In Focus: Diversifying classical music through education

Waverly Long and Emily Sakai

According to a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras, less than 2 percent of musicians in the approximately 800 orchestras surveyed were Black. The lack of Black representation in classical music nationwide traces back to barriers to high-quality music education and a lack of representation in programming. Several organizations are working to diversify the field through music education.

[Read The Daily’s investigation into Black representation in the Bienen School of Music.]

KAILIE HOLLIDAY: It’s really more about emotion, and so doing what you feel like you want to do, and exploring that, is really helpful to me. It kind of bridges the gap between classical music and music that I was raised around. And I think that’s necessary, because you can’t enjoy the music if you’re playing it by somebody else’s rules.

WAVERLY LONG: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Waverly Long. That was Kailie Holliday performing Gigue from Bach’s second cello suite. Holliday, who has been playing cello for 10 years, is currently a senior at Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy. She will be studying cello performance at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music this fall.

KAILIE HOLLIDAY: There’s a big difference in the way that Black people approach music, culturally, just like jazz, rap, all that kind of stuff. It’s a very big difference from the way you approach classical music. And so, for me, just approaching classical music in that same way and just infusing more of that cultural approach to classical music has kind of helped me deal with the lack of representation.

WAVERLY LONG: In addition to the way she expresses herself through her own music, Holliday said she also actively seeks compositions by Black composers, and encourages others to program works by composers of color as well. She said oftentimes it’s up to musicians to search for repertoire that is outside of the standard curriculum. Though it can be challenging, it is necessary.

KAILIE HOLLIDAY: It’s a lot of looking for pieces that you want to do, and I still have not found a solo piece for cello that I can play by a Black composer.

WAVERLY LONG: A 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras found that, in 800 American orchestras, less than 2 percent of the musicians were Black. Music educators and students in the area said the lack of racial diversity stems from barriers to music education and poor representation in curriculum and programming. However, several organizations in the Chicago area are working to remove these barriers and diversify the field of classical music. Instruments, cases, maintenance, lessons, classes, festival fees. The financial barriers associated with entering the field of classical music can prove difficult. The college audition process is especially expensive: there are application fees, trial lessons and travel expenses for in-person auditions.

KAILIE HOLLIDAY: If you’re working to help support your family, then the time that you are at your job is time that you can’t be practicing. And so that’s definitely a barrier.

WAVERLY LONG: One local organization that focuses on removing barriers to high-quality music education is the Merit School of Music, where Holliday studies music outside of school.

TAICHI FUKUMURA: Studying music is, it’s not something that happens overnight. And it’s also not something you can do on your own. First of all, you need access to a teacher who can not just teach you the techniques, but really guide your growth as a person, somebody who can really be there for you. You also need, ideally, your family’s support, whether it’s parents or older siblings. You need the family buy-in, to be engaged and to be supportive in music studies, because it’s time consuming, it takes many years, it takes so much effort.

WAVERLY LONG: That was Bienen Ph.D. candidate Taichi Fukumura, the director of orchestras at the Merit School of Music. He said Merit focuses on making music education as accessible as possible. Recognizing that access to transportation can be a barrier, Merit offers offsite locations to students.

TAICHI FUKUMURA: So Merit has always been about serving the demographics of the city of Chicago, having a student body that represents the city of Chicago and not just providing lessons, chamber music and orchestra, but a full package. So they get theory lessons, they get elective classes, all kinds of things, and they can explore not just classical, but many different types of music as they learn.

WAVERLY LONG: The Merit School of Music also spearheaded the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, a selective program geared towards providing resources to students of color who are interested in pursuing a career in classical music. Holliday is part of the initiative’s scholarship program, which she said has played a crucial role in decreasing the financial barriers to her music education.

KAILIE HOLLIDAY: They pay for lessons, they help me pay for my instrument, they help me pay for the application fees that I was talking about. They do so much — they really are the reason that the financial barriers have not been that much of a barrier for me.

WAVERLY LONG: Beyond financial barriers, Holliday said Black representation is vital to encouraging young Black people to pursue classical music.

KAILIE HOLLIDAY: Representation is so important, because there’s things that you don’t even think of, that are possibilities, until you see somebody else do it. You’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think Black people could do that.’

WAVERLY LONG: She recalled learning about composer Florence Price, the first Black woman to have a major work debuted by a symphony orchestra.

KAILIE HOLLIDAY: Just hearing that was like, ‘Wow, that was a while ago, that was a long time ago, and she did that then. And so there’s a chance for somebody else to do it again.’ And just seeing the first person to do that is so impactful. And I don’t think people realize, like, you don’t think there were any Black composers, because you’ve never seen any. And that will definitely change some mindsets, if there were more representation.

