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September 1, 2020Stephen Laifer -
In common with many kids who start on a different instrument, Geoffrey Johnson of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) didn’t come to the oboe until after the fact. “I started on the clarinet,” he recalls, “but my teacher in middle school thought I needed more of a challenge.” Progress was rapid, helped by his environment: “Music is a big deal in Texas schools, so growing up in the Houston area, most kids were in band. It just clicked for me, and in my junior year of high school I won first oboe in the all-state competition.”
From there, Johnson says it was a natural step to see the possibilities of making a living in both music education and performance. And he has done both, racking up an impressive performing resumé and an expansive teaching and reed-making studio in the Detroit area. Johnson has also recently experienced the film score world, participating in his first studio recordings for the soundtracks of The Lion King and the recent Spike Lee film Da Five Bloods.
In addition to his musical achievements, Johnson takes equal pride in being a Black orchestral musician in the higher ranks of his career field. While working toward his masters at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Johnson learned about several fellowships for Black orchestral musicians. “I was already on the audition circuit,” he says, “so it seemed like a great idea to apply.” After a year in his first fellowship program, Johnson knew he would benefit from more, so he auditioned for and won a spot in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s African-American Orchestra Fellowship.
The DSO inaugurated its fellowship program in 1990 and has grown to be a leader in celebrating the contributions of Black composers and musicians in classical music. The African-American Orchestra Fellowship, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is designed to enhance career development. Fellows perform in the orchestra, work closely with coaches and mentors, participate in mock auditions, and represent the DSO in the community. Johnson completed three years as a DSO Fellow, mostly on second oboe and English horn. “In my second year, the DSO went on strike,” he recalls. “So, it became a three-year program.”
After the fellowship, Johnson won the position of Acting Second Oboe with the DSO, a spot he held for three years. He credits the fellowship with helping him win the job. “It gave me the confidence to move forward,” he says. “Most musicians really don’t know what they’re getting into after they win an audition. In the DSO’s Fellowship, I was not only required to play a certain number of weeks in the section, but also mock auditions for members of the wind section, and I got to sit in on auditions. That was tremendously helpful because I got a clear idea of what an audition committee listens for, which obviously helped improve my own audition skills.”
Through his fellowship, Johnson has identified several areas where orchestral diversity can be addressed. “Totally blind orchestral auditions are a great step, but some parts of the tenure process could also be reworked,” he says. Orchestras, he believes, need to figure out the next steps once a candidate wins the job. “Keeping the screen up in auditions is helpful, but it’s only part of the solution.”
While all diversity-oriented orchestral fellowships provide incomparable benefits for their participants, Johnson feels the Detroit Symphony’s program is set apart by one important factor. “Once Fellows leave the DSO’s program, they aren’t just thrown into the world without continued support,” says Johnson. “In another fellowship program I completed, that orchestra has never called me back to play in 10 years of being a professional musician—so there is a disconnect.” The DSO, on the other hand, makes a conscious effortto continue to support former Fellows as their careers develop. “This includes hiring former Fellows as substitute musicians,” he adds.
Johnson believes it doesn’t make sense to operate any other way. “The point of a fellowship is to create an orchestral player. If someone has won a fellowship and is good enough to play with that orchestra for the duration of their program, then they should be good enough to continue to play on a substitute basis afterwards—especially if the fellowship has served its purpose correctly. It’s a sensible way to continue to foster diversity in the organization,” he says.
Johnson says fellowships can further promote diversity by sharing their Fellows’ contact information with other personnel managers beyond their orchestras, including opera companies, Broadway theaters, studio work, and even teaching. “It’s one way we can continue to address diversity not just across the career field, but throughout the AFM as a whole.”
Even though he is no longer with the DSO as a full-time musician, Johnson has nothing but praise for his experience. “The Detroit Symphony has been so supportive of me as a Black musician,” he says. “The entire organization and beyond, from the oboe section and the principal players, to the union. The camaraderie in Detroit is wonderful, and I’m very fortunate.”