Leaders: A Musical Quest for Diversity, Accessibility, Recognition, and Education
The past couple of years have offered time for reflection, consideration, and vision for me. In 2016, I received an invitation to deliver my lecture “Perceptions of the Hidden Half: A Guide to Mentoring the Next Generation of Conductors” at the Conducting Institute at Oxford University. This presented an opportunity to share my research and passion around gender and conducting. I wanted this audience of conductors and musicians in leadership positions to question their perceptions about possible biases concerning women on the podium. Since then, it has been my quest to peel away layers of possible prejudice in order to look towards the future with openness to learn, appreciate, encourage, and understand diverse leadership styles with conductors.
Four Critical Questions I Posed to This Audience
Could you possibly be biased in the way you encourage, choose, and hire musicians?
As you serve on committees for institutions, workshops, or competitions, do your organizations provide equal opportunity for all genders?
In educational institutions that you may be affiliated with, do these programs provide gender equity, and if not, are you willing and comfortable to speak up?
How can you best serve as a mentor to make a positive difference in the music community and industry?
A Musical Quest for Diversity, Accessibility, Recognition, and Education
While preparing my Oxford lecture, two articles piqued my interest and served as catalysts for further reflection: Ricky O’Bannon’s article, “The 2014-15 Orchestra Season by the Numbers,” and Sarah Baer’s more recent article with the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy (WPA), “Works by Women in the 2016 Season.” While O’Bannon states that only 1.8 percent of total pieces performed by the top twenty-one major American orchestras in 2014-2015 were by women composers, Baer reports that only fourteen of our country’s top twenty-one symphony orchestras programmed a single work by a female composer for their entire 2016 season.
As a professional musician, I have formulated and articulated my vision to understand the role of gender and leadership through my dissertation, “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor.” This research and study has helped me find my passion for questioning and understanding bias as a first step in diversifying music in my community. O’Bannon and Baer’s findings offered compelling data and have served as catalysts in my commitment to diverse programming.
As evidenced by recent articles, there has been some progress on recognizing the broad catalog of female composers. Baer’s WPA 2019-2020 season announcements reported that each of these twenty-one major American orchestras included at least one work by a female composer. The WPA identifies the top twenty-one orchestras in the US with the highest operating budgets and gathers information on these orchestras via official websites, press releases, and most up-to-date season programs, then lists which composers are being performed in their regular season’s “Classical” programs (Family, Pops, Chamber, and Holiday concerts are excluded). During the 2019-2020 season, out of the 277 individual composers WPA gathered, fifty-three composers identify as female (19 percent).
Though this is progress, there is still a long way to go. My goal is to encourage and influence exponential growth in performed symphonic music, with respect to gender and racial equity, by exposing conductors, musicians, and audiences to diverse music. Traditionally, music and music education have been driven predominantly by Western European men. Personally, I had always believed that my university training was excellent and never questioned nor considered how limited my musical education might be. Traditional standard repertoire positively impacted my views and propelled me forward on my musical journey. I was eager to play Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, and Bartok. It was not until my return to the University of Washington for my Doctorate in Musical Arts in Conducting that I began to understand how narrow my perspective had been.
As my career has shifted towards full-time conducting, I have craved a broader musical vantage point. I am curious and eager to uncover music I have yet to hear. It is a privilege to be able to program and conduct live performances that explore the musical imaginations of a wide-ranging list of diverse composers. My orchestras have performed compositions by a wide swath of both historical and up-and-coming composers who are female and/or people of color. We have presented music from highly regarded colleagues of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Marianna Martines), Johannes Brahms (Amy Beach), and Edward Elgar (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor); Pulitzer Prize winners (Caroline Shaw); and Guggenheim Fellows (Julia Perry), to name a few. These fresh musical experiences seem to resonate with our audiences.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I choose to be the change. It is my passion to bring forth the talents and gifts of all people, past and present, and to challenge myself to open avenues of recognition, appreciation, and performance of music for underrepresented populations of people in symphonic music. My commitments are to: promote Diversity in the arts, offer Accessibility to reach broad audiences, seek Recognition of possible barriers, and provide Education for methods to promote diversity in the arts. I hope you will join me!