WAVERLY LONG: Second-year Bienen masters student Kyle Dickson is involved with several music education organizations in the area. He said oftentimes he is his mentees’ main outlet to engage with music outside of their teachers and ensembles, so it’s important to him that he helps introduce his mentees to pieces by Black composers.

KYLE DICKSON: And to me, that’s where the work starts, right? It’s exposing our students to this wealth of repertoire that’s out there that can help to broaden their understanding of what classical music has been and the kind of people that have participated in it, so that they can see, too, that their culture is just as much a part of classical music as any others is.

WAVERLY LONG: Dickson is also the assistant conductor of the South Side Chicago Youth Symphony, another local organization focused on supporting minorities in music. He said it’s an inclusive ensemble comprised mostly of students of color with a wide range of skill.

KYLE DICKSON: We’re constantly trying to program so that our students are exposed to, like I said, musicians of color, soloists of color, composers of color. And again, it’s about sort of changing the mindset of what, I guess, the history of classical music tells us, right? For so long, we’ve had this one image of classical music and who participated in it, who wrote for it. And if we start digging out those works that have been covered up for all this time, we find that our world looks a lot more diverse than we thought that we did.

WAVERLY LONG: In addition to music education programs, Dickson also prioritizes representation in his own concerts. He’s a violinist with the string quartet D-Composed, an ensemble that performs concerts featuring works all by Black composers. Outside of their concerts, Dickson said the quartet has several educational initiatives, including a youth-centered family concert series and several coloring books of Black classical musicians. In addition to programming, Dickson said it’s equally crucial to have an inclusive curriculum in the classroom. By expanding the repertoire used in music theory and other music classes, educators can open up the traditional, and traditionally White, music curriculum.

KYLE DICKSON: If a teacher can teach a concept using material by a Black theorist or a Black composer, those things, again, everything sort of chips away at this culture, this misconception that classical music is only formed by White people.

WAVERLY LONG: Fukumura added that it’s important for teachers to dive into these works just as they do for musicians who are part of the traditional canon, such as Bach and Beethoven.

TAICHI FUKUMURA: If you’re programming Florence Price, find out all of her — her songs, chamber works, orchestral works, everything — and truly try to understand the composer just the way you would Beethoven. And that way, in education, the students aren’t just doing pieces that they forget who the composer was, they forget what the title was. Instead, they’re really getting to know that person.

WAVERLY LONG: Dickson also emphasized the importance of not tokenizing composers of color. Rather than only having occasional concerts to highlight composers of color, musicians should include works by composers of color in all programs.

KYLE DICKSON: Every chance I get, I’m hiring soloists of color, and like I said, doing those things like programming and featuring composers and artists of color and things like that to really make sure that all of this is represented when I’m giving concerts and when I’m interacting with my students.

WAVERLY LONG: Through individuals actively seeking to study and program pieces from a wide range of composers, the field of classical music will change.

KYLE DICKSON: If it’s important for each of us, then our canon has shifted, because every single one of us did our part in presenting a fuller spectrum of music.

WAVERLY LONG: In addition to diversifying its own programming and curriculum, Dickson said there are several ways Bienen can support the work of music education programs in the area.

KYLE DICKSON: Maybe the first thing would be to start finding ways to repurpose funds to support more musicians of color that are applying to their schools. Scholarship opportunities that perhaps go towards students from communities that are sort of music education deserts, you know what I mean? Because in a lot of cases, these students have clawed their way to the top through so many different obstacles. And money, usually, is the main one. And that usually is sort of the access code, that’s the door to opportunities, right? If you have the finances to fund the education and the training, then, you know, you’ll have a more fruitful career. So I think that scholarship opportunities can always be revisited by all schools.

WAVERLY LONG: Fukumura also called for the University to actively search for other ways to make a more inclusive environment overall.

TAICHI FUKUMURA: A lot of effort has to be made to reach out to people, but also a lot of introspective work has to be done within the school, to say, ‘Are we an open enough environment? Are we overlooking elements where we could be making things uncomfortable or impossible for some people to feel like they belong?’ It’s not up to the students to find their way to be comfortable in a hostile environment. The environment needs to be scrutinized and improved.

WAVERLY LONG: Moving forward, Dickson hopes inclusive music education can lead to progress in the broader world of classical music.

KYLE DICKSON: This is something that I feel really passionately about because I wouldn’t have had a future in music had it not been for the string of amazing music educators that sort of helped me to get here. And so I’m really passionate about education because I know, I’ve seen what it can do. And it can make or break your reality, you know, as being a musician. I think that if we want to change the narrative of classical music, it has to start with the next generation of musicians that are conditioned to see classical music as more inclusive. 

WAVERLY LONG: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Waverly Long. This episode was reported and produced by me, with additional production by Emily Sakai. The music in this episode was courtesy of Kailie Holliday. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: @waverly_long, @em_sakai

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