Bienen graduate student discusses diversity in classical music at TEDxNorthwesternU event

Alan Perez, Reporter

A second-year graduate student in the Bienen School of Music spoke about his desire to diversify Bienen’s core curriculum and reflected on his experience as a black classical musician during this year’s TEDxNorthwesternU conference.

Steven Banks spoke to an audience of more than 50 people during the conference, held Saturday in the McCormick Foundation Center. According to the conference’s website, this year’s theme was “The Power of Intention,” which explored the motivations behind modern innovation, goals and passions.

“The speakers have great ideas, and our thought with the theme was that intention lies behind all of those great ideas,” said Medill junior and TEDxNorthwesternU director Emma Felker.

Felker said Banks’ speech was timely because it happened in the middle of his effort to create change at Northwestern.

Banks started a petition to diversify Bienen’s core curriculum in music theory, music history and aural skills. The petition, started over two months ago, has more than 200 signatures.

Banks said he was always exposed to the work of white classical musicians, but never the work of black musicians. This made him feel like he was participating in something that he shouldn’t, he said.

“Not knowing about the precedent of the history of black musicians in classical music was really what made me feel so insecure and uncomfortable,” he told The Daily.

Banks said he used to ask himself if he was “black enough” because he was a classical musician. People used to call him an “oreo” because his interests made him “white on the inside,” Banks said. He remembered feeling like he needed to prove he belonged in the classical music community, he said.

After finding out about Joseph Boulogne, an 18th-century black musician and composer, Banks said he walked into class the following day feeling more comfortable. He continued his research on the work of non-white musicians and realized that contributions from women and people of color have been going on for centuries, he said.

Weinberg freshman Sami Akkawi, who attended the event, said students are motivated when they see people who are like them succeed in their fields. Banks’ message is universal and can be applied to other fields of study, he said.

“That topic of students needing to see people like them to succeed happens everywhere,” Akkawi told The Daily.

Banks proposed three action steps to make classical music education more inclusive and diverse. Change has to start at the top with leading institutions, Banks said. These institutions should take it upon themselves to initiate change, he said, and others will follow.

He also said the changes should be “inherently inclusive,” not exclusive. For example, black-only or Latinx-only ensembles don’t help diversify the classical music community, he said. Lastly, Banks called for minority groups to value the contributions of those who came before them.

These steps would not only diversify the classical music scene, but would also make it more appealing to modern audiences, Banks said.

“When people ask why classical music isn’t relevant anymore, to me it’s very obvious,” Banks told The Daily. “I think it’s because it doesn’t celebrate everyone.”

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