Yale Daily News

Of the 231 students enrolled at the Yale School of Music in fall 2019, only three — just over one percent — identified as Black or African American, according to a report from the Office of Institutional Research.

And though the first African-American woman to receive a degree from Yale — pianist and composer Helen Eugenia Hagan, class of 1912 — was a School of Music student, the average proportion of Black students across the University’s professional schools is 5.65 percent, highlighting the School of Music’s proportion as relatively low.

Underrepresentation of Black voices in Western art music, the School of Music’s primary canon of instruction, stretches far beyond Yale. A 2015 report by the League of American Orchestras revealed that Black or African-American musicians comprised 5.93 percent of American youth orchestras and 1.77 percent of American professional orchestras. And institutions that teach Western art music have centered a narrative influenced by the genre’s history, which has its roots in the Western church and European aristocracy.

In interviews with the News, School of Music students and administrators explained their commitments to work against systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer — and their push for increased Black representation within classical music.

A call to action: ‘Take a look in the mirror’

Choral conducting student James Davis MUS ’21, who is Black, studied mathematics and engineering as an undergraduate at Morehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia. Davis initially did not consider conducting as a career because, though he’s always been a musician, he didn’t see himself represented in the field.

“Subconsciously, I may have stayed away from it for that reason,” Davis said. “My hope is that the next generation of Black boys growing up don’t feel like that.”

Clarinetist Richard Adger MUS ’19 ’20 said that frustration has permeated many of his conversations with other Black musicians.

“A lot of the issues in classical music are systemic,” Adger said. “It’s going to take time to rebuild. And before we rebuild, we have to have tough conversations. What do we have to get rid of? What do we have to knock down?”

The killing of George Floyd in May initiated nationwide protests against police brutality. The movement has led to a push for increased Black representation in several areas of American society, including classical music spaces long-filled with white individuals and dominated by Western European influence. This cultural dominance is exemplified by the household-name status of individual composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and the relatively unregarded musical contributions from other areas of the globe — like the ragas of Southeast Asia.

“The classical music field needs to take a look in the mirror,” Davis said. “And I think these recent killings and shootings are forcing classical music to do that.”

Soon after the protests began, school administrators, faculty and students began to think about how they could incite change within their institution, wanting to fight against systemic racism and for racial equity.

On June 1, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker issued a statement to the YSM community expressing solidarity with “African-American colleagues and friends at YSM and throughout the world.” The statement promised to question the institution’s policies and “seek understanding and insight that prevents all vestiges of racism in [the school’s] work,” while also renewing its commitment to constructing a “welcoming environment for African-American colleagues — and indeed all people of color.” 

That day, the School of Music published a post that stated “Black Lives Matter. Here, everywhere.” The post announced the institution’s June 2 participation in Black Out Tuesday and #theshowmustbepaused, a collective action to protest racism in the music industry. Facebook comments on the school’s posts called for immediate and concrete action steps, like programming works by Black composers and diversifying faculty. Various student groups also began drafting letters to the administration in response.

Student voices: concerned members of the YSM community 

By June 5, a group of School of Music students sent a letter to Blocker and the broader community. The letter stated that “two of our key roles as artists are to uplift communities and improve the human condition: as members of the YSM community, we expect our beloved school to take a firm and decisive anti-racist position.” The letter demanded that the School of Music issue a statement with specific measures to amplify BIPOC voices and “decentralize whiteness” within the institution.

Composer Frances Pollock MUS ’25 helped write the aforementioned letter, as well as several other letters from smaller cohorts of School of Music students from particular fields of study. She was moved by the way her community, in the middle of a pandemic, came together over Google Docs to demand change in their institutions.

The letter proposed several possible action items: curricular reform, programming reform, a celebration of Black History Month, mandatory anti-racism education, community leadership and institutional accountability.

Composer Joel Thompson MUS ’20 ’26, who is Black, said he and his white colleagues have bonded over the fact that they are “victims of their education” — and that they have “rarely, if at all” studied a Black composer in theory or history classes.

Curricular reform suggestions included diversifying faculty, hiring from the New Haven community and requiring each student to take a Music Department course in ethnomusicology or a course in Yale College’s Department of African American Studies.

Thompson acknowledged that it is much easier to diversify the student body than to diversify the faculty and administration — but the School of Music needs to diversify its faculty in order to diversify its curriculum and make Black students feel welcome, he said.

The letter’s authors also suggested the creation of a community liaison to break down barriers between the School of Music and New Haven. 

They also called for representative concert programming, which prioritizes the work of composers that represent a population’s diversity. They demanded programming works by Black composers at concerts for both the Yale Philharmonia and Yale in New York, a chamber music series that performs at Carnegie Hall.

Adger and Pollock both said that, while diverse programming should be a goal, attitude and intention are even more important — one or two individual composers cannot represent the totality of Black musicians’ experiences.

“When things are being tokenized, it’s very apparent to the marginalized group,” Adger said. He added that the conversation should be about uplifting voices, not about the School of Music “doing better.”

Pollock said part of the effectiveness of representative programming is determined by whether underrepresented musicians can actually participate in that concert program. If not, she said, it implies that “it’s okay for a few people to represent a whole demographic rather than letting every demographic participate.”

‘A perfect storm of crises’: Commitments to racial equity

School of Music administrators responded to the letter the following week. Blocker said he and others in the institution’s leadership — Associate Dean Michael Yaffe, Deputy Dean Melvin Chen, Senior Executive Assistant to the Dean and Chief of Staff Stefanie Parkyn — received many letters, both signed and anonymous, asking for actionable change.

According to Blocker, the School of Music’s first statement was an immediate emotional response to Floyd’s murder. Even before the initial Facebook posts, School of Music faculty began drafting a set of action items to be released on June 14.

