by Anthony R. Green
The first time I perhaps started to really think critically about diversity in Classical music was NOT when I came across Althea Waites's CD of piano music by Black composers as a child in my local library. While that was an important moment for me in my development, I was too young to think about diversity, and at that particular moment in time discussion about diversity was not within my purview. No. The first time I recall really considering diversity in Classical music and breaking stereotypes was when I first met a blind composer: Koray Sazli.
I remember wondering how he composed, how he came about composing and music in general, and other logistical concerns that I simply couldn't imagine figuring without the ability to see. I remember thinking all of these things, despite the popularity of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and other blind musicians throughout history. But composing - the detail-oriented practice of pen to paper ... how does this work as a blind composer? Turns out history is riddled with blind composers, including Harvey M. Miller and Valerie Capers (whose work Ella Scats the Little Lamb forms the basis of a Castle of our Skins educational workshop). There was even a composition competition devoted to blind or partially blind composers. I wonder if Ms. Capers was aware of this competition?
But I digress. Two particular stereotypes that I receive quite often from both musicians and non-musicians are the assumptions that I either am a Jazz composer (if I say that I am a composer) or that I am a vocalist (if I say that I am a Classical musician). And while I have NOTHING but respect for Jazz composers and vocalists (two practices that I would not dream of attempting), I wonder how they have cornered the stereotype market for Black musicians in academic settings? I am not sure if anyone would even think that, upon seeing her, Dr. Kira Thurman is a musicologist who speaks fluent German.
But I digress again. Stereotypes abound in Classical music, especially when Black or female. Despite the numerous historical examples of Black composers, female composers, and the illusive (but not really) Black female composer, the assumption of "composer" rarely arises upon seeing a Black person or a woman who expresses a professional affiliation with Classical music. This stereotype is only perpetuated by professional organizations and ensembles who continue to program works by those who fit the stereotype, and - sadly - most organizations and ensembles follow this rule.
How do we as a society break down this stereotype? It begins with the people, because obviously the organizations and ensembles are doing very little besides talking and writing articles. As a people, we need to encourage more Black and female children to have an interest in composing, and expose them to the rich history of this relevant music, equating it with the works of the old masters, and not making a special category for it. We need to write to our radio stations and ensembles/organizations and tell them what we want to hear programmed and what we want to see performed. We need to purchase CDs and downloadable albums by more composers of color and female composers. But most importantly, we need to get rid of our own stereotypes, and that takes quite a bit of work, because we may not even be aware of them.
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