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Sounds of diversity |

Sounds of diversity

Mark Kanny
| Sunday, August 12, 2007 12:00 a.m

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra next month begins a new program that aims to bring more blacks into the highest echelons of classical music.

The move comes at a time when newly compiled evidence shows that black musicians doubled their ranks in the Top 25 American orchestras from 1995-2005. Yet blacks still comprise just a little more than 2 percent of those orchestras, a situation many find unacceptable.

The increase surprises some, even those who have made it a mission to work toward greater participation by blacks in the world of symphonic music through programs such as the Pittsburgh Symphony’s.

“I am very encouraged,” says Aaron Dworkin, a black violinist who is founder and president of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which was created 10 years ago to help black and Latino musicians break into classical music.

The number of black musicians in the top 25 orchestras increased from 25 players in 1995 to 51 in 2005, according to data compiled by the American Symphony Orchestra League, a service organization for orchestras headquartered in New York that provides education, fellowships and advocacy for the field.

The growth is recent: The number of blacks in the top orchestras increased by eight players from 1995-2000 and by 18 players from 2000-2005. Orchestras generally include about 100 musicians. The increase extended to most other tiers of American Symphony Orchestra League members, which are categorized by budget size.

The data “very clearly indicates this is not a hopeless problem and can be impacted,” Dworkin says. “It takes a lot of work, but it is happening. I think the field as a whole should look at this as evidence that change can occur and is occurring.”

That is part of the reason for the creation of Pittsburgh’s new Orchestral Training Program for African-American Musicians.

“For symphony orchestras to be sustainable, they need to belong to everyone in the community,” says Pittsburgh Symphony president Larry Tamburri. “If we don’t have African Americans in our orchestras, we lose a connection with an important part of our community.”

Oboist Geoffrey Johnson, 24, a Houston native, won auditions held during the 2006-07 season to be the first instrumentalist in the new program. He will spend the first part of the 2007-08 season refining his skills, including studying with symphony musicians and some playing in the orchestra. In the second half of the season, he may increase playing time in the orchestra and perform chamber music with symphony musicians.

But the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new program by itself is no more than a drop in the bucket of bringing more blacks to the orchestral world, Tamburri says.

There is a range of challenges that affect the number of blacks participating in classical music.

“Blacks have not only participated in just about every musical genre besides classical, in many ways we’ve led the direction they’ve taken,” Dworkin says. “Only in classical music, has this not been the case. The obstacles have been social, educational and economic.”

Social issues

One of the challenges is that many in the black community see classical music as “external, European, white and does not have anything to do with us,” Dworkin says.

Indeed, that was the experience of Mary Williams, 19, who played violin and trumpet while at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill.

“I had a lot of pressure with blacks in my school who told me I was following the white man’s world and trumpet is a man’s instrument,” says Williams, now a student at Chatham University. “Junk like that was annoying.”

The pressure to stay within one’s neighborhood deters many Westinghouse High School students from crossing Fifth Avenue for special programs at universities, says James Alston, music curriculum specialist for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

And although Alston emphasizes the importance of music literacy and being able to read music, he says social patterns are frustrating. Peer pressure, he says, promotes the idea that “it’s not cool to be smart.”

Lavota Carter, 14, has encountered that attitude.

“It’s there. I’m not going to lie,” says Lavota, who enjoys playing classical music, having started violin lessons in third grade. She’s now entering 10th grade at Schenley High School in Oakland. “They’ll say, ‘You think you know everything.’ But it’s the people you hang around that matter.”

She says peer pressure hasn’t deterred her from developing her talents.

“I don’t feel funny about playing classical music,” she says.

Lavota admits she’s been teased by other black students.

“Maybe they wanted to see my instrument or mess around and sound like they know how to play it. It’s pretty funny,” she says. “But I’m treated with respect.”

Educational and economic issues

When Dworkin began discussing diversity with leaders of orchestras 10 years ago, he was told that black musicians just weren’t out there, that the pipeline from schools to colleges and conservatories provided barely a trickle of candidates.

Being an instrumental musician “isn’t something you can decide to do when you’re 19 and then do it at 23,” says Polly Kahn, the orchestra league’s vice president for learning and leadership development. “You have to make a commitment to start playing early, as early as age 4 for string players, and then spend the next 20 years developing.”

Public school programs can begin an interest in music, but to succeed in the highly competitive world of symphonic music, private instruction is necessary — and expensive.

Top music conservatories — such as The Juilliard School in New York City — have low numbers of black instrumentalists in orchestra studies, despite active recruitment efforts.

Juilliard provides scholarships to what it terms “underrepresented” students, including blacks ages 8-14, to see what the school is about and attain the rudiments of music theory to learn what it takes to do music as a profession, according to Allison Scott-Williams, its director of diversity and inclusion.

