“Isn’t that racist?” Why a workshop for African-American conductors is essential
Colleagues have asked why a workshop for black conductors is important. “Isn’t that racist?” they ask.
Music education: A leaky system
School-to-prison pipelines run smoothly through black communities, yet why not build pipelines to top orchestral podiums? The field of conducting is lily white. Programs of higher learning and professional workshops remain complacent. Shamelessly, colleagues at elite institutions frequently share that blacks are “never good enough to be invited to the audition.” One said his doctoral program had “too much writing” for black students to complete. Others blame entrance exams that “they never pass.” If the gospel truth, it is a deeply troubling systemic problem that needs redressing.
Excusing what is at the very least inadvertent political incorrectness, these comments still offend by failing to consider how taxed-based education compromises minority early access and exposure to a formal music education. To compete, black musicians must surmount their involuntary immigrant status and contend with decades of white legacy wealth and unmitigated federal rights to education. As the progeny of Brown v. Board of Education, and the long since overturned separate but equal doctrine, first generation black college graduates are still common. Redlining often confines minorities to schools that cannot afford subjects beyond the common core (reading, math, science), leaving generations of young, fertile, and inquisitive minds uncourted by classical music. August Wilson’s 1996 Princeton University speech The Ground on Which I Stand details the effects of preempting black artistry.
African-American not only denotes race, it denotes condition, and carries with it the vestige of slavery and the social segregation and abuse of opportunity. That this abuse of opportunity and truncation of possibility is continuing and is so pervasive in our society in 1996 says much about who we are and much about the work that is necessary to alter our perceptions of each other…
It is significantly more difficult for competent African-American conductors to successfully emerge from these circumstances. However, like a diamond, the pressure of systemic oppression can create a rock-solid musical interpretation. Creating high art through the rungs of oppression gives us a deeper profundity of expression to play, sing and conduct from. We live against daily dehumanization. Survival through fortitude is resilience; the exact life experience required by many composers (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky).
Social constructs should never have been allowed to marginalize and negatively forecast the potential of black podium art, preempting one’s ability to contribute at the highest level, with the utmost entitled intensity and competitive sophistication. Making no direct significant effort to address the dearth of highly qualified black conductors working on top podiums makes one complicit in a de facto racially biased education system, as well as a contributor to a stayed legacy of legalized segregation and discrimination in education.
We only grow through blissful failure
Affirmative action is a valiant effort to create greater diversity; however, if black conductors are continually denied access to learning music’s complex tradition, their numbers will remain small. The dissemination of musical knowledge is an aural and verbal tradition. When confronted with the score, conductors must answer questions like:
1. How fast is a tastefully informed Mozartian 2nd movement Andante in 6/8 (Hint: Young men walk faster. Mozart died young.)
2. What is the significance of D minor in Mozart, and how does it affect one’s interpretation?
3. What effect does Zeitgeist have on the preservation of time in Beethoven?
4. What does it mean that the triplets in “Brahms come slow and early,” who said it, and why should we care? (Herbert von Karajan of the Berlin Philharmonic)
The development of an informed interpretation means fearlessly wrestling with such questions. However, students must become aware of what questions to ask. Conductors cannot take their instrument home with them. Becoming a truly great artist requires the particularly thorny experience of repeatedly failing upward in front of an ensemble, eventually earning confidence.
We can only grow through blissful failure. Unlike white colleagues, repeated opportunities to fail are afforded less often to black conductors; often when we fall, we don’t get back up. Borrowing from Michelle Obama’s May 2018 speech to women executives: “I wish that [we] could fail as bad[ly] and be okay.” Regardless of talent, fewer opportunities to fail and learn tradition — in schools, workshops or professional settings — stymies one’s potential development.
If you’re not making mistakes, it’s a mistake. — Miles Davis
I am a conductor too
In awe, for years I listened to white students confidently exclaim, “I am a conductor.” Discounting my own talent, previous achievements and training, I did not take myself seriously until I met David Zinman. Validation from a conducting Goliath suddenly allowed me to wholeheartedly embrace my competencies. Do others like me require the same outside validation of their talent, training and potential? Why didn’t I feel entitled to the profession? Does a lack of role models paint conducting as inaccessible for some?
