No, American orchestras and the NBA don’t have the same racial diversity issues

Editor’s note: This story is part of our focus on proposed solutions to tackle big and small social problems in our communities. Our evidence-based reports explore what’s being done in North Texas and look for examples from people doing it better elsewhere.

On May 5, I published an article on The Dallas Morning News website titled: “American Orchestras Are Still Predominantly White. Here’s how to change that. The story later appeared on the front page of the May 8 newspaper.

From the day it was published, responses poured in. During my three years as a classical music writer at The news, that’s the most emails I’ve received about a story. It also attracted hundreds of comments on social media.

Some respondents were positive, but most reacted negatively.

I would like to answer some of the most common points below.

1. I don’t see how that is a problem.

Orchestras want to better reflect the communities they serve so that more audiences feel welcomed and represented. They see this as essential to staying relevant in an increasingly diverse country.

2. This article comes down to saying that the NBA, which is made up mostly of black athletes, has a diversity problem.

This comparison does not hold water. Basketball is often easier to get into than teaching classical music. There are many other opportunities to play the game from an early age. Playing in travel basketball leagues can be expensive, but scholarships and sponsorships can help cover the costs.

Growing up in Washington DC, Cole Randolph, a cellist with the Detroit Symphony, said he played alongside many black and Latino musicians who were probably more talented than him. But when it came time to buy a new instrument, which can cost thousands of dollars, many parents told their kids to focus on sports instead.

“The financial barrier to entry isn’t high at first,” he said, “but when you start getting better, it’s not cheap.”

Cole Randolph, middle, plays in the cello section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Randolph was an African-American member of the orchestra in 2020 and later won an audition to become a full-time member.(Sarah Smarch / Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Diverse young students populate music education programs across the United States. But the field has been challenged to retain these musicians due to financial hurdles every step of the way. And these barriers disproportionately affect musicians of color because of the racial wealth gap.

3. Orchestras should base their hiring solely on merit.

Many musicians would probably agree with this statement. Musicians of color interviewed for the article said they prefer “blind” auditions that use screens to separate applicants from the audition committee at all rounds.

“I’m proud of the fact that I made it and they didn’t know who I was the whole time,” said Randolph of the Detroit Symphony. “I don’t want to get extra points for being a minority.”

But focusing solely on merit when discussing racial diversity ignores the uneven playing field that many musicians of color must navigate. Experts argue that meritocracy is a myth that ignores issues of race, gender, and class.

Economic status plays an important role in determining whether a musician can access a top orchestra. Professional violins typically cost between $3,000 and $10,000, and professional harps can fetch up to $150,000.

Yes, many musicians win scholarships and many face heavy debts due to conservatory studies. But most musicians rise through the ranks because they can access quality education and instruments from an early age.

Students in affluent neighborhoods in North Dallas, where schools offer strong music programs, have more opportunities to learn and study an instrument than those in less affluent neighborhoods in the south of the city. That’s why the Dallas Symphony created the Young Musicians program, which offers free lessons and instruments to students in South Dallas.

Yet these education initiatives, some of which have been in place for decades, are only part of the solution. The musicians and executives I spoke with for the story said there was no easy solution to the problem. This will likely involve increasing access and finding more ways to retain musicians.

Ultimately, the article aimed to appeal to readers, musicians and orchestra leaders. This won’t be the last story on the subject, and I hope to continue the discussion with those interested in the matter.

American orchestras are still predominantly white. Here’s how to change that

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