U.S. orchestras are still mostly white. Here’s how to change that
Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.
This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.
For decades, American orchestras have struggled with a lack of diversity among their musicians. They’ve changed auditions, set up fellowships and diversified their concert programs. But the largest U.S. orchestras remain mostly white.
Over the past 20 years, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has employed three Black musicians full time, but none now. It has four Latino musicians. The situation is not much different at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, which has one Latino musician and two Black musicians. Both orchestras employ more Asian and Asian American musicians, with 14 at the Dallas Symphony and 11 at the Fort Worth Symphony.
After the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020, U.S. orchestras responded to calls for action by featuring more composers of color and bringing in more diverse guest conductors and soloists than ever.
But two years later, “far too little has been done” to change how orchestras hire and keep their musicians, says the Black Orchestral Network, which was launched this week by Black musicians from more than 40 orchestras.
Orchestras agree they need to better reflect the communities they serve so that more audiences — especially those historically underrepresented in concert halls — will feel welcome.
They see this as vital to staying relevant in an increasingly diversifying nation. In Dallas, non-Latino white people made up 28.8% of the population in 2020, with Blacks at 24.3% and Latinos at 41.5%, U.S. census figures show.
Several orchestras have addressed the problem through fellowships. Possibly the most successful has been the Detroit Symphony’s African American Orchestra Fellowship, which began in 1990 after Michigan legislators threatened to withhold funding the year before if the orchestra didn’t bring on more Black musicians. It had only one at that time.
The fellowship has placed one to two musicians in the orchestra for two-year stints. Of the 20 total fellows, two joined the Detroit Symphony — one of the 25 biggest budget orchestras in America — as full-time members.
One other fellow plays in a U.S. orchestra among the top 25, while others won jobs in Alabama, Colorado, Phoenix and even Thailand. Still others became teachers and freelancers, or arts administrators. All are still involved in music.
Cole Randolph, an African American cellist, started the Detroit fellowship during the pandemic, and felt welcomed into the orchestra. He did mock auditions and took lessons with players in the section, who pushed him to get better with honest feedback. He says this training helped him win the audition to join the cello section last year.
Still, fellowships at U.S. orchestras haven’t made a significant impact on the racial diversity of full-time orchestral musicians. A 2016 study from the League of American Orchestras concluded that fellowships “are not, in and of themselves, a solution to the persistent racial homogeneity of orchestras.” Of the 94 fellows for whom data was available, 39 (or 41%) played in orchestras — though not all were full time — 16 (or 17%) were soloists, freelancers or orchestra substitutes and 16 were teachers, the study found.
A deep look at efforts to boost diversity in orchestras shows there’s more work to do. Barriers range from being able to afford an instrument and travel to auditions, to combating classical music’s image as a white art form.
Executives and musicians interviewed for this story say orchestras need to address issues of access and retention. But there’s no consensus on the best solutions, and no easy answers.
Caen Thomason-Redus, vice president of inclusion and learning at the League of American Orchestras, underscores the need for change.
“We should not persist as racially non-diverse organizations,” he says. “That’s not healthy. For our own sake, we need to fix it.”
Blind auditions help, but haven’t increased racial diversity
In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras across the country began holding “blind” auditions to address a lack of gender and racial diversity. They used a screen to separate candidates from the audition committee.
Almost immediately, women won more jobs, and the gender gap among orchestral musicians started to shrink. Nowadays, orchestras are generally balanced between the sexes.
But the screens didn’t help increase racial diversity.
In 2014, Asians made up 9.1% of musicians in the country’s orchestras, according to the most recent data from the League of American Orchestras. U.S. census data from 2020 shows that Asians make up about 7% of the nation’s population.
Other races and ethnicities are less represented.
Black musicians made up 1.8% of orchestral musicians in 2014, according to the data, while Latino musicians made up 2.5%. The numbers were even lower among major orchestras, with Black musicians composing 1.2% and Latino musicians 1.6% of all members in those groups.
“We need to acknowledge that the system we have was good for solving some problems, but not others,” says Thomason-Redus, who was an African American flute fellow at the Detroit Symphony from 2003-05. He later worked in administration in the orchestra. “And we need to acknowledge that those other problems are just as threatening to our organizations.”
Some orchestras put up screens through all audition rounds, while others take the screen away in the finals, a move that allows for bias.
Musicians of color interviewed for this story say they prefer screens in all rounds.
“I do take pride in the fact that I made it through and they didn’t know who I was the whole time,” says Randolph, with the Detroit Symphony. “I don’t want to get any extra points by being a minority.”
How orchestras are recruiting Black, Latino musicians
It’s a challenge getting to auditions. Candidates must travel and stay overnight in hotels — costs that quickly add up. Orchestras typically don’t pay for the expenses, unlike in the corporate world. And due to the racial wealth gap, the costs can disproportionately affect musicians of color.
The Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit, leads a program that helps with the financial burden by partnering with orchestras to give Black and Latino musicians funds for travel, hotel stays, audition training and incidental expenses. Called the National Alliance for Audition Support, the program is a partnership between Sphinx, the New World Symphony and the League of American Orchestras.
