League Conference: Diversity Panel

Friday morning again had multiple sessions, each presented twice.

The Diversity panel, moderated by Beth Wilson, Director of Student Musician Development at the Atlanta Symphony, showcased the ASO’s Talent Development Program (TDP),  a program for talented young African-American and Latino classical musicians in the greater Atlanta community.

The panel included Edie Bostic, TDP Trustee and Vice Chair for Academic and Student Affairs; Joseph Conyers, ASO bassist and new Assistant Principal in Philadelphia, and Director of Project 440 ; Stanford Thompson, 2005 TDP alum (trumpet) and an Abreu Fellow now working with Tune Up Philadelphia; and Drew Alexander Forde, violist and a 2010 TDP grad, entering McDuffy Center for Strings in the fall.

Beth Wilson: TDB is a talent-based, not needs-based program. We seek out the most talented African-American and Latino students in Atlanta, and help them get through the pipeline to a career in classical music. TDP began as a volunteer initiative – most of the teachers are ASO musicians.

Why is diversity on the professional/amateur orchestra stage important?

Joe Conyers: I grew up in Savannah and was involved in a program similar to TDP. I was accused of “abandoning my roots” to play “white” music.” To be relevant to our communities, we should look like the communities we serve. I remember meeting a young bassist who wasn’t much interested in classical music because he had never seen anyone who looked like him playing it.

Joe was the first bass hire in the Philadelphia Orchestra in 34 years. He believes that many African-Americans are not comfortable coming to symphony hall.

There are many cultural challenges to African-American students who want to play classical music. Grand Rapids, MI has a program similar to TDP – the Mosaic Scholarship program. There’s an opportunity to enrich our program from the African-American community, but it’s not easy. We must attract new audiences – to do that we must develop talent and create new programming.

TDP was built on the backs of volunteers. The more we can get people outside our musical world involved, the more it can grow.

Beth: What impact does a more diverse orchestra have on its surrounding community, not just its audience?

Stan Thompson: I started in TDP in the 7th grade – I had trumpet lessons every week and studied with Chris Martin (now Principal in Chicago). I had help getting to summer festivals – I went to Interlochen for 4 summers, and I had help buying instruments (through the TDP instrument fund). I needed to stay on the path to continue to do what I do today. Life would be different for me without TDP. I go back to visit with friends from the 7th grade, and they have very different lives. Many have not completed college; many have children. TDP literally saved my life and provided me with a new direction.

I heard Ben Cameron speak here, and I met him in Boston [when he came to address the Abreu Fellows]. He asked how would your community be devastated if your organization were to leave – who would be there when the bulldozers come?

To answer that in terms of El Sistema:14% of population of Venezuela has gone through this intense music program; all children are included, including special needs students, and parents; they perform in community centers, schools, plazas; prisons are closing because they’re not in use; more money is spent to put more kids in the program. If you were to bring that bulldozer to Venezuela, 400,000 kids and parents and 3.5 million alumni will be there to stop you.

Regarding TDP – it took a few years for the ASO to really embrace the program. Now it’s absolutely not disappearing. People will support it if its rooted in the community.

Once the families become part of the program, the parents are educated as well. Part of the mission is to get the parents to support the students to practice at home, and they can then explain to the community the importance of the program.

Edie Bostic: We have a Friends of the Family program where we pair each student/family with another family or alumni family to offer support and encouragement.

We have great success: Drew studies with Paul Murphy (AP Violist with the ASO), and a tubist grad is off to NEC this fall.

Beth: What are other effective ways for targeting underserved audiences other than training youth or recruiting more minority players for the orchestra?

How can we make outreach programs more strategic and longer lasting?

Drew Forde: I was a member of the ASO Youth Orchestra; the 3 concert competition winners (and the 3 runners-up) were all TDP students. When I played aa concerto with the ASO Youth Orchestra, along with a bassist, we had the highest percentage of minorities in the audience for the competition concert, but the previous winter the concert with a TDP harpist also brought in a large percentage of African-Americans in audience.

Morehouse College has a  National Black Arts Festival in the summer – Drew will be playing the first movement of the Walton Viola concerto. Many principal players in the youth orchestra are TDP students.

Beth: Once targeted, how does an organization maintain a relationship with its newly-captured audience?

Edie: The program that Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Gramley [TDP founders, I believe – both were in attendance at the session that morning] perceived was with an integrated group of volunteers. They wanted to make a difference and chose to do it through the children.

Drew: Paying it forward is important. I started teaching an African-American student in the 3rd grade, and the viola is just not in his culture. He didn’t know anything about classical music, so I was mentoring him from ground up. I’ve seen inspiration dawn on his face.

Audience comment: Bringing in soloists of color – we need to make it a priority.

Beth: Finally, how can we, as a national community, join together to make the industry more diverse?

Drew: It’s a complex issue. We need to create more programs like TDP – it’s a step in the right direction. I have a single mom and paying for viola lessons is just not in the budget. TDP has provided lessons, concert tickets, and support for festivals – I’m going to Bowdoin this summer. I’m inspired to teach others, to share music, and to be more civic minded. That’s the only way to reach these audiences – to be respectful of their cultures and meet them in the middle. Making music more diverse means adding their culture.

Stan: It’s easy to do this stuff when you get a big check or grant. It’s important to have the will, then the support, then the funding. Don’t wait for the grant to come in – you’re going to have to volunteer.

Joe: We need to  talk to our musicians – I’m big into education and working with students, but the usual vision is so myopic – it’s all about getting the next gig. There’s a duty for me to give back to communities. All the students who go through this program can be advocates for the program as well. It’s a choice: stay the way we’ve been or the musicians can know that this is their responsibility. We should be sharing with the community.

Mrs. Azira G. Hill: “Leave it better than you found it.”

I asked Joe about whether the audition process needs to be changed to bring more musicians of color into our orchestra, and raised Aaron Dworkin’s controversial ideas about affirmative action.

Joe: Times are changing. The audition process is not the problem; there should be more openings. I took the second bass audition in Philadelphia in 30 years. The tenure process is the problem, not the audition process. My position is that, as openings come, there will be more people of color in the talent pool so, by default, change will take place. We don’t need affirmative action because the talent is out there.

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

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