Leaders: A musical quest for diversity, accessibility, recognition, and education
2016 was a transformational year of reflection, consideration, and vision for me as 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. This presented an opportunity to share my research and passion around gender and conducting. I wanted to impact this audience of conductors and musicians in leadership positions to question their perceptions about possible biases concerning women in leadership positions on the podium. It has been my quest these past several years to peel away layers of possible prejudice in order to look into the future with openness to learn, appreciate, encourage, and understand diverse leadership styles with conductors.
Four critical questions I posed to this audience were:
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?
While preparing my Oxford lecture, two articles that piqued my interest and served as catalysts for further reflection were 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 stated 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 had formulated and articulated my vision to understand the role of gender and leadership through my dissertation, “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor.” From this research and study, the passion I have found is to question and understand bias in order to find positive ways to diversify music in my community. O’Bannon and Baer’s findings offered compelling data and served as catalysts in my commitment to diverse programming.
Some progress on recognizing the broad catalog of great female composers has been made as evidenced by recent articles. Baer’s WPA 2019-2020 season announcements reported that each of these 21 major American orchestras included at least ONE work by a female composer. The WPA identifies the top 21 orchestras with the highest operating budgets in the US, 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. Information gathered did not include Family, Pops, Chamber, or Holiday concerts. Of the 277 individual composers WPA gathered, 53 composers identify as female - 19%.
Though this IS progress, my goal is to encourage and influence exponential growth with respect to gender and racial equity concerning performed symphonic music by exposing conductors, musicians, and audiences to diverse music. Traditionally, music and music education has been driven predominantly by Western European men. Personally, I had always believed that my university training was excellent and never questioned nor considered how narrow my musical education really was. 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 for my Doctorate in Musical Arts in conducting that I began to understand how underrepresented and narrow my perspective had been.
As my career has shifted towards Conductor, I crave a broader musical vantage point. As a musician I have become 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. Compositions my orchestras have performed include a wide swath from historical to up-and-coming composers. We have presented music from highly regarded colleagues of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Marianna Martines), Johannes Brahms (Amy Beach), and Edward Elgar (William Grant Still) to Pulitzer prize winners (Caroline Shaw) to Guggenheim Fellows (Julia Perry) to name a few. All were female or person of color male composers. Fresh musical experiences seem to resonate with our audiences.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” It is my passion to capitalize on the talents and gifts of all people, past and present. To challenge myself to open avenues of recognition, appreciation, and performance of music for underrepresented populations of people in symphonic music is exciting. I choose to be the change. My commitment is: to promote Diversity in the arts, to offer Accessibility to reach broad audiences, to seek Recognition of possible barriers, and to 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 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, they feel 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 (Tufts, 2006, Levine et al., 2014, Page, Phillips, 2014, Credit Suisse, 2019) have shown that companies with gender, racial, and ethnic diversity on their management teams are more profitable across the board. 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 will benefit 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. Positive impacts will be realized when diversity becomes the standard. Differences are what makes us strong, and with this strength brings creativity and innovation.
From BBC Entertainment & Arts webpage Classical music ‘excludes’ composers from minorities (Ian Youngs, October 20, 2016), Jamaican born composer, Eleanor Alberga felt that classical music disregarded minority groups as they do not fit inside classical music’s “inner club.” Additionally, she mentioned that many times her commissions came with a “racial agenda” such as slavery, or wanted her to write within the jazz genre – even though jazz was not her field of study. Alberga’s statement raises the question of inclusion. How do we program to encourage diversity as a core value in the arts from the top down – Arts Management, Music Directors, Musicians, and audience members? And, how do we program because the music should be heard, rather than for a social agenda such as Black History, Spanish Heritage, or Women’s month?
Classical music continues to struggle for relevancy in diverse communities. One important step in addressing this systemic problem is the accessibility of multiple perspectives through music and role models.
A is for Accessibility
Verna Myers 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.
Or, does the person have the correct tools necessary 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 speakers who may need additional English skill classes. Many times, these students are tracked into remedial courses that require students to take additional courses in math and English.
Many art organizations across the country have been making positive and meaningful shifts in ways to attract diverse audiences, donors, musicians, and other partners for financial and operational success. Two examples that provide essential shifts in the diversification of musicians are Sphinx and OrchKids. Sphinx is an ever-growing organization dedicated to the transformation of underrepresented young students of color in classical music. Starting with elementary education, they provide free instruments and lessons to elementary students in the Detroit and Flint Michigan area and continue to support musicians of color nationwide through avenues of music competitions and professional performance opportunities. Baltimore Symphony’s OrchKids, inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, similarly provides music education, instruments, academic instruction, meals, as well as performance and mentorship opportunities at no cost to students and families. These programs are designed to create social change and to provide artistic opportunity for thousands of underprivileged and underrepresented children and produce important initial shifts towards inclusivity in the arts.
To ensure that systems are in place to provide equal access for children to succeed is a tall order though, it is my belief that this musical “insurance policy” will benefit music in the long run. To target young underrepresented students provides possibility for an excellent music education, which in turn produces musicians and important members of the musical community including concert subscribers, board members, symphony musicians, conductors, and composers.
When we provide an excellent and equitable music education for all, we will be able to make meaningful change in music.
R is for Recognition
Several years ago, I had a healthy debate on 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.” I believe his heart was in the right place yet, I have a different perspective. We DO have differences. Audiences see and hear these differences. You see 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. For the music industry to make positive changes, we may want to review and recognize potential biases.
Concerning gender, in Sheryl Sandberg’s well-known book, Lean-In, she states, “Success and like-ability are positively correlated for men, but success and like-ability are negatively correlated for women.” This is an astounding and profound observation! To rephrase, 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 (at the time) from Columbia University’s Business School, tested the idea of gender inequity. Flynn provided the portfolio of a successful business executive to his students and then had them take an on-line survey, to rate their impressions. 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 — the same exact portfolio, only the name and the pronouns were 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, this was NOT true for Howard. Students wanted to work for Howard. They liked Howard because he was a strong leader and he 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 by the promotion of inclusivity in our musical organizations and institutions through positive change.
E is for Education
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’s research found that the continuation of traditional European general music education resulted in the creation of an inherent bias and sense of isolation against Mexican immigrant students. This result caused an environment that did not support “the integration of cultural, linguistic and popular music experiences.” Other articles that support this type of unintentional bias include Regina Carlow’s yearlong collective study of English Language Learner (ELL) high school students, which 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.
It is exciting to be innovative and creative. I believe that we, as arts innovators and leaders, will ask the right questions in order to build positive pathways to create equal opportunity. There is no one perfect solution to rectify past inequities, yet 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.