Where are the Black musicians in the country's largest orchestras? : Deceptive Cadence In 2014, a study found that only 1.4% of orchestra musicians were Black. In 2022, it's hard to know if that number is better or worse.

Where are the Black musicians in the country's largest orchestras?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1125590775/1126282797" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Orchestras across the country are gearing up for their fall seasons. But as audiences look at the stages, they will find very few Black musicians on them. An organization called the Black Orchestral Network is hoping to change that situation. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Last spring I went to a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. There was only one Black musician on stage. A couple of days later, I spoke with Jennifer Arnold, one of the founders of the Black Orchestral Network.

JENNIFER ARNOLD: There's a real need to actually be transparent about what's happening in the industry in terms of Black people.

LUNDEN: Arnold played viola with the Oregon Symphony for 15 seasons and now is director of artistic planning and operations for the Richmond Symphony. She says the last study on racial diversity in American orchestras came out in 2014.

ARNOLD: We do not know how many Black people are in orchestras, and I say that as a representative of Black Orchestral Network. One of our calls is, let's start collecting data. Let's find out, have we done better than the 1.4% number that is going out there?

LUNDEN: Many Black musicians in orchestras can feel isolated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANN HOBSON PILOT PERFORMANCE OF WILLIAMS' "ON WILLOWS AND BIRCHES")

LUNDEN: That's Ann Hobson Pilot playing a John Williams harp concerto written for her. When she joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1969, she was its very first Black musician, as she related on a podcast produced by the Black Orchestral Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANN HOBSON PILOT: When I looked around the orchestra, I didn't see anyone in there that looked like me. And it was another 20 years before another Black player was hired, which is Owen Young - did wonderful shows. And when I left 20 years later, Owen Young became the only Black player in the BSO.

LUNDEN: He still is. The Black Orchestral Network came out of ad hoc Zoom gatherings during the pandemic and after George Floyd, but the participants decided to make it formal. Alex Laing plays clarinet with the Phoenix Symphony. He says one of the first things they did was send out a call to action in a letter titled "Dear American Orchestras." The website lists 60 Black orchestral musicians from around the country who signed it.

ALEX LAING: We took inspiration from what we'd seen from the theater world and the dance world and the idea that we wanted to articulate a point of view and speak to our experience and then also articulate a vision for the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF PRICE'S "I. ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO")

SIMON WOODS: You know, it is true to say that orchestras in the U.S. have traditionally been a pretty white space.

LUNDEN: Simon Woods is president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, which commissioned that survey of equity and diversity in 2014.

WOODS: There is deep urgency in our field for change. And so from that point of view, you know, it's worth saying right up front that I think that we really welcome the Black Orchestral Network.

LUNDEN: Still, there are challenges to implementing change. For one, there is a blind audition process, where musicians play behind screens to avoid bias.

ARNOLD: Often the blind audition process is discussed as fair. You know, this is the reason why more women are in orchestras. It's a fair process.

LUNDEN: But Jennifer Arnold says it all depends on who actually is invited to audition.

ARNOLD: A lot of orchestras aren't transparent about the fact that they don't have fully blind auditions and you can bypass the screen.

LUNDEN: The other roadblock is the tenure system, which means that job openings can be few and far between. Shea Scruggs, who played oboe with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra among others and now works for the Curtis Institute of Music as director of enrollment, says there's no lack of qualified Black musicians for orchestral jobs.

SHEA SCRUGGS: There's certainly been a willingness to frame the lack of representation in professional orchestras in terms of issues with the, quote-unquote, "pipeline," to say, well, you know, we need youth music programs, or, you know, it's happening at the conservatory level - basically to frame challenges around diversity in a way that absolves orchestras from being part of the problem.

LUNDEN: But there is a pipeline. The Sphinx Organization based in Detroit supports young Black and Latinx musicians. The Gateways Music Festival in Rochester features musicians of color from around the country. And the Boston Symphony Orchestra is addressing its lack of diversity with a new fellowship program for two musicians from underrepresented populations, though this year, neither of them is Black. Gail Samuel is the BSO's president and CEO. She says she believes diverse voices are essential for the survival of orchestras.

GAIL SAMUEL: And that we need to commit ourselves and our organizations to changing the systems and the structures that have excluded Black musicians for far too long.

LUNDEN: Black Orchestral Network co-founder Alex Laing says its members love orchestral music but hope the questions they've raised will lead to a real change in mindset.

LAING: Who is this space for? Who is it designed to make comfortable? And whose presence in there upsets that? So these are the conversations that we're interested in having. This is the way we see it.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN E MINOR: II. LARGO, MAESTOSO")

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.