White, low affect, respectful

“I don’t know many other art forms where applause is considered a negative.”

bo young lee blogThat was a one-liner fired off by Bo Young Lee (in the photo), a diversity consultant, at a League of American Orchestras conference session called “Developing Cross-Cultural Competency.” Of course she was talking about the rules of classical music applause. And how, if we follow them, we actually suppress the excitement of our audience.

Lee is senior vice president, Global Diversity & Inclusion Lead, at Marsh, Inc., and she’d be a breath of fresh air anywhere. She speaks out, saying difficult things in cheerful plain English. For instance this:

“If you want to reach out to a Latino audience, maybe you’ll play Latin American composers. But if you do it just once, you’re pandering.” Oof! She has the gift of saying things like that without sounding confrontational, but how many classical music groups do exactly what she’s describing? Back in the ’90s I wrote a long piece about African-Americans and classical music, and several people I talked to in New York, from the black community, made exactly that point, about performances the groups involved surely were proud of. Performances that did reach the black community — and then had no followup, none at all.

Lee says that she herself  is a diversity conundrum, since she’s an Asian woman whose manner is entirely white. White people may not know what to make of her, since she looks Asian but doesn’t act Asian. And the biggest trouble she has, she says, comes from other Asians, who truly don’t know what to make of her.

If you think that what I just wrote — which is exactly what she said — trades in stereotypes, she had an answer for that. A stereotype, she said, is something you expect (so wrongly) to be true of every member of an ethnic group. With no exceptions. You’re looking for trouble if you think stereotypically.

But she contrasted that with what she called archetypes — traits that really are prevalent within any ethnic group, traits you’re not wrong to look (or look out) for, but which of course don’t show up in every individual. When I lived in LA, at the end of the ’80s, at the height of the hard rock/metal boom, I learned that the most dangerous Angelenos on the road were people driving pickups with bumper stickers from the hard rock radio station, KNAC. Heedless drivers! A stereotype? Not if I allow for exceptions. But as a general guide to which drivers you’d want to avoid, this worked really well. Not all KNAC listeners were dangerous, if they showed up in the lane just right of you. But more of them than chance would allow would suddenly veer to the left. (Full disclosure: I had a KNAC bumper sticker  myself, on my Honda Prelude. Which wasn’t at all a hard rock car, so I guess I was my own archetype.)

I’m stressing all this to lead up to Lee’s most powerful comments. She’s a diversity consultant to the League, and, she said, when she visits the League’s office, she’s struck by the League’s culture, which she figures — not at all wrongly — must reflect the culture of the orchestras the League represents.

How’d she describe that culture? “White, low affect, respectful.” And a culture like that, she said, may well have trouble with Latinos and African-Americans, because their cultures are far more expressive — more outgoing, less deferential — than white culture is. You can see that (or hear it on recordings) in gospel music. The congregation calls out to the singers. I used to see it when, sometimes, I’d go to the movies and find myself in a largely black audience. People would shout at the screen. Most memorably at Prince’s terrible film Graffiti Bridge. When the female lead — insufferably angelic — got mashed by a truck, someone yelled, “About time!”

So orchestras trying to reach people of color might find that their new target audience doesn’t feel at home. Even time, Lee said, can be a problem. When someone from white culture says a concert starts at eight PM, that’s when it starts. But in non-white cultures, maybe not. Maybe an announced eight PM start means anywhere from eight to a quarter to nine. 

I used to see that, too (or a version of it), when I was a pop music critic. The pop shows I went to never started at their announced time. White groups, black groups, whatever — in the pop music culture (and its assorted rock, hiphop, R&B and other subcultures) time follows what Lee would call a not-white model. Which shows, by the way, that other models work. Put aside for a moment difficult questions about overtime pay, which musicians’ contracts often say starts at a given hour. If the start time of a concert isn’t certain, an orchestra risks paying overtime, making concerts far more expensive than they are now. 

But, as I said, leave that aside. (There’s surely a solution.) People trickle in bit by bit to pop shows, mybe starting at the announced time for the performance, or earlier, when the doors open. That works. They talk, shop at the concession booths, buy food, hang out. Why wouldn’t that work with orchestras? Might give a chance to sell more at the symphony store, or to have musicians talking from the stage. Or to have an opening act, as pop shows do. (And which often isn’t heard by much of the main crowd.)