Among the recipients of the audition grant was Joshua Elmore, who is Black. He prevailed over 100 candidates last year to win the principal bassoon position with the Fort Worth Symphony. (Elmore declined to speak with The Dallas Morning News for this article.)
Through partnerships with Sphinx, U.S. orchestras are recruiting Black and Latino musicians. And orchestra members are giving lessons and holding mock auditions for Sphinx candidates.
Orchestras also are bringing in Black and Latino substitutes through the Sphinx partnership. Principal players at both the Dallas and Fort Worth symphony orchestras have listened to recordings of Sphinx candidates to select subs to appear in the ensembles. Subbing lets musicians learn directly about an orchestra’s sound and expectations.
“Our goal is to bring in the best possible talent — whether we’re auditioning for the core musicians in the orchestra or bringing in soloists or guest conductors,” says Keith Cerny, a white man and president and CEO of the FWSO. “It’s very important to cast our net as broadly as possible.”
A lack of data makes it harder for American orchestras to measure their failures and successes. Most, if not all, haven’t kept track of the racial makeup of audition candidates.
But some orchestras now ask candidates to anonymously submit information about their race and ethnicity after their auditions. The Detroit Symphony also asks candidates to reflect on what it can do to increase the diversity of its audition pool.
“To make change, you need a place to start,” says Erik Rönmark, a white man and CEO of the Detroit Symphony. “You need to have data to compare it to.”
Data suggests Black and Latino musicians have a higher representation in U.S. music schools than they do in the nation’s orchestras.
At the Juilliard School, in the current academic year, 6.8% of students are Black and 7.9% are Hispanic. Locally, the University of North Texas College of Music reports that Black and Hispanic students respectively make up 5.1% and 19% of the student body. But these statistics account for studies in addition to classical performance, like dance and drama at Juilliard, music education at UNT and jazz at both schools.
Looking beyond the sound of the player
After winning the audition, musicians work to achieve tenure. The process varies based on the orchestra, but usually takes between one and two years. At the end of that period, a committee typically consisting of orchestra members and the music director makes its decision.
Once musicians have tenure, they often stay until they retire or move to another orchestra. Turnover tends to be low at orchestras with the highest budgets. All of this makes it more difficult for orchestras to quickly diversify their ranks.
The tenure committee prioritizes the musical ability of candidates first and foremost, but also considers their personalities.
There can be cases where a musician’s personality doesn’t fit in with the orchestra, says Kim Noltemy, a white woman and CEO of the Dallas Symphony. Sometimes a player doesn’t want to help with education efforts, go to donor events or serve on committees. For associate principal and principal positions, leadership skills are also important.
Thomason-Redus says the process makes it “pretty easy to say someone doesn’t fit in,” whether the candidate talks differently or eats different types of foods.
“There’s a lot of subjectivity to tenure and very low accountability,” he says. “We lose a lot of good people because of that.”
He suggests considering issues of equity and differences in race, ethnicity, sexual identity and gender.
He also believes orchestras are missing out by focusing mainly on how musicians sound. They could consider whether players like to compose, teach or create their own chamber music programs.
“We just look at the person as a player,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s the healthiest thing for orchestras. That’s why we need to discuss the qualities we need in musicians.”
In a set of guidelines issued by Sphinx last year, the organization suggests evaluating candidates beyond how they sound. Orchestras could consider the ability of the musician to serve as a “cultural ambassador,” meaning whether the player could teach and serve as a role model for others in the community.
While this sounds good on paper, says Randolph with the Detroit Symphony, Black and Latino musicians may wonder if they were brought on because their playing was “just good enough” and because of their race.
Redefining culture, reimagining fellowships
One way to overcome classical music’s image as a white art form is to feature more composers of color, and more contemporary ones, too. The Dallas Symphony, for example, is playing more works by Black composers, but not as many by Latinos.
Randolph feels more comfortable at the Detroit Symphony because it programs music by African Americans. When he looks up their music on Spotify, he notices the Detroit Symphony recorded it in the past. “They’ve been committed to it for a while,” he says. “Before it was ‘cool,’ like it is now.”
Executives say it’s also important to create a company culture that values diversity, equity and inclusion. To meet these goals, orchestras are setting up DEI committees and offering trainings for musicians and administrative staff.
Though he’s only been at the Dallas Symphony for about three years, principal percussionist George Nickson, who is white, has seen a sea change. The musicians, he says, are taking issues surrounding racial diversity “more seriously than ever.” Nickson helped pick Sphinx candidates to appear as subs in the Dallas Symphony and has given free lessons to students in southern Dallas through the orchestra’s Young Musicians program.
In addition to cultural changes, it may help for more orchestras to set up programs designed for musicians of color. Reimagining fellowships could better serve these musicians, says Afa Dworkin, who was born to Azeri and Jewish parents in Russia and is now president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization.
