Advancing Classical Music Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion: My Class at the Yale School of Music

Since 2015, I have been teaching a class on Creativity, Collaboration and Innovation at the Yale School of Music. The focus of my class is how to generate innovative solutions to the problems facing classical music today. The learning vehicle is the semester-long collaborative project. In the past, the projects focused on how to attract younger audiences to classical music, how to engage underserved communities, and even a business project to help musicians to practice better. Last year, when my class went remote, the focus was  how to ensure the place of classical music at a time when COVID has shut down the performing arts sector. And this year, my focus is on how to advance classical music diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Issues surrounding classical music diversity have bubbled up with greater frequency in my previous classes. Many students have been concerned about the elitist image of classical music that turns away many people from the art form; particularly younger audiences and audiences from minority communities. Students have also cited indicators of the lack of diversity in classical music: the emphasis on the Western canon in music education, the lack of diversity in programming and genres, the lack of access to high-quality music programs for those in underserved communities and the narrow pipeline for admission to elite music programs.

Not surprisingly, my decision to refocus my class came in response to the tumultuous events of the COVID shut-down and the murder of George Floyd in 2020. The specific idea came to me at a diversity workshop that was held last spring at the Yale School of Music when our facilitator asked us to consider what we could do to advance classical music diversity, equity and inclusion.  I realized that my project-based class was the ideal vehicle for exploring what today’s music students could do to change the paradigm and bring more diversity, equity, and inclusion to the world of classical music.

The Importance of Classical Music Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

There are many reasons to advance DEI in classical music.

  1. Diversity boosts the creativity of the arts

A good starting point for why we need more diversity in the classical music field is this season’s Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Fire is the first opera by a black composer in the company’s history and it was the Met’s choice to reopen with this work after the 18-month pandemic shutdown. The opera was praised for its creativity by Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, which helped to fund the production. In an interview, Walker commented“What we saw Monday night is what happens in America when diversity is unleashed, when we see creativity that we’ve not been able to see,” Walker said. “If opera is to thrive in the future as an art form in America, productions like this can’t be exceptions outside the mainstream canon.”

Indeed, the arts thrive on the creative infusion from many different voices. A report from the League of American Orchestras on “Making The Case for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Orchestras” observes that “increasing the diversity of conductors and artists on stage brings a richness of perspectives, broader repertoire choices, and new ways to program…”

  1. Classical music diversity attracts a new and more diverse audience

Moreover, greater diversity in artists, repertoire and programming will attract new audiences and increase the connection between the opera house and surrounding communities. This was the case with the premiere of  Fire, which attracted a new, more diverse audience, and garnered excellent reviews to boot.

The Met’s Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin observed in an interview that the Met’s challenge was not “old people are getting older,” but that opera needed to be accessible and reflect a broad range of experiences. “Opera is for everyone,” he said. “If it speaks to everyone, it needs also to have stories coming from more different points of view, instead of just the male European one.”

  1. Diversity and inclusion enhance decision-making and results

On a practical level, studies from the business world indicate that diverse and inclusive teams make better decisions. As noted in a recent article in forbes.com:

  • Inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time;
  • Inclusive teams engage in faster decision-making; and
  • Decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60% better results

An article in the Harvard Business Review explains why diverse teams are smarter:

They focus on the facts and process facts more carefully and objectively, scrutinize each team member’s assumptions and actions and are more innovative.

If we analogize to the collaborative world of the arts, these results suggest that a more diverse and inclusive classical music environment will also enrich and lead to higher quality and more innovative performances and offerings.

  1. Equity demands greater diversity and inclusion

Finally, equity and fairness should be an important value to honor in our society and in the music world where there is a wide gap between the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the reality. In fact, access to classical music education and profession has been limited to those with the resources to study and compete. As noted in a recent study of diversity, equity and inclusion in the classical music field by Susan Feder of the Mellon Foundation and Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, “The absence of Black and Latinx musicians in the classical music profession is deeply rooted in intertwined issues of access and structural racism.”

The book chapter goes on to detail the history of racism in the classical music field, as well as to present some recent developments to address the historic underrepresentation of Black and Latinx musicians in the field.

In short, we are making progress but there is a still a lot of work to do.

That’s what my class is exploring: what individual music students can do to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.

My Class on Classical Music Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Yale School of Music

My class is off to a great start. On our first day, I asked the students to introduce themselves by sharing where they were from and who were their families of origin. Not surprisingly, the class has attracted a very diverse group of students. Out of my class of fourteen, seven students have one or both Asian parents and six students have one or both Latinx parents. Nine of the students are the children of immigrants (one or both parents). I shared my origin story as the daughter of Polish immigrants who came to the US as survivors of the Holocaust. Students appreciated sharing their families of origin and learning the backgrounds of their fellow students, noting that it was the first time that they had been asked to do so.

Moreover, my students have had different experiences of feeling included in the music world. Some students noted that from their early days of studying music, they felt that this was their community, while others did not find their communities until college. Several students spoke of not having equal access to music resources until they reached college when they finally felt a sense of inclusion. A few other students spoke about how they, as minority students, had to work twice as hard to gain a toehold in the field. Again, this was a marvelous way to introduce the idea of equity and inclusion. From the outset, we have been creating a safe community to support each other as we explore and dig into DEI in classical music.

With this backdrop, my students are now working on their projects in three different areas:

  • How to provide access to high-quality music education for children from minority backgrounds;
  • How to infuse classical music education to all students; and
  • How to make classical music performances more diverse, creative and engaging for today’s audiences

Stay tuned on our next steps!