Some months ago I attended a series of meetings hosted by the Mellon Foundation and The League of American Orchestras. The meetings were focused on how professional American orchestras might get more musicians from ‘underrepresented communities’ into their ensembles. For the purposes of the gathering at least, Black and Latino musicians were a primary focus.
Going into the meetings there were a few points I was trying to land. One of the main ones was this: unless orchestras change, ‘diversifying the stage’ means that orchestras will have more Black and Latino bodies, but not necessarily Black and Latino minds.
What do I mean, ‘bodies but not minds’? I mean the default setting in American orchestras is to have musicians – Latino, Black, White, Asian – be the hands of our organization and other people be the brains*. It’s a model that has structure, culture and buy in from all corners.
In Managing and Organization, an Introduction to Theory and Practice the authors (Klegg, Kornberger and Pitsis) look at the metaphor where “brains are usually seen in the ‘head quarters’ (headquarters), the hands on the factory floor, and so on all working in a harmony designed by the brain.” They point out that, as a concept, siloing hands and brains inevitably means there is “little scope for innovation to arise from anywhere other than the top. If good ideas arise elsewhere the odds are they will not be captured. Often they are not sought.”
Don’t get me wrong: more diverse bodies on stage matters. As I heard it from one chief executive: the stage is the most outward facing facet of our organizations. In many ways it’s like our storefront window. It helps to tell a story about who we are, what we’re doing and why it might matter. It allows (or doesn’t allow) folks to project themselves onto what they’re seeing and hearing. So, no doubt, having stages that more accurately mirror our communities will have an impact.
But without a change in culture and design it won’t necessarily impact our agendas, our critical thinking, our creative processes.
Lots of folks are expressing excitement over an arriving generation of players who listen to and can play with the music of Beyoncé and Jay-Z as well as Bach and Mozart. I’m excited too. My question is: what happens if these musicians don’t just play with the music of Jay-Z and Beyoncé – what happens if they think like them too?
What happens if they expect to play more than one role in their creative output?
Good news: there are practices out there to learn from. In more than a few places – like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh – musicians are playing this out in real time.**
(*Shout out to my brother Justin Laing who dropped the ‘hands and brains’ metaphor on me while we were talking about a prominent orchestra’s bitter contract negotiation. We turned one of our other talks about the arts into an article, you can find it here.)
(**Update in response to some emails: This wasn’t intended as commentary on the orchestra strikes in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. I was thinking of musicians whose practice I’m a fan of. Musicians like Brian Prechtl, Joseph Conyers, Penny Anderson Brill and Sam Bergman. Although just published, this post was written months ago.)