But time, of course, is only one issue. Lee’s bottom line was simple but profound. If we want people who aren’t white to go in any large numbers to classical concerts, we have to diversify the culture those concerts display. Which doesn’t just mean playing Latin American (or African-American) composers. It means presenting a not wholly white — not wholly low affect and respectful — face. With, maybe, applause or shouts during the music, which Mozart and Handel wouldn’t have found at all uncomfortable.

This is a hard lesson for classical music people to learn, especially those of us who may have imagined that our art — and, by extension, the way we present it — transcends culture, class, and ethnicity.

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  1. elizabeth Nielsen says

    In Sydney, when the Sydney Children’s Choir presented an opera based on the stories and song of the indigenous people on the Tiwi Islands in far north of Australia, many members of the Tiwi Island community in Sydney came to the opera. When they heard the songs of the islands sung on stage they clapped, sang along and danced. It was so moving and beautiful and very supportive for the indigenous members of the choir on stage.

  2. says

    As Classical Revolution teaches us, showing up repeatedly is half the battle. So show up everywhere and set a personal context for classical. We testify what it does for our spirit and use emotional terms. This gets us beyond dumbing down. Do we believe letting people GUESS what we’re doing on stage is going to sell tickets? Folk are curious about the existence and even the surface significance of classical… but so few of us are able to answer this question to the lay audience. It takes a willingness to exaggerate or be wrong in order to give the audience something to stand on. A little “anything goes” tends to warm up, even heat up, that presentation to introduce compelling, addictive moments to folk who avoid art music altogether. It DOES work.

  3. Scott says

    I can understand why people find classical shows stuffy and too formal, but I would be entirely distracted if people were talking, or eating popcorn next to me at a symphony. As someone who truly appreciates classical music with my entire soul, I would miss that opportunity if no orchestras were ever quiet again.

    Classical music is different from these other genres of music too. Especially more modern classical music which is really complicated. If there are people talking you might not even hear the details in the music.

    I do however support gasps of joy and the like. I doubt that would be overly distracting for long periods of time.

  4. ariel says

    If you are quoting Ms.Lee correctly with the lead sentence and the follow up paragraph one
    can only think what nonsense , what ignorance ! .Diversity consultant , how bizarre .
    White ,low affect , respectful – and the rest of the paragraph is diversity consultant baloney .Things may be tough out in music land but you must find some one more insightful
    than Ms. Lee to stir up the pot .

    • Traditionalist says

      Thank you for this link–it is a tremendous and, I believe trailblazing, article by a young professional who will certainly rise to leadership.

  5. Traditionalist says

    I don’t believe the venerable tradition of classical music culture would benefit with the kinds of modifications you propose–i.e. people “trickling in late” and talking, “shouts during the music”, etc. What you are talking about is imposing one culture onto another, one that in this particular case in fact diminishes the power of the other.

    Appreciation of classical music requires quiet and concentration. So does the playing of it. Unlike improvisational music, it adheres strictly to a written score. Classical musicians are not looking to respond to audience feedback; their artform requires a neutral environment. Connoisseurs in the audience literally know the score, and listen attentively to perceive nuances of interpretation. The ability to fully lose oneself in the artform without being “brought back to reality” by interruptions from people in the audience is paramount. This holds true for the musicians as well, who find interruptions distracting rather than helpful.

    I think the whole campaign to “bring in diverse audiences” needs to be rethought. If the artform requires changing, then what is the point? There already are venues where trickling in late and shouting during the music are accepted and appreciated. Nobody is asking those venues to become more demure to attract the classical music crowd. Each has its own true character.

    It is in fact patronizing of non-white audiences to insist that everything be made less formal in order to reach them. While the concept of “diverse cultures” is endlessly discussed, the actual definitions of these cultures are murky. In the realm of arts audiences we are not actually talking about diverse ethnicities–we are talking about diverse levels of education. The culture of acting in ways that disturb others is shared by every ethnicity across the board; it is behavior that ceases to exist with education. Education of audiences is the key, not diluting the authenticity of artforms to make them conform to lowest common denominator standards.

    • Larry Wheeler says

      @Traditionalist- As a classical music teacher and performer, I think your comment here is brilliant and dead on.

    • says

      Bingo — with one amendment:

      Written score vs. improvisation is NOT a relevant difference here.

      It’s the fact that classical music is unamplified and has a wide range of dynamics, and is thus easily drowned out by ambient noise. You can talk at a rock concert without preventing others from enjoying the music. But an unamplified jazz trio or folk singer with a guitar requires a similar level of assistance from the audience in preserving the silence from which the music emerges.

      • Traditionalist says

        Thank you, Paul, for drawing attention to the importance of dynamics to musicality. This is a wonderful point.

