It All Began With An Experience
During my DMA studies years ago, I learned many important academic life lessons at the University of Washington. However, my most gratifying educational experience was the launch of the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra (SCO) for my graduate recital. As the sole Music Director/Executive Director/Development Director/Educational Outreach Coordinator for the SCO over the past 10 years, I have learned many critical leadership lessons from hiring musicians, organizing student outreach visits, grant-writing, dealing with QuickBooks (oh my!), as well as so many other tasks required in running a 70ish person, multi-generational, semi-professional orchestra. At times, it has felt overwhelming, but always super satisfying.
As I look back over the last decade, my most influential lessons stemmed from SCO’s journey. From the beginning, SCO’s mission was highly influenced by my research concerning gender and leadership. Most of the SCO board members were parents of my high school orchestra students and they enthusiastically embraced our original mission which stated that we were “a diverse, multigenerational performing arts organization dedicated to diversity in symphonic classical music. SCO musicians include students, community members, and professionals who work together to create a unique and collaborative musical experience that includes a creative mix of traditional orchestral music and works by female composers.” This initial spark strongly influenced my path to promote diversity on the concert stage and clearly has defined my career choices as I go forward. I would love to now share my story of the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and the profound effect it has had on who I am as a musician, educator, and promoter of great music.
Beginning in 2000, I had the opportunity to teach orchestra at Roosevelt High School (RHS) in Seattle. My friend and musical partner (the RHS legendary band and Jazz band director) Scott Brown and I fully treated the Roosevelt Music Program as a career and life preparation program. Our music program is well known across the country, as our band, jazz band, and orchestra programs have won numerous regional, state, and national awards over the decades. During my twenty year tenure at RHS, our combined students went on to attend every major conservatory and top university music program in the U.S. Today, many of our students are performing with top orchestras and bands across the country.
In 2011, the year before I started the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra, I was highly anticipating my new freshman class of RHS string players. Due to my involvement with a local youth symphony, I knew there were two “violin prodigies” entering my freshman class. I was looking forward to a great four years of awesome talent. What I was NOT anticipating however, was how this particular class changed the way I looked at music, race, and privilege. One particular student, who was not at all on my radar, became my tipping point in the way I look at talent, possibility, and the importance of opportunity.
This story begins with two students who were close friends coming into my class. ‘James’, one of the child violin prodigies entering my class, and ‘Simone,’ a cellist. (I have changed the student’s names to protect their privacy). James, a white young man, came from a talented, well-educated, and upper-middle class family. An extremely confident young man that played like a dream. Simone was a mixed race black student. My initial reaction for Simone was that she was “tricky.” She was vivacious (talked a LOT) and had lots of personality (again, talked a LOT). My first and very lasting memory of Simone was of her dragging her school cello across the floor after our first orchestra rehearsal.
After seeing Simone drag her cello, I thought, “Here is someone who doesn’t appreciate what the school has loaned her. This seems ungrateful and she obviously needs to show me that she is able to care for her equipment before getting extra support from me!” So, I decided that I would not loan Simone a nice cello until she could prove to me that she would take care of her stuff.
While today I am horrified that this was my initial reaction, it has been one of the most important lessons for me as a musician, educator, and advocate of diversity. Over the course of the year, Simone grew on me. She had a great personality and she was funny. What I did not anticipate was how she would change the way I think.
Simone became quite frustrated during her first year because she couldn’t seem to get higher than 4th chair in the cello section. Her friends, the two violin prodigies, were 1st and 2nd chair. It was clear that she wanted to do well, she was just not playing at the level she needed to in order to get a higher ranking. This prompted after school discussions.
During these talks, Simone asked me multiple times to help her find a private teacher. I gave her many excellent teacher contacts though the suggestions never seemed to go anywhere. Over time, our conversations led to many discoveries, which I had not anticipated. Simone lived alone with her mom - a single parent who had a diagnosed mental disorder. Simone began cello in the 6th grade, did not own a cello, and her mom did not have enough funds for private lessons.
Though Simone was not really on my “future professional musician” educational radar (or, a student that would continue into music in college), her continued desire to perform better and her personal living circumstances definitely sparked an emotion. I contacted a fabulous teacher (who was also a person of color) in Seattle and he graciously took on Simone with the help of a private donor.
