This post got kind of long. tl;dr executive summary:
1. Classical music's racism is tied up in its over-reliance and devotion to the past. You can't change one without first changing the other.
2. Various factors subtly reinforce that reliance, especially from the recording era (1920's) onward. One is the plummeting incentive from that time on to write down music note-by-note. The other is the false choice in classical music between the comfortable past and a disorienting, avant-garde present.
3. As such, changing the culture requires much more than just playing more music by black composers.
4. In education, we teachers need to think outside the box in terms of how we teach and what music we teach, which ideally should include guidance and help from our institutions.
It’s time we admitted it: classical music is racist. It’s not good for the music, for the culture, or for the people who are pushed away as a result. In this post, I’ll explore how classical music got to this point, why it matters, and what institutions and individuals can do to make it better. This is by no means meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but perhaps the start of an overdue conversation.
Just a word about me, for those who don’t know me or where I’m coming from. I’m certainly not the final authority here; I’m a white male who’s benefited hugely from the institutions set up that vaguely fall under the “classical music” umbrella (schools, jobs, performances, and so on) though I also have a foot out of that world, partly because I like to write and perform other types of music (though a big part of the issue here is what gets to be, or gets to not be, defined as classical music). At any rate, I’ve grown up with, participated in, and seen the overwhelming whiteness around me in my educational, performing, and teaching life as a musician, so I’ve been part of the problem. It’s easy to be cynical about changing the culture in my (kinda-sorta) field, since I don’t hold too much sway over anyone but myself, but that’s also a dodge, so this post is in the spirit of tackling big problems that need collective action.
A Culture Overly Devoted to the Past
The racism of classical music comes from and is perpetuated by two basic factors. Most of what most people consider to even be “classical music” comes from the distant past when racism in the world was a fact of life. Today, the world of classical music maintains an at best innocent, at worst lazy and pernicious devotion to that past. And even if it is innocent and passive today, leaning so heavily on the past benefits neither the music itself nor the long term health of “concert music” or “art music” as an idea—though it certainly benefits some people and institutions in the field that don’t want to change it. But changing the culture from a tradition of recreating the past to one that’s more in the present is necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) for making it less white, and in any way anti-racist.
Now, that’s not to say there’s no overt racism and discrimination in classical music too, and certainly there’s been plenty when you reach back to the recent past. You may recall the scene from the movie “Greenbook” where black pianist Don Shirley laments the inability to get a gig playing his preferred music, the music he’d “been training his whole life to play” (ie, Chopin). (Yes, he loved the past, too, even more than his own music, it seems, somewhat complicating things!)
But most of classical music’s enduring racism today is implicit, a self-fulfilling byproduct of the fact that it leans so heavily on the past and people’s acceptance of that. You see, for most of the time that includes the traditions we lump into classical, if you weren’t a white male, you were unlikely to have access to the educational opportunities necessary to write down and preserve your music note-by-note (there are exceptions, of course, but the overwhelming majority of music that survives in written form from 1650-1900 is by white men). Music from other continents, meanwhile, didn’t have much in the way of a written tradition in the manner of Europe.
On the other hand, a lot of people (including Don Shirley and me!) really do love a small slice of the music written down from Europe between 1650-1900 by white men, because a lot of it really is awesome! So it’s not any kind of overt racism that generally leads orchestras to keep playing the same Beethoven symphonies again and again every season. There’s just a lot of inertia there; most of the people going to concerts of Beethoven symphonies don’t insist on Beethoven (and the other composers in “the canon”) being the only thing worth listening to in the whole world. We just get our other music from different genres and sources, and accept that our orchestra will play Beethoven every year for all eternity. Most people don’t demand orchestras be too adventurous because the people who already go to orchestra concerts and support the orchestras financially really do love Beethoven symphonies and find great comfort in them.
An unfortunately related problem is that most mainstream classical institutions have for years given audiences a false choice between what they know and love (Beethoven, etc.) and a narrow slice of new music (ie, atonal avant-garde) that very few people like or can make any sense of (including me), further training audiences who go to orchestra concerts to idolize and lean on what they know, and to distrust the idea of contemporary classical music. (If you don't think these problems are related, you probably didn't go to as many orchestra concerts as I did growing up! See this recent NYTimes article!) So the system persists!
