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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Bringing Orchestra Diversity to the Forefront


Bringing Orchestra Diversity to the Forefront

  -  AFM Symphonic Services Division Director

This fall, the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in symphony orchestras has advanced through convenings by two relatively new initiatives: the Black Orchestral Network (BON) and the League of American Orchestra’s (LAO) Inclusive Stages.

On October 21, BON held its first in-person summit in New York City. The day consisted of a series of discussions grouped under the three action items that have characterized much of BON’s work: telling our stories, lifting our voices, and cultivating community. AFM President Tino Gagliardi attended the event in which a number of AFM members participated.

I was invited to speak as part of a panel discussion entitled “Contracting for Diversity: Fostering Inclusion in CBAs,” together with Local 802 (New York City) Financial Vice President Karen Fisher. The panel was moderated by violist, arts administrator, and educator Jennifer Arnold of Local 99 (Portland, OR). I discussed recent trends in bargaining language to eradicate bias from hiring and tenure decisions, and Fisher shared language recently bargained by musicians of the former Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (now Summer for the City).

The most profound moment was hearing from two young musicians, Sean Edwards and Blue Shelton, who are currently enrolled at The Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, respectively. They told us about the persistent racism and obstacles to advancement they face in their daily lives as conservatory students and young symphonic professionals. These musicians are the future of our art and of our collective bargaining units. They challenge us to do better and to work harder to ensure that their voices are not excluded or marginalized.

Inclusive Stages, funded by a grant from the Sakana Foundation, is digging into that work with American orchestras. The program includes four primary areas of work: building a national coalition aligned around change; creating an inclusion index to allow orchestras to assess and benchmark their organizational cultures; as well as creating an audition applicant demographics survey and an audition and tenure practices survey, to enable the field to better understand current processes and how they can be improved.

The initial cohort of the national coalition is comprised of 28 orchestras, including nine from the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) and eight from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). LAO reports that its top priority for the coalition work is to support and encourage collaboration between musicians and management.

The guiding values of Inclusive Stages hold that musicians will always be included; the perspectives of musicians of color will always be prioritized; orchestras will determine their own goals; and to make change quickly, participants will focus on actions available within existing agreements.

The cohort has held two sessions by Zoom, one on October 24 and the second on November 20. Both were attended by a mix of orchestra musicians, conductors, executive directors, and CEOs, staff, and board members, as well as representatives from the AFM and Local 802. I attended both convenings. One common theme was the challenge of fulfilling the Inclusive Stages mandate to engage musicians in this work.

It is apparent that our orchestra managers are becoming increasingly committed to advancing DEI goals in orchestras—that is certainly the case for the organizations in this initial cohort. For the most part, it seems that this commitment is sincere. The musicians I have talked with do not question the need for us to diversify our orchestras and many have embraced this work energetically. But still, musician participation falls short of a critical mass and managers often seem unable to recognize and overcome the challenges of getting musicians involved.

One challenge arises when employers talk of bringing in more diverse musicians, without apparent regard for the job security and first-call rights of existing musicians. One way to overcome that would be for employers to commit to finding ways to increase the diversity of those on stage, without undercutting existing musicians—and then make good on that commitment. As I have written before, it does little good to diversify our stages, if in the process we weaken job security protections for everyone.

This is especially true for per-service musicians, who eke out a living from multiple sources and drive for dollars. It can be almost impossible to find time and energy to serve, uncompensated, on yet another committee. Compensating these musicians for their time working on diversity initiatives, just as they are compensated for serving on audition committees, would be one way of overcoming that challenge to musician participation.

But I also challenge musicians to think about service on a diversity committee or participating in the Inclusive Stages coalition as an investment in shaping the future of your orchestra and thus, more akin to service on an artistic advisory committee. Artistic advisory committee service, although usually uncompensated, carries a certain prestige. Why not view the work of diversifying our institutions and making them inclusive and equitable spaces as similarly constructive investments in the future?

The future of our orchestras will depend on their ability to reflect the communities they serve—that statement has become axiomatic. We have much work to do to make that a reality. We, as musicians, cannot afford to stand on the sidelines while this work unfolds. We have an important role to play. Our voices are critical and our involvement essential to ensure that our workplaces welcome musicians who have been historically excluded and that our workplaces embody the respect and dignity we strive for as unionists.

One opportunity is on the horizon: SphinxConnect will convene in Detroit, Michigan, January 25-27, 2024. Make plans to attend. More information is here: www.sphinxconnect.org.







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