Being the only black conductor in academia can be challenging. While white intensity automatically denotes competency, inspiration and quality, black competent intensity is considered merely threatening, dangerous, fearsome and not worthwhile. Major teachers never dissuaded me, nor did I suffer from the soft bigotry of low expectations and standards. However classmates often pinned my achievements solely on race. To them, I was only the teacher’s feel-good program token. Impossible was their ability to reconcile my artistic legitimacy in “their” classroom. Unprovoked hostility masked their insecurity, displayed often by chest bumping — unsuccessfully — their whiteness against my talent. Occupying their white spaces immediately made them uncomfortable, exclusionary, and sometimes lash out in sabotage.
I grew accustomed to my mistakes gleefully lighting up the faces of classmates with über zealous Schadenfreude, like children on Christmas morning. I assure you that unplugging a conductor’s video camera — while they are conducting — is like cutting a violinist strings mid-recital; dead camera batteries will forever make my heart jump. Withholding conducting assignments from select classmates shortchanges preparation time, robbing them of key educational experiences. Parents invited to class who degrade you behind your back is also not encouraging. Others share similar assaults on their dignity.
…never good enough to be invited to the audition.
I must also admit, negative experiences can be a positive catalyst! Because of its discriminatory and disparate reception, I stopped apologizing for my talent and the intensity of my music making. One must still choose to weaponize and fortify an undeniable talent. More than ever, focused opportunities to cull and equip black conductors with the musical armament needed to wade through such troubled waters are essential to the self-validation and preservation of their precious talent and competencies. Sound is all around us. Conductors simply pull it down from the air. Black hands in the sound are equally valuable.
And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. — Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Who’s accountable for black conductor education?
Should academics be required to develop black conducting applicants beyond their doorstep? Should social justice be included in the purview of talent cosigners? Finally, programs specifically developing female conductors have appeared. Those who lead with their brains rather than certain appendages are undoubtedly much needed today! Albeit well intentioned and necessary, these programs still mostly recruit and promote white or nonthreatening model minority female conductors. I for one would love to hear music from the matriarchs of the black community. A black woman’s intellect and irrefutable strong will make them perfect conduits of musical expression. Grant them the opportunity to study, develop, and occupy podiums of distinction.
Instead of accepting a multitude of black talent on the podium and in classrooms, tokenism is promoted. Limiting opportunity to one at a time only furthers the ideology that talent is mostly concentrated in the white population. Whites are cast as diversity advocates, while minorities serve as mere props to prototypical white podium supremacy.
Ghosting black talent is no longer acceptable. Inequality in society has narrowed the definition of a successful conducting applicant, not their talent or potential. Black conductors need new specific educational venues for their development. Black people are not a monolith, and education is not one size fits all. The impact of tax-based education on music education leaves black children in the dust before reaching the starting line. Potential talent is willfully abandoned. Those with privilege must effect change by recruiting prospective black talent from where they are, just as they recruit and promote classically relatable privileged white and model minority students through good ol’ boy networks. Change the mindset of what a conductor looks like. Admit that admissions tests only historically favor the most privileged conducting applicants — allowing faculty to yield myopic and conventional assessments of talent — disregarding the real ramifications of racism, discrimination, tax-based education and social distancing reflected in our society.
White professors must stop enacting willful blindness insulated deep from within the pearly white cockles of academia — shielded from any responsibility for social reconstructionism —building higher and higher podiums of exclusion instead of steps towards inclusion and access. Harnessing the voices of severely marginalized, underrepresented minority artists creates a more potent art for all to experience. As members of the hegemony and the predominant gatekeepers to higher learning — and thus the podium — you must now in part gauge success on a tenacious investment and steadfast unconditional sincerity in developing future competent black wielders of the baton.
Noted conductor, educator and social justice advocate Brandon Keith Brown seeks to engineer 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. He is a student of David Zinman, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur and Gustav Meier. Initially trained as a violinist, he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music studying under Roland and Almita Vamos.
For more information and speaking request: www.brandonkeithbrown.com