    • Daniel Greenbush says

      Thank you Traditionalist! Your comments are spot on and brilliant. I, as a classical performer and teacher like Larry Wheeler, am so tired of the nonsense these high-paid consultants spout. I wish these comments could be widely dispersed and read by everyone in the classical music business. Wonderful and to the point. Daniel Greenbush.

    • says

      Every time there is a threat to the status quo, somebody is quick to say that it is “patronizing” to think that others can’t learn to toe the line and learn the “rules.” Who set those rules, and what purpose do they serve? This insistence on quiet is relatively new — read Lawrence Levine’s brilliant book “Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” for a description of what concerts and plays were like when they were vibrant art forms. It certainly isn’t part of music or theatre history overall, both of which were highly interactive. I think it is “patronizing” to think that current arts patrons couldn’t adjust to a different paradigm!

  6. says

    Hi Greg – this is the first thing that I have ever read by you with which I entirely disagree. Diversity consultants sell snake oil at an extortionate cost. Classical music is European culture, with European mores and tradition. When I go to see a Black group perform I don’t complain about the interaction between stage and audience, or frequent dancing in the aisles. If I were to go to a Japanese Kabuki performance I wouldn’t complain when a Japanese person, who knows a trillion times more about Kabuki than I do, nods and mumbles in appreciation of a tiny muscle movement that I would not even notice.
    If to continue in classical music I have to start 45 minutes late and have a conversation from the stage with someone in the audience when we are meant to be performing, then I am going back to experimental electronica and play to nerdy males who know why they have come to the concert.

    I am reminded of the doyenne of German Expressionist dance, who lived in London until she died recently aged 95 – Hilde Holger. She taught a class that was world famous. One session, two young girl dancers over from Australia attended. At the end of class they said they had hoped it would have been more energetic, more lively. Hilde Holger shouted at them in her thick Austrian accent “If you want wrestling, go to wrestling!”.

    When I used to play electric keyboards in band, and deliberately had an androgynous image, I went to a females’ hairdresser who played Bowie and Talking Heads in his salon. His attitude was, if you don’t like the music you are in the wrong salon. He even told me that he knew of a salon where there was a notice outside that said “if the music’s too loud you’re in the wrong place”.
    A few years later I was asked to play in a Black History celebration in the ethnic part of London (in an entirely white band) as the Black band had let them down. It would have been wrong for me to dance behind the keyboards and make exchanges with the young Black audience – it is not me and it would have been worse than patronising to try. Instead I wore black jeans, dark shirt dark jacket, never moved, and stared blankly into space, looking bored, as I always do. The band was very successful and Black teenagers asked me for my autograph. I didn’t even play in a jazzy style – it was hard core, abstract, Berlin influenced New Wave.

    However I have left my main point to the end. You can’t be all things to all people. Current marketing practice is to target, and target narrowly. I think what you are suggesting is old fashioned marketing advice that does not work. When I see a restaurant that says “Chinese, Vietnamese, Oriental and English cuisine” I avoid it like the plague. However when I saw a restaurant in the Poble Nou area of Barcelona, that had the menu outside entirely in Catalan (not even Spanish) I knew it was a restaurantI wanted to try. In Catalan sometimes ‘enslada’ is used for salad; this restaurant did not make it easy, they used ‘amanida’ – real Catalan, even though not many people from outside Catalunya understand the language. No doubt a diversity consultant would have charged a five figure sum to tell them to have the menu in all major languages and sell pizzas and beefburgers as well.

  7. Geoff says

    Glad the League is thinking about these things (though I’d be surprised if they hadn’t been dealing with diversity issues re. programming AND employment for many years). My understanding of archetypes (as espoused by Jung and Toni Morrison alike–thinkers who certainly represent different societies!) is that they are universal “roles” taken on by people of all cultures, and are collectively present as part of the human experience (heroes, crones, whores, etc. aren’t all of one ethnicity, right?). Ms. Lee (I assume this is the right way to address her, if her “manner is entirely white”) is right to point out that many orchestras’ attempts to reach out to nontraditional audiences can come across as insincere. To make this kind of outreach sincere, though, it ought to be conducted in accordance with each orchestra’s purpose. If the mission of my symphony is “bringing the world’s greatest music to diverse audiences in the ************ region and around the world,” at what point does the dilution of my own, meticulously-developed symphonic culture–for the sake of seeking such diversity–become detrimental to making the “world’s greatest music”?

