Diversifying Orchestral Music in New York State: New Approaches and Strategies

DiversityMeetingDiversity is central to NYSCA’s mission, and we are proud to have hosted a meeting on March 8 with organizations from around the state dedicated to making symphony orchestras more diverse. The meeting brought together representatives from various points along the “pipeline” to professional careers in orchestral music, including community music schools, professional symphony orchestras, El Sistema-inspired education programs, youth orchestras, service organizations, conservatories, the American Federation of Musicians, a classical music station and foundations. Among them were the Sphinx Organization, the New York Philharmonic, WQXR, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The meeting was a joint initiative of NYSCA’s Music Program and Arts Education Program, and the discussion looked towards actions to make the classical music world more equitable, inclusive and welcoming. Participants spoke of challenges, successful strategies and new approaches for diversifying both organizations and audiences:


  • The numbers: According to a Sphinx Organization presentation, 88% of orchestra members are white and 7.34% are Asian. Black musicians make up 1.83% and Latino musicians make up 2.42% of orchestral players, numbers well below these groups’ representation in society. Programming is dominated by white composers.
  • Increase Representation. Ultimately, the goal should be achieving greater representation among musicians, staffs and boards; internal cultures of orchestras must actively support this goal.
  • Engage musicians in the programming process to encourage variety.
  • Nurture Talent. Focus on successful mentoring.
  • Open up the audition process: if repertoire shifts are requiring more stylistic versatility and flexibility, acknowledge that with new repertoire and elements such as improvisation.
  • Think “warming up” not “dumbing down” classical music to new audiences by integrating familiar styles or instruments. Example: Rick Robinson of CutTime Productions adapted Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca to a new arrangement that included a beatboxer.


Barriers to diversifying audiences identified included brand identity, community awareness, education and the internal cultures of orchestras.  Participants shared their plans and projects to break these down, including:

  • Engage communities through performances in non-concert hall spaces, from clubs and bars to churches and schools.
  • Reach out to whole families. The Noel Pointer Foundation, for example, has a “parent orchestra,” in which participants learn alongside their children.
  • Go outside. If resources allow, free, public outdoor concerts can be a very effective way to raise awareness and tap into the interests of local audiences.
  • Think big. See engagement as an integrated programming component – not the outreach you do on the side. Rethink repertoire in your main concert series so that it reflects your audience’s backgrounds, tastes and experiences.
  • Don’t give up. Give audiences time to believe in your commitment to a paradigm shift – it may take more than one, two, or three programs to sell tickets when you make changes.
  • Be welcoming. Encourage humor and interaction during performances.
  • Be image-conscious. Increase diversity of images that appear in in your printed materials, social media and website –organically. One way to do this in the short-term is hiring guest artists of color – remember the sold-out Brooklyn Philharmonic concerts with Erykah Badu?  No one should approach you and feel “That’s not for me” or “I don’t belong there.”


How does your organization encourage diversity? Let us know in the comments!


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