Tanzina: Think of a famous classical music composer. Now think of another. I'll bet the names that come to mind are white men, maybe from the 18th century, maybe wearing a wig. Last week the classical music world got even less diverse after Garrett McQueen, the only Black classical announcer at Minnesota Public Radio was let go for "making changes to programming".
Tanzina: Some of those changes, including playing songs like this in the days after George Floyd's killing.
Tanzina: That was The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Black composer Joel Thompson. In a statement, Minnesota Public Radio said, "We have a process in place for changing playlists and that process exists to maintain our more than 200 partner stations compliance with the digital millennium copyright act and to ensure royalties are properly paid for the music played". Here's how McQueen responded to the dismissal on his podcast this week.
McQueen: Do I acknowledge that my actions were against the rules of the company I worked for and could potentially result in my termination? Yes. Do I acknowledge wrongdoing? Absolutely not. Anti-racism is at the very top of my list of core values and doing what I can in the field and profession that I landed in to promote equity and anti-racism is not only my will but my duty and responsibility.
Tanzina: McQueen's firing has re-ignited conversations about representation in classical music, including among composers, musicians, audiences, and, yes, radio hosts. Terrance McKnight is the evening weekday host for WQXR, the classical station for us here at New York Public Radio. Terrance, welcome to the show.
Terrance: Hello, Tanzina. Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Also joining me is Dr. Aaron Flagg, a trumpet player, Chair of Jazz Studies at The Juilliard School, and Chair of the League of American Orchestra's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. Aaron, welcome to the show.
Aaron: It's a pleasure to be with you.
Tanzina: Terrance, let's give a landscape to our audience here. When we think about classical music stations in the United States, how big are there? How many are there? Within that universe, how many are hosts of color, Black hosts particularly?
Terrance: There are a few hundred stations around the country that are considered classical music stations. I don't know, Tanzina. I'm not sure how many Black announcers there are out there. I really don't know. I can tell you that when we go to conferences, we don't see many, but it's a tradition in the industry. You think about classical music radio station going back to the '20s and '30s and segregation was rampant in our country. Some of the biggest radio shows back then were like Amos and Andy.
Those shows were radio menstrual dramas and it just miseducated our country about Black people. As a result, we're not having a lot of Black voices representing classical music on the radio.
Tanzina: You're one of those few Black voices that we have, and we're proud to have you here at New York Public Radio. Terrance, how do you think about musical selection when you think about your audience for classical music on air?
Terrance: We think about the diversity of New York City and we think about all of the classical traditions around the world with the Kubota tongue stories that can engage people right where they are. For example, I'll give you an example. I live in Harlem and I live in the section of Harlem that's right by little Senegal. There's a composer, a Black composer named Joseph Boulogne whose mother was Senegalese.
Just, for example, this is something I do when I play Joseph Boulogne's music, I'll say, "Oh, Boulogne's mom was Senegal, his mother was Senegalese so she probably spoke Wolof. [unintelligible 00:05:09] to all of the Wolof speakers out there." Now that's just something that I do. In case a Senegalese happens to be listening to the radio at that time, they'll hear, "Oh my goodness, somebody's speaking Wolof and talking about classical music, this is for me."
I usually try to use little signifiers to really broaden out the conversation. Whether I'm playing Western European music or not, I think there are ways in which you can engage your audience to engage the diversity in the city that you're living in. That's what I try to do.
Tanzina: Aaron, let's bring you in here because I was classically trained at LaGuardia High School for clarinet back in the, dare I say, early '90s, which is right down the block from Juilliard.
Aaron: All right. Actually our son went to LaGuardia High School. He graduated just last year. We're following in your footsteps.
Tanzina: I would be so humbled if that were the case, but I really do, there were diverse students at LaGuardia at the time, but the higher up you go in the hierarchy of classical music, there is a lack of diversity or there was back then. Today, Aaron, do you see more exposure to classical music for audiences of color? Are audiences becoming more diverse? Who's going to the orchestra, for example?
Aaron: First of all, unfortunately, what you probably saw when you were in school and what my son saw and I saw when he was in high school and now college, as it relates to participation in classical music, remains terribly low. As our recent study in the League of American Orchestras report relating to professional orchestras tells, this has been an embarrassing and consistently low trend in terms of not just players on the stage, managers, audiences, as you were referring to. The engagement of all people with this incredible music remains at a terribly low level.
