The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best? | July 19, 2020

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story:

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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  1. Jake, this is brilliant. I must confess feeling so distant from the music scene (at least in activity) that no ideas for responding come to mind. Particularly now, when some of us feel shut down.

    On the other hand, maybe this issue pertains to the Token Creek Festival (not happening this year) for the future. Will check with our folks on their response.

    Carry onl – you do such good work communicating with us folks who don’t have our ear to the ground…

    Harriet Statz

    On Sun, Jul 19, 2020 at 12:02 AM The Well-Tempered Ear wrote:

    > welltemperedear posted: “PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG > POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not > just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw > potential audience members to an event. And you might even a” >


    Comment by hjtstatz — July 21, 2020 @ 10:31 am

  2. With this thinking, should we defund orchestras?



    Comment by Larry Keck — July 19, 2020 @ 8:42 am

  3. Thank you for focussing on this, Jake. Fifty years ago, you might have written about the dearth of women in classical music and the lack of representation of women composers in programming. How did that change, and now, how can we change the terrible racial disparity that exists in the classical music world in our time? It’s a complex issue, but I believe it has to start with music education in the schools – to generate life-long appreciation of classical music and allow children and young adults to build the skill set that will allow them entry into the professional classical music world. First and foremost it begins with keeping music (and the other arts) in the schools – even when there are budget challenges. This is in no way to blame teachers, who can only do so much with limited resources, but to encourage financially-challenged districts to keep the arts in their curricula. If only predominantly white school districts can afford the arts, then those are the kids who will build the work ethic required to excel at their craft, consider the arts as a career, get accepted to training programs, become career performers, classical audience members, board members and CEOs. Until children and young adults of color see performers and artistic leaders that look like them in the classical programming at Overture and elsewhere, their assumption will be…well.. that classical music is for white people – as I thought it was for men only when I was a kid. So if kids need financial assistance or transportation or the connections to obtain instruments, lessons and access music programs beyond what their school can offer, then such assistance needs to become a priority. Encouragement of POC to continue into high school and perhaps a career needs to be consistent – in the form of programming that includes them and visible role models like the artists in the NYT article and the panel that J’Nai Bridges assembled:

    It starts with us. It starts here and now.


    Comment by Kathleen Otterson — July 19, 2020 @ 8:21 am

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