    This is why there are thematic concert series, “crossover” concerts (call them “Pops,” if you still want to), orchestra trips, educational series, student tickets, and more! If you want to change symphonic culture, don’t tell “white, low affect, respectful” people that what they do, in the way they do it, is invalid! If diversity is such an issue, how about supporting nonwhite musical leaders, who can, should they find it important, bring their passionate cross-cultural findings (i.e. European symphonic repertoire) to their original communities? On the other hand, supporting nonwhite candidates for jobs simply on the basis of their ethnic identities, rather than their musical qualities, undermines the music and is racist. I understand the position you are in, Ms. Lee, as a diversity consultant, but I hope you respect my symphonic culture, heritage, and dedication.

    • ariel says

      Geoff -it becomes detrimental the moment “art” is used as “social work ” and only encourages
      creatures that label themselves diversity consultants (only in America ! ). Mr. Sandow in
      giving space to the ignorant comments by Ms. Lee is surprising, but if he wanted to shake
      up the hen house and get comments flowing he has succeeded.That the League of American
      Orchestras would give space to such nonsense is no surprise .

  8. says

    This is foolish. Art must be itself to be anything. Diversity is fine and healthy: meaning it is OK for a classical concert experience to be itself, and OK for that self to be different than a pop concert experience.

    Proscribing the equalizing of the different types of experiences is arrogant hubris, and destructively harmful if anyone actually follows the advice.

  9. says

    Good post by Ian Stewart. I agree that different artforms have different cultures. I think the larger issue is: what should orchestras be now in the 21st century. Is it a museum institution that presents western art music from 1750-1914 (something which would be perfectly ok I think). Or should it be a core institution in society, doing many different things with wide popular appeal? And playing maybe music from film and computer games, backing up popular bands and so on (also ok). A related questions is whether orchestras should present more new art music. Personally I would like to see orchestras specialize more, and find their niche. Why should all symphony orchestras play the same repertoir?

  10. says

    Diversity goes both ways. The key and the goal should be authenticity. I would no more expect a mariachi band to adopt the style of a jazz band than I would a hip-hop performer to appear in an opera costume. Adopting the signifiers of a given culture/sociological group may be perceived as just more pandering. The signifiers are only the surface; it’s what lies beneath it that’s the real culture, and which can’t be appropriated.

  11. hvs says

    Wow — Don’t even know where to start other than this must be a serious article as it is a little late for April Fool. Glad to see The League is spending their money on top consultants and issuing reports of their usual high quality.

  12. says

    I see alot of comments here call out to the authenticity of traditional concert experience. This authenticity (purity) has indeed helped American orchestras climb atop the European standards with and without actual (pure) European conductors and musicians. If symphony music were to remain a purely European art form, then it may diminish (not die) under its own exclusionary hubris. It has certainly tried to limit me, perhaps because I’m not authentic, even while saying it wanted me to draw new audience.

    There ARE ways to open up the art form (inclusionary), which complement and justify holding high standards to those who are curious to experience them. These ways need not REPLACE the tradition, but merely introduce the tradition to enough non-core music lovers. To reacquire balance, we must honor BOTH sides of this coin and show up repeatedly everywhere we can. We don’t need to be all things to all people as much as ENOUGH things to ENOUGH constituencies in our communities. And that is a fundamentally different contract than just “preserving world-class performance practices”. Distinctions, even TALK of class continue to reinforce the wall between orchestras and the rest of America (some 95%). Is the world not BIG enough? Doesn’t EVERYONE deserve beautiful music?

    • says

      You made a good point Rick about opening the art form while still honouring both sides of the coin. In Europe there have been jazz musicians who have made recordings that have shown practically no African-American influence whatsoever, yet they can still be justifiably called jazz and the musicians acknowledge that tradition. I have a recording of Sergey Kuryokhin that sounds like Shostakovich on adrenalin tablets. In Munich in the 1980’s I heard a jazz group – tenor sax, piano, bass and drums – that played a long piece that sound like a modern take on Romantic chamber music. Also in the 1980’s in Prague I heard a jazz rock group that sounded as if they had never heard any melodies other than East European folk music. It was wonderful to hear European musicians make jazz their own. Classical music has such a strong tradition and artistic centre it does not need gimmicks, any more than jazz does.

      • says

        Hi Ian… you got it. I’d add Claude Bolling to that list. Wonderful music.
        As a composer I’ve been able to come up with classical music which calls out to rock, blues, Latin, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, R&B and even hip-hop. Because if Americans can recognize their musical themes depicted in classical style, we can draw them into the theme-world of romantic composition. Feel free to click my name to hear some.

