At the Bienen School of Music, students have expressed frustration at the lack of diversity — ranging from the school’s demographics to its curriculum. (Illustration by Meher Yeda)
At the Bienen School of Music, students have expressed frustration at the lack of diversity — ranging from the school’s demographics to its curriculum.

Illustration by Meher Yeda

In Focus: Bienen students share experiences, advocate for increased representation and uplifting of Black composers, musicians

June 7, 2021

As Tahirah Whittington, the cellist of all-Black Chicago string quartet D-Composed, flew through a piece by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, her young audience stared in awe.

The performance was part of a webinar series in which D-Composed shares clips of its concerts and presentations on Black composers with local schools. Even on a virtual platform, the kids were mesmerized, recalled second-year Bienen master’s student Kyle Dickson, a violinist in the quartet.

“Their eyes lit up on Zoom, and people were commenting in the chat, freaking out,” Dickson said. “They had never seen somebody that looked like that playing cello like that… It was a great moment.”

Students had a similar reaction to a guest lecture by D-Composed’s artistic director and violist Yelley Taylor (Bienen M.M. ’19), Bienen Ph.D. candidate Taichi Fukumura said. Fukumura is also the director of orchestras at Merit School of Music, a local organization focused on removing barriers to high-quality music education.

“When the kids get to hear her story — somebody they can resonate with — you can see in their eyes, you can see in their faces, what it means to them,” Fukumura said. “(It was) one of the most special days that they’ve experienced.” 

Dickson and Fukumura said these events demonstrate the need for Black representation in classical music, a field that is greatly lacking in racial diversity. According to a 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras surveying 800 American orchestras, less than 2 percent of musicians in the orchestras were Black.

Seeing successful musicians who look like them opens up new possibilities for young musicians of color, Dickson said. 

This lack of diversity stems from the silencing of Black musicians, said Naomi André, a musicologist and professor who researches the intersection of race, gender and vocal music at the University of Michigan. Throughout history, race has impacted how society viewed Black musicians and limited the opportunities they received, she said.

At the Bienen School of Music, just seven of the 640 undergraduate and graduate students identify as Black, according to the school’s Office of Admission, Financial Aid and Graduate Services. Students have also expressed frustration at the lack of diversity in the curriculum — ranging from the pieces students perform to the concepts professors cover in class.

Last summer’s national reckoning with racial injustice sparked a dialogue about the need for increased Black representation in Bienen. Though administrators have implemented several Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives since last summer, students are still advocating for lasting change.

“Seeing is believing”

Growing up in Detroit, Dickson was surrounded by Black musicians, both in school and in the local freelance community.

However, when he went to Michigan State University for his undergraduate degree, he said he was one of three Black string players out of over 50. He said he started to question whether the presence of Black musicians in classical music was as strong as he originally believed.

“It was sort of a dissonance in my perception of the field,” Dickson said. “All of a sudden, there was nobody around that looked like me (and) we weren’t playing any music that was written by Black composers.”

Racial homogeneity is an issue that also exists at professional orchestras across the country. The 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras found people of color made up less than 15 percent of musicians in the orchestras.

However, Dickson said ensembles created for minorities, such as Chicago Sinfonietta and the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, showed him there is diversity in classical music. The issue, he said, is that minorities have continuously been denied opportunities to gain recognition.

Dickson said he was inspired to promote underrepresented composers’ music in his own teaching and performing. He said representation is essential to debunking the myth that Black composers didn’t exist in classical music and showing young musicians they have a place in the field.

Illustration by Meher Yeda

“Seeing is really believing,” Dickson said. “I was never deterred from chasing my dreams in classical music as a violinist because all of my earliest experiences with music just reinforced my identity in it, and that’s not the case for everyone.”

Second-year Bienen master’s student Olivia Hamilton said she is currently the only Black student in her clarinet studio. She said there were times growing up when she was discouraged by the absence of Black representation.

It wasn’t until she was in college that she saw more Black women in classical music, she said. Before her undergraduate career at the University of North Texas, she questioned whether she would be welcomed into the field.

“It was like, ‘Oh, well, nobody else is doing it, so should I be doing it? Is this a place for me, am I able to do this?'” Hamilton said. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’m like, ‘I can do this and I will do this. This is something that I have to do, and I want to do it.'”

At the University of North Texas, Hamilton studied with a female clarinet professor who shared her struggles of being a minority in music, as a woman in a male-dominated field. Hamilton said encouragement from this professor and others at Bienen helped her believe she could pursue a music career.

She added that she believes her generation will be monumental in increasing diversity in classical music.

“The people that I know who are Black women playing the clarinet are around my age,” Hamilton said. “I really think that we’re going to be the pioneers.”

Similarly to Hamilton, Taylor of D-Composed said she felt isolated by the lack of diversity. Although she knew she wanted to become a classical musician by age 13, Taylor said her undergraduate years at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music changed her perception of the field.