Tanzina: Terrance, when you think about, you mentioned playing music, for example, from a Senegalese composer, what difference does it make to have audiences hear music that come from outside the core "classical canon"?
Terrance: I mentioned segregation and minstrel shows. I think when folks aren't accustomed to seeing Black men in tuxedos or Black men writing classical music or Black women conducting classical music. When they see that, it opens their eyes. For that little brown girl that sees that it opens up a new avenue of what she could become and what she can be or what he can be because now they see somebody who looks like that uncle or that auntie or somebody who's written music that speaks that language that they're accustomed to. I think it just makes us all more human and all more open to the capabilities that we're all potentially able to accomplish.
Tanzina: Aaron, when it comes to classical music. How important is classical radio in terms of reaching audiences today?
Aaron: It's critically important. It was the window for me growing up in Los Angeles, very poor part of Los Angeles, to the wonders of classical music. I'll never forget at 12 years old, turning on the radio and hearing Beethoven's 6th Symphony, which is also named the Pastoral Symphony. Looking out my window, which, I can tell you had no fields in it of grain, but in my mind's eye, I saw a whole world that I had never been to, because of the beauty in that music and how it communicated to a kid in Southcentral.
The access that the classical radio, or radio, in general, gives to the world, we all know this from Voice of America just communicating not only art, but ideas and stories, is critically important. The playlist that radio stations put in place, the host they put in place, communicate value, communicate importance, and Terrance arrival in New York area in 2008. Now we were dancing in the streets almost literally to have someone who looks like us, someone who did not leave their blackness at the door when they got onto the mic, who also loves this music the way we do, it meant a great deal, and it still means a great deal and it's still important.
Tanzina: Terrance, I have to say, that is quite a thing that we hear a lot about in public radio. Just the lack of diversity, but particularly in classical music. How, Terrance, did you first get introduced to classical music?
Terrance: Classical music goes way back to my childhood, with piano lessons and trumpet lessons in school. Did you know I play trumpet, Aaron? I did.
Aaron: We're going to bring out those duets, man.
Tanzina: I was going to say, we could start a band here.
Aaron: That's right.
Terrance: I started trumpet at elementary school, just played piano through school, but in terms of radio when I got to Morehouse I wanted to supplement what I was learning in theory and history, so I started listening to the radio. One day I was listening to a show and I heard the radio host talk about the Cleveland Indians and I grew up in Cleveland. He's like, "The Indians are going to beat the Braves in the World Series." I'm like, "Who is this talking about baseball and Beethoven? This is really interesting."
I became an avid listener to this radio show where this host really brought me in by talking about something that I loved in music and talking about sports and putting them side by side and I thought, "Oh, I would love to be a part of this. I would love to talk about music in a way where people could access it, where it didn't seem like it was something boring or something distant or something they had to aspire to, but something that they already love and something that they wanted to just experience a little bit more." That's how I got into classical radio.
Tanzina: I'm wondering, we had a caller at the top of the segment here say that- and I was singing along with him, say that his introduction to classical music was through Bugs Bunny. I recall the Disney film Fantasia. There were some entry points for kids, in particular, to get into the space that didn't feel as staid and as old as you will, but I'm wondering with budgets being cut across the country for music training, for music classes, how do we get children, Aaron, as you mentioned and Terrance, both of you having exposure to music through that way, how do we get kids to, particularly kids of color, to have access to this music and begin to see it beyond what they may not hear on the radio, Aaron?
Aaron: Clearly, exposure, like Terrance and I just shared, is key. If you don't hear it, if you don't see it, if you're never given the opportunity to interact with it, how could you get enamored with it? I think it's all of our responsibilities via the radio stations, orchestras, the schools, anyone who has the training like, Tanzina, you have on clarinet and trumpet, to not hide that, to share that, even learning that today added another layer to my appreciation for both of you.
I think, we sometimes forget as individuals, you don't have to be a professional musician like an Anthony McGill or others at a current orchestra to have a positive impact to say, "Hey, this is important to me, is important part of my background." That takes the professionals coming out of the Mount Olympus if you will, and the kind of Prometheus descending idea of, "We're just going to share this and then go back up to the mountain," to actually be amongst the people.
