Diversity is an absolute must in orchestras, and we need to realize it.

It’s no secret that interest in orchestras have decreased. According to the National Endowment of the Arts survey, only a measly 8.6 percent of adults attended a classical music performance in 2017. In fact, according to the Nilsen 2019 report, classical music only has one percent of the share of the market out of 12 music genres. Attendees of concerts are often on the elderly side as well. 

So why do I think that diversity will help bolster interest? 

A common phrase heard by musicians is that music is the “universal language.” But the problem with classical music is that it often skews towards the Western hemisphere. According to the League of American Orchestras, non-white musicians only constitute less than 14 percent of the concert scene. This does not reflect the ethnic diversity of the United States, nor most of the world. 

But why, you might ask, should orchestras care? After all, the modern orchestra was created using Western instruments. The composers who helped create modern music theory were from Europe. The most popular classical music is by Western composers. Does diversifying really matter where classical music is concerned? 

But these excuses neglect the reality of the current music industry. Streaming and collaboration within genres has become the norm for music creators of a wide range of backgrounds. According to Billboard, the top artists of August include Billie Eilish, BTS, Olivia Rodrigo and the Weeknd. These creators have their own unique style and energy, yet their differences only serve to highlight how varied music can be. These artists are from different countries and have diverse ethnicities. They all add their own flavor into their music. 

We need to realize that classical music is not just Western music, and not all musicians come from that point of view. Constantly playing the same pieces by Beethoven and Mozart will not excite audiences, especially when we hear those tunes almost every day. It is fine to acknowledge the remarkable scores from these historic composers, but not at the expense of other ones.

What about William Grant Still, a notorious Black composer of the 20th century? Or Chinary Ung, a living Cambodian composer who was awarded the Grawemeyer Award — also known as the Nobel Prize for musical composition – in 1989. It is not their lack of skill in music that bars these composers from being household names, but rather it’s the orchestra’s unwillingness to step out of their comfort zone.

For me, being a musician and being a person of color has been intertwined my entire life. I am Kalmyk, an ethnicity with a population less than five hundred thousand, and our local community is tight knit. My first memories are trying to play our traditional melodies on my violin. I always loved playing on instruments, but I never really gave much thought as to why. 

I recently graduated from the Juilliard Music Advancement Program, a Saturday program focused on giving students with diverse backgrounds an opportunity to learn and grow their music skills. During the pandemic – when the question of diversity stood at the forefront of movements like Black Lives Matter – the program focused on teaching us about composers from around the world. These classes gave me an opportunity to engage in pieces and composers I had never heard before, and it also allowed me to learn why I love classical music so much. I truly learn a person’s soul through their music. 

Offering more diversity in classical music, whether it be in classes or in performance, will ultimately open the eyes of a new generation to how unique the genre is, and how much it has to offer the world.