At Oberlin, Taylor said she began to understand that the field of classical music was not built for people of color. Throughout her education, she said she felt those around her didn’t expect Black students to attain the same level of success as other students. These expectations may have also affected the students Oberlin and Bienen professors pushed and granted more opportunities, she said.

In addition, Taylor said there wasn’t enough recognition of the accomplishments of famous Black alumni at Oberlin, such as composers George Walker and William Grant Still. She said she felt the school was distancing itself from its history, which left her feeling isolated.

The limited recognition coupled with the low number of Black students at the conservatory while she was studying there made her question whether she belonged in the field, she said. 

Taylor said her experience highlighted the importance of recognizing the contributions of non-White musicians, which motivates her to increase Black representation in classical music for young students today.

Illustration by Meher Yeda

“It’s so important to understand that you are part of a lineage of greatness — of great artists, of great performers,” Taylor said. “The type of courage, confidence and imagination that that can inspire is really incalculable.”

“It’s not erasure, it’s inclusion”

When students arrive at Bienen, their first-year music theory coursework centers on an approach to intervals, chords and progressions that originated in 17th century Europe.

While some professors can and have incorporated more diverse examples, Dickson said the foundation of the curriculum focuses on standard European methods. As a result, a broader spectrum of classical music gets left out, he said.

“If we want to paint a full picture, then we’ve got to paint with all of the colors that are afforded to us,” Dickson said. “It’s not that other systems (of music theory) weren’t created, it’s just that we’ve decided that this one was the most important one.”

Hamilton and other students are frustrated that Bienen centers a primarily White canon of classical music, Hamilton said. She added that students want to see repertoire by composers of color used in class more often.

Including composers of color for the sake of reaching a quota, however, would not signify true change within the institution, according to Bienen junior Hampton Douglas.

Rather, Douglas said it’s about giving students an accurate and more complete education, which means teaching about the influence musicians of color have had throughout history.

“The goal isn’t to simply check boxes,” Douglas said. “We don’t need everything to be checked off, but rather ensure that our core goal is met: this idea of representation and diversity, but ultimately, accuracy of education.”

Beyond including literature from Black composers in class, Dickson said it’s important to examine the roots of the content Bienen is teaching.

He added that learning about other cultures’ contributions to music doesn’t take away from the material currently covered.

“It’s not erasure, it’s inclusion,” Dickson said.

The roots of the problem

Black exclusion in classical music traces back to limited access to resources, Dickson said. Developing the level of skill needed to pursue music in higher education typically requires access to money for lessons and transportation to rehearsals and music programs, he said. 

“(Barriers to access) is a huge question, and it’s a societal question — this is just the way that it manifests in classical music,” Dickson said. “(Low-income) communities have long been restricted from participating in art, academia and classical music and all sorts of fields because of this lack of access.”

Incoming Bienen student Kailie Holliday also said the high cost of music education can often be prohibitive for low-income students. In addition to fees for lessons and festivals, musicians must pay for instruments, cases and maintenance such as string changes and bow rehairs, she said.

Holliday also said financial need can have a compounding negative effect by impacting the amount of time a student can spend practicing. 

Beyond logistical barriers, Fukumura, the director of orchestras at Merit School of Music, said an overly traditional approach to the study of classical music can also make the field more exclusive.

The way audiences, critics and musicians talk about composers and soloists turns them into “godlike” figures, Fukumura said. Idolizing a select group of White composers and soloists, he said, perpetuates exclusionary stereotypes.

Taylor added that the Eurocentric performance standards of classical music also make the field culturally exclusive. Musicians with diverse backgrounds experience, engage and produce music differently, she said. Growing up listening to music in Black churches and studying classical music, she said the two were often in conflict.

“(Classical music) felt so much more rigid,” Taylor said. “For a lot of people it’s oppressive, to both interact with music in that way and to listen to music with such narrow expectations.”

In addition to the culture of the industry, André, the University of Michigan musicologist, said an absence of research about the works of minority composers also translates to a lack of understanding about the full history of classical music.

Musicologists, who research music and its relationship to history and culture, are still discovering new pieces and new composers of color, highlighting the importance of supporting research in classical music.

“People didn’t know so much about (Black composers) and we don’t have scores and recordings for all of them, so it’s harder to teach,” André said. “We’re in a good moment where there are people who are willing to open up the canon, but we just need to do the musicology.”

Efforts to create change

Following several past efforts to diversify Bienen’s curriculum, including a petition in 2017 and advocacy to increase female representation, over a dozen students got together in May 2020 and began working on a new petition calling for administrators to amplify Black and underrepresented voices in classical music.

According to Douglas, the group presented the petition to Bienen administrators after it gained over 700 signatures. They also sent Bienen Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery a request to meet at the beginning of Fall Quarter, but Douglas said Montogomery never responded.

However, a few months later, students were able to connect with administrators.

When University President Morton Schapiro condemned student protests in an October 2020 community email, faculty from multiple departments published letters criticizing his message. Disappointed by Bienen’s silence, Hamilton voiced her concerns in an email to her clarinet professor, who forwarded it to the dean.

