Orchestra’s Coda to Diversity: Draggin’ a Bit…

In 2007, the music critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Peter Dobrin, wrote a sobering article about the lack of minorities on stage, throughout the audience, back in the administrative offices, and in the board room of America’s top orchestras. He described a valiant effort the orchestra made over twenty years ago to tackle these issues, but it was not nearly enough to fill the gaps.

When Peter posed the question “What has been standing between the orchestra and progress all these years?”, the answers came from all over: they were distracted and had their eyes off the prize, it’s hard, meetings to solve the issues stopped, they didn’t see measurable results, and others simply didn’t seem to understand why. Some people said that progress is a sustained relationship-building effort. One said that people of color were staying away from the orchestra for the same reasons that many people don’t engage: lack of exposure to classical music in childhood. Some people said that classical music is not welcomed in the African American community and it doesn’t connect to our culture. Authorities said that African Americans were told not to audition for orchestras back in the 50s and that has had a ripple effect over the generations.

Is it the orchestra’s fault? Do we need a big-time African American soloist or conductor to become a household name? Were search committees being fair in their assessments of the audition or interview panel? In the spring of 2007, I wrote to Peter Dobrin as an aspiring classical trumpeter who dreamed of solving these problems and changing the rules from the back row of an orchestra:

“It is not in our culture to sacrifice to gain entrance in schools like Curtis and eventually lead lives as musicians in top orchestras. What put my brother and I into Curtis (my sister was a runner up) was the opportunities to study with the best musicians in Atlanta, obtaining the best instruments and learning experiences like the Interlochen Arts Camp. Programs like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program bridged the gap that any family sacrifices for their kids to become the world’s next best musician.”

TDP Alumni Orchestraclick to listen to the ASOTDP Alumni Orchestra perform Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations

The ASOTDP program was the vision of Azira G. Hill, who served on the Board of Directors for the symphony and questioned why her daughter was the only student of color in the ASO’s youth orchestra. Her solution was simple: ensure that students of color in Atlanta had early exposure to high-quality classical music education and the proper support and training to be competitive for top colleges in the country. Graduates attended Curtis, Juilliard, and NEC in addition to Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard. After 20 years of implementing this program, a 60 piece orchestra was assembled to perform for a sold-out audience in Atlanta.

This event is the most significant performance that has happened in Atlanta Symphony Hall. The first time the ASO assembled it’s alumni in an orchestra, the program sold-out and we packed the hall with a lot of people who do not traditionally hear classical music. The performance consisted of pieces by Elgar and Beethoven and the audience consisted of young children to seniors of every race throughout the region. I can’t think of a better way to engage African-American and Latino audiences in classical music than for them to see a group of their own performing flawlessly on the stage that typically doesn’t represent them.

Whatever stood in between the orchestra and progress is no longer important. Progress IS a sustained relationship-building effort of providing exposure to classical music, but it matters how that work is implemented. The art, itself, sees no boundaries or limits. It is us that set the boundaries and our available resources set the limits. The best ideas to reach these communities mean nothing if we are not ready to give our stage to them and give our existing audiences a compelling reason to leave inspired. By asking others to give their resources to make this work happen in a deep and meaningful way, we are indeed giving life back to musicians.

What if we expanded the boundaries? Would the resources follow? What if we wanted our art form to solve the most pressing societal problems? What could Atlanta do with this new army of musicians that graduated from our country’s best conservatories and universities? What could Philadelphia do with a program that has proven to positively impact the lives of the city’s most vulnerable children? How do we let people give us money, rather than making them?

By expanding the boundaries of how we engage the community around us, the depth of impact is better than the breadth. 60 alumni of an intense music training program in Atlanta or over 300 lives that have been touched in an intense after-school program in Philly has allowed hundreds to give millions in support of visions that broke through boundaries and provided higher levels of engagement to students that traditionally did not have access. Give our world of classical music to everyone.

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  1. says

    Excellent piece Stanford… you are always an inspiration! And I think you, I and a handful of other blacks model the power serious study of music offers… the power of possibility. Like you, I really enjoy participating in all-minority orchestras like Gateways and Sphinx… and am both pleased and disappointed that black audiences will turn out for such a concept. Granted, if it were a weekly occurrence in every major city, it would not have such an impact. But we must ask why the presence of 1 or 3 minorities in a major orchestra doesn’t have the proportional effect. I sat in one for 22 years and never observed more significant attendance than my own family and the occasional, “We’re proud of you” from an African-American stranger in the lobby. This was well and good… but I want to do so much more!
    The sense I come away with is that blacks just don’t feel comfortable unless there are many others around. I know this sounds silly on the surface, because we know many who don’t fit this pattern. But when black parents bring their kids to an orchestra concert and they see only a few others attending, and 1 or 2 onstage, do they come back? What lessons do they take away? The message I took as a kid, by having Joe Striplin of DSO come repeatedly to my neighborhood to lead a chamber orchestra, was that we can do anything we put the effort into. And fortunately, my parents (both educators) facilitated my participation.
    The OPENNESS afford by regular and intimate music-making with artists-of-color seem to be as and perhaps more indelible than large-scale concerts. I will continue to work at both! See you in a few weeks.

    • says

      Hi Rick: Great to hear fom you and read your opinion as well. Time and effort will tell, and I’m deeply inspired by your passion to share the art form in new and relevant ways. Best wishes to you!

  2. Dali B says

    “It is not in our culture to sacrifice to gain entrance in schools like Curtis and eventually lead lives as musicians in top orchestras.

