Classical music diversity — or the lack of it

In my last post, I got up on a soapbox and orated, about classical music — in practice pretty much a lily-white art — claiming special privileges (lavish funding, school programs devoted to it) in an age of growing diversity. That seemed ugly to me, and, in the long run, not sustainable.

But there’s a simpler, less polemical way to look at this. Yesterday, perusing the business section of the New York Times (and in the print paper yet; how old-fashioned of me!), I came across a column that started this way: “Advertisers are increasingly looking for ways to appeal to consumers of color…” Then followed one of the lastest wrinkles in that effort, a website that provides data on African-American media consumption, demographics and purchasing power.

Michael Morgan and the young Oakland black audience

Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and his young peoples' audience

But then this is nothing new. Advertisers — not to mention TV and movie producers — have been paying at least token attention (and often quite a bit more than that) to minorities for more than a generation now. Allstate’s spokesman, in its TV ads, is black. Trial judges in the movies are so often black women that this in itself has become a stereotype. And of course films and TV shows (not to mention music) aimed at a black audience are common. Which isn’t to say there aren’t stereotypes involved, and much more progress to be made. But clearly there’s an awareness of diversity, which shows up front and center in the media, every day, so often that I feel silly even writing this. It flavors the air we breathe.

But not in classical music. It’d be rare (to put it mildly) to find a classical music institution targeting minorities in its marketing — and making them strong presences in advertisements and marketing materials, let alone onstage.

There are many reasons for this, the simplest being that the classical music audience is pretty close to all white, so that marketing more broadly might seem a waste of time. One basic principle of marketing is to target the people most likely to respond. Besides, TV networks, film producers, and pop record labels have minority artists featured in what they offer the public, along with shows, films, and songs about black and (increasingly) Hispanic life. Classical music institutions, on the whole, aren’t presenting black conductors or soloists. Orchestras have hardly any black musicians on stage.

Now you could say that in some ways this isn’t surprising. When I was a pop music critic, late in the ’80s in Los Angeles, and then in the early ’90s in New York, I’d take for granted that white and black artists, on the whole, had different audiences. I think I was the only white person at a Luther Vandross show I reviewed, and at a Bruce Springsteen show, the late Clarence Clemons, playing sax on stage might be the only black person (or pretty to close to that) in the hall. Only Prince and hiphop shows had a racially mixed audience.

But then everyone knows — and says out loud — that pop acts appeal to various demographics, and not just to broad racial and ethnic groups, but to small demographic and psychographic slices of the audience. And people in pop music doesn’t demand that pop music be taught in schools, don’t get  lavish private funding, and aren’t supported by tax dollars.

And if you look at the pop music business as a whole, it’s as diverse as America, or at least where the largest racial and ethnic groups are concerned. (Except at the top. The top levels of record companies are largely white, though individual African-Americans have risen far higher, on the business side, than we normally see in classical music.)

So I might put it this way. I’m not saying that people in classical music are consciously racist. But the gravitational pull of the field is toward the white community (and, for the most part, the upper-income part of it). So that’s the line of least resistance. Do what comes naturally, and you’re a group of white musicians talking to a white audience.

To change that would take a major effort. I think of Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, who insisted that women and minorities had to be strongly — visibly — represented in everything the paper did. If you hired an editor, you had to have black candidates for the job. If you ran photos of three people you quoted in a story, you’d better have a woman and someone black. If the people working for Neuharth found this hard to do, if they said they couldn’t find a qualified woman or African-American for a prominent job, he’d tell them to try harder.

What the impact of that was on the paper’s coverage, or readership, I don’t know. But it’s pretty clear — just look at the stage at a classical concert, just look at the audience, just look at the programs, just look at the marketing — that people in classical music aren’t making this effort.

Which means that, in a diverse culture, classical music stands out (on the whole) as strikingly white. Which means that minorities may be actively turned off, may feel that they’re not welcome, no matter how much that might not be true. And even many white people, especially younger ones — at ease, in so many ways, in a world that’s culturally diverse, expecting that as the norm — look at classical music, and feel (whether they put it in words or not, or even if they don’t consciously know they think this) that something isn’t quite right, that this isn’t the country they live in.

In the end, this is one of many ways that classical music hasn’t kept up with cultural change. It’s nobody’s fault. No one in classical music  — well, surely no one active today — set out to make classical music so largely white. But keeping it way is unfortunately the line of least resistance, for people in the #classical world, and in the future, my guess would be that someone’s got to make the effort to change — a lot of people will have to do that — or classical music will increasingly stand out as drastically out of touch with its time.

And then it really might die.

Footnote, though as a human issue this is more than a footnote. Of course there are African-Americans — to name just that minority — who play classical music, or want to. But they may feel blocked from entering the highest reaches of the classical world, especially on the business side. And (as I’ve from time to time heard from African-American students I’ve had) they may feel that people in their own community don’t want them playing classical music, because, as they might be told, even by people in their own families, “it’s not our music.”

