Our dearly beloved, stubbornly monochrome orchestras

Professor Christina Scharff is a lecturer at King’s College London. Scharff studies how women and people of color fare in the UK’s classical music ecosystem. She’s out with a new study, and her findings are tough but not shocking.

  • Women and people of color are underrepresented in classical music jobs and leadership roles.
  • Classical music is a middle-class-on-up phenomenon. Few poor people play.
  • Composers are overwhelmingly white men.
  • Women are over-represented in teaching professions.
  • Women make 83.7% of the average male classical musician’s salary.
  • Orchestra instrument assignments split along gender lines. (Harp players are mostly women. Tuba & percussion players, men.)
The reason none of this is shocking is because Sharff’s findings mirror what’s out there in the world. Women get paid less. Minorities** hold fewer prestige positions. There are many reasons, some of them deep & complex, others relatively straightforward, and fixable.

The reason none of this is shocking is because Sharff’s findings mirror what’s out there in the world. Women get paid less. Minorities* hold fewer prestige positions. There are many reasons, some of them deep & complex, others relatively straightforward, and fixable.

This is about the story we tell ourselves. If we say “most piano geniuses are white men,” it’s not just an observation but a self-fulfilling prophecy. White male piano superstars will, sure enough, continue to “emerge.” (Where do they come from? Mysterious!) When we assume conductors look some way and then a woman strides out wielding the baton …… well, you know. Folks get uncomfortable.

Scharff:

Cultural myths about talent and creativity contribute to inequalities, as do other, indeed frequently lauded features of the sector, such as its informality, flexibility and reliance on networking.

Classical music — like many other professions — is a good-old-boy’s club. Some of this is changing, yes. But what we’re talking about could be labeled misogyny, or racism. Charitably we call it a bias. Players and management are pleasant enough. Nobody intends to hurt anyone else, of course, or to cheat them out of jobs. It just sort of happens, and who are we to change it?

Classical music outfits have grade-A talent and passion. Nobody’s taking that away. But it’s time to consider why orchestras look monochromatic. White men clearly don’t have to go away. But it’s time to stop dicking around. Our orchestras can’t be History’s Unfortunate Footnote when the music stops. We’re the smart ones, remember?

via http://giphy.com/gifs/reactiongifs-jj5JN38Ux8iL6

So to start, we must shake up orchestra boards (good luck) so they reflect the diversity of the cities they serve. Play shows outside orchestra hall, specifically in under-served communities, and develop mentorship programs targeting the kinds of people you haven’t hired or historically cared about. Give women & minorities the same promotions and leadership roles everybody else gets as a matter of course. Oh, and start “discovering” composers you don’t typically play.

That’s a start. What else? I’m sure there’s a lot more.

I’ll let Marin Alsop take us out. Here she is at the 2013 BBC Proms, the first woman to ever conduct the last night of the Proms.

Now, quite a lot has been made of me being the first woman to conduct the last night of the Proms. Thank you. I’m incredibly honored and proud to have this title, but I have to say, I’m still quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can be ‘firsts’ for women. Here’s to the seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, hundreds to come.
If you read one PDF today, make it Scharff’s. It’s 22 pages, but just hit pp. 5-6 for the important stuff.
> UPDATE: Reader Kirsten alerted me to this fantastic pamphlet on inclusivity, “How to be a Good Ally and Create Safe Spaces in New Music.”
**I’m using “minority” interchangeably with “people of color.” In many cities in the US, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and others are collectively a majority, not a minority. So these cities are “majority-minority,” to use a confusing term.
Advertisements

One thought on “Our dearly beloved, stubbornly monochrome orchestras

  1. Pingback: Go from CDA novice to pro in four easy steps – Classical Dark Arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s