Hues of Music: A Discussion with Flutists of Color. by Mara Miller
Even though classical music has historically been influenced by non-Western cultures, it is deeply rooted in the European tradition. With that foundation, there is still a limited amount of diversity in the modern-day classical community. This article is meant to create an opportunity for racially diverse classical musicians, particularly flutists, to discuss and explore instances in which race has or has not influenced their professional experiences. I have reached out to several of my talented colleagues and compiled a brief list of questions for them to answer. Below are their responses along with a few of my own.
1) Do you have classical musicians of color that you would consider role models and if so, how have they inspired you?
Justine Stephens: I consider Flutronix and Hubert Laws my role models. They are pioneers in their fields, and it is encouraging and uplifting to see flutists that look like you doing what they love. Of course there are also the endless amount of black Jazz musicians (Dizzy, Coltrane, Art Blakey) that have truly begun the Jazz art form. I also am a huge fan of Esperanza Spalding! She is just exuberant and cheerful to listen to.
Ethan Lin: Absolutely! Among the artists of color, the two that have made the most impact on my musical career are Leontyne Price and Yo-Yo Ma.
Mara Miller: Leona Mitchell, Eric Lamb, Aaron Dworkin, Flutronix, Anthony and Demarre McGill (both literally my childhood crushes), and Jasmine Choi are prime examples that, apart from being insanely talented, are individuals I admire because they facilitate and/or inspire discussions like this one about the inclusion of minorities in the arts. Specifically, I remember sitting in my high school classroom, watching Anthony McGill perform at President Obama’s inauguration and began to tear up because of how hopeful and proud I was for both McGill and the President. It truly moved me.
Azeem Ward: Demarre McGill, is a modern day flutist that continues to soar in his career. I have seen his masterclass live and I was inspired by his playing and philosophy about music. Every piece of music is a story so how do you plan to interpret yours?
Hubert Laws is simply a legend. This flutist had the ability to make it into the NY Phil and decided that it was not for him. He continued on to form, arrange, and create his own music. He mixed genres from jazz, classical, funk, and latin influences. He pioneered new pathways for the flute and took the instrument to places not many flutists could go to, which is why I admire him. He was an innovator.
Jonathan Tindall: Harold Jones was my first African American role model. At that point in my life, I was about 15 or 16. I had never run into a black flute player. I studied with Harold at the Manhattan School of Music Pre-college. I can’t quite remember exactly how I felt but I definitely was a bit surprised that he was a black professional flute player who studied at Juilliard. At the same time, I didn’t think of myself as something different from the non-black flute players I studied with or played alongside. In college, I discovered Imani Winds, which was definitely more interesting and afrocentric in the sense that they were embracing their heritage musically. It was interesting to see an entirely black group of musicians who I considered to be talented and strong musicians. They were role models for me as a musician just as any other musician dependent on race that I have come across.
2) Have there been any stereotypes you've had to deal with as a flutist of color?
Sarah Howard: This is a very sensitive question because it's certainly based on my perception. Let me start by saying that, most of the time, people are well intended when they acknowledge race. As a brown woman in her late 30s, I grew up in an era where being brown wasn't popular. I could never get my hair quite right. When I hit puberty my hips and thighs appeared, and I desperately wanted to be something that I couldn't possibly be. I didn't really have a lot of examples of women who looked like me or who I could relate to, especially in the music world. So, I think that has driven my perception and experience as a classical musician. I have felt, on occasion, that some of the positions I've attained may have been race driven. As a brown person, you always feel (when you're the only one) that you're meeting some sort of quota. It's kind of messed up that I feel that way because I know that my playing speaks for itself, but it's always in the back of my mind. Did I get this because I'm a brown person? It's certainly disheartening and a source of anxiety for me. I want to win a job because I'm a great player. Not because an organization might need someone "ethnic."
Ryan Zerna: As a person of Filipino descent, I personally have not had to deal with any glaring stereotypes during my studies. I have met and worked with many wonderful friends and colleagues who only take positive interest in my race.
Adam Sadberry: Thankfully, I have not had to deal with many stereotypes, but they have been present. The ones that I have had to deal with pertain mostly with instrument choice. People used to ask me why I don’t play a more “black” instrument like saxophone or trombone or judge me for being involved in music instead of sports.
