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Your local backstage pass to Northeast Ohio’s music scene. Get to know the talented musicians and community influencers in our backyard.

Shuffle: Orchestrating a Diverse Classical Music World

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Philip Williams
Philip Williams, 19, is a freshman at The Cleveland Institute of Music who formed a Black Student Union this year

It’s no secret that classical music has a diversity problem. Major symphony orchestras around the country are primarily white, as are their audiences. And as these audiences continue to shrink, more conservatories and orchestras are getting serious about becoming as diverse as the cities they serve. 

A diversity problem
The Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) more than doubled its African American and Latinx population in three years to 15%. It's an effort that began in earnest when Paul Hogle came on as president and CEO.

He said it was an issue he brought up during his interview. 

"I had written down two questions in my portfolio, and I grabbed the table, and I decided to ask the most complicated one, and that is, 'When my daughter graduated here in 2015 there was only one student of color who crossed the stage.' And I said, 'Could you walk me through what the institution’s plans are to address that?'"

"When my daughter graduated here in 2015 there was only one student of color who crossed the stage."

Hogle said nobody had any ideas.

"What I did see in their eyes though, and that’s what gave me hope for my own thinking, is an openness to talk about it," he said. 

Creating partnerships
So, the first thing Hogle did when he got the job was connect with the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit nonprofit that offers scholarships, performance opportunities and other initiatives.

Sphinx President Afa Dworkin says CIM is one of three schools where they’ve established performance academies — full-scholarship summer programs for middle and high school string musicians.

"I know that when we began this effort it was challenging to convince folks that the talent is out there and, that by introducing diversity and inclusion into their institutions, there does not need to be a fear of sacrificing the sanctity of artistic merit," Dworkin said. "It still comes up from time to time, but I think it’s beginning to prove itself false."

"I want to be a bridge for people, not just now but later."

Increasing access
Hogle says another key to diversifying the student body is to increase access for students from underrepresented populations. CIM’s tuition is $40,000 a year. The school is increasing fundraising and building their endowments to be able to offer more scholarships. And he says they also started a new Musical Pathway Fellowship for African American and Latinx students:

"It’s the same coursework that we offer to our international students who come here and study as part of our young artist program. There are now eight of those, full rides, they don’t pay anything and the first of our students in the fellowship won admittance into the young artist program which is extraordinarily competitive. And the next dream is that they would then earn a spot as a college student here or at any top competitive school."

Beyond checking a box
But these types of programs can’t be the only way to address diversity, says Jesse Rosen, the president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. His group advocates for about 2,000 member orchestras and individuals across the country.

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Credit Amanda Rabinowitz
Philip Williams, 19, founded the Black Student Union at the Cleveland Institute of Music this year

"There has to be more than simply checking a box and saying, 'Yes, we got one of those fellowship programs,' but rather there has to be some deep and hard conversation about diversity and equity and inclusion and what those terms mean."

A Black Student Union
That’s where the students themselves come in. CIM freshman Philip Williams says he's often the only African American in his classes and performances. So, he decided this year to form a Black Student Union. It’s for any student who wants to have an open discussion about the future of classical music.

"I want to be a bridge for people, not just now, but later," Williams said. "And I really would like to see more people using their voice in classical music and kind of promoting this push that needs to happen not only for minorities’ sake, but for the sake of classical music."

Williams grew up in a musical family in Atlanta. He took up the trombone in high school but never dreamed that he could have a future with the instrument.

"The highlight of my musical experiences were probably marching band, and I had no idea what classical music was except for a bunch of people sitting on a stage with violins and whatnot."

Then, a friend told him about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program, which trains and prepares young African American and Latinx students for a classical music career. Through that program’s partnership with CIM, Williams was able to take a tour of the Cleveland campus and decided that's where he wanted to be. 

Williams hopes to foster a broader conversation about the way classical music needs to evolve. One way he hopes to accomplish that is through “Dear Classical Music," a new broadcast that the CIM’s Black Student Union is launching to address discrimination and bias in the world of classical music.