In recent years, orchestras across the country — Los Angeles, Detroit and Cincinnati, among others — have started diversity fellowship programs focused on training musicians from racial, ethnic and socioeconomic minorities.
This summer, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will officially join that effort.
This weekend, the CSO welcomes to its ranks five music students from underrepresented populations for the first year of the Chautauqua Diversity Fellows Program. The initiative is a collaboration with the University of Cincinnati College- Conservatory of Music’s Diversity Fellowship Program, where audition-selected students can pursue a graduate degree and receive a full scholarship while performing alongside the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
The 2018 CSO Fellows are Emilio Carlo, Diana Flores, Vijeta Sathyaraj, Ian Saunders and Weiyi Shao.
For Carlo and Saunders, the recent crop of diversity initiatives in orchestras is a good step — but it is only the first step. They worry that orchestras might think they have done enough for diversity by creating a diversity fellowship.
“Some are better than others, but in some orchestras, there’s this sense that you just have to check that diversity box,” Saunders said.
Both men think the Cincinnati Symphony is taking steps to go beyond “checking the box.” They cited the orchestra’s annual Symphony Roots concert, a collaboration with the area’s local gospel choirs, as a good example of diverse programming.
“It’s a celebration of African- American culture and heritage, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a music hall filled with a black audience,” Carlo said. “Something like classical roots is getting right in the thickness of the issue, and it really is a beautiful thing when you get to see it.”
The diversity programs in Chautauqua and Cincinnati have both committed to long-term plans for a broader and more inclusive arts community.
“How do we give more people access so that in the ideal world, maybe 10 years from now, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra would more represent society when you look at them and when you meet them?” said Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts at Chautauqua Institution. “None of these can be short-term plans. And we won’t know for years what the success rate is.”
It is clear, however, that the odds of success for any aspiring orchestral musician are quite low when compared with more traditional careers. A 2000 study in The American Economic Review of 254 auditions from the late 1950s to 1995 found that any given participant has about a 2 percent likelihood of advancing past the first round, not to mention winning the audition.
“It’s different than anything that you would do as a musician,” Saunders said. “You need to develop a separate skill that’s just ‘audition taking.’ ”
Saunders, a bassist, must hone that skill to a fine point if he wants to win a coveted full-time orchestra job.
At each of the last few auditions he’s taken, there have been over 100 players in the first round, even after the audition committee has already screened out candidates whose resumes weren’t strong enough.
The Cincinnati diversity fellowship is preparing Saunders and his colleagues to be competitive at those auditions by affording them several valuable and uncommon opportunities.
“Sitting in the Cincinnati Symphony bass section is basically like having seven teachers at one time. It’s very humbling and daunting when you’re sitting in a section where pretty much everyone’s better than you are,” Saunders said. “You quickly elevate your standards.”
For Carlo, a violist, the access to professionals has been invaluable, particularly through the program’s mock auditions. Everything is set up like a real audition, complete with Cincinnati Symphony members sitting on a blind audition panel.
“Sure, you can play for your friends or your teacher, but being able to put myself in a real audition situation three to four times a year opened up a lot of new ideas for me, especially mental toughness and mental stability,” he said.
Carlo will need that mental toughness as he tries to find work. There are currently only seven full-time orchestral viola positions available in the United States. Those auditions will take place over the next few months, and he’s already preparing.
If his preparation pays off, Carlo could achieve something that he’s been working toward for over a decade. Josh Jones, a percussionist and former Detroit Symphony African American Orchestra Fellow, recently achieved that goal — he joined the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra as its new principal percussionist last fall.
Jones said his experience in Detroit was certainly helpful, but it wasn’t an experience that determined whether he would be successful.
“A lot of people have told me that no matter where I went, I would have eventually won a job, just because of my work ethic and how crazy I am,” he said.
Even so, Jones still thinks diversity initiatives in orchestras are important.“Having the opportunity to do that is a huge deal and I think it’s really important because again we (minorities) often don’t feel like we belong,” Jones said. “Not only in an orchestra, but in our own communities, in the public, in the world. And having some place where you belong is really important, especially in the business that you want to be in.”