Jonathan Tindall: I do have to say looking back at some experiences now, and even a bit then, I don’t think race was the reason [I was stereotyped]. Within the past year I was playing with a very good amateur orchestra, one that I pop in and out of every so often to help them. They are based in London and act as a conductor training orchestra. So amateur or young conductors and conducting classes hire out the orchestra to put together concerts. A friend of mine who plays principal asked me to come and play for a concert of Beethoven 4 and Mendelssohn “Italian”. These orchestral scenes for the amateur level, although very good players, is pretty casual. I have played with many of these orchestras in my 6 years in London. I was wearing a skater hat, which is a very popular style in diverse urban communities. I had slim fit jeans with a hoodie and nike sneakers with the large tongues, I believe they are called (I swear I am painting a picture for a reason.) I showed up early and helped set up a few chairs in the wind section without really introducing myself because I just wanted to get situated and the general vibe didn’t lend itself to proper introductions. I sat down in the principal seat without removing my flute from my backpack and just was on my phone. The orchestra manager came over and asked me what I was there for, in a way that was definitely uneasy, as if I were in the wrong place. The venue was a church so perhaps he thought I was there for prayer. I said I was there to sub. He then said, “Second?”. Now at this point I had to be a bit more direct. I told him I was there to play principal flute for Beethoven and Mendelssohn and continue introduce myself and mention I was a friend of Caroline. All the moments before we started playing was a bit awkward and people were a bit quiet and showing off with working on runs, but you know I have played these pieces loads before so I don’t need to do all that (although I am sure that happens everywhere). Finally once we get going, I play well and in tune with musicality. During the break they all asked me where I studied, who I studied with and where I’ve played before. I thought, wow it is a shame that people prejudge by how I was dressed.
Ethan Lin: Perhaps a couple positive ones. I have (almost) perfect pitch, so dictation was a breeze for me. And memorization comes very easy for me.
3) Can you recall a moment that your race affected your experience as a classical flutist?
Adam Sadberry: A moment that I will never forget is a comment that I received after I performed the first movement of Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G with the Clear Lake Symphony: “Wow! When you walked on stage, I thought you were a football player, but you’re a pretty good flute player too!” Hearing that single comment made it clear that skin color does and will continue to impact someone’s expectations of you.
Jonathan Tindall: I can’t say I have ever felt that I was affected by race but more my general appearance and not conforming to the old fashioned idea of what musicians look like or dress like. I think in general this is changing with all young musicians.
Mara Miller: One particular moment that comes to my attention occurred while I was playing principal in the pit of a university production of Die Zauberflöte. I was beyond excited (and equally nervous) to perform on opening night. Things were going very well and then, previously unbeknownst to me, the tenor performing the role of Monostatos saunters out on stage in Blackface. The character Monostatos was written to be of Moorish descent (a person of color from either the Iberian Peninsula or Northern Africa). Now, we could get into a completely different discussion about the history of racism and prejudice within opera and the racist nature of Blackface, but we’ll save that chat for another time. After being caught off guard by the archaic practice being displayed in the production, I felt offended, uncomfortable, and frankly, baffled that this was considered to be acceptable by the director and staff. I was curious about my colleagues’ opinion on things after the performance, but I was embarrassed or maybe too upset to bring it up, honestly.
Sarah Howard: Yes, and in a very positive way! I have had so many great work opportunities to reach all types of people. In 2010 I premiered the "concert ending" for the first movement of the Mike Mower Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra for a winter tour. As a woman of color in the military, it was an epic moment for me. 50 years ago I never would have been on that stage let alone in the military. In that moment I was able to represent not only African American women in the military, but African American musicians. It certainly changed me. I never thought I would be a "way-paver" in that regard, but I am. It was a beautiful moment.
Ethan Lin: One time in my undergrad, one of my professors made a comment (during my ensemble audition) about how Asian musicians tend to play without emotions because we are all "machines". Perhaps it wasn't the nicest thing to say (or hear) in between excerpts, but I vowed not to be a robot. :P
4) What do you think is the best part about being a flutist of color?