(That’s not to say orchestras should never play Beethoven; they should! But not so frequently, because there’s only finite time available. And the same organizations can definitely let go of the Stamitzes and Hummels of the world—ie, the generic, mediocre composers who were fine in their time but still take up limited cultural bandwidth. I'm looking at you, WETA 90.9 Washington DC!)
Complications and a Widening Divide: Recording Era Onward
And the system persists for other reasons too. Around 1920, the recording era began, so the manner in which many people chose to preserve music changed, as did the incentives for doing so. So just as (in this country) African-Americans are rising to cultural prominence in many fields, including music, the economic incentive for writing music down, as opposed to recording it, plummets.
Not surprisingly, this is around the time you see a divergence in cultures in instrumental music, where classical music, which throughout its previous history had a strong tradition of improvisation, starts to abandon improvisation in favor of stricter adherence to the written scores. Meanwhile, jazz and rock take off in a different direction, where the written version of a piece is entirely secondary to the performance and the recorded version.
Think back to Don Shirley from Greenbook. From a musical perspective, it was the classical music institutions that really lost out by pushing him away, since doing so just contributed to widening and reinforcing the divide mentioned above. It makes sense then that so few African Americans are drawn to classical music, either as listeners, instrumentalists, composers, because in the past they had such a hard time being accepted, and the opportunities for them as musicians have been so much greater in other fields. And then today it’s harder to draw them into the field because that past itself has been so unrepresentative.
A Side Note on Cultural Appropriation
***Side note and answer to an objection: yes, there are black composers, even if not as many as white ones. I’ve seen some (very well-meaning, not trying to solve the larger problem necessarily) posts by some friends in recent days about exploring more deeply, learning, performing the music of people like William Grant Still (which I’ve played some of, it’s quite good!), Florence Price, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. There’s also composers who fit somewhat less comfortably into “classical” like Scott Joplin and James Scott (whose music I’ve also played), and probably many more I don’t know about. But I don’t think playing black music (especially, white performers and white audiences) really solves the larger issue here, though I tihnk it’s a start. For instance: I’ve performed at two ragtime festivals (which have their own unique subculture that I can’t claim to be fully part of), that were almost all white (audience and players) despite having lots of music by black composers. It felt weird!
Another, related, more personal conundrum: lots of my favorite black music is, as per the explanation above, not “written out” in the traditional manner—for instance, solo piano music by Thelonius Monk. If the goal is to make “classical music” more welcoming for black composers, does that mean integrating someone like Monk into my own concerts is a good idea? Does it matter that the music wasn’t “meant” to be played by anyone else?
Some people might additionally say the above examples are inappropriate/exploitative instances of cultural appropriation. For me, that objection is generally naive except in extreme instances involving monetary exploitation, which certainly isn’t the case here, and these days only is possible in popular music, where there’s real money. Appropriation and borrowing are generally just part of the process of making new music, and properly sourced and acknowledged don’t present a problem. I don’t think cultures can “own” musical ideas, and suffice it to say, I’m not talking about big money performances and festivals. The issue / weirdness is the ability to draw people in across the spectrum: audiences and performers, not an issue of exploitation. Most people who write music today (including me, by the way) want it to be heard, and often (including me) give it out for free to competent performers. Is the situation at the ragtime festival different from playing William Grant Still (“classical” composer) or Thelonius Monk in a “traditional concert setting”? In the end, it comes back to who gets to define and who gets to be included in the “classical” tradition.***
Anyway, point is, I think programming music by black composers is a start, but this problem is much bigger!
So what can we do?
Clearly, the institutions that hold a lot of power have the biggest responsibility for change. But audiences can demand that change from musical organizations they patronize that have power. I guess I would start by hoping orchestras/other big organizations make a more diverse slate music less of an exotic exception in their programming and more of a regular thing. With that change, there will be more opportunity to, over time, integrate black music into regular programming, draw more interest from people of color, get more students interested in playing in said orchestras in the first place.
Educational institutions, like I mentioned, have a big role too, and so teachers like me should aim to change how we teach and what we emphasize. Here are some changes I hope to make in my own teaching and lean on my school to try out. (These recommendations are more on the cultural / musical side, less about recruiting, which I think would work hand-in-hand with other changes. The school where I teach has put a lot of effort into recruiting a more diverse array of students, but my sense is that retention isn’t always great. I think much of the reason is the cultural reasons highlighted: so that’s the focus of the recommendations below!)