D is for Diversity
While gender and ethnic diversity does not necessarily translate to better music, I pose the thought that it does promote more artistic and financial success for arts organizations through the inclusion of a broader range of people. According to the McKinsey & Company report, “Diversity Matters,” companies “in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.” Specifically, their research has shown that companies with racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, while those with gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to see the same results. Diverse companies are better equipped to “win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision-making, leading to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns.” Additionally, inclusive practices and expectations are likely to bring a level of competitive advantage to those organizations that are successful in both attracting and retaining their diverse talent.
Studies have shown that companies with gender, racial, and ethnic diversity on their management teams are more profitable across the board (Tufts, 2006, Levine et al., 2014, Page, Phillips, 2014, Credit Suisse, 2019). This makes sense, as new and creative ways of thinking are generated by the best and the brightest of a diversified talent pool. The music industry benefits as we increasingly recognize the massive musical and economic potential when embracing inclusion. Imagine broadening our audiences to represent the diverse people and cultures that represent our communities. Diversity needs to become the standard. Differences are what makes us strong, and with this strength comes creativity and innovation.
In BBC Entertainment & Arts’s “Classical Music ‘Excludes’ Composers From Minorities” (Ian Youngs, October 20, 2016), Jamaican-born composer Eleanor Alberga maintains that classical music disregards minority groups as they do not fit inside classical music’s “inner club.” Additionally, she mentions that many times her commissions came with a “racial agenda,” such as touching upon the topic of slavery or writing within the jazz genre – even though jazz was not her field of study. Alberga’s statement raises the question of inclusion. How do we encourage diversity as a core value in the arts from the top down in our roles in arts management and as music directors, musicians, and audience members? Furthermore, how do we program music because the music should be heard, rather than to fulfill a social agenda during, for example, Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, or Women’s History Month?
Classical music continues to struggle for relevancy in communities that are not representative of western or European cultures. One important step in addressing this systemic problem is the representation of multiple perspectives through music and role models.
A is for Accessibility
Vernā Myers, a social activist and diversity consultant, famously quoted, “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” My belief is that accessibility is having the means to get to the party so you can dance. In other words, does the person have the necessary tools and opportunities to get what they need?
According to K. Elpus and C. Abril’s research, music students in high school often do not represent the diversity of their school demographics. Socioeconomic status and English as a second language are clear barriers for students. Financial status is significantly associated with participation in music ensembles: student household incomes in the lowest quartile are significantly underrepresented, while students in the upper quartile are overrepresented. Additional hurdles include reduced elective arts courses for non-native English speakers. These students are often tracked into remedial courses that require additional courses in math and English.
Many art organizations across the country have been making positive and meaningful shifts towards attracting diverse audiences, donors, musicians, and other partners for financial and operational success. Two examples that provide essential shifts in the diversification of musicians are the Sphinx Organization, based in Detroit, Michigan, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program. Sphinx is an ever-growing organization dedicated to the transformation of underrepresented young students of color in classical music. Starting with elementary education, Sphinx provides free instruments and lessons to students in the Detroit and Flint, Michigan area and continues to support musicians of color nationwide through avenues of music competitions and professional performance opportunities. Similarly, OrchKids, inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, provides music education, instruments, academic instruction, meals, and performance and mentorship opportunities at no cost to students and families. These programs are designed to create social change by providing artistic opportunity and support for thousands of underprivileged and underrepresented children and produce important initial shifts towards inclusivity in the arts.
Though ensuring that systems are in place to provide equal access and opportunity for children is a tall order, it is my belief that this “insurance policy” will benefit music in the long run. Targeting young, underrepresented students and providing them the possibility of an excellent music education will produce important members of the musical community including concert subscribers, board members, symphony musicians, conductors, and composers. When excellent and equitable music education is provided to everyone, meaningful change will happen.
