Black Orchestral Musicians Call for Equity & Inclusion

May 15, 2022—I applaud the actions of the Black members of more than sixty orchestras, who recently launched a “Day of Solidarity” in support of the Black Orchestral Network (BON), which is dedicated to creating an inclusive and equitable environment for Black musicians in the orchestral field.

BON was founded by seven Black orchestral members—Jennifer Arnold, Alexander Laing, David A. Norville, Joy Payton-Stevens, Shea Scruggs, Weston Sprott, and Titus Underwood based on the motto, “If we increase our connection to one another, we can harness our creativity and develop initiatives that benefit Black musicians.”

The organization’s members and supporters include musicians from some of the country’s most prominent and influential orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, National Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, and the Nashville Symphony. The organization also has received support from the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The campaign included the release of a “Dear American Orchestras” letter, a portion of which I’ve reprinted below:

“This letter is a call to action to build a richer and more robust American orchestral community: one where musicians can share all aspects of their artistry and talents, where Black artists can see and center themselves in the history and future of the orchestral community, and can find reflections of themselves and their multiple strengths and complexities. We cannot call ourselves an American orchestral community if we are not inclusive of Black Americans and do not respect and acknowledge Black Americans’ contributions to American music and the orchestral community….”

In its letter, BON calls for orchestras to hire more Black musicians and support opportunities for emerging Black artists; for the American Federation of Musicians, along with related conferences, to address barriers to fair and equitable audition and tenure practices, and for public and private funders to invest in the long-term viability of organizations already committed to working for equity and inclusion.

Three of the founders shared the following thoughts about BON and its call to action:

Jennifer Arnold: “We are committed to calling out the structures, systems, policies, and practices that have had harmful impacts on the American orchestral industry. Achieving equitable solutions requires questioning and dismantling of existing norms and taking collective action. We are at an unprecedented time where there are a large number of open positions in orchestras. If there is any time to attract, hire, and promote Black musicians, it is now.”

Alexander Laing: “A concert hall doesn’t just amplify sound—it’s a place of cultural affirmation. Being a Black orchestral musician or audience member shouldn’t require additional doses of isolation. We’ve seen in our own lives and practices what can happen when we increase and sustain our connection, and we’re going to scale that. We know what emerges will support Black artists and improve the state of the American orchestral industry.”

David A. Norville: “I had a deep desire to do something that would create a radical shift in our industry. On realizing I wasn’t alone with these thoughts, BON was born. Black orchestral musicians thrive when we connect with one another, evaluate experiences, commiserate, and make a plan for intentional change. There are already many extraordinary Black orchestral organizations, and BON will serve as a highway or proxy that finds points of connection between these organizations. If we can continue to unite, the resulting agency would be transformative.”

I urge the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to watch BON’s call to action and consider lending your support to their efforts to expand Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access in one of the nation’s cultural cornerstones of the arts. For a current list of all signatories, or to read the letter, check out the organization’s website at this link.

Also, be sure to check out the pilot for the BON Podcast, Black Music Seen, which shares the stories of and interviews with living legends in Black classical music. The first episode features the harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, the former principal harpist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who shattered the color barrier in 1969 and forged a heralded career that inspired many of today’s Black classical musicians.

As always, I would like to know what you think about the still-growing movements for equity and inclusion in the arts. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.

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