I think one of the impacts of COVID, trying to find a silver lining to some of this, has been musicians going out in the streets and playing and communicating. String Quartet is playing out in front of people stoops and in parks and just exposing the world to these instruments, let alone to this music and I think even more importantly, in a way, to how essential it is to our existence as human beings and people can feel that.
I'm reminded finally of many YouTube-- I'm sure you've seen these examples of people filming themselves reacting to, listening to different types of music. The surprise of hearing Pavarotti's voice for the first time and going-- Even someone who's never heard it, it connects. There's no way you can deny the power of that. The power of Robert McFerrin singing, Eddie too, I heard in Houston I just was knocked out, I've never heard anything like that.
It's not an issue of, "Well, people aren't educated enough or you need to read three history books before you can understand the power of Duke Ellington, the Wagner," that's silly, it's a human thing. We need to just make sure it's in front of people and that role models are also important, but we know from studies that middle school, late middle school, into early high school is when we lose students from considering continuing their artistic development.
The reason we lose them is not because of talent, necessarily, it's because of the encouragement, they need to get the catalyst of, "You can do this".
Tanzina: What about, I'm curious here, because we've got about a minute and a half left and I want to make sure we get this question in. Terrance, particularly in your chair, your audience has expectations about what they want to hear, isn't the audience also pressuring the host to play the cannon that they're most familiar with? I think about a segment we did here on The Takeaway about Black opera, and I think most people would say, "Of course, Porgy and Bess," Beyond that, our knowledge of composers of color, Black composers, in particular, new forms of classical music is very limited, how do you manage that, Terrance? We got about a minute left.
Terrance: I think, whether it's conducting programming, whether it's just talking about music. Traditionally, this has been the domain of European-Americans to talk and perform this music. To this point, I don't think audiences have demanded anything different, so the change has to come from within, the change has to come from within these organizations because you have people who have studied the form, they've been around music a long time. There has to be the will inside the organization, to show the audience there's something different and they'll fall in love with that too.
Show them a mix of traditional music from different cultures, and audiences will fall in love with that and they'll follow this just like they've been following how classical music has been programmed over the last hundred years in this country. The change comes from within.
Tanzina: That's something that we hear at New York Public Radio and at WNYC and I think newsrooms across the country are having a racial reckoning of sorts, but specific to classical stations, what types of changes should they be adopting, and how can they break out of these old paradigms of playing the classics, if you will, the greats, but also introducing new sounds?
Terrance: When I got into radio, I started at that show I mentioned, Performance Today, up in DC. Performance Today was looking for a musician who was passionate about radio, a musician who was passionate about communicating with audiences. I think by having a musician, we think musically, we don't think in terms of boxes, we don't think in terms of genre so much. Musicians are always trying to find ways to make music interesting and performance interesting and looking for ways to get music to respond to music.
For me, it's always, there's no difference in the Otis Redding love song and a Schubert love song. These were both men talking about love and oftentimes it involved a piano. For me, if I'm talking about a theme, I can go across genres and cultures and time, because I'm trying to connect people together and I'm trying to bring people together and I do that by bringing music together.
I think, if stations tried to do that, looked out into their communities and saw who was there, and tried to find ways to really engage all of those folks through music, I think it would require changing the programming scheme. I think that's what people respond to.
Tanzina: Aaron, when you think of-- You recently wrote a piece for Symphony Magazine, looking at the long history of racism in US orchestras. As we touched on earlier, that when I was at LaGuardia and performing in their orchestra, there were artists of color there, including myself, but as we went higher and higher up, I didn't pursue the career and many of my classmates did not pursue that career professionally. How do you see this legacy of racism in US orchestras today?
Aaron: I want to actually connect my answer to what you asked Terrance and then I'm going to go in terms of what are ways, there are many different ways, there's not the way, there are ways to do this. Although I respect Terrance's approach in terms of embracing theme-based programming, if you will, I think there's a plenty of diversity and richness to be had within classical music itself.
The fact is due to systemic racism, and conscious and eventually over time, unconscious exclusion, in the genre of classical music there are wonderful composers who have just been thrown to the side, who their music has not been published, it's not been recorded, it's not been included in the history books. Be it the music teacher who taught you at LaGuardia, perhaps, the people who are teaching at universities and conservatories around the world, they are just ignorant of the music that exists, that can be played.