Does it help that the classical music world — unlike film, TV, advertising, and, in many ways, the other arts — conveys exactly that feeling? 

Michael Morgan, the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony (who commented here on my last post), once said something very poignant to me. He’s African-American, and, speaking of his own community, said that in past generations, many African-Americans wanted to be classical musicians, but were blocked by overt racism. Now, the field is open to people of color, but few African-Americans want to go through the door. 

Which of course makes it harder for classical music institutions to do what happens elsewhere in our culture, where it’s easier to demonstrate at least a surface commitment to diversity. But that only means that classical music needs to try harder. 

Which then gives us a reason for outreach to minorities! But then we have to ask how effective this outreach is, how sustained, and what, in the end, it produces. And whether it’s likely to produce results, if the parent institutions still look, from the inside and outside, so white.


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  1. says

    Agreed classical could have a much wider audience and it is basically our fault it has become a minority music but I think the race thing is not the issue. Unless I am greatly mistaken, in the U.K. there have been no black punk or indie bands either – does that matter?
    Just after apartheid finished in South Africa a large South African band toured England. A journalist interviewed them and was surprised to find that when they were having a break the three white South Aftricans sat in a huddle, the three black South Aftricans sat together and the three Indian South Aftricans sat together. Three groups apart, separated by race.
    The interviewer questioned them and asked why they sat apart when they advertised themselves as a united multi-racial group. They replied ‘that is your idea of multi-racial, not ours’.
    For some reason we are now obsessed with race. When a great black Chicago blues man (I think it was Howling Wolf) toured England with a white English band many years ago, the one club where he did not go down well was a black club. He reprimanded the band for not playing well. The English band defended themselves by saying that audience just didn’t like the blues. He told them not to tell him how to play to black audiences because he was black and had been playing to black audiences all his life. The English band pointed out that this audience were Jamaican and in England Jamaicans liked generally reggae, not blues.
    The same with free jazz in the late 1960s. Many Black Power musicians at that time claimed that free jazz was the only genuine expression of black consciousness. However their audience was almost entirely white and many of the musicians lived in Europe; black Americans generally preferred soul. In fact there is a wonderful story of a jazz musician (I think Clark Terry) playing a free jazz record at home and his black neighbour hammering on the door, telling him he did not want to hear that rubbish and he was not to play that sort of music again.
    White adminsitrators and law makers may promote black culture, but only when it fits in with their white cultural principles. Beenie Man, one of the most popular black Jamaican artists, is banned from the U.K. because in Jamaica he expressed anti-gay views. There is no reason for this, providing he obeys U.K. law he should be allowed to entertain his thousands of black U.K. fans. There was a demonstration outside a record store in London because they stocked Buju Banton records, again because he had expressed anti-gay views in Jamaica. Buju Banton is really popular with black British audiences and authentically describes Jamaican life.
    When the black gospel group Take 6 performed in London, they were advertised as the origins of soul. The white adminstrators could not bring themselves to say they were a Christian group. Take 6 make it quite clear they only perform to glorify God, however the white secularist administrators cannot bring themselves to acknowledge Christianity in a positive way.
    My experience in England is that the white establishment still believes it is entitled to decide what music is appropiate for black audiences, and what music is not.

  2. says

    You raise a problem that so many orchestras face (or maybe don’t face enough). Have you heard of the Chicago Sinfonietta? Diversity is this orchestra’s prioity. The orchestra was founded by African-American pioneer Paul Freeman to promote musicians, composers and conductors of color. In 2010 the Music Director baton was passed to Mei-Ann Chen, a Taiwanese-American rising star on the podium, who uphold’s the orchestra’s mission of “excellence through diversity.” Check them out and see the good — and always uphill — work they’re doing to reach a diverse audience and make classical music more inclusive.

  3. says

    Well, it’s not quite as provacative as your Diversity challenge and More on diversity posts (though I might be a bit biased about the latter since you featured one of my comments! 😉

    And people in pop music doesn’t demand that pop music be taught in schools, don’t get lavish private funding, and aren’t supported by tax dollars.

    Not most people, though I have come across the occasional member of a local band who did say something along the lines of wishing there were funding for it. And at least one promoter I know had considered looking for funding for his weekly Punk Rock Night (which has been going strong for nearly 10 years now). Again, this is the difference between more local musicians in bands (especially in more niche pop genres) as opposed to bigwigs names in the industry who are already making it in the Industry or who happen to be involved with more mainstream genres.

    I guess I just think my experience with pop music and the musicians (well, outside of touring with Ray Price, that is) hits the more local and not so financially stable (i.e. more mainstream) populations. There’s as much variety and levels of success and failure in the pop world as any other industry or genre. There’s nothing like going to show after show of original or not-so-great cover bands with audiences of just a handful of friends or family members for years to give us a healthy skepticism about the ‘success’ of pop music when that is informed by attending shows of the big name touring stars.

