Black musicians demand end to racism in classical music
Jennifer Arnold

Every few months the claim that Ludwig van Beethoven was part Black pops up on social media, and folks get excited over the possibility that one of the greats of classical music was a brother. Nobody knows for sure what secrets Beethoven’s family tree contains. But it also reminds us that in school we never learn the names of the equally talented classical musicians and composers of Beethoven’s time who were for sure Black.

Article by Nadira Jamerson for Word In Black

Fast forward 300 years from Beethoven’s bewigged era and it turns out Black composers, conductors, and musicians are still being marginalized and erased from the classical music field.

That’s why on Monday, May 9, 2022, the Black Orchestral Network, a “collective of Black orchestral musicians dedicated to creating an inclusive and equitable environment for Black people in the orchestral field” is leading a Day of Solidarity. 

The network, which is comprised of members from more than 40 orchestras, wants an end to the pervasive racial bias in the classical music industry — including around auditions and tenure.

“For it to be 2022, and orchestras have zero, or one, Black person in communities that are often majority-Black cities — like Detroit or Chicago — is not working. Black people can do everything. What can’t we do? It just doesn’t add up.”

Jennifer Arnold, founding member of the Black Orchestral Network

According to 2014 data from the League of American Orchestras data, Black musicians made up less than 2% of all orchestral musicians.

Along with the day of action, Arnold and other members of the network penned an open letter, which provides the framework for a future where Black artists can “see and center themselves in the history and future of the orchestral community.”

“It’s a call to action. It gives a little bit of history about how we got here and the little things that we have seen in orchestras and that have affected our lives as orchestral musicians,” Arnold says. “Really, it’s a call to action to managers, and board members, and music directors, and funders, and to our union — to say enough is enough. We’ve been having these conversations for 40 or 50 years. Let’s move. It’s time to move.” 

One of the Black Orchestra Network’s immediate plans is to increase the amount of data being collected on the inclusion of Black musicians in the field. Without data, Arnold says there is no way to gauge who is being supported by the funding awarded to these orchestras.

“In the International Conference of Symphonic Orchestral Musicians, which are the largest budgeted orchestras in this country, we don’t know how many [Black people] are in these orchestras. One of our calls to action is let’s collect data, so we know how many people are in these orchestras.”

In addition, the open letter supports the implementation of auditioning from behind a screen to ensure fair critiquing during the entire auditioning process. Through this process, the musician’s skin color can’t be seen. Only the quality of their playing can be heard. 

Although many orchestras have promised to implement this practice in the past, Arnold says most orchestras actually do not. 

“Several years ago, a group of us, some of us who were in this founding group, went to the International Conference of Symphonic Orchestral Musicians, and we suggested they use screens. Back then, they actually ratified at their conference that they suggested all orchestras keep their screens up for the entire audition. This was at least five years ago. This has already been suggested, and very few orchestras still do it.”

Exclusion of Black musicians from orchestras is in part due to many orchestras’ tenure process, which allows musicians to hold their seats for forty, or sometimes fifty, years. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many orchestral musicians retired or found other professions. There are currently an unprecedented number of open seats in orchestras across the country, and Arnold says these seats need to be filled with Black musicians. 

“We have never seen this many openings in orchestra, and if we do not diversify these orchestras now and get Black people in now, these chairs will be filled for the next forty or fifty years,” she says.  

Overall, Arnold says Black musicians are tired of waiting for the unmet improvements that were promised to them years ago. The Day of Solidarity is a symbol to everyone that they need to take action now.

“We’ve been talking. Resolutions have happened. No change has happened. Now, we are at the point where we are saying it is no longer acceptable. We are going to — we’re going to push for change, we’re going to yell for change, and demand change.”

Jennifer Arnold, founding member of the Black Orchestral Network

She says she and the rest of the Black Orchestral Networkwant Black musicians to know that there is a space for them in classical music and that there are people fighting for their success. 

“It’s really important for Black people to realize that we have a space here — we’ve had a space here. We are here. This music is for you,” Arnold says. “It is also important for young people to realize that this is a career path. The main reason why I’m doing this is because this is a career path that I love, and my life has been enriched so much by music. I want to make sure that there are more opportunities for the people who follow.” 

Arnold realizes that, due to the persistence of bias, the industry may never recognize Black musicians enough. Regardless, she says the Black Orchestral Network plans to continue using its platform to create an inclusive environment where Black musicians can work together toward supporting the needs of other Black musicians.