    This is an interesting quote. I’ve played the Bass Clarinet for 16 years and I was one of the top players coming out of high school. I just want to ease everyone’s fears here. NO ONE LIKE CLASSICAL MUSIC ANYMORE! It’s not a popular music. There is a very small group of individual in this country who enjoys classical- and yes- I agree they are mostly white, but for the writer of this blog to chock the lack of black participation in the “dying art form of classical music” to a lack of “SACRIFICE” is unfortunate. The Problem, as I see it. Classical music has failed to evolve and has suffered from a lack of imagination. Every successful art form in America has evolved and incorporated elements of the masses.

    What I am hearing from the writer is, Philadelphia needs to invest in an Arts program similar to what is in Atlanta and Black and Brown Children will learn music, written; not by them, not for them, not in their lifetimes- and if they learn this music and will immediately be lifted out of communities that are very much on the margin of our society. I would suggest the writer research Great Society Music Programs. Where this article fails, in a very real sense is that it draws a Picture for White Philadelphia and lets them off the hook for the Problems in orchestra philly. This city locked Blacks out of much of their cultural institutions. And many of those same institutions are in free fall now. Research “Mummers” and African Americans want nothing to do them. You want to engage more Black and Brown people Listen to Black and Brown People and Let them guide, not dead white men! I love Mozart, but I love Beyoncé more. If you were playing her music, that’s a concert I would attend.

    One more thing. I played an instrument that usually has tons of rest and most people in the audience are sleeping. Why? Because music written 300 years ago isn’t popular anymore.

    • says

      Hi Dali: Thank you for your reply, which I completely respect. I believe you and I have reached different conclusions for the points I was trying to convey. However, I write these to encourage people to think in a new space.

      As I watched the Super Bowl tonight, I was reminded of the sacrifice I was mentioning. The majority of the players are black, they make great money, people show up in tens of thousands and millions around the TV. It takes tremendous sacrifice for those families and athletes to get to that level, but it’s easier understood to do so for pro football than it is classical music. I believe it is possible to get our art form to that level, but it matters how access and programs are implemented.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I wish you the best.


      • Dali B says

        Oh Right! Making millions of dollars in Pro football is the same as classical music! Are orchestras going to start paying millions of dollars to players? If so I bet you’ll get a flood of young students. But let’s be serous here, if you can recognized that Pro Football Players “sacrifice” to become superstars at their profession then your comment of “not in our culture to sacrifice to gain entrance in schools like Curtis and eventually lead lives as musicians in top orchestras.” is wrong- and something else is the problem, that all I want. We also have to recognize that Black and Brown children are sacrificing every day, in their chosen art form which isn’t the one “You” have chosen. I don’t know what you see, but I see amazing up and coming black and brown artist, who are evolving music- Research -Robert Glasper. It sounds to me that you think symphonic music is “music” and everything else is noise, and I want to say as a side note. When you put comments out like Blacks don’t Sacrifice- You let people off the hook who don’t see that African Americans have a full-fledged culture that includes elements of symphonic music. We have a history of great players and composers. A Black man was the first person to score jazz which allowed that music to be shared. No one should have to apologize for their skin color or culture. What made me interested in playing an playing an instrument, was the Florida A&M marching band. I saw people who looked like me, playing music that was written by people like me, for people like me. Now That’s Powerful!

  3. says


    I applaud your article and salute the young musicians who were featured at the ASOTDP concert. Your response to Dali’s comments were most insightful and highly diplomatic, and to that response I would add: cuts in funding for the arts in American public education has served as the other edge of the “cultural sword” that leads to a shallow perception of classical music as being unpopular. Our increasingly shallow notions of “musical taste” are a reflection of how much less we are thinking, reading, writing…AND listening!!

    The companies who spend billions of dollars to advertise during the Super Bowl use classical music on far more occasions than we realize to send the nonverbal message that the quality of the music and its “tradition” as “classic” is also what they are selling…and hooking us into buying, whether it’s Apple or BMW!! The irony is that this music in American culture has been mis-utilized when it comes down to parity in terms of skin color, and to some black folk it has been used to marginalize and further disenfranchise; but the music itself has never aimed for such action…in or of itself.

    Best wishes to you going forward, and I hope our musical paths cross sometime soon.

    Timothy Holley, A.Mus.D. (cellist)
    Associate Professor of Music
    North Carolina Central University

    • says

      Hi Tim,

      The NFL simply has figured out a clever way of marketing themselves. Many people do not know that they are structured as a non-profit organization and see over $10 billion in annual revenue. They aren’t stopping there and hope to reach $25 billion annually by 2027. They are a trade association and have made significant efforts to ensure that football is accessible on all levels – from the pee-wees, through high school and college, all the way up to the top-tier NFL teams. They have certainly done more to advance several social causes while paying their athletes incredible wages. I think it is purely brilliant and genius how they have reached this mark. I do feel that orchestras could do the same… but with tremendous focus and careful steering. Time will tell as leaderships shifts in the years to come.

      Hope to meet you one day,

  4. Timothy Holley says


    I presume by now that you are familiar with the legislation targeting the elimination of the nonprofit status presently maintained by the NFL http://www.cbsnews.com/news/nfl-enjoys-non-profit-status/

    I’m afraid that the endemics of “gladiatorialism” in American football are the “Goliath” of our culture…we just need David to show up with “five smooth stones”!!


  5. Beth-Ellen Kroope says

    Hi Stanford, – Thanks for your thoughtful essay. Play On, Philly! is changing Philadelphia for the better. Press on.


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