    And if you look at the pop music business as a whole, it’s as diverse as America, or at least where the largest racial and ethnic groups are concerned. (Except at the top. The top levels of record companies are largely white, though individual African-Americans have risen far higher, on the business side, than we normally see in classical music.)

    I’m not so sure about that. Going back to my stint touring with Ray Price, even when we’d occasionally do shows with other big name country stars like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Roy Clark, Crystal Gayle–the audiences were nearly just as white as you’d fine in a classical audience. The biggest exception would be hispanics but given the demographic of the southwest, that is easily understandable.

    Given the huge slice of the pop music industry pie that country music has, I do find it surprising sometimes that you rarely talk about that genre. Then again, I do admit that there is certainly an audience split between the old school country and the new “pop country” that is more centered in Nashville.

    Most everything else you say about the classical music world i pretty much agree with, and I find it sad that it has come to this (or rather, stayed like this).

    On the other hand–you consistently claim that classical music should be easily accessible and shouldn’t need funding and that most audiences couldn’t tell sonata form from rondo and that they go just because they love the music. But I think that’s downplaying the exposure issue (and hence the education and outreach issue). Pop music surrounds us everyday in ways maybe more invasive than how classical music used to be prominent in media. I think that kind of exposure plays far more of a role than any outreach and education efforts–in a way, I think outreach and education were just reflections of how dominant classical music was in this culture prior to 1960.

    Which means, I guess, that I am agreeing with you about outreach and education–the musicians would be better served to try to change the look an accessibility of Classical music than in trying to create an environment that is conducive to creating an audience since that was something more on a national level in the past. There’s just no way current classical musicians can create that kind of infrastructure–and re-produce the current infrastructure that happens to favor pop music a bit more.

    But i think the corollary to that is since the environment is much more conducive to pop, that has as much, if not more, to do with how easily pop music can get an audience (again, if we’re making the assumption that neither pop nor classical are intrinsically, due to the music, more accessible than the other). It’s the culture surrounding the music that creates the barriers-as in the case with blacks.

    At the same time, we do have over-representation of East Asians in orchestras (don’t know about the audiences for them), but that shouldn’t be surprising in and of itself–the many dozens of traditional Chinese Orchestra throughout the US are composed almost exclusively of Chinese-Americans. I think this has as much to say about Chinese and Chinese-American culture as anything when a hugely disproportionate segment of that population is in both a Western Art form as well as their own traditional art forms (not to even mention how many of them might also be in pop bands).

    Sure, the historical trajectory of these two ethnic groups in the US was very different, so I’m sure that has much to do with the difference, but what can we make of all this?

  4. says

    Why so few Asians in American pop music? That has long puzzled me. Lots of Asian classical stars, lots of Asian pop music in the world, but aside from specialty tastes in K-pop or J-pop, not many Asian heritage superstars in the Top 100. But to the main point, did The Secret Committee That Runs Classical Music ever promote classical music to Asian cultures or Asian-American cultures? I haven’t seen the minutes of that meeting, but I think not. How did that aspect of diversity happen without a deliberate outreach?

    • says

      Bryan, I accept your rebuke, and thank you for it. It’s always good to have a reality check. I most definitely did lump you in, very carelessly, with people I’ve read, or who have posted here, making global comments about pop music without — and in the cases I’m talking about — this was beyond dispute — knowing anything about it. This is so widespread in the classical music world that it becomes an element of classical music culture.

      But that, perhaps, is another discussion. I apologize for jumping to conclusions about you.

      Having said that, though, I’d love to raise the discussion to a higher level, and ask you about a couple of things you said. One would be about most pop music being created under industrial conditions, so to speak. I don’t recall your exact words, but I do remember, or think I do, that you thought most pop songs are manufactured to be hits. My experience within the pop business showed me — or at least I thought it did — that this isn’t true. The most I can say is that there are record business executives who wish it was true. Their jobs would be so much easier!

      So I’d be curious to know what it is in your pop music experience that leads you to your conclusion. Maybe I can learn something from you!

      My other question would be about your comment about how limited the chord progressions are in pop and rock, and how this shows that the artistic reach of the music is limited. My thought is that pop music, in the rock era, works on very different principles, and that timbre, texture, and rhythm do more to create the art in a pop song than harmony does, as a rule. I’d cited Rob Walser’s book because it’s one of the best explications I know of how, exactly, this works in at least one pop genre, metal. So since you’ve read the book, I’d be curious to know why — after Rob’s explication, in great detail, of how metal works — you feel that limited harmony remains a paramount issue. Rob in fact has a lot to say about what he feels are subtleties in metal harmony.

      So again, if you’d help me by explaining more about what you think, I’d be grateful. And, again, I might learn something. I apologize if this might have been in one of the posts you linked, but I’m writing this reply on my iPhone, on a bus. It’s awkward to check out the links. And I may not have much access to my computer till Monday, because I’m off on a business trip.

