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June 1, 2022IM -
Black members of more than 40 orchestras came together in May to launch the Black Orchestral Network (BON) dedicated to creating an inclusive and equitable environment for Black people in the orchestral field. The group was founded on the motto: “If we increase our connection to one another, we can harness our creativity and develop initiatives that benefit Black musicians.”
The organization was founded by seven Black musicians—Jennifer Arnold of Local 99 (Portland, OR), Titus Underwood of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), Alexander Laing of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ), Weston Sprott of Local 802 (New York City), David A. Norville, Joy Payton-Stevens, and Shea Scruggs.
“A concert hall doesn’t just amplify sound—it’s a place of cultural affirmation,” says Laing, principal clarinetist of the Phoenix Symphony. “Being a Black orchestral musician or audience member shouldn’t require additional doses of isolation. We’ve seen in our own lives and practices what can happen when we increase and sustain our connection, and we’re going to scale that. We know what emerges will support Black artists and improve the state of the American orchestral industry.”
“We see a world where Black classical artists are connected and form a rich, expressive, and culturally affirming network. The Black Orchestral Network is a vehicle for securing that future,” says Sprott, who is a trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and dean and director of the preparatory division at the Juilliard School. “Connection within the Black orchestral community is vital to our sense of belonging and well-being. The understanding and improvement of our experience are critical not only to our future in orchestral music but also to the future of orchestral music as a practice and the music industry as a whole.”
BON’s first campaign is focused on advancing equity and inclusion in American orchestras. In an open letter, the organization calls for orchestras to take decisive action against racial injustice in the industry. It provides a platform for allies to support a race equity culture and a commitment to change.
The letter calls for orchestras to hire Black musicians and support opportunities for emerging Black artists and for funders to invest in the long-term viability of organizations committed to Black artistry. It also asked the AFM and its conferences to stand in solidarity with Black members by honoring the values of fair workplaces and addressing barriers to fair and equitable audition and tenure practices.
“The AFM embraces the musicians of the Black Orchestral Network,” says Rochelle Skolnick, director of Symphonic Services for the AFM. “We share their vision of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive orchestral community and we support the work of symphonic musicians as they strive to make that vision a reality.” Skolnick observes that proposals for fully screened auditions have become common in recent bargaining, with quickly growing numbers of orchestras adopting these safeguards. “We have much more work to do, but I am confident our members see the value in eradicating discriminatory barriers to participation in our institutions and our collectives,” Skolnick notes.
International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) Chairperson Meredith Snow says, “We fully support the BON in their fight for equal representation within our orchestras. The ICSOM Governing Board and DEI Committee have spent the past several years advocating for fully screened auditions, more transparent tenure review, and the hiring of musicians of color. This is just the beginning of the work we need to undertake to fully represent musicians of color in our orchestras.”
“ROPA supports BON’s ‘Call to Action’ and has focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) with some of the BON founders giving presentations at our annual conferences,” says ROPA President John Michael Smith. “In 2020, ROPA formed an EDI Workgroup to study and become a resource to ROPA in advocating this work in our orchestras.” He adds, “These are the initial steps ROPA has taken to advocate for Black musicians of color. ROPA and its EDI Workgroup look forward to continuing and elevating this important and necessary advocacy and support.”
ROPA and ICSOM, in collaboration with colleagues in the AFM, Sphinx, League of American Orchestras, and New World Symphony created “NAAS Recommended Audition & Tenure Guidelines,” which includes a process for collecting audition application data and outcomes.
“This is the moment the industry steps up and really pushes the truth to our audiences and confronts long-standing inequities in treatment and process,” says Underwood, principal oboist of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra as well as an associate professor at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. “BON’s declaration is centered around reforming the industry into an American orchestra because it can’t be that while sidelining Black artistry.”