That thanks to the reckoning that is happening now, and you asked me earlier about differences from when you were in school to now, although the numbers haven't changed drastically, what I do think has changed, and I should mention is the consciousness has changed. I am the faculty advisor for the Juilliard Black Student Union and the sense of ownership of identity and empowerment is significantly greater now amongst that group of students.
I think in terms of getting to the profession, we have to recognize all these incredible stumbling blocks along the way that have an impact on discouraging young students of color from seeing themselves in the profession, because the profession as you note as you go further, there is less diversity ethnically and gender-wise in the repertoire being done because the teachers are ignorant.
There needs to be a humility and a willingness to learn to do some research to dismantle our own embrace, even if unconscious of white supremacy. You noted the article I wrote Anti-Black Discrimination in American Orchestras, which lays out, amongst other wonderful works, of course, those systems so that we can see them.
I often say we live in a world that is much like the matrix in the movie, where we're blind to what is actually going on. Great composers are just assumed to be great, and that that's all the great composers there are, which is a lie. We need to dismantle that, and as we do that, people will see themselves as being welcomed into this incredible field. It takes a lot of anti-racist work, which is individual as well as collective.
Tanzina: I would argue, to a certain extent to our earlier point about this access for children, it also takes money. I was only fortunate enough to have a very dedicated music teacher in elementary school who said you're going to play the clarinet. I had no idea what a clarinet was in the third grade, who sat with me for zero period, 7:00 AM I would get there early, she would teach me.
I had an equally generous music teacher in junior high school who prepared me for the entrance audition at LaGuardia, free of charge. These were dedicated educators who saw something in me and yet I did not own my own instrument. I did not own a piece of sheet music. I was woefully underprepared when I was accepted to LaGuardia, in comparison to the rest of my classmates, just in terms of access, my mother buying me my own clarinet, which I still have was an event. How do we level the economic playing field, Aaron, for people trying to access this world? Terrance, if you have thoughts on that, I'm happy to hear them as well.
Aaron: Well, my reaction to that is, much like your story, the people who came into your life to pour into you and into your talent and into your potential, that is the same experience, although maybe differently framed for all of us. I had the same thing. I remember getting to Juilliard as an undergraduate. I had one little beat-up trumpet. I learned on the second week that every other trumpet player had five trumpets, except for us, for piccolo, for seatrout. I'm like, "What? I never heard of these things."
A way to address that is, one, to explain the game. This is how the game works. The way we actually currently explain the game is meritocracy. It's a facade, we say, "Oh, if you're talented, you'll get all of these things." No, that's not really true. If you have people who will support you, and pour into you, and make it possible for you to do these things, and you have interest, which-- Like my mother used to say, "You can draw a horse to the water, but you can't make the horse thirsty."
Our field needs to embrace the idea of finding thirsty people and investing in people who are thirsty. That goes across gender and socioeconomic status, but that requires back to your point of money, it requires all of us at every level to commit to the cause. As colleagues of mine just recently did in putting money together, these are musicians for a scholarship fund at the music advancement program at Juilliard, to help kids like you and I directly.
Leadership in saying this money is needed and then putting your money and time where your mouth is, rather than us wringing our hands that music education has-- I've been talking about that for 30 years. [laughs] Music education, we're not pointing it. After a while, I'm hearing myself say that and I say, stop saying that and do something.
Tanzina: I always give a shout out to Ms. Wyden, Mr. Cohen, who made this for some reason, their mission to encourage this in me. Terrance, who should we be listening to? Who are some of the new voices or the more diverse composers that we played The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson at the beginning of the show, which was one of the songs that Garrett McQueen played. Who knew Joel Thompson? How do we get to know these new voices and where should we be looking for them?
Terrance: I want to dress that and I want to go back to what you said earlier, Tanzina, because you having a young child, I was thinking about children emulate. If your son watches you listening to classical music and enjoying classical music, there's a chance that he'll grow up and he'll be comfortable around that music. I bring that up because you're asking about getting children involved, and I think children emulate their parents.
Also in terms of financing this thing. I remember growing up, I would always say to my mother, "Mom, why don't we buy a new car? Mom, why can't I have those sneakers?" She's, "Because I'm sending you piano lessons." Sometimes it's about choice. Sometimes it's about the choices that the parents make, how do they decide to raise their families, and what choices they make monetarily about what's important. Those are two things.
I watched my parents make choices and make sacrifices so that I could study music, and my siblings study art and music as well. Those were choices that they made as parents. Then in terms of who we should be listening to, I'm an insider, because I'm talking about music all the time and I'm always listening and talking to composers and researching this stuff. For folks who don't spend that kind of time with music in the art form, I think the radio, like Aaron said, is important because the radio, and radio hosts tend to try to be curators of the culture in a city.
We talk about what's happening at Lincoln Center, or what's happening at the Schomburg, or what's happening at Studio Museum or what's happening at Carnegie Hall, or what's happening in Brooklyn. We're always trying to inform our listeners about culture as well as providing music, and some of the documentaries I've done over the years, Florence Price, the first Black woman to have her symphony played. Nobody was talking about Florence Price 20 years ago, we had forgotten her.
I did a piece on Hazel Scott. Hazel Scott, she was a fabulous pianist who went to Juilliard when she was nine years old. The classical world didn't embrace her. She ended up, which she calls, swinging the classics. She would take a classical tune and make it swing. That became her thing. I talked about her. There are lots of Black and brown composers and performers, who are out there and we play their music on the air. We're having conversations with them.
The progress has been incremental, but it's a long tradition of Western European music being the entertainment for Western Europeans. When the music came to America, we failed to really plant it in American soil, and let it flourish in American soil. We really, essentially tried to keep it as was and bring it lock stock and barrel to the United States and make it work. We've been struggling at that.
In the '60s, orchestras were barely, they were most stable cultural institutions in our country. That was in the '60s, they received a lot of money for that. As our country becomes more diverse and more brown, brown folks want to hear and see brown folks up there making music, hear stories about African and Latino cultures and Asian cultures and the cultures that they represent, that's where we have to go, we have to be more inclusive.
Aaron: If I may just add on to that, we're in such a historic time right now, at least from my perspective, with the reckoning, just this conversation happening and so many others around the country, that I am optimistic that people are starting to get the message of the willingness to do the work. I know at Juilliard, we had all of the chairs of the music department sitting down over the summer and saying, "You all need to find five pieces by people of color that you've never heard of before? Go research them. Come and recommend five to everybody else."
There were so many of my colleagues, several of whom were my teachers when I was a student years ago, who were like children discovering Dorothy Moore and Carmen Moore, and some other wonderful composers, Doofus Hale Stork, and William Grant Still's pieces that they didn't know about at all. These are senior professors at the Juilliard School, and because the provost said, "This is what you need to do. Go find five pieces and share with each other."
That ignited a change, where we followed up to change our audition repertoire, at least in my area, my department, to where all the etudes that were required, at the time were by dead white men. They were wonderful etudes, but the challenge was that the door was open to say to the faculty, "Isn't there anyone else who has written an atude that will allow you to see what you need to hear from the applicant? Isn't there any woman who's written something for the clarinet, saxophone?"
Just that question and the mandate to go find it is almost like Kennedy's affirmative action. Get me someone else to guard the president of this country who looks like other members of the citizenry. Go do that. It takes the willingness to- and the authority to make that happen and those are small changes that I see them happening at conservatories around the country where because of what's happening in the country now, people and the COVID virus if I may add, are forced to think about this and reflect and address the reckoning.
Tanzina: Terrance, you would be proud to know that I did play Mozart's Serenade for Winds for Gabriel when he was in utero and he already has some instruments waiting for him to grow. Terrance McKnight is the host for WQXR-- [crosstalk] I'm sorry, say that again, Terrance.
Terrance: I said talk about change coming from within, case in point.
Tanzina: Literally. Literally, it's one of my most-- It's one of my favorite pieces of music, it's one of the most gorgeous pieces of music and obviously, I'm partial to it because it is dominated by winds, but I just played it and thought, "All right, let's start here." Point is very well taken.
Terrance McKnight is the host for WQXR and-- I'm sorry. Terrance McKnight is a host for WQXR and Aaron Flagg is a trumpet player, chair of Jazz Studies at the Julliard School, and chair of the League of American Orchestras Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. Gentlemen, thanks to you both.
Aaron: Thank you so much.
Terrance: Thanks so much.
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