Although racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in the United States, many orchestras and symphonies across the country still do not represent the communities they play for.
At least not yet.
As of 2008, roughly 87 percent of the musicians in orchestras nationwide were white, according to the League of American Orchestras. The Fort Wayne Philharmonics diversity is slightly greater than the national average. White artists make up 81 percent of the local orchestra.
Slowly but surely, the national disparity is changing, says John Bence, director of public relations for the League of American Orchestras.
Change happens slowly in orchestras, he says. Orchestras are like universities. There is a tenure for the artists. Once youre a member of an orchestra, you can be there for life. So a pipeline begins to form. But we are seeing a change.
The lack of diversity is based on several factors, including historical precedents. For hundreds of years, orchestral music was predominantly a European tradition and a venue for self-expression that seemed to be an unwelcome field for minorities, Bence says.
Orchestras are not unique in this experience, he says. If you look at the Airline Pilots Association, another field of highly trained individuals, they are predominately white and male. With regard to orchestras, this is certainly not the case today.
Thanks to a number of initiatives by orchestras to expose children of all races to classical music and to assist with the professional development of minority performers, an increasing number of orchestras are hiring minority musicians. Some programs, such as the Boston Symphonys Project STEP, the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Atlanta Symphonys Talent Development program, target minority musicians specifically.
Violinist and music educator Aaron Dworkin is the founder of a similar program, the Sphinx Organization, which is entering its 15th year. The Detroit-based non-profit is dedicated to the development of young black and Latino classical musicians.
Dworkin, a member of the Obama National Arts Policy Committee, agrees that increasing diversity in orchestras is a slow – but necessary – process. Currently, less than 4 percent of orchestras in the United States are black and Latino orchestras, Dworkin says.
In cities where the minority is the majority, or will be soon, to have a lack of diversity puts limitations on our art form, he says. Music thrives on new interpretations and new voices. By limiting these types of voices, we limit the evolution of the art form.
One of the most significant barriers to increasing diversity in both orchestras and audiences is the decrease in music education in public schools, Dworkin says.
Its important that a person be engaged at a young age, he says. So increasing diversity becomes a complex problem, which is why orchestras are creating programs that create access for children.
Locally, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic exposes children to classical music via programs such as Discovery Concerts, school concerts, Young Peoples Concerts and Club O. Access to music bridges racial, ethnic and economic disparity, says Aaron Butler, director of education for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.
When the Phil began the Club O project, the program was not geared toward minority students, per se, he says. One of the points was to create a social change through music and music education. To teach life skills. Yes, were teaching music and putting instruments in kids hands, but were also focusing on how we can raise their self-esteem.
Next year, the Phil hopes to double the size of the Club O project, increasing the number of players and the opportunity for live performances.
Programs such as Club O are working, but Dworkin wishes changes would happen more quickly.
Im an impatient person, he says. But its more important to bring about change in a sustainable way that maintains our artistic integrity. We dont want to change quickly just for the sake of changing quickly. But it should be a priority of every major orchestra to realize how diversity affects their community.
Orchestras are businesses designed to deliver an artistic product. To not encourage diversity and exposure to young people does their community and themselves a disservice.