      Again I apologize for being dumb about you, I’d love to move past that, and talk more constructively.

      • says

        Hi Greg, I think this is a reply not to what I said in this thread, but my comment in the previous thread? Thanks so much for it. I think we were talking past one another because we have really different critical philosophies. Probably ones that complement one another!

        You pose two really interesting questions that I would like to answer at length, but alas, after putting up a couple of posts on my blog and catching up here, I just don’t have time this morning! But let me take a stab at one of them. Let me clear up something first. I think it is unfair and pointless to criticize an entire genre of music without realizing that is what you are doing. In one post, I forget which, I say that every genre is capable of producing fine music. But then I make an exception for “grindcore” which seems to disdain even the possibility! You can talk about general characteristics of, say, the waltz, the rondo or the fugue, but this cannot, by definition, constitute criticism of an individual piece. You could define criticism as the description of how a particular piece succeeds or fails to be a good example of its genre. “Gee, that was a good mazurka!” But this seems to me both foolish and rigid. Every great piece of music is great in its own unique way. Mozart’s 41st Symphony is great in a way that is totally different than Shostakovich’s 5th. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is great in a way that is totally different than “Gangster’s Paradise”. Etc.

        So when I said something like “too much pop music sounds like industrial product” that was just shorthand for something like “some recent songs I have been listening to, this one and this one, seem to consist of standard drum tracks, predictable chord progressions and generic vocalizing.” You know what I mean, I’m sure! Of course, I’m not talking about Bruce Springsteen, if I were, I would have said so.

        I’ll come back to this later!

    • Eric L says

      @Dave: I could probably try answering the question of why there seem to be so few Asians in American pop, but lots of classical ‘stars’. For lots of Asian-Americans, the idea of excelling in classical music was also something of a status symbol, an act signifying the attainment of middle-class-hood; of course there are those musicians who do start playing an instrument because they are drawn to say the violin at a young age, or continue with playing in a professional capacity because they genuinely enjoy the music. However, do not discount the fact that playing classical music is and was very much about identity as much as it is/was about the music. There’s much chatter about the obsession of mainland Chinese youth with luxury brands…the boom of classical music probably feeds of similar background desires. [which is not to say there aren’t people who genuinely love the music itself]

      As with pop music and Asian-American pop acts, I think the situation is slowly changing, and there are an increasing number of Asian-Americans thriving in various pop genres. Do realize that even though the Asian-American population is growing, it’s still only about 4 to 6% of the American population. I think people living near the coasts or other metro areas with large Asian populations tend to overestimate the ubiquity of Asians (and this is ALL Asian Americans, from the East-Asians who do overpopulate classical music activities, to South Asians, and the comparatively more economically-disadvantaged South East Asians–the latter two groups never really gaining much of a foothold in classical music).

      I think there have always been young Asians interested in pop music, and today, a number ARE trying to make it. However, they’re entering the field at a time when the popular music world is becoming an increasingly fragmented marketplace, and it’s only going to become more niche-based in the next few years. Even the biggest pop acts are resigning to selling fewer and fewer copies of their latest albums. Furthermore, like other forms of media, the big studios/labels have been rather timid in their promotion of Asian-American talent. Witness Asian-American representation in Hollywood movies. The biggest Asian names are all imports–Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jay Chou and so on. It’s only been in the last 5-10 years when local talent such as John Cho and Kal Penn are getting opportunities to star or headline TV shows and movies.

      With pop music, my impression is that prior to the recent (last 6 or 7 years?) ‘internet’/social media boom where you can genuinely become well-known or successful by promoting your work online without major studios or labels behind you, talented Asian-Americans were often lured back to Asia as expats. They’d often be signed by the Asia-Pacific branch of the major labels and you’d be a star there, as opposed to being a second or third-string neglected token act in the West. The market for Chinese/Asian-language material is HUGE. So you get a bunch of Western-education or raised musicians seeking their fortune back East…esp if they have some command of the language. So you have the Williams College-educated Wang Lee Hom and the rapper Jin (who made a name for himself here as one of the first Asian-American rappers to be signed to a big label) now doing really, really well in Asia. And much better than they probably would be doing than if they remained in the States. I think aspiring Asian-American musicians/actors/artists probably will increasing try to give it a shot here in the US, now that the barrier to entry is much, much lower. You don’t have to convince skeptical label execs. You just need a hit You Tube video.

      • says

        Thank you, Eric L. for stating this:

        I think people living near the coasts or other metro areas with large Asian populations tend to overestimate the ubiquity of Asians (and this is ALL Asian Americans, from the East-Asians who do overpopulate classical music activities, to South Asians, and the comparatively more economically-disadvantaged South East Asians–the latter two groups never really gaining much of a foothold in classical music).

