Audience Stereotypes, Gender and Race in Classical Music

The Sphinx Organization envisions a world in which classical music reflects cultural diversity and plays a role in the everyday lives of youth.

One of the outstanding things about the Classical Music field in the US is the relative gender equality you’ll find in the field.  Looking across the pond at some of the world class Orchestras (e.g. Berlin Philharmonic) and we can see that in many ways it is still a struggle to open up the field at a global level.  So while I was spending all those many years training and learning this craft of the cello I was constantly surrounded by and socialized with females, which is why one of the reasons it was a bit of a shock to move out into the local pop/rock music scenes in various cities [in the Midwest] was precisely because of some of the implicit misogynistic attitudes and explicit sexualization of women (cf.  Wright, 2011).   Add to that the relative gender imbalance in favor of “boys” and in some ways it’s not entirely surprising this could be the case.

That’s not to say that there aren’t still problems in the field.  Robert Levine (2009) took an informal look at the percentages of women in the top paying positions in Orchestras and still finds the proportions skewed in favor of males holding those positions.  While the blind audition has become the standard by which US Orchestras funnel musicians into the Orchestras, this process can do little to change the proportion of folks who are part of the pool of applicants for Orchestral positions and when it comes to specific instruments there is an obvious self selection bias with regards to the types of instruments men and women (boys and girls) will choose to play in the first place.

And this is obviously the problem with the pool of applicants from minority groups.  As Levine (2009) says near the end of his piece

The reader who has made it this far might have noticed that there’s been no discussion of the one form of discrimination that, above all others, has determined the nature of American society – racial discrimination. And yet American orchestras have proportionally far fewer African-American or Latino members than does the population as a whole. Does this suggest that there has been racial discrimination in the hiring process?

More data would be needed to state that with any confidence. If, as is likely the case, the number of African-American or Latino musicians entering the orchestral training pipeline is also disproportionately low, then the low number of such musicians hired could simply indicate a self-selection problem. Given that auditions for the largest orchestras regularly attract hundreds of applicants, it would take more than a handful of minority candidates to make hiring one at all likely. Fortunately for orchestras, there are organizations in the field, such as the Sphinx Organization that are working hard to increase the number of minority instrumentalists. (For a different perspective on this issue, read the “In Pursuit of Diversity in Our Orchestras” by Aaron Dworkin, Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization.)

The need for a bigger pool of minorities so that Orchestras can be representative of the population is further exacerbated by the normal mode of attrition that allows for the opening up of positions as I mentioned in my previous post with some of the issues regarding the Oakland Symphony

Although there is constant mention of the need to recruit more minority musicians, and a program that allowed minority musicians to intern with the orchestra, this is in direct conflict with the equally reasonable commitment to retain the mostly white former symphony musicians in a reconstituted symphony.

We would need a pool of applicants that over-represents, say, blacks if we were to come close to getting Orchestras to be representative of the overall population.  The problem is how to do that, or rather, how can we get to a simple representation of the population when Orchestras are stereotypically seen as something that white people like and that black people (as well as other minorities) don’t like.  Christian Lander (2008) and the website, Stuff Black People Don’t Like, parody these Classical Music stereotypes well, as does the recent opening number of the Tony Awards that Drew McManus (2011) pointed out with regards to arts audiences in general (see video below).

As I’ve blogged about frequently, there are many more organizations (both outside and inside of Orchestras and Academia) that are focusing on outreaching to minority populations which are quickly growing.  And as I more recently blogged, I’ve noticed that now that we have more data on audience demographics which show an audience that’s aging faster than the population of the US as a whole, as well as the white population which is aging faster than the population as a whole, there seems to be some statistical evidence that reinforces the racial stereotypes of US classical music audiences.  There’s not much of a question about the ethnic make-up of Orchestras (Downs, 2011), so in the end, where is the problem?

I think one foreseeable obstacle for Classical Music is with the other implications of having a growing younger ethnic population especially as it has to do with the current audience demographic (as well as with the Orchestral personnel).  Compound that with the fact that folks generally see [Western] Orchestras as more of a “white thing” and with the rise of non-European Orchestras in this country which give ethnic minorities more choice to be involved in “High Art Culture” that’s not Eurocentric how will Orchestras start bringing in the new (and younger) audiences and acquire a donor base from this population?

It’s all good and well, when the majority of the social, cultural and economic power resides in the European-American demographic to feel as if the issue of support for European styled Orchestras is a given, we just need to figure out how to get folks to buy tickets and donate for the cause.  But how would we, for example, convince a member of the rising wealthy Chinese-American population to give his discretionary philanthropic funds to a Western Orchestra rather than a Chinese Orchestra which would be a more likely place to find his friends, family and acquaintance involved as well as large scaled works being performed that have much more to do with his own personal history and ethnic background?  I think this isn’t a question that European Orchestral institutions are prepared (or equipped) to address.

With the African-American and Latino populations, there is a little more hope as far as numbers are concerned.  These two ethnic groups are by far the largest minority groups in the states.  Unfortunately, as a whole, the economic power they hold is below the national average.  This explains one reason why we don’t have these groups forming their own Orchestras.  The other being that as far as large scaled ensembles are concerned, there isn’t as much of a tradition tied to these ethnic groups (though there are a number of Latin-American Orchestras that focus on Latin-American and South American composers).  Unfortunately, for both of these ethnic populations there is a long and tortured history regarding their relationship to what was structurally and primarily white European Orchestras in the US (see Serinus, 2009; Berger, 2011; Drinan, 2007; Zick, 2006-2011 for discussions about this history).