In her junior year, Simone was upgraded to a decent school cello and finally made it into the Symphony class. Private lessons were making an obvious difference for her. This was also my 3rd season with the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra. Research on my dissertation “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor” was in full swing. My view of music and who gets to succeed began to come front and center in my mind.
Before starting SCO, I had had the luxury of having two professions where I never had to consider my gender, skin color, or privilege. I was a violinist and a public-school teacher. Both professions had a substantial number of white females. Equity and equality were not considerations in my teaching career. As I began my next professional career as a conductor beginning with the Seattle Youth Symphony and then as a DMA candidate, gender equity quickly came clearly into focus when looking at the vast differences between the number of conducting opportunities being given to male conductors over their female counterparts. It was the first time I had ever felt excluded or discriminated against. Though for this article I will not go into gender discrimination, I point this out because it was the first time that I understood what it meant to be excluded from an opportunity that was out of my control.
Years of study, research, and listening have completely changed how I view talent, excellence, and potential. Factors that are out of our control, including race, finances, gender, age, ability, education, and mental capacity are important obstacles to recognize.
When I initially think of James and Simone during their high school years, I think of two students who could not have been more different. James started violin at age 5. He had excellent teaching during his formative years so by the time I had him in high school, he was concertmaster for the regional youth symphony and had multiple opportunities to solo with orchestras across the country. He attended reputable summer music institutes, performed on NPR’s “From the Top,'' and went on to attend the top conservatory in the country. He was set to have a fabulous career in music.
Simone, as I see now, was an equally talented young person. The difference being, of course, was that Simone had to work far harder and had to rely on help outside of her inherited support system in order to achieve her successes. This is, of course, because our existing system is NOT constructed to help support students of color or of financial need. Watching Simone thrive after receiving just a few opportunities has driven my quest for diversity and equity.
Studying Conducting at the Monteux School
A few years earlier, I experienced my first encounter of what it meant to be an outsider, though I did not understand it at the time. As a first year student at the Pierre Monteux School, I was the only female of seventeen conducting students. The second year I attended, I was one of two female conductors out of twenty conducting students. For me, my feeling of being an outsider had to do with gender, which brought about complex and frustrating emotions for me. It was clear that I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. 1-see footnote below
What I understand now, is that I was surrounded by mostly men and had only male conducting teachers. During this time I began to realize that I was in a position where I was not comfortable, nor confident, and this made a difference.
The painful feeling of not belonging prompted me to question gender and leadership, which propelled me towards the subject matter for my dissertation. The ethnographic portion of my dissertation came from my third summer at Monteux - and what a difference that year made!
That year, there were 20 conductors - 14 men and 6 women. During the summer I watched, listened to stories, and questioned behaviors. It was life changing to watch other talented women on the podium. I finally felt like I belonged.
Because I wanted to have a deeper understanding of why this experience was so powerful, I delved into gender statistics within the top American symphonies, conservatories, and universities to try and understand my feeling of disconnection with conducting. It was during this time that it became apparent that women have been woefully underrepresented in leadership positions. This revelation prompted the inaugural launch of Seattle Collaborative Orchestra which was, in part, research for my D.M.A dissertation at the University of Washington.
The Formation of the SCO
My intentions were to bring together three aspects of musical performance that were significant for me during this time – education, gender, and leadership. Because I had performed many side-by-side concerts with the Seattle Symphony with RHS students, I decided to model SCO from this important educational example - with a little added oomph. SCO musicians included high school students, community musicians, and professional musicians from both the Seattle Symphony and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. In our first concert, we performed Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and a world premiere composition A Mountain Symphony by local Seattle composer Sarah Bassingthwaighte. This concert resonated to my core.
The initial mission of SCO was directly driven by gender inequity in music. This was an avenue that I had personally experienced and was a topic that I wanted to address from my research. SCO’s mission questioned the words ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ and focused our vision towards how to make meaningful change in our community through music. We started by creating concert programs that were gender diverse. As we progressed through the years, our desire spread from gender diversity to racial diversity in our concert programming.
