Feeling Seen in the Classical World
Every year, my mother would take me and my siblings to a concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. I would gasp in awe at the size of the concert hall, the streams of lights embroidering the room, the musicians on stage, and the large number of people in the audience, squirming and adjusting themselves in their seats. As I scanned the room, I would notice how few faces of color were sprinkled into the sea of white. The musicians and audience members shared the same pale complexion. Even as a child attending a concert matinee, the lack of diversity within the classical world was obvious to me.
Classical music is a white elitist art form that excludes people of color. The listenership, ensemble membership, and concert-goers are predominantly white, and there has been little indication that these demographics will change. It’s no surprise that in all my years of piano instruction, I was never introduced to Black female pianist and composer Florence Price, the first woman to have a major orchestra play her works, or Ibrahim Abdullah, a prominent Black South African multi-instrumentalist. When I started playing the piano at age five, I had no idea that my music instruction would be limited to pieces composed by dead white men. I could not fathom or accept this. I almost believed the myth that there were no Black classical musicians. I could not find solidarity with my former white Russian teacher, who worked with me on Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor, or my white Argentinian teacher, who assisted me in perfecting Beethoven’s Sonatina in F major. Every week, they would assign Hanon and Czerny exercises, Bach Inventions, Chopin Waltzes, and Beethoven Sonatas for me to learn. Throughout my years of piano lessons, however, not one Black or female composer was included in my repertoire. My whitewashed instruction made it clear that Black classical musicians’ contributions and achievements were not valued in the white patriarchal field.
Historically, female musicians were also barred from the exclusively male classical world. However, with the inception of blind auditions and the push for gender equality in all sectors of society, women have made great strides in orchestras and ensembles across the country. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for musicians of color within these spaces. There are several reasons for this: lack of music education for underrepresented groups, prohibitive costs of instruments and instruction, racial prejudice in non-blind auditions, and a culture that historically excludes Black and Brown people from the classical music world.
I could not see myself within such an exclusive and homogeneous white male environment. I resented the fact that only male composers of European descent were being uplifted and lauded while composers of African descent went largely unheard and excluded within the piano repertoire.
This did not stop me from continuing to explore classical music. In third grade, I wanted to expand my music education beyond the piano, deciding to learn the cello. I quickly accelerated at the instrument and with confidence and excitement, I auditioned for and was accepted to the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras (CYSO). Not long after joining the ensemble, I experienced yet another crushing truth: I was one of six Black musicians in a 100-member string orchestra.
On December 6, 2015, I stepped on stage with my cello in the newly renovated Studebaker Theatre, on the first floor of the Fine Arts Building in downtown Chicago. The CYSO’s Debut Orchestra was about to perform the annual winter concert. As I sat down in my seat and adjusted the music stand, I looked out to the crowd. I was comforted to see the familiar faces of my family within the large audience, standing out against the mainly white patrons. Every subsequent performance looked identical to the previous one. The audience and the orchestra remained predominantly white.
Like the piano repertoire, orchestral music lacks the representation of multiculturalism present in the United States. A 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras found that less than two percent of musicians in American orchestras were African American, citing that greater shifts towards diversity have been attributed to a 70 percent increase of Asian and/or Pacific Islander musicians. The report confirms that the music field has continuously discouraged Black musicians from engaging in the classical world.
Coming from marginalized and oppressed communities, musicians of color experience difficulty navigating the white classical environment. From lessons to auditions, musicians of color struggle to break the barriers established to stifle their progress. Even when musicians of color do succeed and are recognized within the classical piano or orchestral fields, they are tokenized or considered diversity hires. I often received accolades from parent volunteers during my time in the CYSO. Initially, I accepted the kudos, but I eventually realized that their comments were degrading. They made it clear through their microaggressions that I was a “distinguished one,” being the only Black cellist in the orchestra. I started doubting my skills, wondering if I was only accepted to the ensemble because of my complexion, and not because of my musical aptitude. I distanced myself from my peers. Although I enjoyed creating beautiful music with them, I loathed feeling excluded and unseen.
By revealing the damaging effects that an exclusive classical field has on musicians of color, one can sense the urgency to change it. Diversity in classical music matters. Representing non-white and non-male composers within the classical field uplifts musicians from all backgrounds and allows musicians of color to feel welcomed, seen, and emboldened. Diversification does not advocate for the removal of existing brilliant male composers of European descent from the classical canon: Bach, Chopin, and Brahms, to name a few, are all essential names for a classically-trained musician to know. Emphasizing a shift towards a more inclusive instruction, however, benefits every musician.
What, then, does a more inclusive piano repertoire look like? A more diverse orchestral setting? For starters, we must acknowledge how these classical fields are reproducing racial inequalities and negatively affecting musicians of color. Next, we have to address these inequalities by prioritizing the musicians’ lived experiences and struggles. Organizations such as Sphinx and the Chineke! Foundation do this by providing private instruction, instrument rental, and practice auditions to musicians of African, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian descent.
Aaron Dworkin, founder of The Sphinx Organization, emphasizes the importance of offering students of color opportunities to experience and create classical music through a diverse curriculum. Similarly, Chi-Chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke!, stated, “My aim is to create a space where Black, Asian and ethnically diverse musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word. If even one child feels that their colour is getting in the way of their musical ambitions, then I hope to inspire them, give them a platform, and show them that music, of whatever kind, is for all people.”
A sense of belonging for Black musicians, or any musician, is important in cultivating an environment that fosters equality, diversity, and growth through classical music. With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd during the Summer of 2020, it has become increasingly imperative that we continue to bring racial equity to all fields, including the classical music world. As we work to transform those white-dominated spaces, I suggest that we consider the words of Monica Ellis, bassoonist of the Imani Winds quintet: “The first step is admitting that these organizations are built on a white framework built to benefit white people. Have you done the work to create a structure that is actually benefiting Black and Brown communities? When that occurs, diversity is a natural byproduct.”
Let us imagine a classical music world that is as diverse as the society we live in. A space where people of color can be audience members and musicians without fear of being discriminated against, tokenized, or belittled. Where Black musicians like me feel seen.
Nicholas Amuh is a 19 year old pianist, cellist, and poet from Flossmoor, Illinois. He is a first-year remote student attending Brown University, planning on concentrating in Africana Studies and biomedical engineering. Nicholas is a mentor in a volunteer organization called You Can Too, a program dedicated to educating and supporting Black, Indigenous, and Latinx middle and high school students. He is also a member of the Black Pianists Society, a student-led organization focused on racial inclusion and peer support for musicians of color. In his spare time, Nicholas enjoys reading, writing, tutoring and practicing his two instruments.
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