  13. Chica says

    Yikes. I agree with the commenters who think it’s perfectly fine to associate certain behavior protocol with certain performance genres. That’s part of the culture of those genres — what gives them their own characters that we come to understand and look forward to as part of the experience. As a performer who works in a wide variety of venues, it’s my responsibility to think carefully about what I’m trying to accomplish and present/program/perform in a way that accords with the context… and as an audience member it’s my responsibility to understand the environment I’m in and behave (or tolerate) accordingly. Of late I prefer the experience of sitting down to a show that begins promptly at 8 PM to one that is less predictable and more interactive… Is that a white thing? Or maybe a getting-older thing… Regardless, there are better ways to reach across cultures than to dilute them all with each other’s protocols. The best way is to start cross-culture exposure at an early age. Symphonies would do best to go into the schools and expose kids of all colors to the wonders of symphonic music — old and new. But that’s long-term planning, god forbid.

  14. says

    Specialization and differentiation can be healthy. But the homogenizing impulse to be something for everyone leads to being nothing for anyone.

    There is still great need for orchestras that can present standard classical/romantic music in an artful and genuine way. Don’t ask such groups to pander or dilute their character. Let the groups set their programs however they might choose, as a defining expression of the group’s character.

    And there is also room for groups that can meaningfully present more specialized kinds of music.

    Thank goodness the world offer us more than one kind of beverage!!! Just don’t go dictating that in the name of ‘cultural diversity’ we must include an allotment of Tang and Kool–Aid at a wine tasting event. Or at the beer garden, or at the juice bar, etc.

  15. Brian says

    Interesting post, Greg. I think one has to be candid about the fact that different art forms are followed by different ethnic and racial groups, all with different expectations. One has to be careful in making sweeping judgments, but the docile, hushed, reverent atmosphere at orchestra concerts is a big turn-off to many people who come from non-white or non-affluent backgrounds.

    I attended the NY Phil’s excellent Stravinsky production this weekend where a different approach was tried out. The audience was encouraged to clap along, cheer and even scream at one point, and the Phil musicians all had roles as actors and even dancers. It wasn’t a perfect show but it really made the experience a lot more fun and visceral and I could imagine young people being much more into it. I hope other orchestras are paying attention to that.

    • Traditionalist says

      I maintain that not everything has to be “fun and visceral,” or at a level that automatically appeals to the taste of youngsters. We already have Disneyland, fast cars, shopping malls, sports, Hollywood and electronic gadgets to serve those purposes.

      It seems to me that our challenge and responsibility is to preserve high culture; this means accepting and drawing attention to the special state of mind required to create and appreciate it, and effectively explaining that transcending the banal can be life-enhancing.

      Not everyone is going to be interested in high culture, because it is inherently difficult. We need to show that difficulty has its own very great rewards.

      A civilized society needs venues that are “hushed and reverent.” The fact that we have to justify this assertion shows how far our educational system has fallen.

      • A Young Fan says

        The challenge is that the classical art form is faced with the real threat of obsolescence. One could argue that the art form stay true to its current structure but we know that the current structure is not as appealing to young audiences or to non-white audiences. Why else would attendance and funding be down across the board? The greater the gap that exists between an art form and the audiences that it wants to attract, the stronger the drum beat becomes to defund and channel the $$ into art forms that have more social value. The idea of change is frightening for many but if the choice is change or become obsolete I’d select change any day.

        Yes, there is a place for “hushed and reverent” but some cultures find that in other spaces like church or the home and may not find it welcoming on “a night out.” A student of music history would also recognize that the NYPhil’s production of Stravinsky was probably closer to the original environment in which it was first played than the “hushed and reverent” environment in which it is currently appreciated. Remember, the first production of Rites of Spring caused a near riot.

      • says

        I too maintain that not everything has to be “fun and visceral”. But without such, occasionally and repeatedly, we won’t build new audience beyond the present rate. No one said anything about making this the norm. If you don’t want “fun” concerts, such should be clearly labeled so you can stay far away: it’s not for you anyway. Can’t inexperienced people be empowered to enjoy this music too? Does it only belong to you and me? If not, then please let us provide occasional, accessible and welcoming bridges to our side.

        We DO preserve this culture. But if we don’t share it humbly we will lose the ability to fund it in places and thus preserve it. We can make the case for enjoying it in the spirit of meditation but it will take ALL ways to show how SOME of it can speak to MORE of the community. Blame education all you want; but it’s up to US now to do what music educating we can… and dismissing other styles of music as “banal” has proven only to further alienate those we’re trying to reach. The first step in sales is to win the trust (agreement) of the customer.