        Being a Southeast Asian, I understand how problematic it is to talk about the “model minority” when the East Asians tend to skew the statistics for anything in the US. And you are absolutely correct regarding the mainstream (in the US) using more imports and those Asian-Americans (or Asian-Europeans) who do make it in the cinematic/music field are usually imported back to the ‘motherland.’

        I already said (and elsewhere throughout Greg’s blog) enough about East Asian representation in Classical music above so won’t reiterate those comments, but from my perspective as an Asian citizen that happens to be a permanent resident of the US making a living doing a music, I can safely say that the Pop music field holds little interest for me, and the Classical music field is only a step above that.

        What I concentrate on is becoming what behavioral psychologists refer to as a ‘disinhibitory contagion’ agent. I, through my activities want to show the marginalized minorities (yes, there is a difference between privileged minorities–i.e. Blacks and Hispanics–and marginalized ones–e.g. many Asians and Middle Easterners) that is is perfectly OK to not be a part of either the (Euro-American] Pop music or [Western] Classical music field since the world of music is just SO much bigger than either of those two fields could ever incorporate.

        Also, what I’ve been iterating and re-iterating with my comments to Greg’s blog is that the pop music field isn’t nearly as homogenous as so many folks (on both the pro-Classical and pro-Pop sides) would like to think. While I may have spent most of the past ten years sharing bills with “bands” in the “normal” sense that many of think of them–lately I’ve had the opportunity to share bills with, and work with so many non-mainstream Pop and Classical Art Music groups that:

        1) Show the true diversity of the US outside of the “White/Black divide” (as many of us reds. yellows and browns refer to it) in music, and
        2) Show how much easier it is to do either ‘acceptable’ White or Black genres in music–to the detriment of all those marginalized non-White AND non-Black music genres in the US.

        Sure, the barrier of entry is much lower now in the states, and things are so much more fragmented–which is why I think discussions of some supposed near hegemonic dominance of either White/Black pop music is a bit misguided! And i think that, as much as anything else (such as the ease with with information is transmitted through digital media), has to do with changing tastes as anything else!

      • says

        Just read this old NYT article about Asian-Americans in the pop music industry. Ironically, it is saying what I had just spent half of a blog post saying regarding this issue:

        select quote from the piece:

        Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them. The issue came to the fore most recently on “American Idol,” where a Korean-American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.

        Mr. Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his “range” and “tonal quality,” but he was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While he was still on the show, Mr. Kim wrote on his page that “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”

        which echoes what I posted here:

        But doesn’t that show a low entry barrier even for those subgroups? I think not. Consider the South Bay Chinese Orchestra (here, “Chinese Orchestra” means a large ensemble made up of traditional Chinese instruments modeled after the Western Orchestra). There’s a picture of the 20 member group in the link I gave above. All Chinese/Chinese American. Practically the same with nearly all the dozens of traditional Chinese Orchestras in the US. With a near 100 percent representation of Chinese-Americans in Chinese Orchestras we might start to get a picture of Chinese-American culture in general. As far as the arts are concerned, this population seems to favor it much more than other populations in the West.

        Taken in conjunction the relative lack of Chinese-American (or indeed, Asian-American) artists in the public eye, it makes a kind of sense that Art music ensembles like Western Orchestras and Chinese Orchestras might be over-represented by Chinese-Americans. This group hasn’t obviously made it into the mainstream the way, say, Black Hip-Hop artists or White Rock and Classical musicians have. And so, like many of the marginalized minorities (to contrast with the privileged minorities in some sectors of American culture) the only recourse is to stay relatively close to ethnic origins in ways that just don’t coincide with mainstream American culture.

        And this is where I do vehemently disagree with Greg–pop culture is only mainstream to the majority, even the majority minority. The rest of us have to make do with building our own cultural edifices in our bid to either assimilate or co-exist with mainstream cultural edifices.

  5. Mark Lindeman says

    Greg, yes, in a sense you seem to have come full circle: from justified suspicion of “outreach to minorities,” to a strong case for outreach — without the swaggering cultural imperialism part.

    Classical music may be a bit like golf. (Full disclosure: I’m not actually very interested in golf, and don’t really know what I’m talking about. I can be trusted to some extent with many choral tenor lines, but if you see me holding a golf club, be very afraid.) Potentially anyone can learn to appreciate the talent of an excellent musician or orchestra or golfer — and, yes, it does require some learning (but not necessarily much “education”). For various intended and unintended reasons, both have been dominated by whites.

    At least 20 years ago, the USGA decided that it needed not only to crack down on overt discrimination, but to cultivate minority players through community outreach. It had an analysis of why golf would be harder to integrate than baseball had been, and some facially plausible ideas on what to do about it. Evidently USGA has had some success, although I have no idea to what extent it was earned!

    The USGA has a rationale for golf education, just like there are rationales for classical music education. (I don’t exactly remember, but I’ve seen the ads — golf teaches concentration and sportsmanship and maybe even nature appreciation. Some of that probably is true.) But perhaps the best starting point is: hey, we love golf and want to see it played. No need to argue that it represents a crowning achievement of the Western sports tradition, against which all other sports should be measured. Just do it, y’know.