R is for Recognition
Several years ago, I had a healthy debate during a phone interview with highly regarded conducting pedagogue Gustav Meier. His first statement to me was, “The main thing is that there is no difference between the men conductors and the women conductors. There is no difference.” Though I believe his heart was in the right place, I disagree. We do have differences. We can see these distinctions by the way we dress, incorporate gestures, and self-identify gender. Further discernments can be made by the way we talk, problem-solve, and connect with others. Audiences see and hear these differences. For the music industry to make positive changes, we need to review and recognize potential biases.
Take gender, for example. In Sheryl Sandberg’s well-known book, Lean In, she states, “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men, but success and likeability are negatively correlated for women.” This is an astounding and profound observation! The more successful a man is, the more people like him; but the more successful a woman is, the more people dislike her.
Social scientists have documented this surprising reality in many studies. For instance, in 2002, Frank Flynn, Assistant Professor of Business (at the time) at Columbia Business School, tested the idea of gender inequity. Flynn provided the portfolio of a successful business executive to his students and had them rate their impressions in an on-line survey. Half of the class received information for Heidi Roizen, who is an actual venture capitalist business executive based out of Silicon Valley. The other half of the class received the same exact portfolio, with only one small, but incredibly important, change. This half of the class received “Howard Roizen’s” portfolio — identical to Heidi’s, but with the name and pronouns changed. As you might expect, students felt Heidi and Howard were equally competent and effective. What I found fascinating was that students didn’t like Heidi: “they wouldn’t hire her; they wouldn’t want to work with her.” They disliked her aggressive personality. The more assertive they felt she was, the more harshly they judged her. However, the opposite was true for Howard. Students wanted to work for Howard. They liked Howard because he was a strong leader and knew how to get things done. The pronouns were significant: people’s perceptions were noticeably biased based solely on the gender of the subject.
Unconscious bias creates significant barriers to provide an inclusive environment. It is our responsibility to become aware, attentive, and honest about possible bias. Together, we can enhance the musical field through the promotion of inclusivity in our musical organizations and institutions.
E is for Education
In order to provide a successful base for underrepresented musicians, our culture must provide adequate mentorship and subsequently promote these musicians so they can thrive as teachers, performers, and leaders in the music field. When this happens, our musical profession will benefit. This begins with active early music education.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) position on inclusivity and diversity states that each American school should have a “well-rounded and comprehensive music education program.” These programs should promote “awareness of, respect for, and responsiveness to the variety and diversity of cultures; and should be delivered by teachers whose culturally responsive pedagogy enables them to successfully design and implement such an inclusive curricular framework.”
Jacqueline Kelly-McHale, Associate Professor and Director of Music Education at DePaul University, found in her research that the continuation of traditional European general music education resulted in the creation of an inherent bias against Mexican immigrant students, a sense of isolation for these students, and an environment that did not support “the integration of cultural, linguistic and popular music experiences.” Dean for the College of Fine Arts & Communication at Towson University, Regina Carlow’s yearlong collective study of English Language Learner (ELL) high school students also found that students developed a sense of isolation when their cultural identity was not accepted or even recognized. These cues point to important behaviors that educators and arts organizations should be mindful of.
As cultural leaders in our communities, it is our responsibility to program diverse music and educate our audiences, whether in a classroom or concert hall, in order to encourage awareness and respect for a variety of cultures through the arts.
It is exciting to be innovative and creative. I believe that we, as arts innovators and leaders, need to ask the right questions in order to build positive pathways to create equal opportunity. There is no one perfect solution to rectify past inequities, but with collaboration and joint efforts, there are many great ways to break outdated conventions.
Today’s dynamic and socially conscious world wants change. Are you ready for the challenge?
 K. Elpus & C. Abril. High school music ensemble students in the United States: A demographic profile. Journal of Research in Music Education 59(2) p. 128 – 145.