Despite these and other efforts, black enrollment in orchestral studies at Juilliard declined to 7 out of 349 students in 2006-07 from 15 in 2005-06.

As for elementary and secondary education levels, Chuck Neidhardt, president of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, points to the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation as a culprit.

“School districts have responded by taking away from arts education and putting that money into remedial education that isn’t necessary,” he says.

A study released July 25 by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Policy on the impact of “No Child Left Behind” surveyed 369 representative school districts across the United States. Of those, 44 percent cut music and arts programs by 16 percent.

The supply of black musicians to orchestras “is small and based on the fact that music is not readily available to every person in public schools,” says Tim Adams Jr., principal timpanist and one of two black musicians in the Pittsburgh Symphony. “As a result, the majority of African Americans in public schools do not get a chance to play an instrument.

“I was fortunate that my public school in Covington, Ga., had an excellent music program and that my father is a musician and my mother a singer,” he says. “I was encouraged to study music.”

Role models

The absence of black star soloists and conductors to serve as role models to inspire black children is an important factor as well, Dworkin says.

One exception as a prominent black soloist is pianist Andre Watts, who made a big splash when he was 16, performing on television with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Watts made many commercial recordings and has performed at 11 sets of Pittsburgh Symphony concerts since 1966, most recently in November 2005.

But Watts’ prominence is not typical.

In Pittsburgh, for example, no black composers or instrumental soloists were represented during the Pittsburgh Symphony’s 2006-07 season of Mellon Grand Classics. The only black conductor was a substitute for another conductor who canceled due to illness.

Adams and bassist Jeffrey Grubbs are the two black musicians currently in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Violinist Paul Ross and pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings, both hired in the 1965-66 season, were the first blacks in the Pittsburgh Symphony, which has had two to four black members on its roster every season over the past 40 years. Ross died in 2001. Jennings retired at the end of the 2005-06 season.

Adams says, however, that the increase in black musicians at the top symphonies “makes me feel my work in the field is worthwhile, because at the end of the day, it’s about passing on what you have done and leaving a legacy.”

Diversity data

Data collected by the American Symphony Orchestra League shows a changing demographic in American orchestras, but a precise counting of blacks, as well as Latinos and Asians, is difficult to achieve.

Definitive numbers and percentages are not available for several reasons:

• Not all orchestras responded in each of the reporting years: 1995, 2000 and 2005.

• There is not necessarily consistency in the ways orchestras categorize musicians’ ethnicity or race.

• The total numbers of orchestra musicians fluctuate, making percentage calculations inconsistent from year to year.

Nevertheless, the data suggest increases in not only black musicians across all member orchestras, but increases in the number of Latinos and Asian as well.

The league — a service organization for orchestras headquartered in New York that provides education, fellowships and advocacy — divides its member orchestras into eight tiers, based on budget size, both total budget and artistic budget. The top tier contains 25 orchestras, which all have around 100 members each. Many lower-tier orchestras range from 50-60 members.

In the 1986-87 season, the league started asking orchestras for data on minority musicians, but did not break them into specific categories. It published a survey of black musicians in 1990, but its vice president for communications, Julia Kirschhausen, says the methodology used in 1990 makes comparisons with later data inappropriate. The league began asking for specific information about minority musicians in the 1994-95 season with methodology still in use.

Percentage of blacks in top orchestras

1995: 1.27 (20 orchestras reporting)2000: 1.63 (23 orchestras reporting)2005: 2.28 (23 orchestras reporting)

Number of blacks in top orchestras

1995: 252000: 332005: 51

Percentage of Latinos in top orchestras:

1995: 1 (20 orchestras reporting)2000: 1 (23 orchestras reporting)2005: 1.19 (23 orchestras reporting)

Number of Latinos in top orchestras:

1995: 242000: 232005: 25

Percentage of Asians in top orchestras

1995: 5.27 (20 orchestras reporting)2000: 7.19 (25 orchestras reporting)2005: 9.57 (24 orchestras reporting)

Number of Asians in top orchestras

1995: 1042000: 1632005: 195

Percentage of blacks across all orchestra tiers

1995: 1.19 (216 orchestras reporting)2000: 1.43 (180 orchestras reporting)2005: 2 (176 orchestras reporting)

Number of blacks across all orchestra tiers

1995: 1772000: 2162005: 237

Percentage of Latinos across all orchestra tiers

1995: 1.46 (219 orchestras reporting)2000: 2 (201 orchestras reporting)2005: 2.11 (176 orchestras reporting)

Number of Latinos in all league orchestras

1995: 2162000: 2672005: 266

Percentage of Asians across all orchestra tiers

1995: 4.14 (219 orchestras reporting)2000: 5 (165 orchestras reporting)2005: 6.98 (193 orchestras reporting)

Number of Asians across all orchestra tiers

1995: 6142000: 7142005: 795

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