City Symphony principal horn player and NAAS advisor. “A lot of friends of mine [of color] who have auditioned or gone up for tenure have felt like they weren’t getting anywhere.”

Only time will tell if initiatives like NAAS can fundamentally reshape the racial demographics of United States orchestras. Until then, those pushing for change continue with the knowledge that their work can help keep orchestras alive and inspire a new generation of players. "If kids can see role models that they can identify with in a symphony, from a young age, that will help," the NAAS-supported cellist Toy says. "It’s a hard road to go down if you’re not supported."