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April 1, 2022Stephen Laifer -
Considering how to increase diversity in North America’s orchestras often leads to a chicken-versus-egg dilemma: Tackle it from the top down with recruitment in conservatories and colleges? Or is it best addressed from the bottom up, investing in and improving grade school music programs in underserved areas? Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member John Lofton, bass trombonist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LA Phil), says both are equally important.
“It’s a valid discussion,” says Lofton. “The reality is that we’re not going to change the world as fast as we might like. But we need to take active steps with actionable ideas, opening younger musicians’ eyes to the fact that playing in an orchestra is a possibility for them, regardless of where they come from.”
Lofton is proud that the LA Phil is in fact, tackling both ends simultaneously. Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) provides young musicians in under-resourced communities with free instruments, music instruction, and opportunities to perform. At the other end, the LA Phil’s Resident Fellows Program, which Lofton had a leading role in shaping, is a three-year program providing five prospective orchestral musicians with salary, a housing allowance, and a minimum of 22 weeks of employment with the LA Phil.
“With kids coming through the YOLA program, it can be 20-25 years before they’re at a level to audition for a professional symphony orchestra. Resident Fellows can potentially fill that gap much earlier,” said Lofton.
Tall Kids Get a Trombone
Lofton, a Philadelphia native, started playing the trombone in the 3rd grade. “I was the tallest kid, which meant I could reach all the positions. So, the trombone it was,” he laughs. Bass trombone was a natural migration. “I really liked not having to sweat out all those high notes,” he says dryly.
“I also liked having my own part and being the bridge between the upper brass, tuba, and lower strings.” Lofton says the bass trombonist’s primary job is to make all the other brass players sound really good. “It’s not typically a solo instrument. It’s maybe the viola of the brass world. You’re important, but not that important.”
Lofton’s eyes were opened to the world of orchestral music after hearing a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. “The concert was amazing, but I also saw they had two Black string players. It was inspiring to see them doing this kind of work, and they made it into a possibility for me. Also, the piece was Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. For a young trombone player, that will definitely do it.”
His formal music study was at Oberlin, following in the footsteps of his flute-playing sister. His first job was as bass trombonist with the State Orchestra of Mexico, then positions with the Honolulu Symphony and the Phoenix Symphony. He has also toured and recorded with The Cleveland Orchestra. In 2008, he won his current job with the LA Phil. He is also a faculty member at the Rafael Mendez Brass Institute and California State University Long Beach.
Diversity in a Diverse Place
Lofton says the LA Phil’s first Resident Fellows program began in 2018 as part of the orchestra’s impending 100th anniversary season. “I had a hand in imagining the program,” he says with obvious pride. “As one of only two Black musicians in the orchestra, I felt it was crucial to explore new ways to increase opportunities for minority musicians.”
He knew this was particularly important in a place like Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the US. “It seemed obvious to me that the orchestra would lose relevance without efforts to embrace the city’s mix of people,” he says.
The Resident Fellows program started out small, says Lofton. “Meetings in the hallway quickly graduated into more serious meetings with colleagues, which in turn became a more formal organized group.”
A seemingly short three-plus months of dialogue ultimately produced the current program, which Lofton says was finally formalized into the orchestra’s CBA as a side letter. “The great thing is that management was fully on board the whole way. The program was the product of staff and musicians working together to formulate a process.”
In its current format, the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen LA Phil Resident Fellows program (to give it its full title) is open to five string players or percussionists who have earned a bachelor’s degree and are from underrepresented populations. Candidates are selected by auditions led by LA Phil musicians and Music Director Gustavo Dudamel.
Lofton is currently a musician representative. “This means I listen to auditions and take part in the final selection process,” he explains. “While the program is running, I act as liaison and keep the lines of communication open between fellows and their section members.”
Tweaking the Process
Coming up to the first program’s “graduation” after three years, Lofton says results have been excellent. “Two of our first Resident Fellows got positions in other orchestras. They have all immersed themselves in the value of the program and are respected for their work.” He adds that the program has had tremendous impact not just on those individuals, but also on the audience. “It turned out to be great publicity for the organization.”
Going forward, Lofton says the orchestra is looking at formalizing the program in the contract in upcoming negotiations. “I’d like to see it remain collaborative, and also increase the numbers. It would be great to add a wind and brass complement, and explore the idea of regular mock auditions and more intensive audition prep.”
Auditions, he says, are always the primary goal—and increasing the number of people from underrepresented groups who are qualified to win an audition. Accordingly, Fellows who complete the full three-year program automatically bypass the preliminary round of any future LA Phil auditions.
An equally important element is addressing what he calls “audition bias,” preconceived ideas not based in fact. “When you sit next to a fellow for three years, any perceived barriers become less important because you actually know the person.”
Getting Others on Board
Diversity in orchestras is an ongoing process with no silver bullets. Lofton sees tremendous value in getting other entities more fully on board, including both the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and the AFM. “Added value” is an appropriate term here, he says. “Each orchestra has to decide how to prioritize its pursuit of diverse representation. That starts with deciding whether or not diversity adds value—both artistically and fiscally.”
Lofton points to short-term financial benefits like grants specifically targeted for hiring minorities. In the longer term, he says, changing demographics in our cities are of special relevance: “Most of our orchestras represent urban centers. We should reflect this.”
He became active with ICSOM and the union several years ago after seeing photos of top officials and noticing an absence of minority faces. “That pushed me to get more involved,” he says. “I understood then that the union needs greater resources and energy directed toward making minorities feel welcome. There’s an army of younger musicians out there who have no clue what the AFM can do for them.”
Lofton adds that he also received help in his youth, so he has experienced firsthand the need to help others become the best versions of themselves. “The AFM is working hard. I want to help them understand this is a priority they can make even more prominent.”
ICSOM’s diversity initiatives, he says, are evolving, with the organization working toward a concerted approach to how it defines itself around the issue. He feels part of the challenge is that ICSOM is largely grassroots driven.
“If we want real change around diversity in our member orchestras, it’s up to ICSOM’s delegates to demand it.” He says one of ICSOM’s strengths is its current chair Meredith Snow, also a Local 47 member and an LA Phil colleague in the viola section. “Meredith understands and is actively paving the way for positive changes,” he says.
One such opportunity for change advocated by Snow and ICSOM is the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), an initiative supported by the Sphinx Organization. NAAS provides disadvantaged musicians with grant money for auditions and related expenses, along with mock auditions, lessons, and performance psychology training.
More than 50 member orchestras from ICSOM, Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA), and Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM) have partnered with the NAAS initiative, and since 2018, dozens of minority musicians supported by NAAS have won auditions with orchestras and ensembles around the US. Lofton is one of the program’s advisors.
Increasing the Numbers
Back at the LA Phil, Lofton is also member of the orchestra’s diversity committee. He says its activities have included convening a task force of board members, staff, and musicians in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests.
“We sought to re-examine the orchestra’s stance on diversity and inclusion and spent several months meeting regularly to analyze how our organization scored in these areas. Are we reaching out regularly to minorities? Do we consider them when engaging soloists, conductors, and composers?” he says.
The diversity committee’s activities have also examined staff protocols. Lofton says he is proud that the LA Phil is seeking to become an orchestra that doesn’t just meet about these things, but views them as goals—and puts them into practice.
Lofton says musician diversity in orchestras is a numbers game. “One of the biggest issues hindering greater minority representation on stage is that there are so few jobs available for anyone.”
“It logically follows that the biggest influence we can have is to increase the number of qualified auditionees—however we can get there. We have big dreams, but we can take active steps. And we can take some of them now.”