Extend an Invitation (diversity 2)

Extend an Invitation
Those who welcome and nurture minority talent will reap the benefits.

by Aaron Flagg Director of Educational Outreach, The Juilliard School; Freelance trumpet player

We all know that diversity is not restricted to race and gender. As a professional trumpet player, I can safely say that many of my colleagues in the orchestra world already feel that plenty of "difference" exists in this profession. The repertoire of most orchestras must span several hundred years (including the present), representing countries around the globe. Conductors and musicians in America have always included representatives from various European and increasingly Asian countries. And the blind audition process, which was adopted as part of the Code of Ethical Audition Practices in 1984 by the American Federation of Musicians, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), and the Major Orchestra Managers Conference, has allowed women, minorities, foreigners, the disabled, and others to win fair entrance into the ranks of an orchestra; for orchestras, this is indeed a "difference" from what existed before. From the audience perspective, marketing departments have designed an ingenious variety of concert packages and subscription plans to meet a diversity of audience needs, comfort levels, and time constraints.

In the face of all this diversity, we now dare to tackle ethnic diversity within the orchestra itself--or rather, the lack of it. As preparation for addressing this topic, I have been enlightened by discussions with fellow musicians, orchestra trustees, managers, and union leaders around the country. Their sincere concern to see diversity on stage is matched only by their belief that the blind audition process will, in and of itself, solve the problem, bringing equal opportunity to pass for minority musicians as it has done for women and foreigners.

This unwavering faith is epitomized in an e-mail I received recently from Mark Jones, a tuba player and a member of the executive board of the American Federation of Musicians. He writes: "Diversity is so important--I wish [more] orchestras did what we do here in Buffalo--screens up for the prelims and finals--no talking, even carpeting on the stage (so that you can't tell if it is a man or woman--high heels), etc. In essence, may the best person win--period. Good luck!" The implication here is that the fairness of the audition process can stop discrimination. This is somewhat true, and was the original intention of the blind audition process.

The blind audition is unquestionably the biggest improvement in the last 50 years in how orchestras select their musicians. It has removed much of the subjectivity of conductors, management, and unions. And it has significantly reduced the impact of favoritism, nepotism, sexism, and other "-isms" that we see coming from principal and other orchestra members. The blind audition was conceived for fairness and to eradicate discrimination. It does not, and cannot, eradicate all forms of discrimination.

For clarity, some definitions: Discrimination is a system of disenfranchisement; racism is a belief that others are inferior. I think it's important to realize, when we look at the system of discrimination, that it has many facets and faces, most beginning well before audition day.

I do not see racism or discrimination in the audition process as the key problem today. The problem is that very few musicians of color are auditioning for orchestra positions at all. Although it represents a big step toward fairness and a blow to some forms of overt discrimination, the blind audition process has no direct impact on achieving true diversity onstage in your orchestra--any process means little unless the people you seek are consistently making use of it. Still, the screened audition does have a correlative impact on racism, and ultimately discrimination, by engendering respect for the abilities of the minority players who decide to audition for orchestras, and are ultimately hired. That is important.

In Need of Recruits
One reason that few minority players are auditioning for conservatories and orchestras is because few are being recruited to do so. Recruitment for an audition may sound strange, and you might reasonably ask why orchestras should engage in it. McGeorge Bundy, past president of the Ford Foundation, wrote the following words in 1977 for Atlantic Monthly magazine.

You must target blacks and Hispanics and others in your recruiting... If you wish to attract well-qualified candidates you must earn a reputation for real accessibility; you must become known as a place that accepts minorities in more than token numbers. You must then spend time and money well beyond your normal standards in helping them survive and succeed. Precisely because it is not yet "racially neutral" to be black in America, a racially neutral standard will not lead to equal opportunity for blacks.*

These words were, and remain, as relevant to orchestras and conservatories as to the college admissions case Bundy was discussing. Today, skilled instrumentalists of color are being aggressively recruited; however, they're being recruited to perform non-symphonic music--jazz, gospel, musical theatre, or other popular forms. Or they're being recruited to teach.

Or they simply elect to remain in the freelance world. As a trumpet student at The Juilliard School in the mid 1990s, I had not even considered a career in orchestras (except as a soloist) until I was asked to substitute in a major orchestra's trumpet section through the recommendation of a principal brass player. This recommendation came about not through taking a series of auditions, or years of familiarity with orchestra members; it occurred because this musician, on a break from rehearsal, graciously volunteered to listen to my dress rehearsal for a recital debut I'd earned through winning a solo competition. He then felt comfortable enough to act on what he heard. This is not the typical route in the orchestral world (at least anymore); yet, without that principal player's willingness to engage in a form of recruiting, I would not have gained the type of experience that allows me to credibly address the issue of diversity within orchestras.

