Racist, Misogynistic Classical Culture Clear in Conservatory Controversy

There is a certain cognitive dissonance in being a musician at Oberlin Conservatory. Most Obies care deeply about social progress and equality, but being in the Conservatory implies a love of traditional repertoire — which has excluded non-white, non-male musicians since the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, there are early signs of change.

The world of classical music has a particularly insular culture. We venerate white men hundreds of years gone at the expense of all other genders and races. We are nearly untouched by the #MeToo movement — orchestras and conservatories rehire known sexual predators, shuffling them from institution to institution while covering the evidence. Classical music perpetuates a culture of ableism with its toxic ‘diamonds are made under pressure’ mentality. Unsurprisingly, recent psychological studies have shown that current classical education disproportionately imparts high levels of anxiety and depression on its students compared to other fields of study. “Classist” and “elitist” are synonymous with “classical music.”

So, what do we do? Learning empathy and inclusivity, breaking down racist and capitalist barriers — how do we do that? I don’t claim to be an expert, but I am quite sure that Oberlin is not getting it right. Our nearly all-white faculty exemplifies the persistent barriers people of color face trying to enter our industry. Oberlin’s courses focus on men like Richard Wagner and Heinrich Schenker — misogynists, racists, and anti-Semites labeled as “troubled geniuses.” By validating viewpoints like those of these men, we preserve racist and misogynistic barriers to entry. Whether tacitly or consciously, every classical musician does this.

A number of these issues were put on especially glaring display this past weekend. Oberlin’s corner of the Internet — and beyond — was shaken by an official Conservatory Instagram post announcing “A Celebration of Black Artistry,” accompanied by the faces of five white professors. Within hours, thousands of shares and comments swamped the post. For those unaware that the event would feature all Black composers, it was particularly bewildering. The fault for the miscommunication lies with the predominantly white administration who created, approved, and then posted the flyer. But the more profound question is why there is a deficiency of Black professors, faculty, and staff in the Conservatory — and why there was a lack of foresight in including them fully in the process of making classical music more equitable after centuries of oppression and racism. 

What is the context in which this incident occurred? Racism, classism, elitism, misogyny, hero-worship. In my limited capacity, I view it also as a flawed part of an even more flawed effort to improve on the part of the institution. It’s “harm reduction,” a natural if not frustrating part of recovery. 

Associate Professor of Horn Jeff Scott, one of Oberlin’s two Black classical faculty, responded to the outrage by writing, “The original post, which pictures [five] of my colleagues is one of 50, maybe more, events that were part of a month-long celebration of Black Artistry. It is one recital of many. It just so happens that this particular recital was performed without someone of color. The post would have served us all better to have been of the entire month’s celebration, which would show the uniquely diverse, multifaceted celebration of art, culture, intellectual thought, and so much more.” 

The events to which Professor Scott referred featured some phenomenal Black artists, including himself, flutist Nathalie Joachim, Troy Stephenson, OC ’20, and Marlea Simpson, OC ’17. Scott himself, Associate Professor of Voice Katherine Jolly, and Associate Dean of Academic Support Chris Jenkins — each a successful and unique Black musician in their own right — spoke at three of the concerts. 

The celebration was a result of hundreds of hours of planning last summer, spurred by the ascension of the Oberlin College Black Musicians’ Guild and the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity. Racism is a persistent problem at Oberlin, and the Conservatory tradition is inherently resistant to change. That said, the fabric of Oberlin Conservatory is starting to change.

Echoing Dean Jenkins in a letter he wrote last week, progress is slow, but these meaningful efforts have begun here. Last fall, third-year piano students were required to learn and perform repertoire in two weeks, as part of a performance exam, or “jury.” This included works by Black composers for the first time, at the behest of Oberlin students. Students are programming BIPOC composers on their recitals with more regularity and intentionality. I’ve been inspired by my peers’ creativity, as I’ve started exploring works by Asian composers. This Saturday, I get to accompany violin works by Clara Schumann, the world-class pianist and repressed wife of Robert Schumann; and Florence Price, a brilliant Black American pianist and composer. The discussion — started last summer and sustained by students, faculty, staff, and administrators — is already changing my musical identity and knowledge.

It goes without saying that many students are doing much, much more than I am to forge an inclusive path with their music. Many staff, faculty, and administrators are as well. The Oberlin Music Theory department, for example, is completely overhauling its curriculum. Music theory is a particularly antiquated and ethically thorny topic in classical music and is in dire need of modernization. Oberlin’s new theory program will address a more diverse canon of repertoire and explore more musical cultures while centering Black art in particular. Similarly, Maestros Raphael Jiménez and Tim Weiss, who conduct Oberlin’s large ensembles, diversified repertoire this year beyond recognition. Students in ensembles are engaging with BIPOC and female composers as much as they are with white male composers. 

These changes can be described as “superficial” or “performative.” I think that is a fair description, as we have not yet come close to achieving a true appreciation for all races and genders in classical music. Yet maintaining these new standards, codifying them into the way we teach and study music, will serve the gradual dissolution of prejudice in classical music.

So, are these changes enough? No. Mistakes are still being made; systemic racism remains. One of my colleagues on Student Senate, Reggie Goudeau, wrote about the offensive BHM flyer, lamenting, “I can only imagine how tired and powerless Black students without my same position feel at this moment.” We need to continue dismantling the foundations of classical music in order to redistribute power equally. Though we are centuries late in doing so, classical musicians need to love music by BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ composers of the past and present — there are worlds of beauty and expression that we never hear out of institutionalized prejudice.