R-E-S-P-E-C-T Underrepresented Composers

May 10, 2021, 9:42 AM ·

Negro Quartet
The early 20th-century New York-based Negro String Quartet: L-R violinist Felix Weir; cellist Marion Cumbo; violist Hall Johnson and violinist Arthur Boyd.

Ever since last year's events surrounding the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement, I have seen a more conscious effort underway to feature works by BIPOC composers - that is, composers who are Black, indigenous and people of color. From orchestras to soloists, people are presenting works that would not have been heard prior to this past summer.

Just this semester, my own Senior Recital featured works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Maud Powell, Joseph Bologne, William Grant Still, and Jessie Montgomery. I find it encouraging that we, as an industry, are allowing these composers to be recognized and appreciated; however, there is still so much that we need to do. In an effort to continue to highlight these works, I feel that the best acronyms to focus on is none other than one of Aretha Franklin’s most iconic hits: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

R- Recognize

When I speak to my friends and colleagues about how the music industry needs to change to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion, most people mention that, unintentionally, they focus on the "standard" repertoire in order to advance their career and lead them to become successful musicians. But we need to recognize that our list of "standards" is a "hand-me-down" version, and one that we can revise and improve. It’s up to us - as teachers, as players, as students, as amateur adults - to revise this list. For example, many ensembles are featuring works by Joseph Bologne alongside Mozart compositions because of the similarities and the intriguing programming that it provides. It is time to broaden the list of "standard" repertoire and include composers that are not as well known.

E- Encourage

Students must be given the opportunity to experience different forms and styles of music, and educators must lead the way. When we promote only the old masters in the European tradition, students are missing out. When the pandemic first started, my teacher had my entire studio working out of a particular etude book. These etudes were not the typical Kreutzer, Rode, and Dont. We studied the caprices by Flausino Vale, a Brazilian composer whose caprices are virtuosic and extremely fun to play. In studying the music of Vale, we were still gaining the skills that are necessary to establish our technical facility as violinists, but we were also embracing a different style of music in the process. In turn, this led many people in my studio to gain an inclusive educational experience that was not catered to the Western European lineage. Educators need to encourage students to branch out. This means introducing them to materials that we ourselves, as teachers, may be unfamiliar with. We must be willing to get out of our comfort zone so that the next generation will have different things to teach and to learn.

S- Share

The more we share our performances of underrepresented composers on digital platforms, the more likely those pieces are to be picked up by other performers or teachers. When it comes time to learn new repertoire, teachers and students have a tendency to select pieces that they have heard online. This is natural and should be encouraged. As a student, I loved when my teachers allowed me to feel like I was included in decisions regarding new pieces. Most of the time, this led me to enjoy my pieces that much more. In the digital era due to the pandemic, this is even more common than before. Social media is one of the best mediums that we can use to share the music of underrepresented composers. In a matter of seconds, anyone in the world can hear these amazing works.

P- Perform

Every time we perform a lesser-known work, we let others know about it. We become part of the solution. Performing is taking the notes from the page and becoming a vessel, as one of my teachers once said, "performing is sharing." For example, in my Senior Recital, I performed works by Brahms and Kreisler, but I also performed works by Black composers, and those were the works that seemed to touch people the most. Many people in the audience did not even realize that these pieces were by underrepresented composers; they connected with these pieces because they felt something unique. When we hear music by composers that lived through certain types of hardships, (whether it be discrimination due to racism, sexism, homophobism, etc.) we are listening to different emotional realities. In performing these works, we are allowing our audiences to receive a new atmosphere of emotion and expression that may indeed be different from that of the Western European repertoire.

E- Explore

As often as we listen to music, we should be exploring other compositions, especially by underrepresented composers. We should not be waiting for a professional orchestra to introduce us to a symphony by Florence Price or a sonata by Adolphus Hailstork. When I attended the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, my conductor told us that it is actually more beneficial to listen to a performance than to spend another hour practicing. His point was that we should always be approaching music in a way that is full of questions and discovery. This holds true for music from all over the world. When we limit ourselves to one region of the world, we are isolating ourselves from all of the other possibilities. As artists, we cannot be afraid to break the rules. We do not always have to perform the same Bach Partita or Sarasate show piece. We have not even begun to scratch the surface of pieces that we are missing out on.