  16. says

    Here, here! Look at golf and tennis. They are also tradition laden and have important practices of decorum that are respectful to both the players who are accomplishing great feats of concentration (like classical musicians) and the audience who are riveted to the play with often equal focus. Respect will never lose it’s value despite trends among certain groups. I don’t like cellphones ringing nor shouting while we play. It’s just common courtesy.

    • says

      Andrew, I don’t believe golf and tennis are quite the examples you intend. In both sports the spectators are respectful and quiet during strokes and plays… but quite vocal between them which is frequent. They are also free to move around within reason. Plus, what may be a tradition NOW may not really be all that old or sacred. Kabuki Theater or a church service might be better examples of sacred tradition.

  17. ariel says

    To follow up the Brian observation one can imagine his audience clapping on beat ever so softly
    during the first movement and screaming& cheering during the last movement of the
    so called “Moonlight ” sonata and during Chopin mazurkas a section of the hall can used
    for those who decide to dance & whoop it up, this would certainly bring piano recitals to a
    more fun level, did it not happen during a Dudamel concert featuring the Beethoven 9th that
    fireworks were used to accompany the music .Perhaps concert halls should have sections cordoned off as “non white ” & non affluent ” behaviour , so the docile ,hushed, reverent
    section could look over in dismay at the goings on of the non white non affluent group Brian
    might look up the historic Stokowski and Bernstein children concerts to learn more how the young people were not played down to the level of “show” bizz. I have yet to find a docile
    concert audience -most are quick to let you know what they thought of a performance -and the only time they are hushed or reverent was when the performer (s) are at work – a common
    courtesy -I once attended a concert with a friend who was non white and non affluent who
    “shushed ” a couple in front of us letting them know she was there to hear a concert and
    not the yaking couple , now what would Brian make of that ??????

  18. says

    Whether I agree or not, what I find most refreshing is the holistic focus on the experience, not just the content. Coming from the theatre world, I find the same tokenist emphasis on content (simplistically: plays by black playwrights to attract black audiences) pervasive without taking into account everything from marketing language to box office staffing.

    What resonates even more with me is from the previous comment (from KDjupdal): “what should orchestras be now in the 21st century.” Cultural participation and so artmaking is changing, drastically and fast. Arts and cultural organizations should do some serious consideration of who they want to be today (as well as in the next 10, 25, 50+ years) based on who we’ve been and where we want to go, and not so heavily on tradition/business as usual. My 2cents.

  19. Larry Wheeler says

    Again, Traditionalist makes a great point. As s/he said, education is the key. We are teaching our children not to strive for excellence and find security in mediocrity. If no one is outstanding, then no one is left behind. Classical music expresses an elevated state of mind, heightened aesthetic sense and sensitivity, and demonstrates the desire for human beings to work together towards a mutual goal. The study of classical music has a positive effect on the individual, and provides critical thinking skills, problem solving, decision-making, abstract reasoning, individual attention and teamwork not normally found in a classroom.

    As for the original article, I am troubled by two aspects. First, the League’s diversity consultant, Bo Young Lee, described the League’s culture as “white, low affect, respectful”, and then “figures” that this must reflect the culture of the orchestras the League represents. This is, I believe, a false assumption based on limited information. Orchestras are made up of managements, boards, musicians, and audiences. Her conclusion can only be true of managements and boards, which are largely white, but not all can be characterized by low affect or limited display of emotion. And, unfortunately, not all can be said to be respectful, either of their audiences or their musicians. Had Ms. Lee gone to an orchestra concert, she would have seen a rather mixed audience demographically, although largely white. By virtue of the venue, they would be low-key and respectful. The same would be true at an art museum, library, tennis match or golf tournament. If Ms. Lee had observed an orchestra, she would have seen many Asian musicians. To say all are low affect and respectful would be a stereo-type easily disproved, if by none other than her own self-description.