1. De-emphasize the four periods of music:
Everyone who’s studied a “classical” instrument knows about the “four style periods of music” (Baroque, Classical [not to be confused with small-c “classical”, yes it’s confusing], Romantic, and contemporary). At my school, piano students who want to play a “certificate jury” (for the most well-prepared, ambitious students) have to play a piece from each of them. When you audition on piano for a music school, you have to play a piece from each of them. Most competitions require a piece from each of them. (And so on.) But while there are really only a handful of identifiable “styles” of music in the Baroque period, and a handful of worthy composers (all white men, of course), the number of styles in the “contemporary” period (often defined as going back to 1900) is huge: you’ve got neo-classical, tango, ragtime, jazz-influenced styles, all kinds of Latin ones, minimalism, avant-garde styles, explosion of styles influenced by folk traditions from around the globe, and so on. The idea behind the four style periods is that for students to be well-rounded musicians they have to balance their repertoire from all four. But this is crazy, considering that a) it’s impossible to learn all styles of music, there’s just too much and b) the more contemporary ones are the more relevant ones today. A better emphasis would be to break music into two groups: past (say, before 1920 or so) and present (last hundred years up to today).
The absurdity of this breakdown, and of music education’s emphasis on the past over the present is highlighted nicely by the four posters that hang over me when I teach lessons in one of the Levine school’s classrooms, where the four periods are listed as “Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th century.” I’m like, hello! Does the 21st century not even exist? (The facility where the poster resides wasn’t even built in the 20th century, so no, it’s not just a really old poster.)
Creating a culture more here and now in the present makes it possible for classical music to instantly rely less on its dead white past. But it doesn’t necessarily make it welcoming to people of color.
2. De-emphasize fidelity, re-emphasize creativity:
The emphasis in a lot of music schools today is tilted not in favor of creativity but rather toward following directions, specifically, directions in the written music. That’s a problem because it pushes creative people away from classical music and re-emphasizes the vicious cycles discussed above. And so, it becomes just another reinforcement of its whiteness. Playing music “as the composer intended” (anyone who’s been to music school will know this phrase well!) is one way to learn an instrument, but at some point it became the only way to learn the “classical” instruments, and it’s time to change it. Not everyone has to learn to improvise, of course, to play music, but the spirit of experimentation should be on the table more frequently in music lessons.
I’ll never forget, after giving a brief, hour-long workshop on improvisation for piano students, how one of the teachers commented, “it’s so great to see the students being creative for once, when we’re always telling them to follow their music all the time.” I was like, wait, is there no room for creativity at all in playing their written-out music? Of course, there is! But the comment was indicative of the prevailing attitude in music education today. Change it!
3. Familiarize and teach music from a greater diversity of composers
Although I noted the complications of and resisted the idea of making a quick fix out of performing the music of black composers, I think teaching past music from a more diverse array of composers is a win-win, and an area where I admit I’ve been lacking. That includes music by women too of course!
As teachers we need to fight the easy temptation to recycle music we learned when we were kids and teach it over and over to our students. Of course we all have our favorite pieces that we’ll never stop teaching, ones that are great for us, for our students. But if you’re a piano teacher out there who’s assigned a lot of Czerny, you know that there’s a lot of inertia in what we assign too. There’s difficulty there too: who else wrote thousands and thousands of decent exercises for developing pianists? Probably no one! But none of Czerny’s individual pieces is really very good on its own, so surely there are other easy exercises available for learning piano. And if not, then it shouldn’t be too hard to make some, maybe with some more modern rhythms! (Right now, there’s no incentive to do so, because no one would buy or play them.)
The point is, there’s so much music out there, and it’s easier to go with what’s known, tested and comfortable for us. But maybe that isn’t good enough, and never should have been!
Teachers could use some help here from our schools. Last year, my school’s piano department did a review of the curriculum. I sent the reviewers my own piano music to be considered for teaching students as part of the “contemporary” repertoire. It was summarily rejected because the teachers making the curriculum believed it should “only include pieces that teachers have gone through the process of teaching.” Which of course defeats the whole purpose of the review, I thought! If the repertoire we teach is going to be more representative and diverse, we’re going to need some outside ideas, not the same old pieces we’ve been teaching for years! It takes some guidance to break the cycle, someone to recommend music that’s outside our comfort zones, since as teachers, we don’t always have the time to hunt down music that’s less common, less celebrated, and less familiar.
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