As a part of the ongoing Menuhin Violin Competition, there will be a session discussing this very topic next week. On May 21, Aaron Dworkin, 2021 juror, violinist, and founder of the Sphinx Organization will discuss "The Danger of a Single Story: The Importance of Diversity Equity & Inclusion in the Arts and their Role in Society." Information can be found by clicking here. The event will be streamed live on the Menuhin YouTube Channel.

C- Curiosity

Being born in the late 90s, I grew up with shows like The Proud Family, The Fairly Odd Parents, and That’s So Raven. One show that I didn’t particularly enjoy was Dora the Explorer. As a child, I didn’t understand why we always had to tell her where the mountain was, especially when it was directly behind her. When I look back, I can appreciate how curious she was. She didn’t let anyone stop her from taking an adventure and she was always eager to have a new experience. This is how we can approach our work. When we are curious and inquire about works by underrepresented composers, we not only allow ourselves to enjoy other styles of music, but we improve as musicians overall. When I played the music of Joseph Bologne, it helped me to play my Mozart. Curiosity is also vital when learning about the composer’s history. For example, the Suite for Violin and Piano by William Grant Still is full of different characters and timbres. I connected to it more deeply when I researched the work, because each movement is suggested by a sculpture from the Harlem Renaissance. Knowing these details that are unique to underrepresented composers help us as artists to be able to translate the message that the composer is attempting to convey. Curiosity, in general, will lead us to be better people. Curiosity, in music, will make us better artists.

T- Treasure and Trust

Treasure was one of the first letters of my acronym that I was able to identify. As a black woman, I have a personal connection with works by underrepresented composers. Moreover, I cannot deny the love and appreciation that I have for the works by Western European composers. If you were to ask me who my top five composers are, I can guarantee that J. S. Bach will be in the list. In playing works by underrepresented composers, I do not want to diminish the contributions of those who historically have been considered "standard" composers. We, as an industry, need to work to treasure all composers and their compositions. Whether a composer is from Germany or Ghana, they can still produce magnificent music. Therefore, we must treasure each composer equally. In the same token, we also have to trust the process. Small changes can have a big impact down the road if we commit ourselves to the other 6 letters of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

As I look towards my future as I transition to Graduate School, I am reminding myself that I need to R-E-S-P-E-C-T all composers' works. I can’t wait to explore all the hidden gems of an untold story.

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May 10, 2021 at 08:52 PM · Well said, Bravo! Sounds like a very exciting senior recital program. Inclusivity in programming will only help grow classical music for performers and audiences alike.

May 10, 2021 at 10:53 PM · I wonder what the trajectory of unnecessarily neglected music getting into more regular repertoire is? You will hear radio stations and concert programmers conspicuously programming works by black composers during Black History Month, and then not much for a lot of the year, but I think what you illustrated in introducing these works to students so that as they are exploring different repertoire, they start to become aware of just how much worthwhile music there is, then they will come to the canonical repertoire realizing that it is canonical because of the decisions of taste-makers over time, and influenced by their own biases.

Of course, you then have to make the teachers aware of different teaching materials (and a lot of teachers probably don't want to deviate from their methods) and make the teaching materials available. I think that at the music school level, it could be easier for music schools to make the commitment to ask their students to go out of their way and champion some underplayed music in every recital. It's an interesting problem to think about.

May 10, 2021 at 10:59 PM · Excellent article! There are so many good reasons to explore diversity in music. It is more than politically correct. We have the obligation to open ourselves to new musical ideas and new ways of expressing emotions. We become better musicians by doing so. Since performing and teaching are both ways of sharing, we have ample opportunity to introduce others to new expressions in music.

May 11, 2021 at 07:30 AM · Stacey - thank you for your excellent article. It is thought-provoking and very thorough. Carry on the good work, and best wishes for graduate school!

May 12, 2021 at 02:53 PM · If you include works that were inspired by black writers, etc., the net is even wider, e.g., several Russian operas.

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