Classical Music, as a European cultural institution, no longer wields the prestige it once had, and I don’t think this has nearly as much to do with changing audience and donor base taste as it has to do with the taste associated with a changing population demographic and their collective realization that they, too, can support the arts–it just happens to be the case that they can now support their own arts.  The ironic thing is, with Chinese Orchestras, Arabic firqat, Turkish fasli, Azerbaijani Mugham Orchestras and any number of other large scale non-European Orchestras, the native art music ensembles adapted  to the growing power and prestige of the Western world and the Western Classical Music institutions in unique ways.  It was an issue of survival for those ensembles.  What’s left to be seen is if Western Orchestras can do the same!



Berger, R.  (2011) “African-Americans And Classical Music – A Vexed Question”  The Horn, June 10 <<retrieved 2011 June 10>>

Downs, E.  (2011)  “Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity”  The Journal Gazette May 15 <<retrieved 2011 May 24>>

Drinan, A.  discussion moderator.  (2007)  “Virtual Discussion Panel: Diversifying the Symphony”, The Orchestra Musician Forum, February 26 – March 2  <<retrieved 2011 June 9>>

Herndon, M.  (1988)  “Cultural Engagement: The Case of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra” Yearbook for Traditional Music 4, 134

Lander, C.  (2008) “#108 Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music”  Stuff White People Like, September 1 <<retrieved 2011 June 14>>

Levine, R.  (2009)  “Age, gender and orchestras”, The Orchestra Musician Forum, April 9  <<retrieved 2011 June 9>>

McManus, D.  (2011)  “A Little Irreverence Would Do Us Good” Adaptistration: Drew McManus on the orchestra business, June 15 <<retrieved 2011 June 15>>

Serinus, J. V.  (2009)  “Looking the Other Way: Race in Classical Music” San Francisco Classical Voice, May 12 <<retrieved 2011 June 9>>

Stuff Black People Don’t Like.  (2009) “#5. Classical Music” Stuff Black People Don’t Like, September 8 <<retrieved 2011 June 14>>

Wright, E.  (2011)  “Rock and Roll”  The Stark Raving Cello Blog, April 12 <<retrieved 2011 April 20>>

Zick, W. J.  (2006-2011) African Heritage in Classical Music <<>>


  1. Thanks Jon for asking some of the burning questions I’ve asked myself during 22 years as a black member of the Detroit Symphony. How DO we entice a minority population that largely shuns culture that does not seem remotely FUN BY THEIR STANDARDS? Fortunately, I believe the answer is largely the SAME or similar for enticing young WHITE audiences: make it FUNKY! Meet the people where they live!

    Amplify the music to loud levels so people can talk, laugh, drink, dance, walk around… use a non-classical, black or Latino, funny, warm host who can interview audience and orchestra members and even poke some fun… engage a hot celebrity (Eminem?), comedian or popular pastor to appear and testify why they enjoy classical music… don’t invite anyone over 50 (who wants to hang with their parents?)… play the music with enthusiasm and movement… allow spontaneity… dress all in black (no penguins)… have one improvised JAM session for contrast… play select movements rather than whole symphonies… play some dance music… commission music that BLENDS classical styles and dance (like mine).

    The question then becomes, Will a traditional orchestra encourage this “dumbing down” in return for pitifully few donations but good word of mouth and meaningful community-building? Probably NOT. Which is why if we’re going to rise to the challenge of appealing to the vast majority of Americans with classical music, the effort would have to be made by NEW orchestras (or bands) that form with this attitude… such as Sphinx or CutTime.
    I’m ready to make a real difference if we can find the start-up money!


    • You’re very welcome, Rick. And you’ve hit the nail on the head with the catch 22 problem that I think those who are advocating the so-called “dumbing down” approach don’t realize. In the end, ticket sales and larger audiences aren’t necessarily going to help Orchestras that much. Selling out each and every concert still won’t cover the costs of running these kinds of organizations and if the increased presence of larger (and younger and more diverse) audiences doesn’t bring in more revenue due to a larger donor base, then in the end neither side really wins, right?

      I think you’re right that we’ll need new ensembles an organizations that already have this built in direction, then the pool of musicians that grow around these types of ensembles will invariably (if these groups are successful) grow and eventually some of that larger pool of musicians might make the lateral (or upward, depending on how you want to look at it) move into the European styled Orchestras. That kind of movement is already happening with the growing amount of Middle Eastern Orchestras–string players are also the core of those types of ensembles and a growing number of Classically trained string musicians are finding at least some work by playing in those kinds of ensembles (for the Chinese Orchestras, only cellos and basses get that crossover).

      We need more groups, initiatives and organizations like Sphinx, CutTime, Art of Elan, Classical Music Across Cultures, and the Boston Latin-American Orchestra to develop this kind of interest and increase the pool of qualified minorities rather than trying to using the existing organizations to try to do something they just aren’t in the best position to do!


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