    Secondly, I find it disappointing that the League feels the need to hire a diversity consultant, as if orchestras by their very nature are non-inclusive. Hiring a consultant may very well reflect the management/board part of orchestras. Often, successful businessmen and women call in an expert when confronted with a problem outside their areas of expertise. This is unnecessary, since each orchestra has 85-100 experts in music. The musicians who make up the orchestra are some of the most intelligent and creative people anywhere, and if asked, would have many ideas for preserving their art and protecting their future. Some places have shown the wisdom to do just that. For a great example, I suggest reading the recent convocation speech by Aspen President and CEO Alan Fletcher at this link: http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com/students-welcome/whats-new-in-2013/convocation-2013/

    • says

      There’s so much to agree with (and wince at) in these comments. I’m African-American and I love going to the symphony as it is. But I GREW UP going to concerts and listening to classical music. I was in the orchestra (violist) and so there was a natural appeal. If there is anything that can be learned from my experience it is that first, education is key. From an early age, I started going to band concerts my sister was in, then I performed in my own concerts after joining orchestra, then I went to Interlochen Arts Camp where I had my mind blown by the skill of other young musicians from around the world, then I decided to study music in college. Almost all of this came from early and repeated exposure. With school arts programs being cut its no wonder audiences are dwindling and aging.

      Second, my sisters, both with doctorate degrees (so there can be no argument that there is something lacking in their mind), don’t like classical music and would not go to concerts even if they were free except perhaps as a social experience. In fact, I know quite a few brilliant white people that do not enjoy or attend the symphony. So I find the link between breadth of mind and ability to enjoy classical music a tenuous one at best. I’ve had many a friend attend a concert just because I was performing in it (relationship), and have dragged friends with me for a special night out (social experience). We have to recognize that people attend, for a variety of reasons, not all of them for the love of it.

      Third, as a classically trained musician possessing that “special state of mind” that allows me to appreciate great music, I can still appreciate other kinds of arts as well. In fact, I would think it requires an even more “special state of mind” where the enjoyment of one does not prevent the enjoyment of the other. I think the real barrier to appreciating other kinds of “lowbrow” arts lies not in their absence of difficulty but in not giving them a chance to prove their complexity.

      And finally, the language used to defend the superiority of classical music in this discussion is, to be frank, very off-putting. If I did not already enjoy the fine arts and stumbled upon this comment thread, the bloated self-importance and bombast found in some of these comments would be enough to keep me away.

      • Larry Wheeler says

        Alicia, we have much in common- we agree that education is key, and I am a violist. However, I did not say classical music required a “special state of mind” but rather that it “expresses an elevated state of mind.” That is not exclusive to classical music, and can be found (or experienced) with art, poetry, dance, philosophy, religion, meditation, or simply staring at a flower. I believe classical music is available and accessible to all, but it has to be met half-way. It is a foreign language to many, if not most people, so it is easily tuned out. That is where education plays a major role.

        The pursuit of excellence in today’s world takes courage, because it is not uncommon for people to be envious of others receiving recognition. Instead of celebrating achievement, people believe its recognition somehow takes away from themselves. The profession of classical music is by its very nature the pursuit of excellence, since mediocrity will not survive in this very competitive field. In this way it is quite similar to sports. When people speak of great sports figures, they are not automatically saying sports of one kind or another is superior. Likewise, we should not believe that advocates of classical music are automatically lessening other types of art or somehow feeling superior.

        I completely agree that the enjoyment of “great music” does not prevent the enjoyment of other kinds of “lowbrow” arts. My being an advocate of classical music is not lessening other types of art. In my own home, there is a very gifted cellist and a very gifted jazz drummer. If I truly felt classical music was superior, my younger son would never have been allowed to pursue jazz. But, I have learned over many years of teaching that you follow talent where it leads you. My son has taught me much about the complexity and enjoyment of jazz, and I have tried to be a good student. Yes, education is key, and we are never too old to learn.

    • Traditionalist says

      Larry Wheeler is so right that the 85-100 musicians in any orchestra are specialists whose input should be tapped. Who better to describe what makes art compelling than the practitioners, who are natural enthusiasts? Their voices need to be heard.

      I would extend this across cultural institutions to museum curators and university professors, who seem to be finding a forum at last through blogs like this one.

      Sadly, specialist authority has been undermined over the past few decades by the exponentially growing numbers of highly paid, social agenda-driven administrators and outside consultants who have risen to positions of power within cultural institutions, in auxiliary jobs that didn’t exist a generation ago. In my experience, the most vocal of these theorists rarely are experts in the cultural material whose presentation they presume to guide.