Adam Sadberry: The best part of being a flutist of color is being an ambassador for diversity in the classical music world. I love the fact that just appearing in a concert sends the message that classical musicians do not have to be solely white or Asian. It is a genre that all people can appreciate and should at least try to perform at some point! Through being involved with classical music and the flute specifically, I have grown more than I have through any other aspect of my life.
Justine Stephens: As a flutist of color, especially in a Metropolitan area such as New York City, I have met some amazing and likeminded flutists of color. The community of black flutists I have met has developed into a strong, tight-knit circle where we can talk both about our culture and music.
Azeem Ward: Whenever I am at a festival or masterclass, I tend to feel like I am usually the only person with color there (or one of the few). It just means I feel a little different, or have something special to offer. But overall, in my eyes, being a certain color does not affect you so much. Its really about whether you can play the instrument or not.
Sarah Howard: Ha! Everything. I grew up being the only little brown flute player in my band, so when I see other brown flute players I get so excited! I had no idea that there were so many of us until I went to the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival! I was so excited. I had to contain it though because I knew that only I would think it was a big deal. The best part was they were all phenomenal players! I love that. I also love shocking people. Sometimes I think that people don't expect us to be good (There goes my perception again). When you sit down and you completely slay a piece of music, it opens people's eyes a little. At least it used to. I think that people like Valerie [Coleman] definitely paved the way for some of us in that regard. Times have changed, and there are a lot more of us then there were when I was coming up.
Ryan Zerna: I feel that, in general, being a person of color makes me unique, and I take pride in my race. In the music world, I also feel that I can offer different perspectives of artistic expression due to my cultural background.
5) What would you like to see change within the classical music community in regards to race?
Justine Stephens: Even though I personally am not pursuing an orchestral career, it would be great to see more black classical musicians within orchestras. There has been change with success the Syrinx Organization and wonderful musicians such as Demarre and Anthony McGill, as well as the scattering of black string players I see within orchestra sections, but the growth of this must continue. It starts from childhood and our schools - getting young black girls and boys involved in music activities. This expands into adolescence, where black teens can be most at-risk. I have been a big supporter of El Sistema and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela since I have heard about the incredible groups serving Latino youth. In the US, Carnegie Hall recently unveiled NYO2 and PlayUSA, programs for talented students from groups underserved by and underrepresented in the classical orchestral field. All steps in the right direction!
Azeem Ward: I would like to see more enthusiastic and inspiring teachers of color in the field of classical music at more inner city schools. Classical music seems like a chore to some kids that don't know about it (especially the popular ones). But the genre could be super fun and have great long lasting effects on children, if presented in a positive light.
Ryan Zerna: While I have not had any significant problems in my experience as a musician, I do know many problems still exist. I think it would be great to see ensembles make a point to be more ethnically diverse, both in the curation of composers of color and in the personnel of the ensemble itself. By offering more diverse viewpoints, classical music would have the power to inspire significant changes, both within the music world and beyond.
Ethan Lin: I was very fortunate and attended two very diverse music schools (UCLA and USC), therefore I was exposed to all different races on all levels (colleagues, professors, administration, etc.). I believe these types of relationships need to happen at a younger age. Learning about different cultures is a great way to enhance one’s musicianship, and it will help us understand each other better.
Mara Miller: I’m used to performing in ensembles where I am one of the very few, if not the only person of color in the room. My hope is that the classical musicians of color in the generation after me won’t ever have to consider that thought. Some of the most talented and expressive musicians I’ve ever met and performed with are people of color. Talented minority classical musicians are not an anomaly and I don’t think the caliber of playing in ensembles will suffer once orchestras become more diverse. I think in order to incorporate more diversity in this community, even more efforts should be made to create and facilitate arts outreach programs for students in inner-city schools and other diverse areas. With more diverse musicians, there can begin to be a significant growth in educators and conductors of color reflected in classical culture and that makes me so excited!
It is important that we continue to have discussions like this so that every single person involved in and inspired by classical music can make efforts towards a more inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or economic status. Listening to a variety of individuals’ perspectives is enlightening for all as it allows us to learn and become more empathetic people. I’d like to take a moment to thank all of my colleagues who have agreed to participate in this discussion. I’m glad your voices were able to be heard.
To view the entirety of my guests responses, please check out my blog: marainmanhattan.wordpress.com.