Black musicians? In 2014, the League of American Orchestras. A service organization representing professional and amateur symphony orchestras around the United States. Published a study on diversity and found that only 1.4% of orchestra musicians were Black.
In 2022, it’s hard to say if that figure has gotten better or worse, said Jennifer Arnold. A co-founder of the Black Orchestral Network. Arnold spent 15 seasons playing viola with the Oregon Symphony. And now is director of artistic planning and operations for the Richmond Symphony.
“There’s a real need to actually be transparent about what’s happening in the industry. In terms of Black people,” Arnold said. “We do not know how many Black people are in orchestras. And I say that as a representative of Black Orchestral Network. One of our calls is, let’s start collecting data. Let’s find out, have we done better than the 1.4% number that is going out there? That 1.4% is kind of based on well, “I see a Black person on that stage in that orchestra.” That’s not data.”
In harpist Ann Hobson Pilot’s experience
Black musicians in orchestras can feel isolated. She told a podcast produced by the Black Orchestral Network. When she joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1969, she was its very first Black musician.
“When I looked around the orchestra, I didn’t see anyone in there that looked like me,” she said. “And it was another 20 years before another Black player was hired, which is Owen Young, the wonderful cellist. And when I left 20 years later, Owen Young became the only black player in the BSO.” He still is.
The Black Orchestral Network arose out of ad hoc Zoom gatherings. During the pandemic and after the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. But the participants decided to make it a formal organization. Alex Laing, who plays clarinet with the Phoenix Symphony, said they wanted to become “an advocacy group, a group to speak to the experience of what it is to orchestra — the verb — as a Black person and how to support that in all of the places that it’s happening, not just professional ranks.”
One of the first things they did was send out a call to action in an open letter titled, “Dear American Orchestras.” The website lists 60 Black orchestral musicians from around the country who signed it. “We took inspiration from what we’d seen from the theater world and the dance world,” said Laing. “We wanted to articulate a point of view and speak to our experience and then also articulate a vision for the future.”
Black musicians : Simon Woods
President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a lobbying group and the organization that commissioned the 2014 study, said that orchestras in the United States have “traditionally been a pretty white space.”
The League has been looking at equity, diversity and inclusion in its ranks. “There is deep urgency in our field for change,” Wood said. He added that the League is currently working on an update to their earlier study.
Still, change comes with challenges. For one, the “blind” audition process, meant to avoid bias by having musicians play behind screens, is integral to the creation of gender parity in orchestras, but has not lead to an increase in Black musicians. The Black Orchestral Network’s Arnold said that’s because who is hired depends on who is invited to audition.
“A lot of orchestras aren’t transparent about the fact that they don’t have fully blind auditions,” she said. In other words, plenty of those who audition are able to bypass the screen.