Lecolion Washington

A diverse musical community: why settle for less?

9:00, 15th March 2017

I read with great interest Toks Dada’s recent piece on diversity in classical music (CM, December). My organisation, PRIZM Ensemble, is based in Memphis, Tennessee, and is focused on building a diverse musical community, so I valued the opportunity to get a perspective on this from across the pond.

Though there is a growing conversation around diversity in classical music, PRIZM Ensemble is among that small group who demonstrate what can happen when an organisation is wholly dedicated to this ideal and holds itself accountable for its success in achieving it. We don’t just create strategies around the work. We do the work. This autumn, we launched the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble whose demographic diversity mirrors almost exactly our city of Memphis (a city that is approximately 70% people of colour). The PRIZM Chamber Orchestra’s 31 members represented 16 cities and 11 states, many of them being local or former Memphians. We collaborated with Opera Memphis in a production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

I performed as the principal bassoonist in the orchestra, and I could feel and hear that these musicians were bringing something extra to the music. The vibrato of the strings was a little bit more unified. The tuning of the woodwinds was a little bit more centred. The blending of the brass was a little bit tighter. We were saying something to the Memphis community, to the country, really. We all knew that we were playing for something that was bigger than this performance, bigger than any individual there. Because of this, we gave something extra, and the singers told me that they noticed and were inspired by it.

While the musicians were in Memphis, they also took part in PRIZM’s in-school programming, visiting two schools where they played for and with young musicians. This is another key component of PRIZM’s efforts to create opportunities for young people to feel that they might have a chance to join a future classical music scene that is more diverse. What people fail to realise is that representation is very important to a young person. I remember growing up as a young bassoonist. I was the only black bassoonist that I’d ever seen up until my college years. The next black bassoonist that I saw wasn’t a colleague at school. He was Rufus Olivier, principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I saw him in a picture. It changed my life. I remember feeling this weight lifted off my shoulders. I remember feeling that I didn’t have to be the first one. Being the first one is the most difficult. I remember feeling that I just had to be the next one.

Because of that feeling that I experienced, I know we as parents, educators, and leaders have an obligation to create opportunities for young people to see adults who look like them doing amazing things.

I’m trying to create a world where this isn’t a novelty. The thought should be: ‘We try to identify the best musicians and we try to make sure the work we do mirrors and represents the community in which we live.’ My dream for PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is that we continue doing it, it expands and spreads nationwide, and then it becomes something that’s not necessary anymore. It’s not something on the fringe, it’s something at the centre of the work. It’s part of the culture.

Often people have told me that if we’re more diverse then we have to lower our standards. I’m always amazed at how comfortable people are when they say this to me. It’s as if they don’t realise that they are speaking to an award-winning African-American classical bassoonist who has had a wonderful performance career. What I wanted to show with this orchestra is that you can have both an extremely high-level performance and an extremely diverse group of people. And so the question that I want to raise with the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is: If you can have all of this, why would you ever settle for less than that?

Lecolion Washington is executive director of the PRIZM Ensemble

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