Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser clapping hands

Perfect Fifth of Diversity: A framework for self-assessment

At two recent OC member convenings, Orchestras Canada welcomed conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser to talk about equity in the orchestra. Daniel is a member of the OC board, chair of our Equity Committee, and Artist-in-Residence and Community Ambassador with Symphony Nova Scotia. At these events, Daniel presented the Perfect Fifth of Diversity, a discussion tool for orchestras to use in considering their equity work.

As Daniel noted, diversity is going to look different in different communities; but for all organizations, there is a real opportunity to engage with people who don’t yet feel welcome at the orchestra in a way that benefits all involved. To help clarify the starting place, Daniel proposes five questions for orchestras to consider.

1. Who is playing?

This element concerns your musicians, soloists and conductors. Most professional orchestras have an audition process during which applicants for tenure track positions play behind a screen for several rounds before their identity is revealed. Selection processes for music directors, soloists, and per service musicians take various shapes. And smaller budget groups may have more flexibility in their modes of casting. No matter what, are we ensuring that our selection processes address conscious or unconscious bias?

We also know that pathways to a career in classical music rely on early exposure, access to instruments, and inspiring teachers and role models, along with the financial resources to pursue serious study over many years. Auditions present financial barriers, as well, such as paying for flights, hotels, and extra lessons. In the USA, the Sphinx Organization in collaboration with the League of American Orchestras and the New World Symphony have started the National Alliance for Audition Support, a program that provides financial support to Black and Latinx musicians attending auditions.

2. Who is being played?

Does our programming reflect the communities we want to serve, as well as the musical traditions and inspirations we have historically celebrated? Do we want to program music of diverse styles, by a more diverse range of composers, including living, women, and Indigenous composers, and composers of colour? Some audiences are curious to hear works they don’t know, and others will stay away. How do we balance comfort, tradition, and challenge, in a sustainable and artistically sound way? This would see the orchestra of the future both continuing to present beloved classics, and becoming a library of sound that puts itself at the service of diverse styles, traditions and communities.

3. Who is listening?

Are our audiences reflective of the community we are hoping to serve? We need to consider what the access point is for tickets to our concerts, and whether we are programming and marketing our concerts in a way that appeals to a diverse range of audiences. This element looks at how we are making our orchestra accessible to communities that are not only culturally diverse, but also diverse in terms of age, socio-economic status or spectrum-linked diversity. This is important both as a means of better serving our communities, and as a means of growing our audience.

4. Who is deciding?

We need to look at who is in positions of power at our organizations – in artistic leadership roles, in staff leadership roles, and on the board of directors. As well, from whom do we seek input, to ensure diverse perspectives in the decision-making process?

5. How is this being done?

A lot of orchestras’ work in community engagement projects involves collaborating with non-traditional artists and community partners, and these projects present many opportunities for reflection on orchestral culture and approaches. How is power distributed between the music director, soloists and other collaborators in rehearsal and performance spaces? How do we approach time, and how do we make space for exploration in the context of an orchestral service? How might we collaborate in a way that nurtures and gives power to voices outside of the orchestra’s traditional hierarchy?

The questions that Daniel is raising are deliberately non-prescriptive: each orchestra will need to answer these questions in its own way, and reach its own conclusions. Orchestras Canada is excited to be part of the discussion, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts!