In Brief | It is long overdue for the orchestra field to improve racial diversity on its stages. The League’s new collaborative, nationwide Inclusive Stages initiative aims to do just that.

In August of 2023, the League of American Orchestras launched Inclusive Stages, a new national initiative with the purpose of increasing the racial diversity of musicians in professional and community orchestras. By bringing together orchestra musicians, staff, conductors, union representatives, and other key allies, the initiative aims to demonstrate that immediate steps can be taken to change the situation. Here, Caen Thomason-Redus, Vice President of Inclusion and Learning at the League, discusses Inclusive Stages: what the program does, why the League is doing it, and what it means for the League—and for orchestras.

Caen Thomason-Redus: Inclusive Stages is the League’s national collective action to increase the racial diversity of musicians in American orchestras. At its heart, it is a coalition of orchestras that have the willingness and ability to act right now. This coalition of twenty-eight orchestras represents all budget sizes and all major regions of our country. I am incredibly grateful to every Inclusive Stages orchestra and participant. None of this work is easy and it requires each of us to learn, change and grow. With urgency as our priority, we will focus on the actions that are immediately available within existing contracts and agreements. Orchestras will identify and implement improvements in their own musician recruitment processes through a quick but methodical facilitated process of collaborative work.

Additionally, roughly one hundred orchestras are participating in one or more of three data projects that will provide important context and insights:

  1. Developed with Accordant Advisors, the Inclusion Index helps orchestras understand and respond to how their staff and musicians feel about their workplace environment.
  2. Developed with Acceptd and the National Alliance for Audition Support, an anonymous and voluntary self-identification form is available for orchestras to distribute to all audition applicants, providing important data about the current diversity of applicant pools.
  3. As part of the coalition process, we are collectively designing a survey that will clarify the range of existing audition and tenure processes. One example is that people often talk about “screened” or “blind” auditions, but without real knowledge of how many orchestras actually use them or in which rounds of the audition process. Developing this survey with the coalition, and eventually rolling it out for usage across the field, will give us clarity on where things stand now and where the greatest opportunities for progress are.

A graph based on the League of American Orchestras’ Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field in 2023 report charts representation across the orchestra field. As of 2023, 2.4% of American orchestra musicians are Black or African American and 4.8% are Hispanic or Latinx. That’s a combined 7.2% as compared to the more than 30% of the American population who identify as Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino. Those statistics have remained essentially unchanged for a decade.

What problems or concerns does Inclusive Stages address?

As long as orchestras have existed in this country, they have not adequately represented the people of this country. They were typically created by and for white audiences and were made up almost completely of white men. Over many decades, progress has been made in the inclusion of women and Asian American musicians, though that does not mean that their experiences in orchestras are yet equal. What has persisted is a staggering underrepresentation of musicians who identify as Black, Latinx, and other racial and ethnic groups. That is not just an unfortunate statistic. The harm from this is both personal and communal. It is both economic and artistic. It squanders talent and limits our art form. It is long overdue for our field to make a considerable, collaborative, and urgent effort to improve racial diversity in our orchestras. By building a coalition of orchestra musicians, staff, conductors, union representatives, and other key allies, this is exactly what we are doing. Through a rapid and focused series of data projects, we are also obtaining more information about the current diversity of audition applicants, the organizational cultures within orchestras, and the wide variety of audition and tenure practices that are the pathway to employment. We seek to build on the progress currently being made by efforts such as the National Alliance for Audition Support. In future years, we intend to expand our scope to connect to the important work being done by youth orchestras, educational institutions, and pre-professional programs that are nurturing the orchestral musicians of the future.

Is there an urgency behind the program? Why is it happening now?

As of 2023, 2.4% of American orchestra musicians are Black or African American and 4.8% are Hispanic or Latinx. That’s a combined 7.2% as compared to the more than 30% of the American population who identify as Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino. Those are the results of the League’s Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field in 2023 report, which details representation across the field. Those numbers have remained essentially unchanged despite more than forty years of orchestral diversity fellowship and training programs; more than twenty-five years since the Sphinx Organization was founded to promote diversity in classical music; six years since the inception of “pathways” programs that created alliances of music training programs serving diverse youth in several major cities, and many other efforts. In the few years since the murder of George Floyd focused attention on the realities facing Black Americans, the percentage of Black musicians in American orchestras has actually gone down. There is something wrong in the relationship between orchestras and a large percentage of our country, so it is our responsibility as a field to fix it. This one program cannot address every interconnected issue that results in such low representation on stage, so instead it focuses where we have the greatest control—which is to say, where we have the greatest accountability.

Information from the League of American Orchestras’ Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field in 2023 report.

What is your role with Inclusive Stages? Who else at the League is directly involved?

Inclusive Stages is the definition of a team effort. Our new Manager of Inclusion and Learning, Sam Andrew, is the backbone of the program. She does an amazing job keeping us organized, handling the bulk of the communications, managing most of our collaboration internally and with partners, and helping design each aspect of the program. Our Vice President of Research and Resources, Karen Yair, is guiding much of the data work, particularly the Inclusion Index. Many other League staff play supporting roles, and the entire Communications team was critical in the rollout of the program. To support the design and facilitation of the Coalition meetings, we’ve engaged Anthony Meyers and Carrie Neal of Leading Changemakers, and they have already proved invaluable. We are tremendously grateful to the Sakana Foundation for investing in this program and giving us the chance to prove that change is possible. As for me, it was my idea, so it’s truly my privilege to work on all aspects of it and it’s my responsibility to make sure we get it done.

The coalition of twenty-eight orchestras in Inclusive Stages represents all budget sizes and all major regions of our country.

