Aaron Dworkin  

In Pursuit of Diversity in Our Orchestras

Aaron Dworkin
February 8, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Aaron Dworkin, Founder and President of The Sphinx Organization, explores a few avenues that could assist in diversifying the American symphony orchestra. Citing statistics from the American Symphony Orchestra Leagues's annual survey of orchestra membership, he makes the case that orchestras do not reflect the ethnic make-up of Amercian society not only among the musicians but also among music directors, executive directors, artistic administrators, and even among the composers of the repertoire we perform.

Aaron explores some fairly radical suggestions "thinking outside the box" regarding typical orchestral audition and tenure policies. He offers a new perspective on marketing the orchestra, where subscription programming materials would express a commitment to diversity. And finally, he suggests that orchestras explore the possibility of holding the majority of their concerts in community venues. It's an interesting view of the diversity situation in symphonies and will hopefully spark some debate, especially as we plan for the Diversity Virtual Discussion Panel in February.

- Ann Drinan

Though I don't work for an orchestra, I think I understand one of the basic tenets by which they are run: a big audience is good, and a smaller audience is bad. A big audience means more ticket revenues, more prospective donors, more money for more and better musicians, more resources to do more programming— in the end, a better orchestra. A smaller audience means less of all that.

Here's another basic fact: most urban centers, where our leading orchestras are located, are already majority "minority," or will be soon. So with orchestras deriving, on average, more than a third of their budgets from ticket sales, I would suggest that moving away from an audience that is largely homogeneous in terms of age and race towards one that more closely reflects the population of America —
or, more specifically, the region in which a given orchestra is located — should be a top financial priority for any orchestra, from the standpoint of ticket revenues and a broader donor base. With more than one-third of all Americans belonging to a "minority" group, it is increasingly difficult to be successful without incorporating diversity in your overall organization.

Public funding is one area that could manifest this reality quite soon. No matter how small a proportion of your budget it may represent, eventually there will be a public outcry if your organization lacks appeal to a diverse audience, and that public funding may be cut. Or your orchestra may face some difficult decisions in situations where you won't be given adequate time to implement diversity policies fully among your orchestra's musicians, board, and staff. (Some orchestras have already faced such situations.)

Then there's the artistic environment of the orchestra. As the conductor shapes the unified sound of the orchestra, he or she transmits to the audience not only the artistry of the composition but also the feedback from the musicians themselves. If a conductor rehearses and performs a given piece with a "non-diverse" orchestra, and then rehearses and performs the same piece with a diverse orchestra, the result will be a completely different artistic product — one that I would argue is superior, because the scope of the artistic input that went into its creation is so much greater. Classical music is an art form that thrives on new interpretations and cultural influences. Currently, it is thirsting for new oases from which to sustain its artistic vibrancy. The supply of musicians exists, as The Sphinx Organization has learned through direct experience, to attain diversity without any sacrifice of quality. The challenge is to achieve it.

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