Brandon Keith Brown at Berlin’s Konzerthaus

Deservingness in Classical Music

Many think Blacks don’t deserve to be in classical music, including us.

Brandon Keith Brown
Mar 13 · 6 min read

From an early age, decisions of deservingness seem autonomic. We award more empathy to those judged worthy of our attention. When individualized, fair and independent of race, it’s harmless.

In classical music, deservingness is unfair because only whites decide.

Deservingness is the white identification of worthy musicians; those perceived as having followed the rules for musical membership. Orchestras, conductors, artists managements, and tastemakers in classical music are almost all white. Their judgment of deservingness is de facto culturally racist.

So why should we care?

Blacks are judged harsher than white musicians, often resulting in a race-based denial of musical membership.

Resumes of Musical Membership

Hard and soft resumes are classic predictors of deservingness.

  1. Hard resume: attending premiere music schools/conservatories, studying with noted teachers or conductors of historic lineage, and/or winning prizes in major international competitions.
  2. Soft resume: musician parents (musical membership by birthright), teachers in major orchestras, being friends with famous conductors/soloist, good looks/photogeneity, persona, and being accepted by power networks in major metropolitan cities.

Benefiting from unmitigated rights and access to the republic, White musicians take many of these scripts for granted. Blacks became citizens in 1868 under the 14th amendment, granting us “equal protection” under the law. Legalized Segregation limited our access to classical music. Still, today, fulfilling most scripts of music memberships is difficult for Blacks. Even when we’re successful with an impeccable resume, we remain over criticized, stigmatized, marginalized and excluded from stages.

Whole notes: The White Center

Regardless of ability, being white holds one in the center of musical membership. Like a whole note in 4/4 time, whites take up all the beats. They’re rewarded with access to good ol’ boy networks, “good” schools (white schools), higher socioeconomic status, and unmatched empathy from conductors, managers, artistic administrators, the media, and audiences.

White supremacy leaves no room for unique cultural repertoires or narratives.

Conforming to classical music’s white supremacy keeps whites comfortable. It’s an art form in and unto itself.

Peabody’s White Texas

Deservingness is a mechanism of white supremacy. It’s designed to make Black musicians small, ruin our self-esteem and compromise artistry.

Classmates at the Peabody Institute let me know week one I didn’t deserve to be there.

One whined the first day, “I’ve tried for years to get in. You got in without an audition [on campus].”

Some lashed out in sabotage.

Meet White Texas. He was a low performing short and scrawny doctoral student and Harvard grad, who skirted into the program after numerous attempts. In typical white male fashion, he felt entitled to be wherever he was. Society supports him.

Conducting a full opera with orchestra was a major program feature. Puccini’s classic La Boheme was my first year. White Texas stole this opportunity from me. Peabody let him.

Normally, students communicated the teacher’s assignments via email. I never received my opera assignment. White Texas left my email address off, leaving me unprepared. Sabotage was his only opportunity to show me up. It’s pathetic really.

I emailed on 2/7/2010 the orchestra manager:

[…] there was no resolution, no reparations, no apologies were made, it is as if it was okay to do this to me.

Upon administrative investigation, it was proven intentional. White Texas wasn’t reprimanded. I was silenced about my racist disparate treatment. Had I been white, this wouldn’t have happened.

Racism from students was tolerated because I was the undeserving Black token. For Peabody, it was just compensation for upsetting the racial hierarchy with my talent.

Deservingness Isn’t Competency

Whites train Black classical musicians. It’s implicit that they’re the sole deserving arbiters of classical music. We’re expected to be satisfied with mere access. Asking for more makes us unhumbled ingrates.

Music’s perceived subjective nature allows whites to judge Blacks as undeserving, inferior and incompetent. Since we’re already outsiders, white audiences buy it too. Negative race-based assessments are particularly easy with conductors. We don’t make sound, appearing to wave our arms about in rhapsody. White conductors are less scrutinized.

racism […] makes success attainable for even unexceptional Whites, while success, even moderate success, is usually reserved for extraordinary Black people. — Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in How To Be An Anti-Racist

So what’s the result of promoting unexceptional white conductors?

Lots of less than mediocre white conductors and the music suffers.

Deservingness Corrodes In-group Solidarity

The civil rights movement created group solidarity among Blacks. Faux anti-discrimination laws lent the perception of access to the “American Dream” giving false hope for full citizenship. Hope sponsored in-group solidarity. Today, hope and solidarity have eroded, exposing in-group malignancies the movement was meant to correct.

School segregation is back with a vengeance. Extra judicious police lynchings remain commonplace yet newly performed with bullets instead of rope — that’s new. But Blacks are more likely to get the needle and serve longer prison terms than whites.

The pressure of deservingness has caused Black musicians to diminish in-group member success. It manifests in a crabs-in-a-barrel mentality; disrespect, and resentment for in-group member success. The successful so-called “uppity-negro” causes insecurity, jealousy, and recalcitrance. Support and goodwill are withdrawn/withheld from fellow high achieving Blacks, disenfranchising and sabotaging — like White Texas — the creditability of all who are successful.

Whites blame us for our own marginalization. They’re not completely wrong. In-group cancellation has become far too common.

It’s no wonder Black classical musicians don’t feel we’re deserving. White society doesn’t think we deserve to live much less perform Mozart. Sometimes, the only way to win is to prove them right.

We are our greatest allies. I’m rooting for everybody Black. In spite of our deeply flawed humanity, we’re all trying to be better in this white world.

I am Deserving

I struggle with deservingness. I’ve been taught to believe I’m undeserving of my accomplishments without white approval. It took me a long time to realize I’m worthy of musical membership. On many days, I still forget.

Equity is impossible if only whites judge who’s deserving. Although music is colorblind, its judgers aren’t. Artistic assessments shouldn’t be attributable to racial hierarchy, but they are. The judgment of musical membership must become racially decentralized in order for Blacks to actualize our artistic potential.

One day, I wish to perform all of who I am without race-based judgment. Until then, racist scripts of deservingness remain at play.

This analysis is inspired by sociologist Dr. Michele Lamont’s definition of deservingness in society at large.

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Noted conductor, educator and activist Brandon Keith Brown engineers society from the podium by decreasing the racial stigmatization of underrepresented minority classical musicians. Brown is a prizewinner and the audience favorite of the 2012 International Sir Georg Solti Competition for Conductors, and guest conducts prominent European orchestras including the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester-Berlin, Badisches Staatskapelle, Staatskapelle Weimar, members of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Jena Philharmonie among others. Upcoming debuts include the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin, WDR Funkhaus Orchestra Köln, and the Cape Town Philharmonic. Upcoming debuts include the Johannesburg Philharmonic, the Slovak State Philharmonic Košice and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. He is a student of David Zinman, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, and Gustav Meier. graduating with a master’s from Johns Hopkins University. Initially trained as a violinist, he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music studying under Roland and Almita Vamos.

A noted social justice advocate, Brown’s writings on race have been featured on The Medium and in the Berlin Tagesspiegel. He is a frequent podcast guest and speaker on the intersection of race in music and education.

Speaking request:

Instagram: @brandonkeithbrownconductor


Interview on institutionalized racism at Brown University

Brandon Keith Brown

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Prize-Winning Stick Waver | Slinger of Sound| Speaker | Educator | Writer. Engineering Society from the Podium

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