How many orchestras are in the coalition, and what is their involvement? What does the number of participating orchestras tell you about how the field might value this program?

We have twenty-eight orchestras in the Inclusive Stages Coalition. They represent all budget sizes and parts of the country. Each of them has committed to involving their musicians, staff, and music directors throughout this process. Additionally, each will take part in all three of the data projects. This type of collaboration, on this national scale, is historic. It shows that our field is no longer willing to accept the status quo of underrepresentation on stage. Our success will show that any orchestra, of any size, can take steps right now to address underrepresentation on its own stage.

Will the program make a difference not only in increasing racial diversity onstage, but in the orchestra field as a whole?

One of the most important things to understand is exactly how much representation on stage can affect orchestras and their communities. Many orchestras can count their number of Black and Latinx musicians on one hand. This means any inclusion of those perspectives must come from one of those few individuals. This creates an undue burden for them and ultimately robs the orchestra of input it desperately needs. Focusing outward, it is difficult to demonstrate a true commitment to our local communities when many of those individuals do not see themselves represented on our stages. Education and community engagement programs are critically important, but they are not enough. Being visibly disconnected from our communities hinders relationships with those communities, diminishes the experiences of audience members, weakens our case for support, and places undue strain on the underrepresented musicians who have gained a seat in the orchestra. The corollary of all of this is that, by substantially increasing the diversity of our musicians, orchestras can benefit from less marginalization in the workplace, access to more perspectives and creativity, deeper connections to communities, improved experiences for audience members, and stronger cases for financial support. The long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs.

Any orchestra, of any size, can take steps right now to address underrepresentation on its own stage.

How does the initiative measure results?

There are two major types of results Inclusive Stages will produce. The data projects will give us details of the work environments, hiring practices, and applicant diversity of participating orchestras. Through the coalition process, individual orchestras will set their own goals, metrics, and milestones, and report on their progress. In this first year, most of the orchestras will likely focus on dramatically expanding and improving recruitment, addressing bias, and creating accountability. As we see which methods provide the best results, we will share those across the field and seek to expand Inclusive Stages year after year.

Key tenets of the League’s Inclusive Stages initiative.

What defines success — in the short term and in the long term?

The first benchmark of success was to form a representative coalition of orchestras and prove that our field is ready to act. We have done that. The second sign of success will be stronger partnerships between orchestra staff, musicians, and union representatives. We have made important strides here and will remain focused on it. This work will not succeed without the genuine commitment of all parties involved. The third sign of success will be the new action plans that orchestras are putting in place over the next few months. In the months and years ahead, we will see some of those new efforts convert into improved hiring and retention. This will be amplified as we expand Inclusive Stages to include more orchestras and align with the many education efforts already underway. One example would be better coordination between higher education, pre-professional training programs, and orchestras. Ultimate success for Inclusive Stages is a field of American orchestras that resembles our country and lives in deeper connection with its communities than ever before.

It is difficult to demonstrate a true commitment to local communities when many of those communities do not see themselves represented on orchestra stages.

Are the League and participating orchestras committed to being accountable and transparent? How will that work?

A major function of the coalition is to create an environment where orchestras can be open with each other about a problem that has plagued our entire existence. While the public sharing of internal goals and commitments would be at the discretion of each orchestra, the League will share findings from the data projects and promote the best practices that emerge from the coalition.

In August, the League presented a free online information session about its Inclusive Stages program, and offered two additional sessions about the program later that month. The goal of Inclusive Stages, supported by the Sakana Foundation, is to increase the racial diversity of musicians in American professional and community orchestras. To watch the information session, click here.

The League and many orchestras have said that they are committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Yet those statements can sometimes feel like virtue signaling. Does Inclusive Stages go beyond “talking the talk” to actually “walking the walk”?

With the relatively quick timeline we have for this first year of Inclusive Stages, there’s very little time for anything other than action. Through the course of three facilitated meetings, three distinct data projects, and internal work over the next few months, orchestras will set their own goals, action plans, metrics, and milestones; they will report on their progress; and they will learn from each other’s successes and challenges. We will also work with the coalition to lay out priorities for the next several years of Inclusive Stages. Commitment, follow-through, public dissemination of results, and scaling up will be the hallmarks of this project. The fact that we have all the relevant parties involved—executive leadership, artistic leadership, staff, musicians, union representatives, and partner organizations—makes me more confident than ever that this work will not stall at the “idea” or “talking” phase.

Success for Inclusive Stages is a field of American orchestras that resembles our country and lives in deeper connection with its communities than ever before.

How does this program relate to existing programs like NAAS or others? Does this program have implications about “blind” auditions?

The National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS) is an incredible program that directly supports Black and Latinx musicians in their pursuit of orchestral employment. It was created with the League as a founding partner, and it receives financial support from orchestras themselves. Through the Sphinx Orchestral Partners Audition (SOPA), orchestras also have a unique opportunity to recruit highly qualified Black and Latinx musicians. Inclusive Stages seeks to increase orchestras’ engagement in these programs and others as an important part of our desire to use every available means to improve representation now.

Regarding the use of blind auditions, there is a wide variety of practices across the field currently. Many orchestras have screens up for some part of their auditions. Some screen every round, some screen no rounds. Some leave it up to the audition committee to decide when the screen comes down. There are many discussions about the merits of screening, and fully screened auditions are included in the Recommended Audition and Tenure Guidelines produced by NAAS. But the initial focus of Inclusive Stages is to work immediately within existing contractual agreements. Orchestras could choose to change their own policies of screening auditions, but the work of Inclusive Stages will not wait for that to occur.