“We all felt a strong desire to look at the school, decipher what was already in the works, what we wanted to accomplish and release a statement in a timely manner,” Yaffe said.

On June 14, the list of action items in an official commitment statement titled “YSM Commitments to Racial Equity.”

Blocker said that the statement, of which he was the main author, incorporated ideas of many faculty members and students, but was not a direct response to any of the letters he received.

The statement’s action items included recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities, mandatory anti-racism training, an expansion of the Ellington Jazz Series, a proposed student orchestra committee for representative programming, observation of Black History Month, expanding the Music in Schools Initiative, plans to appoint a Director of Student Life and the establishment of a faculty resource fund directed toward engaging more musicians of color.

The statement also elaborated on the School of Music’s Strategic Planning Initiative, which consists of several committees “for which issues of diversity and inclusion are priorities.” Although it is unclear what the initiative will do in the immediate future, the committees have begun to meet.

Pollock was happy to see overlap between the School of Music’s statement and the letters she helped write.

Blocker too felt encouraged that the sentiments reflected in student letters deeply reflected those of the school’s leadership.

Some of the plans, such as the School of Music’s increased effort to recruit from HBCUs, were already underway before the school released its statement. Director of Alumni Affairs Donna Yoo MUS ’09 has been exploring HBCU partnerships since fall 2019. She has helped form the HBCU Partnership Initiative Committee, which draws members from students, alumni, faculty and staff. So far, the committee has waived the school’s $150 application fee for HBCU applicants and plans to hold workshops on recording high-quality audition tapes.

Yoo said increasing outreach and awareness that Yale has a tuition-free music school is the first step. Most conservatories have high tuition prices, making them inaccessible to many. Yoo’s committee is also planning recruiting visits to HBCU campuses once coronavirus-related risks lessen. 

According to Yoo, diversifying the student body rather than just the applicant pool is crucial and will work in tandem with the school’s other action items.

Davis, a member of the HBCU Partnership Initiative Committee and the only current School of Music student who attended an HBCU, stressed the need to make Black students, especially those from non-conservatory backgrounds, feel comfortable at the historically white institution. 

Although Adger felt that he and other Black students did not have the opportunity to contribute to the school’s statement, he said the best action item is the expansion of its Music in Schools Initiative. This initiative works with predominantly Black and Latinx students in New Haven Public Schools and helps alleviate gaps in access to music education.

According to Yaffe, the Symposium and Music in Schools Initiative are funded by the Class of ’57 endowment. Funding for other initiatives comes from concert funds and the regular school budget. And plans are still in their beginning stages, subject to delays and changes. For example, plans for the Black History Month celebration are expanding into a longer-term project to extend beyond February.

Pollock said although institutions “don’t have a great track record of carrying through with their promises of diversity, it was really encouraging this summer to see people actually taking practical steps in the right direction.”

Moving forward: A shift in perspective

Pollock, Davis and Adger agreed that only time will tell whether the commitments will create any lasting change within the school — and the classical music field, in general.

“Audiences, a lot of times, will look like the stage,” Davis said. “If we want our audiences to be different, the stage needs to reflect that.”

And even though Davis said that it was important for Black musicians to have role models in the field to show that it can be accessible to them, others emphasized that race is only one factor in a musician’s multiplicitous identity.

The student letter stressed that although the current moment demands a focus on Black students at the school, its writers desire to see “equitable representation for all BIPOC moving forward.” This includes the large proportion of Asian and Asian-American students enrolled — aside from white students, they are the most represented racial group at the School of Music.

Composer Soomin Kim MUS ’21, said that while she understands the importance of highlighting underrepresented voices, the intention for doing so is important.

“I don’t like being forced to talk about being a woman, or being Korean,” Kim said. “No one’s racial or gender identity has to be at the forefront if they don’t want it to be.”

Thompson said that if he were to “write a piece about birds,” people might see that as a political statement — as his choice not to write about police brutality or the movement for Black lives. He said he’s expected to “write Black music, whatever that means.”

“It’s the nature of our society that my identity as a Black man, an identity as a woman or any other marginalized [identity] is inherently political in this country,” Thompson said.

Davis, Adger and pianist Hilda Huang ’17 MUS ’20 stressed the importance of self-awareness in fighting the racism ingrained in Western art music.

Huang noticed that she has recently received more requests to perform works by Black, other POC and non-male composers. She sees this as evidence that the field is becoming more aware — and said that it needs to continue in this direction.

Thompson expressed optimism about the school’s attempt at self-awareness. He said that several of his professors have already incorporated the music of Black musicians, including Aretha Franklin and George Walker, into their curricula since the School of Music began classes on Sept. 8.

In 2014, Thompson wrote “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” Each of the choral composition’s seven movements quotes the last words of an unarmed Black man killed by police. The piece’s final movement sets the text “I can’t breathe” to music. These were the last words of Eric Garner, when New York Police Department officers choked him in 2014 — and later George Floyd, when he was killed by Minneapolis police earlier this year.

Audiences stayed far from the work when it was first written — perhaps, according to Thompson, for fear of alienating classical music donors, or because programming the piece was perceived as an “overt political act.” But this year, on June 4, Carnegie Hall and the Yale School of Music shared performances of Thompson’s work. Several Facebook comments on the School of Music’s post sharing Thompson’s composition called for the school to program it in the 2020-21 academic year. Thompson suggested that the piece’s reception reflected a perspective shift in classical music.

“I hope that this year is causing an interrogation of our curriculum, our pedagogy and our value system when it comes to music education,” Thompson said.

Blocker agreed: “As we continue to engage and combat racism at YSM, Yale and beyond, I am hopeful that our actions will be carefully calibrated to substantially change our culture rather than enhance our image.”

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu