As an African American woman, my musical journey started off with having to change how I viewed the artform as a whole. Since I started playing the flute at the age of 14, I approached classical music with the mindset that it wasn’t meant for people who looked like me. Instead of questioning that mindset, I assumed it was just how things were supposed to be. My journey was a consistent learning process. First, I had to realize that it was ok as an African American to enjoy playing and listening to classical music. It wasn’t something to be ashamed of. The next step was learning that there were actually more Black musicians in the world than I had originally knew of. Besides, no one taught me who Samuel-Coleridge Taylor was or Florence Price. Whenever I watched the Berlin Philharmonic or watched the rounds of the Carl Nielsen International Flute competition, I never saw Black faces. After a time of growth and maturing, I was able to see the world for what it was. Instead of assuming “Oh, black people just don’t listen to classical music” it turned into “Well, what is actually keeping us from being included in this narrative?”. Or better yet “Why does racism have to be what’s keeping the world from truly seeing us?”. Classical music wasn’t a career option that ever crossed my mind beforehand, and for a lot of the Black community, I’d say they often felt the same way. In order to breakdown why this mindset has been implemented into how a lot of us think, it’s important to learn classical music’s history and how racism often kept Black people not only excluded, but from believing we belonged. When the world thought of classical musicians, Black people didn’t fit that narrative.
To start, have you ever wondered why in a music history class we learn everything about Mozart and Bach to Rachmaninoff and Liszt, but we’re never taught about black composers and their significant contributions to classical music? For some it might have only been reduced to a one-month celebration in the month of February, which most institutions don’t observe. I never learned about the violinist and composer George Bridgetower, or William Grant Still who was the first African American composer to conduct a major symphony orchestra or have an opera produced by a major opera company. I never learned of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his 24 Negro Spiritual Melodies or his African Romances. It was only recently that I learned of Florence Price, the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. This happened to be her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor.
Much like how the education system is as a whole, black history if it is learned, is something that people have to go out of their way to gain knowledge of instead of being a part of our core curriculum. Black people being an afterthought is already something that’s put into practice from the time that we’re children even to when we’re adults. A perfect example of this is would be something that I learned while I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree. One of my college music history teachers, the late Dr. Sheryl Murphy-Manley taught me as well as my classmates the history of why the saxophone was rarely written into orchestral music. Often people associated the saxophone with Jazz music which in turn was associated with Black culture. A lot of composers felt that an instrument like the saxophone didn’t belong in formal settings like concert halls. Instead of letting Jazz musicians perform their music onstage, composers often took elements from jazz and implemented it into their own pieces instead. This is why we have works from composers like George Gershwin. Black people themselves were not wanted, but our ideas were.
Going forward Institutions need to make an active effort in including black conductors, composers, and musicians in their curriculum. Instead of seeing us as an afterthought like many have done before, make Black representation a requirement. Have students perform pieces by Black composers and teach about their contributions to music history. Accept more Black musicians into your conservatories and put them in your orchestras and programs. These ideas will be birthed from people who see us for our value and our contributions. Only when were seen can the narrative finally be changed.
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