    There are huge practical obstacles to golf outreach, and to classical music outreach. It isn’t enough just to look around and say, “Whoa, why in hell are we so white and snooty? What a tragic, unsustainable waste!” But it’s a start.

    My “analysis” of golf focuses on the players rather than the audiences, in part because I’m reasoning analogically, and I really can’t imagine school assemblies designed to inculcate golf appreciation. (“Listen, children: this is the sound of a 3-wood!”) Sometimes you focus on players, sometimes on audiences, and sometimes I’m not sure. But in the long run it probably doesn’t matter.

    Yes, there are lots of ways in which classical music isn’t like golf. But both have aspects of pretension, exclusion, excellence, and fun.

  6. says

    I just want to make two very brief comments. First, I think there is a blind spot in your analysis. Both you and I have worked on the West Coast, you as a pop music critic and myself teaching in a conservatory. Where I was, a huge percentage of the music students were Asian-mostly Chinese. At least half of the piano students and a large percentage of the violin students were Asian. This was in Victoria, British Columbia. No black students, but then there were almost no black residents at that time. Well, there were a couple: the conductor of the symphony was black! So I just don’t really get the racial angle. You write “I’m not saying that people in classical music are consciously racist.” But unconsciously? The other thing is that a young and talented black musician would likely make far more money if he or she DIDN’T go into classical music, right?

    I think where we philosophically differ, Greg, is in our sense of what classical music is. My working definition is that classical music can be seen in two ways. One is the music of the Classical period, 1750 – 1827, but the more important sense of the word is that music that has survived the test of time. If you go to a classical music concert you might find music from the Renaissance to the present. Or you might hear a program devoted to a particular era. What you would, or should, expect is that the artists have chosen music of high quality, music that stands out for its aesthetic and expressive power. I have given concerts for voice and guitar where we started with music by Guillaume DuFay, continued with John Dowland, performed some songs by contemporary Cuban composer Leo Brouwer and ended with Blackbird by Paul McCartney. And I consider all of that ‘classical’. But the process of finding the music of the best quality means weeding out the music of lesser quality. It is in that area that I think we may have some differences, but I’m not sure what they would be. I do know that from my point of view the idea that classical music is “drastically out of touch with its time” is to mis-categorize classical music. Music that has achieved ‘classical’ status is supposed to be out of touch with its time!

  7. Robert Berger says

    This is not the fault of our orchestras and opera companies. No one and nothing is stopping talented young black classical musicians from achieving success in this field .
    Very few of them have ever aimed at careers in classical music .
    Auditions for orchestras are held behind a screen to ensure that there can be no prejudice based on race or gender . I know, because I’ve gone through the audition process many times myself. I never saw a single African-American musician at any of these auditions .
    There are ,however, a large number of Asian-born and Asian-Americans in classical music.
    To call classical music “lily White” is unfair. It’s a pure meritocracy .

    • Richard Hertz says

      if you’ve gone through many auditions, then you know that the screen comes down in 90% of them, and there are decisions made at that point about candidates that have nothing to do with their playing.

      also: school funding and culture.

      classical music is disproportionally white compared to the racial breakdown on the U.S in any case. there are very few people with hispanic backgrounds in classical music as well.

  8. Robert Berger says

    Yes, the screen goes down for the finals , but by that time , usually only four or five out of maybe 200 have made to that point . There have never been a large number of blacks aiming at careers in classical music .
    Audition committees are not interested in an applicant’s skin color . The only thing that matters is how you play.

    • says

      “Audition committees are not interested in an applicant’s skin color . The only thing that matters is how you play.”

      You know, this may be a big part of the problem orchestras face. Not the disinterest in race, but the idea that all that matters is how well you play.

      I heard David Cutler, author of The Savvy Musician, do a brilliant presentation at the Manhattan School of Music on this issue. His idea is that orchestras need people who are terrific players who are also creative, engaging, able to do (sorry, Greg) education and outreach, and so on. He suggests the entire orchestra business needs to rethink this aspect of the model, and look for fantastic players who aren’t necessarily “the best” (i.e., most perfect) on the day of the audition, but who have an array of skills that will help the organization make a deep impact in the community.

  9. says

    “There have never been a large number of blacks aiming at careers in classical music .
    Audition committees are not interested in an applicant’s skin color . The only thing that matters is how you play.”

    Of course, by the time you get to the stage of auditioning, you are already a pretty successful musician. The biggest barriers to entry are much earlier.

    And it doesn’t have to be prejudice that blocks people. It can be economics – violins are expensive, and finding somewhere to practise undisturbed on a regular basis takes a certain size of dwelling, not mention tuition costs. And it can be cultural inhibitions – I can recall a discussion with (white) undergrad music students who claimed that ‘anyone’ could participate in classical music whether it was possible to play the fiddle in a burka. And it can just be whether you ever get the opportunity to say: ‘oh that’s cool, I wan’t to play one of those’.

