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National Alliance Pushes For Diversity In American Orchestras

Siggi Bachmann
New World Symphony
The National Alliance for Audition Support brough together classical string musicians for a workshop in Miami Beach.

American orchestras are overwhelmingly white. Black and Latino musicians make up less than five percent of orchestra members, according to the Sphinx Organization, which works to increase diversity in the arts.

And the National Alliance for Audition Support—a collaboration between Sphinx, New World Symphony and the League of American Orchestras—wants to change that. 

The alliance recently held its first audition workshops in Miami Beach for black and Latino string musicians. The three-day intensive dissected the different parts of the audition process and, informally, it was also a convening for classical musicians of color to talk about what it’s like to be "one of the only."

"I've had experiences of people being like, 'Oh she only got this cause she's not white," said Gabrielle Skinner, who plays the viola with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York.

She said in most orchestral settings she’s typically the only person of color or one of a few. 

"It's really nice to be able to be around everyone this week and nobody questions the real validity of who you are," she said.

Ed Gazuleas,  a viola professor at Indiana University who played with the Boston Symphony, said getting into orchestras is all about access and training.  Someone might have the talent for an instrument, but they're at a disadvantage if they can’t afford private lessons or come from school districts that don’t fund music education.

"We need to find those people and train them so that these orchestras are not just more diverse, they're better," said Gazuleas, who was one of the master teachers at the workshop.

Musicians typically audition for orchestras behind a screen. The screen was introduced in the 1970s because orchestras were hiring so few women. The idea is to judge blind and consider musicians solely on what they sound like.

The screen did help more women get into orchestras, but it did very little for broader diversity.

The challenges for classical musicians of color start long before they get into an audition room.

"This is not a cheap field," said Samuel Thompson, a freelance violin player who participated in the Miami Beach workshop.

He said as his love for the art form grew, so did the costs.

"Not everyone has parents who can take out a second mortgage to buy their kid instruments," said Thompson.

Professional quality instruments can cost thousands of dollars, and there’s also the cost of ongoing training with master teachers and travel to get to auditions.

"That could mean flying to L.A. to take an audition where maybe you play a minute and maybe you don't advance," said Johnniah Stigall, the project manager for the National Alliance for Audition Support.

She said providing direct financial support is one of the most effective ways to level the playing field. The alliance provides funding to black and Latino classical musicians for training, instruments and travel for auditions.