Diversity: Start With Repertoire
Published online: 1 May 2023
- Issue: Volume 63, No.1
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2023.63.fr.11585
Current trends in classical music point to a need for more diverse performers, composers, and administrators. One of the easiest ways to incorporate diversity is through repertoire choices. Scores by composers from different countries are becoming increasingly easier to obtain, including those written by female composers, from historical times, and from living composers. Research continues to shed light on new composers and works from around the world that we can incorporate into our performance and teaching activities.
It can be easy to underestimate our influence on students and audiences. Any of us may feel like we are just one person and cannot really make much of a difference. However, I am reminded of a story from when my eldest son was young. He loved being read to, and was particularly interested in science. I happily read him every new picture book I could find about science and scientists, many of which showed the important contributions of women and people of color. I appreciated the authors’ attempts to highlight issues these scholars had to deal with, as well as the broadening of the public’s knowledge about people that were important but perhaps were underappreciated because of their race or gender. One day after reading, my son asked me “Are there any boy scientists?” I giggled to myself, because obviously the majority of “famous” scientists are men, and for most of history white men have been the only recognized contributors. But, at that point my son was not in school, so I was the only source of information about the subject available to him. What I chose to show him influenced his perception.
We should keep this in mind as we do something as simple and habitual as choosing repertoire for ourselves, our classes, and our students. Often, we are the only source of musical information for our students. We are considered experts, and what we choose to show them is what they consider important. If we make an effort to regularly include music by female composers, and both men and women outside of Western Europe, they will come to regard that as normal. By going beyond Bach and Beethoven, we can provide a more well-rounded view of classical music and encourage students that may not have felt they had a place in it to become involved. Even in our own performances, what we show audiences can broaden their horizons and make them more aware of the important contributions of all composers and performers from the past and present.
An important element is to always discuss the issues composers had during their lives, to make sure we do not sweep the pain of prejudice and discrimination under the rug. I feel it is important for students and audiences to understand the historical context of music and composers regardless of the repertoire being performed. This is especially true for those outside our traditional canon. That being said, I think it is also important to choose music because it is great music, not just because the composer adds diversity. One of my favorite things to do is look for new repertoire, and when I find pieces I love, I am always excited to share them with my students. When I program repertoire for my own concerts from outside the normal canon, I always find my audiences are more engaged and attentive. They feel like they are learning something new along with hearing great music. We can use enthusiasm for the music to help start the discussion about the composer and their life experiences.
According to the Donne Foundation (2021), the great majority of works played by orchestras today are still written by white men. The group, which is a U.K.-based charitable organization committed to achieving gender equality in the music industry, examined works scheduled for the 2021-2022 season by 111 orchestras across 31 countries. According to the study, “of the 20,400 compositions included, 87.7% were written by white men, only 7.7% by women.” The pull toward the standards is so great that almost one-third of all pieces included were by “ten white, historical and well-known European men.” There is something to be said for trying to draw in audiences with pieces they know, but there is so much excitement about bringing diversity into all parts of life that I believe we could also pull in new people if we broadened our repertoire base. Administrators and conductors of symphonies, orchestras, and other established groups need to look outside of the usual works. It does take considerable research and advanced planning. Although there is a great deal of improvement in terms of score access, acquiring certain works still takes time. With so many music groups facing financial hardship and lower audience numbers, a new plan for incorporating diverse composers (as well as living composers) can help create new excitement and opportunities for drawing in people that may not have attended otherwise.
We have a great opportunity to make changes on the large and small scale—to change what is our “standard canon.” For example, Florence Price was forgotten for many years after her death, but her music is now presented throughout the world. If we are able to keep up the exposure, she may move into the world of standards, at least for her piano compositions and possibly symphonic works. By broadening our usual repertoire, we can bring in new people to experience classical music while continuing to acknowledge the contributions of composers and performers of the past.
Donne. 2021. “New Report: Equality & Diversity in Global Repertoire.” Accessed October 15, 2022. https://donne-uk.org/research-new/.
Last modified on Sunday, 04/06/2023
Angela Miller-Niles is Associate Professor of Piano at Wayne State College in Wayne, NE. She also serves as Music Department Chair and director of the WSC Music Academy. She teaches applied piano, group piano classes, and piano pedagogy.