By the time of this informal "audition," I had been already invited to perform numerous works with demanding trumpet solos--Messiahs, Bach Cantata No. 51s, etc.--at African-American churches all over New York. Again, these invitations came my way not through an elaborate audition process, but as a result of personal relationships. They also came through cultural ties and aggressive contractors whose self-appointed mission was to adjust the imbalance of performance opportunities in the New York freelance world. Through these experiences, I came across other wonderfully eclectic freelance jobs, including performing and recording with gospel, jazz, and hip-hop artists. I must note that the atmosphere in all these arenas was noticeably more accepting, warm, and encouraging than the atmosphere I encountered during my first week with a major orchestra, despite my high-profile recommendation from a principal player. Simply put, playing in the orchestra arena was presented as a job and a serious craft, which it certainly is; the other opportunities, however, added up to a life.

When I speak to older generations of African-American musicians about diversity in orchestras, I ask them, for instance, "What was it like in the 1960s when you were in the finals for a principal flute position?" They speak of experiences with overt discrimination in the past. But more importantly, they voice their suspicion that some covert discrimination must still exist today. The evidence they cite to substantiate this assumption is simple: the current level of diversity in American orchestras. Nothing else need be said. Now, if you are a young musician of color, and this is the predominant message you hear from your elders--not necessarily your teachers, but the people you'd really ask, people who look like you--and it matches what you see onstage with your own eyes, why in the world would you go down that path? The only reason you would go down that path would be if a much stronger message was sent out from the orchestra field: a message inviting you in.

You may be wondering, "Wouldn't such a musician audition just because they love the music and orchestras are the only place they get to play Mahler Two?" or, "Do you have to have role models to want to play the music you love?" But we are not talking only about music. We're talking about a specific profession--that of the orchestral musician--and the lifestyle that goes with it. In a full-time orchestra, you will sit next to the same person for years. It is merely reasonable to ask yourself, "How comfortable am I going to be in this situation? How accepting will I or my colleagues be?" For the answer, it makes sense to rely on past experience, whether your own or that of people you trust. If you, or those you know, haven't had access to much opportunity, your choices will reflect that fact.

By the way, minority musicians are not auditioning for conservatories, either--not in the numbers they should. So what is Juilliard doing to address the recruitment issue? One thing, unfortunately unique among our leading conservatories, is that Juilliard invites 40 Latino and African-American high school juniors from around the country to spend four days with us each year. The students receive private lessons, go to classes, get some mentoring--all in the hope not simply that the students will come to Juilliard per se, but that they will get an introduction to the world of the conservatory, and what it takes to make it as a performing artist.

Juilliard also has an administrative support network called the Juilliard Underrepresented Student Team (JUST) for Success, of which I am a member. It exists both for networking and to help those who may be having difficulties in their classes or with their teachers. For example, several of these students need better instruments. ("My instrument is subpar for my level, and I don't know who to ask where I can get a better one. I'm ashamed to ask that in a school filled with Strads and Guarneris. I need help.") Or maybe they want to know about working in the orchestral world; we can hook them up with Juilliard alumni in the area, or other professional players we know, who are able and willing to speak frankly. Conservatories could and should do a lot more in this area of recruiting and support. Maintaining statistics on ethnic diversity, and then reporting on what they're doing to improve those statistics, would be a good place to start.

What can orchestras do? Here's one idea. The Center for Black Music Research in Chicago has created an International Database of Black Performers of Instrumental Concert Music. It exists to provide orchestras with a ready pool of musicians who are available and who have the requisite skills to audition. Before its recent auditions to fill a principal position, the Charlotte Symphony contacted the CBMR for a list of qualified minority players. The next week, I spoke with three such players, all of whom were very excited to be personally invited to the audition. The Charlotte Symphony made good, respectful use of one of the recruitment devices that are available. I would encourage all orchestras to support and endorse the work of the CBMR in this type of database collection; the resource value of the database will improve in direct correlation with this support and endorsement.

Establishing diversity goals and placing them in your mission statement or your musicians' contract is an important step. The Chicago Symphony put such a provision into their contract in 1988, and re-energized it two years ago by creating an orchestra diversity committee that represents all constituents in the community. With all this in place, the CSO just recently hired its first African-American musician--a promising sign, and also an indication of the time it can take to achieve progress when minority musicians are reluctant to audition for orchestras.

The commitment of orchestras such as those of Charlotte, Chicago, and Detroit --with its apprenticeship program--should be celebrated and emulated. Programs that offer a personal approach to diversity--pre-professional mentoring and one-on-one apprenticeships that provide quality preparation, ongoing encouragement, guidance, and high-quality performance experiences--need to be imitated. All of this helps to ensure knowledge of and comfort with orchestral culture, both in terms of performance etiquette and social interaction. Everyone can make a contribution to the advancement of diversity. You can support programs that promote it with a financial commitment or an endorsement, or simply by using them as resources as you seek to fill positions in your orchestra. You could start a conversation about diversity at your orchestra, do a web search during lunch at your desk, or simply pass this article around your office, rehearsal room, or board meeting to prompt honest discussion. I invite you to commit to one action in 2003 to help move this important issue forward.