Does our repertoire reflect our people?

Well, does it? If the answer's no, then we've got work to do. Here's how to get better.

Wherever we look diversity and representation are at the forefront of public discourse - and with good reason. Over the last few years an awakening has been taking place. A growing awareness that across all spheres we need to do better when it comes to equitable representation.

This isn't just a job for other people. As conductors who select repertoire we have the power and responsibility to move the dial.

We've all heard the phrase "if you can't see it, you can't be it". Regardless of whether we teach in an educational institution, in the community or in a professional context what we do is seen. Our repertoire choices are a public display of our values - and often, our unconscious biases. People see and notice what music we perform. Sometimes it's conscious, but often it's not.

If our mission is to serve our students, communities and audiences then we need to play music that represents them and reflects their experiences.

Does this devalue the masterworks that we've played and programmed hundreds of times, sometimes for hundreds of years? Of course not. Rather what we should be thinking is - where are the next masterworks? Where are the voices that need to be uplifted, nurtured and shared? Whose voice is missing from the conversation that needs to be included?

My name's Ingrid, and I've made a lot of non-diverse programs

A few years ago, many of us wouldn't have batted an eyelid at programs of all-male, all-white composers. I will be the first to put up my hand and say I programmed many of these concerts. What's more, I was completely blind to the fact.

How did this happen? I chose repertoire I knew and had played, or been told was good - it was mostly by men, mostly white. In band world it was also 95% American. In orchestra world, 95% European. I chose repertoire I found on curated lists, in books or on publisher websites - it was mostly by men, mostly white. I chose repertoire I'd heard and played before. I chose repertoire other people told me was good.

A few years into my conducting journey I realised that music of my country, Australia, wasn't reflected in my programming. Once that veil was lifted I did everything I could to promote that repertoire to others and become an advocate for Australian composers.

Interestingly, when it came to programming women, I took a lot longer to open my eyes. In case you don't know me, I'm a woman. A young(ish), white woman from a privileged background.

For a long time I believed, naïvely, that gender didn't matter. I believed I was choosing the best quality repertoire and that it just happened to be by men. This way of thinking is well within recent memory for me. I'm pretty sure I made comments on social media to this effect even 4 or 5 years ago, maybe less.

What changed? I had a sequence of realisations that changed my behaviour:

Realisation 1: The pool I'm looking at isn't equitable.

I realised that the lists in old books were...old. They were from a time where diversity wasn't on people's radar. They were made full of biases, so the lists I was choosing from represented few women, composers of colour or composers of different nationalities. The same went for the lists from publishers, retail companies, pieces I'd played, other ensemble's programs, and recommendations from colleagues.

Unfortunately, even today, many organisations with huge reputations that should be role models in our profession still have a long way to go. I cancelled my Berlin Phil Digital Concert Hall subscription in 2022-23 as I couldn't justify continuing to give my money to an organisation that only programmed 6 women composers out of 121 (<5%). When analysing the proportion of minutes of music or number of works by women the percentages are lower still. (If you're interested in how Australian professional orchestras fare you can see some great infographics here. )

Realisation 2: I have to actively seek out diverse voices and assess the music for myself.

Relying on lists and programs by others is great and saves a lot of time. I often use this as a first pass for making a shortlist of repertoire before going and analysing scores and recordings. If a source we trust has vetted the music we're more likely to consider it.

When I realised most of the lists and sources I had relied upon were biased I realised I'd have to go find and vet the music for myself. More time, more work.

Is it worth this extra effort for our people to feel seen in the music we perform? Absolutely.

Fast forward a few years to today and there are many growing sources of open-source and curated lists, like:

These are a great place to start if you want to widen your lens and fish in a more diverse pool.

Realisation 3: There is plenty of good and bad music written by people of every size, shape, gender, colour etc.

One of the things that frustrates me is people justifying playing non-diverse programs by saying:
"Oh, but there's none/not much good music written by [insert group] - and I only program good music".

This, folks, is the definition of a stereotype.

A group of people being judged by their gender, race, sexuality etc., not on their actual work.

What I realised was that in the past it had been easier to judge people's music based on a stereotype, than to expend the effort judging their actual work for myself. I was choosing what was easy over what was right for my people.

I didn't know that was the choice I'd been making. But once I did, I couldn't go back to easy anymore.

When I went out and started looking at a more diverse range of music I realised that every composer's output fits on a spectrum. Not all their work is of equal quality. They'll often be the first to tell you this too. It's just not how art works.

There's plenty of music written by people of every stripe that's good and bad.  

Even Beethoven wrote some clangers - Wellington's Victory, anyone?

An aside: In my opinion, the vast majority of 'educational' band music is absolutely atrocious, unoriginal, formulaic drivel that has little to no artistic value. Historically most published music in this medium has been written by white men. Statistically this means most of the published bad music is written by white men. And yet we don't generalize and say 'all music written by white men is bad'...

Think about it.

We also shouldn't shy away from judging music by underrepresented voices by our own standards of quality. If it isn't good music we shouldn't play it. To do so is not only a disservice to our people - it also serves to reinforce the stereotypes we're trying to dismantle.

Yet we also need to be aware of the systemic biases that mean marginalised composers may not yet have had the opportunity to 'get good'. This allows us to consider how we might nurture emerging voices who have been historically excluded. Their music might not yet be ready for us to perform, but there are other ways we can support their development - like providing generous feedback, or offering workshopping opportunities.

We have to do the hard work to decide what meets our own standards. But using the shorthand of stereotypes to do it just simply isn't acceptable in 2023.

And when you think about it...it also doesn't make any sense. Why would the colour of someone's skin or what's between their legs dictate how well they compose music?

Realisation 4: We need to go beyond tokenism.

When I first started getting excited about Australian music I thought I was doing great by including one Australian piece per program. It was an excellent first step. Now I realise I can do more if I want to truly represent my people and expose them to the diversity of music available.

The same is happening for me around programming works by women. I used to feel really good programming one piece by a woman. Now I wonder if it's enough. My ensembles are ~50% female. My audiences are ~50% female.

So why do they only get a token 5-minute overture in a 1.5 hour long orchestra concert? Or a short 'light' piece as a throwaway gesture?

The answer isn't: "There's not enough quality music by women". The answer might be: "I've chosen not to take the time to find it"

When it comes to ethnicity here in Australia I know that so far my music choices don't yet accurately reflect the people in the community:

[March 2023: Graphics of the 2021 census data are not yet available]

I need to keep doing better. There's still a long way to go. I've got more work to do in discovering and uplifting amazing music by diverse voices.

We all need to do better.

What does better look like for you?

Maybe it's doing a deeper dive into the people you serve - your ensemble and your audience - and whose voices aren't represented yet.

Maybe it's programming one piece by an underrepresented voice.

Maybe it's programming one more.

Maybe it's really making your program reflect your people.

Maybe it's not making excuses anymore.

Whatever it is, we need to do better. It's our responsibility.

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

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