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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Examining Our Orchestral Culture

Examining Our Orchestral Culture

  -  ICSOM Chair and Member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)

We have reached a moment in our American democratic experiment where some very difficult and painful truths have been laid bare. The advent of the coronavirus has torn away the scrim that allowed us to soft-focus on—and avert our eyes from—the many social and economic inequities that exist in our society. The disproportionate number of deaths of people of color has made manifest the oppression and disadvantage they face every day. The system that we, white people of privilege, have created, built upon centuries of grasping avarice, fear, and ignorant disregard for the consequences of our daily actions, is now facing this moment of truth.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the country—around the world—have taken to the streets to demonstrate against these systemic inequities. Our incipient slide from a nation of laws into a landscape of fascism has aroused the awareness and ire of our citizens. But these inequities were not created overnight. Neither are they the sole responsibility of the current Republican administration. They are the result of the very laws and socio-political order we have created during our nearly 250-year history. Bias and racism are a tacitly accepted and most often unrecognized element of our culture. In many places, they are written into the very laws we try to uphold.

In what ways are our own orchestral bureaucracies precluding inclusivity? We have yet to truly examine how bias plays out in our workplace culture. Incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of our orchestras must be a priority. In order to ensure our longevity and promote our presence in our communities, we need to reflect, onstage and backstage, the community we serve. Creating an inclusive environment helps us better serve that community. A diversity of perspectives and experience creates better art—it creates better dialogue around that art and a more fulfilling experience of our live performances.

We have a moral imperative to change the lack of diversity within our orchestras just as we have a moral imperative to create social, economic, and political equity in our society. Dismantling a long-standing culture of structural racism requires honest self-reflection, a thorough understanding of implicit bias and a willingness to re-examine historical practices. At what point will we scrutinize our processes of auditions and tenure review? Whose resume gets accepted to the live audition? When does the screen come down? How do we audit our own comments for fairness in tenure review? Whose responsibility is it to help our new hires “fit in”? Who decides which players are hired as substitutes and extras?

I feel confident in saying that if there were truly no bias in our audition and tenure processes, many more solo and principal chairs in our orchestras would be occupied by the nearly 50% of female musicians in the International Conference of Symphony and Orchestra Musicians (ICSOM). We are in the door but still devalued (and not exclusively by men). There is a structural bias against women as leaders within our orchestras. There is a culture of exclusivity towards race and gender.  We have yet to recognize it for what it is.

These are all questions that we must ask ourselves collectively: board, management, and musician. They are also questions that we must address within our musician community and with ourselves as individuals. We are experiencing a unique time in our history as a nation. In this fragile moment of cultural awareness and tenuous understanding of what we have wrought, we need to examine ourselves and the systems we have created. We must develop a willingness to recognize our structural exclusivity and bias. And we must work together to find solutions that will create a level playing field. In doing so, we will strengthen our institutions from the inside out.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.

Michah 6:8 from the Talmud,
as paraphrased by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

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