Montgomery then initiated a meeting with Hamilton, which took place on Oct. 28. During their conversation, Hamilton said the dean revealed she was privately giving Schapiro suggestions for mediators to support dialogues with protestors. 

Hamilton also learned about plans for a Black composer showcase featuring performances of Black composers’ music and presentations from musicology students.

“Most importantly, what she did was she opened up an avenue for students to actually talk to her,” Hamilton said.

Following Hamilton and Montgomery’s conversation, the dean reached out to Black students in Bienen, some of whom had worked on the petition, and set up a meeting. After the meeting, students sat down with Montgomery and other administrators to talk through their demands.

Hamilton said administrators have made an effort to meet some of the students’ demands, including increasing transparency and promoting Black composers’ work. In November, the dean sent a memo to Bienen students outlining administrators’ DEI initiatives. These included new musicology and sophomore music theory core curriculums, concerts featuring BIPOC composers and virtual guest speakers. Administrators also recently launched a DEI page on Bienen’s website.

However, Douglas said administrators have refused to act on some of their requests. One of their main demands, he said, was for Bienen to hire a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer, which he said the dean deemed unnecessary.

Douglas said it’s important for students and administrators to discuss creating permanent change to ensure the school is serious about working to solve its core issues.

“Since the height of (Black Lives Matter), a lot of companies and a lot of institutions have tried to check these boxes,” Douglas said. “But how is that reflected in the work that they do? At Northwestern, how do we make sure that our want for more representation is rooted in our education more so than just something to look good about?”

Bienen declined to comment on its recent initiatives, as well as on meetings with students and future plans.

Hamilton said “Musical Legacies of Black Feminism,” one of her current courses, is an example of the more diverse and inclusive curriculum students want.

Director of Graduate Music Ryan Dohoney, who teaches the course, said his class examines resistance to White supremacy through the lens of music. It also covers the influence of Black female musicians, specifically in jazz. He said he intentionally made the class discussion-based not only because it’s part of his teaching style, but because he recognizes he is not an expert on Black feminism.

Dohoney also said a group of faculty members has been discussing ways to incorporate equity and inclusion practices into their teaching. This could include expanding their curriculum or implementing policies to encourage students to explore music by composers of color, he said.

However, Bienen students said increasing diversity in classical music should begin at a younger age. Dickson, Taylor and Fukumura are involved with a number of organizations in the Chicago area focused on uplifting underrepresented communities through music education.

Organizations such as the South Side Chicago Youth Orchestra and Merit School of Music strive to remove barriers to high-quality music education by giving young musicians financial assistance, tackling misrepresentation in the field and connecting with audiences of color, Dickson said.

To help diversify its applicant pool, Dickson said Bienen has the responsibility to invest resources through more scholarships and fellowships. He said he believes this would directly impact the demographics of Bienen’s applicant pool.

Dickson added that while institutional change is important, each individual musician also has a responsibility to take initiative in their own work.

“It’s our job to take it into our own hands, to program this music and to talk about these composers,” Dickson said. “We can try to enact these changes in these organizations, but if we don’t see those changes, we’ve got to do it ourselves.”

Charting Bienen’s next steps

Bienen Prof. She-e Wu, Douglas’ percussion professor, started researching Black composers and repertoire last summer, Douglas said. Since then, he said she has been diligent about creating diverse programs.

“For all the students’ recitals (and ensemble concerts), everyone has to incorporate one Black composer,” Douglas said. “She fully understands that that’s also ‘checking the box,’ in a way, but she is going to continue to make sure that representation is held for years to come.”

Though some professors, such as Wu, have made a concerted effort to increase Black representation at Bienen, Douglas said there should be more unified improvements throughout the school. He said he encourages other professors to take the same initiative in their teaching.

Illustration by Meher Yeda

The racial demographic of the incoming class for fall 2021 also indicates an increase in diversity at Bienen — 14 of Bienen’s 214 incoming students identify as Black or African American, according to the school’s Office of Admission, Financial Aid and Graduate Services.

As Holliday, the incoming cellist, prepares for her time at Bienen, she said she encourages young musicians of color to continue pursuing music. She said it’s especially important for musicians to be expressive in their playing instead of feeling confined to the rules and regulations of traditional interpretations.

“Don’t count yourself out because you haven’t seen anybody do it yet,” Holliday said. “Put yourself in there, put your own color into classical music. You might be a first for somebody else.”

André also urged audience members to reach out to symphonies and other ensembles to express interest in hearing works by composers of color. She said showing ensembles that there is a strong interest in these works can help them decide to program new material.

Dickson said all listeners, faculty members, music directors, students and people in positions of power throughout the country have a responsibility to step up and create change through their own work to “normalize the spectrum of voices.”

“Listen to Black music and literature by women and by Indigenous peoples,” Dickson said. “Put those pieces on your program and go and teach those pieces to your students. Immerse yourself in this literature, because there really is so much more content out there for us to absorb.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @waverly_long

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