    Outreach can deal with the last of these, and state education has a patchy track record of dealing with the first. But, while it is probably entirely true to state that the audition process for orchestral jobs is entirely meritocratic, I’m not sure it follows that ‘classical music’ as a whole deserves the label.

  10. says

    Well, I’ve just read through Greg’s series of posts on outreach and education, and the 90+ and growing comments. The discussion is fascinating, if overwhelming to absorb in one sitting.

    It’s all veered off from his original point, which I’ll paraphrase as, “classical musicians have a wonderful, overlooked opportunity, one that’s perhaps the key to our future, which is to get our own peers to come to concerts.” And I want to encourage everyone to come back to that, because we need to be brainstorming and experimenting and this is as good a forum as any to do it.

    For example, a friend and colleague of mine is performing the Bach Goldberg Variations in a church on the campus of the college where I teach, and we’re inviting students to bring sleeping bags or comforters, wear pajamas if they want, and lie down to listen. There’s a lot of buzz about it, and I think there will be a number of students who come to this who wouldn’t want to sit for 90 minutes in a pew or an auditorium seat. Students helped come up with the format and are handling the logistics (moving chairs, etc.). (OK, I’ll plug my own blog here; there’s a post about this at

    I realize that this is totally off-topic for this particular post. I’d just love to nudge the conversation back to where it started.

    • says

      Not at all off-topic, Eric. I think I veered from the heart of my topic, and I’m grateful to you for bringing us (me) back.

      Great project, your Goldberg story! We’ve got to develop a repository of these things. I had one started here, awhile ago, and I’ll see if I can bring it back. It’s a lot of work, though, and with the baby on top of everything else…!

      I’ll plug your blog, too. It’s always worth reading.

      • says

        A quick follow up on our 9:00 PM, lights-dimmed, candles-by-the-piano, students-in-pajamas Bach Goldberg Variations concert. It was a bit hard to count in the semi darkness, but an arts-presenter friend estimated 60-80 (I think about 65) total attendees; two of us counted 45 students lying on the floor, some sitting. It was particularly lovely to see two music students seated next to the piano, watching the score in the candlelight. What I liked about this is that we had that many students on the Sunday night after the biggest football game of the year (i.e., despite the hangover effect), and that in addition to pajama-party aspect, there was the meditative silence we asked for. As one student wrote, “One key thread is that the music never suffered. I know some people who are afraid that if we “loosen up” our rigid view on what a classical concert is we will disrespect the music. Katya’s concert is a great example of how we can enjoy a world-class pianist playing one hell of an interpretation of Bach IN the 21st century.” There are a number of comments from students at the concert here:

        Greg, next semester I’m teaching a class called ‘What Is a Concert?’ One of he class projects will be to collect descriptions, videos, etc., of as many of these types of alternative events as possible. We’ll use the ones that you already collected and search for more. As well as make some more up.

        • says

          Thanks so much for sharing this, Eric. I might put what you wrote on the blog as its own post.

          And I just love your “What Is a Concert!” course! If there’s any way you can share it online when it’s happening, I and I’m sure any others will be grateful.

  11. says

    Hi Greg – thanks for another thoughtful piece.

    If Afro-American music was represented by reproducing the old traditional songs and dances brought out from Africa in the slavery years, would lots of Afro-Americans be flocking to see it? Would lots of whites be flocking to learn to sing it and be a part of it? Yet this is a parallel to the context of the bulk of European classical music and classical music education – old tunes and ways from another old time and lands – and I think the answers are similar – no, and no.

    Most Afro-American music culture has been created, wave upon wave, each contemporary in its time, over many decades. This is not so for the bulk of classical music taught and performed now. Pop music is far closer to that model – anyone can take part and no extensive training needed to start, originals coming up in every generation being the main grist of it, making it of our time, local content and current themes and interests. I can’t see why if classical music had made these moves that it wouldn’t be a big part of our time and culture.

    I doubt pop music would have had the legs it has if it was all cover bands doing the same old songs again and again over 200 years with minimal – like 1% – contemporary content in each generation. Yet that is the challenge classical music has set for itself, and is losing the game.

    I feel that if people made their own classical music daily, with their friends, informally, exploring and having fun with what they came up with, and performed that at concerts every week – just like the bar scene which nurtured pop music – we might have a living classical music culture, which by pop music’s example would probably absorb and bounce around with many diverse musics and cultures, and the populations getting involved would most likely be very diverse.

    Hence I am a great advocate of up-skilling trained classical musicians in being able to make their own works day after day through improvisation, using all the sounds they have honed over the years, yet being able to adapt and dance with any music from any culture successfully, and to make classical music education much more accessible by being orientated in this way right from the start – not to mention making it more accessible by more progressive attitudes and teaching methods.