“Our goal shouldn’t be just a performative gesture that gets a headline,” she says. “It should be that orchestras look like the communities in which we reside. So if we want that diversity, we should think of every possible way to achieve it.”
One idea is to increase both the number of musicians and the number of years in fellowships, though more fellows would need more funding.
The Chicago Symphony, for example, announced in March the creation of a fellowship for three string players from underrepresented backgrounds, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Fellows will take lessons with orchestra members and perform with the ensemble for up to three years.
Orchestras also could benefit from considering ways for fellows to work toward permanent, full-time positions, Dworkin says. Law firms already use this kind of apprenticeship model.
This would make sense in orchestras, Dworkin argues, because apprentices would have spent years studying the sound of the group. Apprentices could gain entry into the orchestra through a separate audition or an audition along with outside candidates.
Mariana Cottier-Bucco, a Latina violinist in the Dallas Symphony, first joined the orchestra as a Jaap van Zweden Scholar. This program, which is now defunct, let string players recently graduated from major conservatories and universities perform with the orchestra in select concerts over two years.
“It provided me that extra step in between being a student and being a professional orchestral player,” Cottier-Bucco says in an email. She later won an audition to become a full-time member. “I think many people could benefit from the transition that is provided with a program like this.”
Randolph disagrees with the idea of apprentices joining the orchestra through a separate audition process. It could alienate the musicians hired through the apprenticeship from their colleagues, he says. Some players compete “20, 30 times” for their spots in the orchestra.
Oscar Garcia, a Latino trumpet player in the Fort Worth Symphony, likes the idea of the apprenticeship for training purposes, but also says it shouldn’t lead to a separate audition.
Garcia stresses the importance of education initiatives and motivating younger generations of musicians. He would like to see more partnerships between orchestras and local high schools and universities to help develop talent.
One example of this is in Cincinnati. In 2016, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra teamed up with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to establish a diversity fellowship. The two-year program allows graduate-level string players from underrepresented backgrounds to perform in the orchestra for five subscription series a year and provides them with free tuition at the conservatory. Of the 26 total fellows, two have won positions at major symphony orchestras — one of which was a one-year job — and several others have joined smaller ensembles.
Randolph thinks more can be done much earlier in education to get young students of color interested in classical music.
“Many Black people are not introduced to it at a young age,” he says. “So they associate it later in life as this bougie white music, but it’s not.”
If young students of color are given the resources to learn the art form, Randolph says, they won’t be any less talented than their white colleagues later on.
“A lot of people are looking at the fruit of what’s going on and are trying to change that,” he explains. “But all of this starts from the root.”
Retention and access are part of the solution
Orchestras have long tried to change the perception of classical music through free concerts and education programs, with limited success.
In 1992, the late Dwight Shambley, a bassist in the Dallas Symphony and the only African American in the orchestra for years, co-founded the DSO’s Young Stringsprogram to encourage Black and Latino musicians. Aiming to increase the racial diversity of American orchestras, the program provides free lessons and instruments for students ages 8 to 18.
Alumni have careers in music, but just two have joined professional orchestras.
Sphinx artistic director Dworkin believes that focusing on gaps in education — particularly at the elementary school level — makes the problem too big to fix. For its annual summer program, Sphinx receives at least 300 to 400 applications from Black and Latino string players ages 11 to 17, but can accept only about a third, Dworkin says.
“There really isn’t any kind of statistically substantiated lack of participation or talent among Black and brown young people,” she adds. “That’s not the problem in front of us. The problem is how we prepare, retain and support these musicians.”
Retaining these musicians may come down to funding education initiatives, lessons and other expenses.
As a young cellist in Washington, D.C., Randolph says, he played alongside many Black and Latino musicians who were probably more talented than he was. But when it came time to get a new instrument, which can cost thousands of dollars, many parents told their kids to focus on sports instead.
“The financial barrier to entry is not high at the beginning,” Randolph says, “but when you start to improve, it’s not cheap.”
To address issues of access, the Detroit Symphony recently launched Detroit Harmony, a collaborative venture aiming to provide music education and instruments to interested students in the city between kindergarten and 12th grade.
The project is in its first phase. Eventually, organizers would like for it to supply high-quality instruments to students auditioning for conservatories and universities.
Education programs can be part of the solution. As the executives and musicians have shown, there’s no one way to fix the decadeslong problem. It will take tackling the issue from all angles to lead to deeper and more lasting change.
Did you know that what you just read was a solutions journalism story? It didn’t just examine a problem; it scrutinized a response. By presenting evidence of who is doing better, we remove any excuse that the problem is intractable. This story, supported by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, is part of a new partnership with KERA called Arts Access. If you value our solutions-based reporting, consider supporting this kind of journalism by subscribing here.
Resources and programs
- Chicago Sinfonietta’s fellowship programs.
- Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Fellowship Program.
- Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Diversity Fellowship.
- Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Young Strings and Young Musicians.
- Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s African American Orchestra Fellowship and Detroit Harmony.
- League of American Orchestras’ Catalyst Fund Incubator.
- National Alliance for Audition Support.