      Sometimes the advice of highly-paid arts consultants is simplistic to the point of insult. I attended a meeting at a leading art museum which has more than a dozen curatorial departments some years ago, when a national-level outside diversity consultancy firm presented their findings to the staff. It was determined after great expense and effort that there were few minorities in the curatorial staff while there were many in the support staff. The situation was described as proof of discriminatory hiring, and the tone was admonishment. But the comparative level of education of these staff persons was never mentioned. The recommendation was that the museum “promote from within,” as though experience in the non-professional jobs would somehow be applicable toward the requirements of the specialist positions. It was recommended that the curatorial staff (top experts in world cultures, ancient and modern) take “cultural awareness training.” Nobody on the staff felt confident to challenge these assertions in the presence of these consultants, although behind the scenes there was plenty said afterwards “on the q.t.” But by the specialist staff not saying anything in front of the administrators who organized the investigation, the consultants’ recommendations stood, and gained authority.

      Perhaps the institutionalization of public relations-focused bureaucracies within arts organizations and the obligatory hiring of outside marketing-oriented, spin-generating consultants is in fact counterproductive. Besides draining funds, the arrangement has also silenced truly important specialist voices who have something real to say and offer.

      As an aside, I feel that one big problem for classical music is the lack of airplay due to the commercialization of radio in the U.S. A big step forward toward growing audiences would be made if the music, perhaps with the commentary of musicians, could just be heard. Radio is a wonderful and effective democratizer.

  20. says

    Ugh. So when a friend sent me this post I had to sit on it for a few days and sort through some fresh, not so pleasant feelings. While I get where Ms. Lee is trying to go, her approach troubles me quite a bit and it freaks me out to think that her brand of thinking might be perpetuated under the banner of “diversity and inclusion”. Greg, I think you know (especially since you named me your “No. 1 Maverick”!) that no one wants to see Classical music shaken up a bit more than me. But it has to be done organically and it can’t be based on pandering to various cultures, or worse yet, the stereotypes of one’s cultures. Ms. Lee’s simplification of African-American culture by her use of the examples of the rowdy movie theatre (those are the theatres I walk out of by the way, no matter who’s making the noise) and there are numerous types of Gospel and worship music that have nothing to do with call and response but are about reverently soaking it all up in silence. The problem with her generalizations (and many of my Asian and Asian-American friends would agree) is that especially in America, cultural experiences are no longer easily classifiable as one thing. The African and the African-American experiences are night and day. Depending on where you’re born, where you grew up, parts of African-American culture are much more reserved and/or conservative than what she described. She has to be very careful in telling arts presenters to craft their experiences towards particular ethnic groups, it comes off as condescending, very offensive and could create serious backlash. Another effect of pandered programming is to make Classical diehards of all cultures retreat from the halls, strengthening any negative stereotypes they might have about other races, making them feel they have to “protect” the supposed precious European culture from the sullying done by ethnic hands; a result sure to cause a racial, animosity-ridden response by both sides.

    To me, arts orgs and artists have to simply create a unique experience in general; one that audiences can’t find elsewhere, one that they’ll identify as being uniquely yours. I’ve been blessed to have seen my audiences grow by way of varying age groups and varying demographics (socio-economically and multi-culturally) but it’s never been because I catered to what I assumed they expected based on their personal cultural experiences. They can go to their personal cultural hubs if they want what they already know, there’s no need for me to try to replicate that. In my approach, I do quite the opposite actually, I’ve offered a particular brand of my own artistic identity, positioned it as new and adventurous, delivered on that marketing and then created a comfortable atmosphere in which to come experience the adventure. The problem today is not that Classical doesn’t know what Asians want or what Black people expect. It’s that Classical has partially been lazy about re-examining what it takes to have sincere engagement of any modern audience, to have actual innovation and it’s been a little scared of slipping up and actually being classified as entertaining vs solely educational. Organic diversity happens when we create diverse artistic experiences, and I’m not talking about the color of anyone’s skin. I daresay, I’m not sure Ms. Lee should be either.

  21. says

    To all of those who insist that the way things are done now are the way they should always be done: that is, of course, your right. However, do not at the same time bemoan what will continue to be dropping attendance rates. As General Eric Shinseki, former US Army Chief of Staff once said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

    • Traditionalist says

      Eric Shinseki needs a lesson in grammar, and may need a bit of cultural education as well. Someone who doesn’t like change in all likelihood would not particularly care about seeming irrelevant. In any case, I hardly feel the comments of an Army Chief of Staff are applicable to the present dialog.

      I beg to differ that the issue is “relevence.” There is nothing more relevent to mankind than the universals offered by great art. Perhaps you are interpreting relevence to mean “popularity.” In which case, we are talking at cross purposes. Popularity has never been the measure of artistic worth, and shouldn’t be the scale upon which we base strategies for reaching people.