As SCO evolved, we asked many questions on how to diversify our musical community. Most of the time, youth symphony organizations allow only the top students into their programs. In many cases, students admitted have had the good fortune to participate in expensive private lessons for a number of years. So, our organization began to dispel the idea that those top auditioning students were the more talented or harder working students.
The Evolution of the the SCO and Further Lessons Learned
Our goals have slightly changed to consider potential, rather than one's single performance in an audition. We consider that some students play and audition at a higher level because they have had more opportunities. We want students who will benefit and thrive from our organization as our quest is to make a difference in our community through music. As an influential community organization, we feel compelled to ask ourselves - How can we even up the playing field? and How do we offer opportunities to help talent thrive in all demographics?
Looking back over the almost twenty years I spent at Roosevelt High School, I am confident that many of the students could have been lifted up in their musical studies if they had been given more opportunity. Three questions I consistently consider are:
How do we find solutions that encourage students of color to go into music at the university level, which will help encourage equity in music at the professional level?
As an influential musician and educator, how can I offer student opportunities for musical diversity in my organizations?
How can I encourage gender and racial equity on the concert stage while also creating a sense of inclusiveness?
When I began to perform music by women, these concerts offered me an understanding of what it felt like to be part of “the club”. Once I discovered this feeling, I could only imagine what it might be like for a female person of color. This concept took me down another series of questions that consider gender and race of the music that we perform, musicians who perform the music, and audience members who come to listen to the music.
From 2012 to now, three concepts have become apparent during my time with Seattle Collaborative Orchestra. First: all students have potential and it is never too late to make a difference in their education. Though Simone did not begin private lessons until her junior year, she worked hard and made enormous strides. Between Simone’s hard work and the encouragement and support of her fantastic cello teacher, a helpful family, and a very proud orchestra teacher; Simone decided to take a gap year after graduating to practice her cello. I am thrilled to tell you that she graduated in May 2022 from the Royal Conservatory of Scotland in cello performance. Second: Being an outsider (whether it has to do with gender, race, age, ability, or something else), does not encourage a sense of confidence. Therefore, it is important to have role models and a community that you identify with. Third: I still believe strongly in SCO’s slightly amended mission to “create a unique and collaborative musical experience that includes a creative mix of traditional orchestral music and works by underrepresented composers.” It is clear that our audience members and musicians are enthusiastic to hear and perform compositions by historically underrepresented composers. Our goal is to welcome more and more people to feel like insiders.
How this led to Anna's Composer Database
I love music. I love to perform music, listen to music, and teach music. While I still adore performing cornerstone compositions from standard orchestral repertoire, I am enthusiastic to seek and discover current and future cornerstones of repertoire that resonate with a more inclusive group of people. Additionally, I am excited to explore great compositions that historically did not have the chance to be performed, enjoyed, or recognized as masterpieces.
Many of us have experienced similar paths and have reached similar conclusions. However, one challenge I have noticed has been access. Over the past 10 years, it has been exciting to discover and encourage performances of composers who have been underperformed and/or unrecognized. The opportunity to research, listen to, and perform music by a diverse spectrum of composers has offered a path that has enriched my experiences. My hope is that I can offer a resource that will be helpful for all of us who have a quest for a more diverse and inclusive concert stage.
As an extension and a continued journey of exploring terrific music, I have launched “Anna’s Composer Database” (ACD). This database is a curated list of composers and compositions that help music organizations create interesting and diverse programs for concert programs. It is geared specifically for high school, university, community, and professional music directors (as well as artistic directors), to easily find great music for performance and research.
This is one way I can make a difference in my community - to encourage both gender and racial diversity on the concert stage. I would love to invite you the reader and the Everything Conducting community to try out the Anna’s Composer Database free for 1 month and then $5/month (the cost of a good cup of coffee), $49/year, or institutional pricing is $250 a year.
If you would just like to receive a monthly newsletter that features a composer of the month, my favorite concert starter, historical score of the month (and more!), please sign up for my newsletter at: https://annascomposerdatabase.com
I would love to hear all of your stories and for you to join this conversation! Composers, conductors, and all others are welcome to reach out and can contact me at: email@example.com
1. Catherine Strong and Sarah Raine wrote an excellent editorial introduction “Gender Politics in the Music Industry” for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music that offers some excellent resource material on this subject.