My Wake-Up Call
By Adam Collins, 2019
It wasn’t until recently that I became fully aware of the scope of disparity in race and gender that encompasses the music composition world. I’m now in my fifth year of teaching high school band and, up to this point, it was never really something I had considered. I would go online, to Everyone’s Favorite Music Distributor & Son, Inc.*, and peruse their lists – listening to recordings of titles that I found interesting (because, let’s be honest, we all judge a book by its cover when we’re limited on time). I used to think: “Wow, if I ever get into writing music, I should always title my piece ‘Aardvark Adventures’, or ‘Aaron’s Lofty Dreams’ so that I can make sure my titles are on the first page.”
*The company’s name has been changed for this article, but we all know who I’m talking about …
I had a host of excuses for never spending much time to discover music by composers who were new to me. I would look for the tried and tested names I was familiar with. I would take recommendations from friends and colleagues. Then I would purchase that music, without thought as to who I was and was not programming and what stance I was taking on representation. Maybe you’ve heard this story before – maybe this story is yours also.
I posted on Facebook this past Summer, because I put together my repertoire list for the entire year, and I was really excited about all the awesome and inspiring music I had selected for my students to play. It looked something like this:
If you hadn’t already noticed, it’s just a whole bunch of white guys. I definitely didn’t notice, at least not until it was pointed out to me. I went with the composers I already knew and, for the ones I didn’t, I went with the ones I could find on YouTube, or from other recommendation lists of music that were out there.
So here I am, showing off my “expansive” and “diverse” list of rep and I’m getting a lot of positive comments and other dopamine-inducing responses. And then I get a comment from Mary Kate McNally, a friend and colleague of mine, and it was two simple words:
I respond, in a manner that I thought was enough at the time, essentially saying that I had put an hour or two of work into it, and if she had any recommendations, I’d be happy to plug them into my rep. 150 comments from her, myself, and several others later, and we had dug deep into a debate on obtusity, insensitivity, comfort-zone, our profession’s lack of diverse programming, and countless other “No Women?” deep cuts.
As I stared at my screen, watching person after person join the comment section, defending my actions, I came to a realization: Mary Kate was right. And it was evident in the comments towards her, as she fought off argument after argument. The next morning, I wrote to Mary Kate, apologizing for what I had said, and explaining that I could finally see what she was talking about. I realized that her passionate comments embodied the quote: Well-behaved women seldom make history. So I began a journey to seek music by women and minority composers. I changed my programming for this year, so that each of the three bands I teach will play at least one piece by a woman on each concert. I have since programmed works by Alex Shapiro, Nicole Piunno, Anne McGinty, Erika Svanoe, Cait Nishimura, Kimberly Archer, Chen Yi, and Julie Giroux.
As I was programming this music, I realized that it is not only extremely difficult to access music by women and minority composers, but ordering and getting it in my hands was another challenge altogether. As I write this article, it’s been three weeks since I ordered my first set of music by a female composer. I ordered it from Everyone’s Favorite Music Distributor & Son, Inc. and they drop-shipped from her printer since they don’t keep her music in stock. They’ve collected a cut of her piece’s retail price for the honor of listing her title on their site and taken three weeks of rehearsal time from my ensemble. Had I taken my business directly to the source, I would have received an instant digital download and the opportunity to start a dialog with the composer. I will be placing direct orders in the future.
I decided that I wanted to quantify the struggles I’ve been having in my search, so I started to go through repertoire lists. Being that I am a high school director in Michigan, the first list I took on was the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Basic Music List – the list that bands are required to select music from in order to qualify for a rating at district and state band festivals. One could also consider this list a resource for directors to peruse music that has been deemed of high quality by current and former colleagues in our state. It’s another programming resource to many directors.
There are 1,195 pieces on the Michigan High School Band list. Of those pieces, exactly 22 of them are by women (1.84% of the list), and 11/22 are by Anne McGinty. I also found that six are by Latinx composers (0.5%), four are by Japanese composers (0.33%), and two of them are pieces by African-American composers (0.17%). Granted, racial background is not as easily gauged in a name, these numbers may be slightly off. No piece on the Michigan list is by a woman of color.
There has to be a reason for this, I thought. I don’t want to believe that the people making these lists have been actively avoiding adding music written by women, or by people of color. I decided that I should look at the availability of music by women and composers of color on the most readily available resource that the vast majority of directors use: Everyone’s Favorite Music Distributor & Son, Inc. I called “EFMD”, and asked if they had an excel spreadsheet available of all of the music they had on their website, but they told me no such document exists. So I spent the next several weekends manually entering each wind band piece in their “Contest and Festival” catalog to a spreadsheet. Here are my findings:
Total Pieces: 4366
Pieces by women: 97 (2.22%)
Pieces by women of color: 4 (0.09%)
Pieces by men of color: 63 (1.44%)
Pieces composed or arranged by Brian Balmages: 106 (2.42%)
Pieces composed or arranged by Robert Sheldon: 120 (2.75%)
Pieces composed or arranged by Robert W. Smith: 130 (2.98%)
Brian and the two Roberts are good people, and I have nothing against them. They are prolific, well accomplished composers, and that’s obvious by directors’ proclivity to select their music. The point that I want to make is that Everyone’s Favorite Music Distributor & Son, Inc. is a business and sales are going to drive their profits. Those profits are made on composers that directors can rely on for quality literature. EFMD and other vendors aren’t taking the economic risk of promoting new and diverse voices. For those of us that use EFMD as a programming resource, our options remain very white and very male.
I don’t have a perfect solution for how to address this inequality. I do know, however, that we will never fix a problem if we don’t acknowledge it in the first place. There is a silenced group of living composers. Their music is original, powerful, emotional, and meaningful. By shedding light on these composers and their works, we can – at the very least – offer a chance for new voices to speak louder and stronger than they have been given the opportunity before.
We don’t need music publishers, distributors, or repertoire lists to tell us what makes good music. We owe it to those in our ensembles and our increasingly diverse communities to reach out beyond our comfort zones, explore new areas of music, and risk our time, efforts, and money so that new and diverse voices are heard in rehearsal rooms and concert halls. We have to put ourselves out there and stand beside those historically disenfranchised because those “in power” are not. And when we prepare carefully and thoroughly, we will venture into new avenues of artistic depth and our risks will be rewarded.
At the end of my Freshman year of college, Eastern Michigan University was doing a national search for a new Director of Bands. The three finalists all worked with the ensembles during the application process, the third of which was Mary Schneider, the then-Associate Director of Bands at the University of Minnesota. At the end of each candidate’s day, there was a question and answer session for the students to ask each finalist any questions they may have. When Dr. Schneider’s turn came, I raised my hand and asked her: “If you could leave here with us having only learned one thing from you, what would it be?” Her answer?
Take risks! – She got the job.
This article was originally published on www.andwewereheard.org on November 8, 2018