    Just a thought.

    Very best wishes,

    • says

      Very good thoughts, Rupert. And eloquently expressed. When I read your paragraph on up-skilling, I think two things. First, that classical musicians have to get out more, interact musically with more people, drop the veil of high art that separates them from their audience. And then that — in doing all that interaction — they should be freer, more open, more varied in the music they make, composing, improvising, creating hybrids of classical music with other genres. (I know you didn’t say that last thing, Rupert, so I’ll disclaim any attempt to put those words in your mouth.)

      And then, just maybe, classical music will become a living presence in our world. Hope you don’t’ mind this riff on your ideas!

      • richard says

        I guess I’m from a different era, but when I was younger a lot of us did everything. All my friends who were drummers (percussionists) sax/clar., trumpet, and trombone players played and loved pretty much eveyrthing. We all got to know each other in youth symphonies and community orchestras, we played together in jazz-rock and funk/RB bands and were always getting together to play jazz. I even gigged with one of my best friends in a mariachi band. I guess those days are long gone.

        • says

          Not long gone for percussionists, I think. Or for many brass players. Much less so for string and wind players, from what I’ve picked up. But it’s not always clear that the powers that be in the #classical music world understand that many musicians cross musical borders. Years ago, I was talking to the publicist for the New York Philharmonic, and suggested that when Miles Davis had died (not long before this conversation), the orchestra could have offered its trumpet players to the media, to comment on Miles. Her answer? ‘Oh, our trumpet players aren’t interested in that. They’d rather talk about Lenny Bernstein.” I’m sure they’d talk about Bernstein, but it’s hard to imagine a trumpet player without some feeling for Miles.

  12. Matt says

    I believe that your assessment is quite backwards. Music performance is in large part merit-based. There aren’t a lot of black musicians in the classical music world because of the nature of the black demographic. I am from the south side of Chicago. I have been to New York, St. Louis, Atlanta, among other large cities. The majority of the black population in America is of lower income and as such is not encouraged or educated in classical arts. That is just the present reality. I believe we should work towards educating more lower income children in the classical arts, rather than degrading performance quality with idiotic quotas.

    If you view diversity as a (literally) black and white issue, than you need to re-evaluate your definition. There is a huge number of Asain people thriving in the American classical music scene. Also, you have to look at what classical music really is. Why is it that opera singers are required a minimum of 4 or 5 languages (after their native tongue)? Classical music is categorized not only by time period but also by the culture it comes out of. Spanish music is very different from German music, which is very different from Italian music, which is very different from British music, which is very different from French music, which is very different from Russian music. Classical music itself and also classical musicians in general not only span cultures, but CONTINENTS. Now take into account the number of gays and lesbians that are professional musicians (probably more, percentage wise, than many other lines of work). How is that not a diverse group of people?

    • says

      Nothing you say changes what’s evident to anyone outside classical music — that for the most part the institutions of our society present a picture of specifically racial diversity. And stress that, when they present themselves to the world. While classical music doesn’t. You can list a thousand reasons for that, and maybe those reasons make sense to you, but people outside look at what’s going on with us, and, consciously or not, are likely to ask, “What century are these people living in?”

      Think about the names of the two big tennis stadiums in New York, the sites of the US Open. They’re named after Louis Armstrong (a big tennis fan) and Arthur Ashe (a big tennis star), both African-American. Tennis was overwhelmingly a white sport in the years those stadiums were named, but the US Tennis Association knew what it was doing — knew it had to present as diverse an image as possible. Maybe that was one step leading to the current situation, when a number of leading tennis stars (and up and coming players) are black. Including, of course, the dominant powers in women’s tennis, the Williams sisters.

      Sometimes we just can’t accept the status quo, whatever powerful reasons might have established it. Sometimes we just have to move forward. The rest of the world has found ways to do that. But not (in this regard, anyway) classical music.

  13. says

    Extremely good points on Matt’s part. Strings are what makes an orchestra different from any other group – and string education is disappearing at an unbelievably rapid rate in some of the larges cities, right on down the line. Musical education ideas a la El Sistema or whatever else we can think of to bring diverse music education alive (and by diverse I mean many different kinds of instruments – not just the standard 4 or 5 instruments fed to young children when they hit 3rd grade) will be the only way to bring a younger audience to classical music. Changing how we market will not do it.

  14. Bruce Gelman says

    As a white man who works for the Seattle Symphony this has troubled me for quite a while.We have a vibrant education dept and plenty of black hispanic and some native american children attending school concerts here but they never return with their parents in tow to a regular concert.Classical music is MUSIC not white music.Jazz is MUSIC not black music and so on.The answer is Market,Market and Market to minorities.Market till the Organization is blue in the face.Classical boards are 99% white.So what racial sensitivity can they bring and how many dollars are they willing to allocate?Someon needs to pool resources of multiple Symphonies and target grants toward welcoming everyone.Then we will see an improvement.