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Home » Recent News » AFM Education and the Diversity “Buzz”


AFM Education and the Diversity “Buzz”

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by John Michael Smith, President Regional Orchestra Player Association

I recently participated in a presentation by the AFM to the first year fellows of the New World Symphony (NWS) in Miami. This presentation included talks by AFM Symphonic Services Division Director and Special Counsel Rochelle Skolnick, Director of Symphonic Electronic Media Deborah Newmark, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians Chair Meredith Snow, myself as ROPA President, and Local 655 (Miami, FL) President Jay Bertolet and Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Apana. 

This presentation was basically a Musicians Union 101 for the musicians of NWS. These musicians each have a fellowship for up to three years of study and performance in a more-or-less post-graduate training orchestra program, honing their skills to win a job in a major symphony orchestra. Our goal was to introduce them to the thought that they will be counted on to be future active AFM members, orchestra committee members, and leaders in the orchestras they will play in.   

We responded to many excellent questions during our two-hour presentation. While at NWS, they will spend most of their energy self-focused on winning a job and being the best players they can be. But when they get a job and join an orchestra, that self-focus will hopefully turn to being part of the group and functioning as a group member, supporting colleagues, and working for fair wages and working conditions for all.

It’s Never Been More
Important to Be Proactive

I encourage all our AFM members to work with our locals to develop education programs to present to our schools and students. It’s never been more important to be proactive in sharing with our young musicians what it means to be union. What they are hearing and reading about unions is often inaccurate and misunderstood. We have to be the ones to carry our message to them.

I am so supportive of the plans by the AFM to provide local officer training, as part of the regional conferences of locals. Often, new officers in our locals do not have the opportunity to be mentored or trained in the various responsibilities and duties that are involved in local leadership. This should be a huge asset to strengthening our local leaders’ skills and knowledge!

Diversity in Our Orchestras

In the past year or two, a frequent buzz in the League of American Orchestras has been about diversity in our orchestras. In Jesse Rosen’s January 25 speech to the Association of British Orchestras Annual Conference, he quotes findings from the League’s 2016 report, Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field.

The gender gap of instrumental musicians has changed noticeably since 1978. It began narrowing significantly in the early 1990s, and the percentage of women musicians in orchestras has climbed to 46%-49% of the total musician pool in the two decades since. Most attribute this improvement to the advent of screened auditions. 

In ethnic diversity, there has been a large proportional increase in musicians of Asian backgrounds, growing from 5.3% in 2002 to 9.1% in 2014. However, the proportion of African American and Hispanic/Latino musicians has remained extremely low and largely unchanged, less than 2.5% and 1.8% respectively.

There is also a significant difference between larger budget orchestras ($2.1 million and up) and smaller budget orchestras. The percentage of African American and Hispanic/Latino musicians in smaller budget orchestras is double the percentage of those musicians employed by larger budget orchestras. This seems to be the two ethnic groups that the League is focusing on.

Diversity on Orchestra Boards

In his presentation, Rosen also touched on orchestra board ethnicity. Since 2010, orchestra board members described as nonwhite have been just under 8%, including African American at 3%-4% and Hispanic/Latino at 1%-2%. (Note the closeness of the orchestra musician percentages to orchestra board percentages.)  By comparison, a national survey by BoardSource, the association devoted to nonprofit boards, found representation of nonwhites on nonprofit boards across the US had increased from 16% in 2010 to 20% in 2014.

Our orchestra boards are well behind other nonprofits in this respect. In his presentation, Rosen doesn’t even touch on the ethnicity of orchestra administrative staffs. The Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity report lists nonwhite orchestra staff at around 14%, including 5%-7% African American and 3%-5% Hispanic/Latino employees.

The primary action taken by our orchestras over the past 40 years has been the creation and implementation of fellowship programs for promising young African American and Hispanic/Latino orchestral musicians, supporting their transition from formal education into careers in professional orchestras. These fellowships have been a visible and enduring strategy intended to change the ethnic composition of the musicians appearing on orchestra stages.

Rosen commented that it has been difficult to assess the impact of these fellowship programs on the relative small gains that have been seen in African American and Hispanic/Latino representation in the orchestral musician community. And, there is no evidence that those orchestras that have offered fellowship programs are more diverse than those that have not.

There is a tremendous amount of work to be done in this area. It certainly seems the fellowships are barely making a dent in terms of creating more diversity. It will take a major shift in education and community engagement, and a deep look at our core beliefs about why we have orchestras and the part they play in the life and culture of every community we serve, as well as an examination of the music we play.

Attempts have been made to add to the diversity on stage and in the pit. But there very much needs to be an assertive push to greater diversity in orchestra boards and administrative staff, so that all facets of our orchestras are more reflective of our communities and society, as well as our shared ideas, music, and perspectives of who we are.







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