The Diversity Challenge in American Orchestras
Written by Catherine Radbill on Nov. 30th 2017
Ethnic diversity remains a persistent challenge for American orchestras. US Census Bureau statistics show that 13.2 percent of the nation's population identifies itself as black or African-American, and 17.1 percent as Hispanic or Latino. 

Yet only four percent of American orchestral musicians are African-American and Latino, according to the League of American Orchestras. This imbalance also shows up in the lack of ethnic diversity in orchestra boards and top-level administrators, as well as among guest soloists and conductors.

Efforts are being made to spur diversity in the classical music field. Nearly 20 years ago Aaron Dworkin founded Detroit-based Sphinx, a music organization that encourages youth from minority communities to find their way to classical music. Dworkin and Sphinx have helped raise the profile of diversity by encouraging hundreds of young minority musicians from different backgrounds become part of the classical music world.

Jeri Lynne Johnson, an African-American classical music conductor, refuses to accept the status quo in the diversity issue. Johnson is the founder of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, the Philadelphia region's only three-time winner of a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant. Black Pearl has players from top-ranked schools, including the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. The chamber orchestra has 40 members from a variety of backgrounds - African-American, White, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern - and its playlist is eclectic and culturally diverse.

Johnson is convinced that a sea of white faces on the stage sends a subtle but powerful message to audiences of color: "This is not for you." Johnson has experienced the insularity of the music world firsthand, and it made her determined to create something of her own.

Johnson's dream was born out of an early career failure. She was rejected for a California orchestra's music director position. By way of explanation, the head of the search committee told her that she didn't look like what their audience expected their conductor to look like.

The more Johnson thought about the comment, the more she realized that being outside of the system was the only way to effect the real, radical change the system required.

She transformed her anger about the job rejection into a passion to make change in a positive way, launching Black Pearl in 2007. As Black Pearl grew, Johnson found that it was easier for her to create her start-up to align with the new market realities than it was for others to try and change a traditional music organization that was fighting to maintain the status quo.

In diversifying the players of the music and the music played, Black Pearl provides a fun experience for its casually dressed, youthful audiences. The chamber orchestra's success proves that upending the status quo has brought about the radical change Johnson was seeking.

Orchestras spend thousands of dollars on ambitious marketing surveys every year because they don't like the results that come back. And what are those survey results? "Change or die." Unfortunately, many institutions seem unable to adapt to changing markets and audiences. Cultural diversity of the orchestra members could go a long way toward achieving these organizations' goals of attracting a younger and more diverse audience.

Catherine Radbill

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