This summer, I attended a summer composition program with a friend. When we first got our private lessons schedules, I texted my friend to ask if she was excited to study with the guest faculty in attendance that summer. I was not intimately familiar with all their work but some quick Wikipedia research had shown me that they were all quite accomplished.
My friend texted me to say that she was concerned. The world of student composers is small and the world of female composers significantly smaller — my friend had heard that one of the faculty members is “bad with female students,” making them feel uncomfortable. “Be careful around him,” my friend had been warned.
I wish I could say this fear was unfounded, that my friend was being overly cautious. I wish I could say that this behavior wouldn’t have been noticeable in my extremely limited interactions with the faculty member.
But this behavior was apparent throughout the program, as the faculty member treated the female composers and performers with sudden bouts of condescension and thinly-veiled contempt. To me, at least, this faculty member was obviously incredibly prejudiced. To the other students, however, “something was amiss,” something that was probably linked to the faculty member’s eccentric, creative personality type. My friend, too, was not particularly disturbed by the issue, at least not to the degree that I was. She heard these rumors second-hand, and even then she had not heard of any specific instance of inappropriate behaviour. While I was obsessed with these rumors, I could not prove that this particular faculty member was part of this problem.
Ever since this experience, I have become obsessed with the prejudice that seems to be inherent to classical music. I grew up in New York, studying composition in New York City and participating in what I thought was a progressive and open-minded cultural scene. I’d worked with many female composition teachers in my life, unfortunately a rarity even in today’s world. I had always considered myself to be aware of the diversity problem in classical music. I believed in the diversification of the canon. I believed in anonymous applications and diversity and inclusion initiatives. But in hindsight, I had never done anything to challenge the larger culture that made these initiatives necessary. In my blindness, I had contributed to the problem even as I told myself that I believed in the solution.
This experience brought past issues that I had dismissed back to the surface. What about the allegations of a relationship between a student and a composition teacher that I had heard about? What about the multiple allegations involving another composition teacher that I knew to be credible and that I knew had not resulted in any substantial action? And perhaps most frighteningly, what about the lack of diversity that surrounds me every day as I head to class or attend a concert? Why was I only now rethinking my responses to these incidents?
Though I may be particularly ignorant, I would like to think that my failure to recognize the privileges I benefit from is quite common. Classical music, after all, is one of America’s least diverse art forms. Approximately 80 percent of American orchestras are conducted by men. Only one woman (Marin Alsop) conducts one of America’s top professional orchestras. And only 1.8 percent of orchestral musicians are Black.
The more that I researched, the more that I learned that I was participating in an art form that had spent hundreds of years systemically oppressing women and people of color. It is an art form that those in power have referred to as “high art,” a term seeped in condescension and hierarchical dominance. It’s an artificial standard that has been used by the powerful to dismiss all other forms of music as “lesser” music, “popular” music (as though this was somehow a bad thing), “vernacular” music.
Had I been participating in the perpetuation of this culturally repressive system? By consuming classical music, had I been aiding in this continued system of dominance? Was my attendance at a concert a part of this problem? Should I stop attending concerts or listening to classical music?
I’ve been thinking about this for a month and yet I am still no closer to finding the answer to these questions. I can say that I have started obsessively researching organizations’ previous programming before attending concerts. I have been attending more concerts by and listen to more works by women and people of color.
Though many of these rumors will probably never affect me directly, I’ve learned to consider them anyway. If I find them to be credible or at least believable, I’ve realized that I have to share them with others — not only because it is important for the good of others but because I cannot live with myself if I truly believed that I hadn’t done anything to stop people such as the faculty member I met over summer.
But as I’ve done this, I’ve learned to be realistic in my understanding of my own role in the classical music world. Just as no one person is the source of these problems, no one person can be the solution. Despite my desires to speak of myself as part of the solution, I’ve learned to be realistic and honest. Yes, I am aware of these problems. And yes, I believe that I am doing something to fix them. But I cannot deny that I was unaware of the severity of these problems until this summer. And I cannot claim that I have done anything particularly noteworthy to address these problems in the classical music community. While I would like to think of myself as part of the solution, I’ve learned that I cannot do so — that I must avoid the complacency that this would afford me.
Lastly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of separating the art from the artist. This is a debate that I am sure that we are all familiar with. A more interesting question, in my view, is the separation between the artists and the artform. Should classical music be dismissed for its resistance to the increasing diversity we see throughout virtually all other facets of American art? Critics have spoken for years of classical music as a dying art form becoming less and less relevant to contemporary American culture — should we let it die?
Ultimately, I believe that we can separate the artists and the artform. I am reminded of Missy Mazzioli’s quote recently in her interview with The New York Times.
“This music belongs to everybody,” she said, “and everybody has their own way in.”
Rather than changing an artform from the outside, it’s important to change it from the inside — to actively challenge those individuals and practices that discriminate. It is time for those of us that have benefited from or been indifferent to classical music’s discriminatory practices to note and challenge these practices. We must do all we can to ensure that this music does belong to everybody and that everybody can find their way in.