Equity in Orchestras

March 24, 2021

A panel of experts converse about the role of race in orchestral culture, individual responsibility, and how racism manifests in the classical music industry. They will use Nebal Maysaud’s article, ‘It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die’ as a jumping off point.

Co-presented by ACO and American Composers Forum.

Moderator:

Pratichi Shah, President and CEO, Flourish Talent Management Solutions

Panelists:

Nebal Maysaud, composer and consultant

Melissa Ngan, American Composers Orchestra CEO & President

Daniel Bernard Roumain, Composer, Violinist, Educator

Additional Resources

Additional resources coming soon!

Transcript

Aiden Feltkamp:

Hello and welcome. My name is Aiden Feltkamp. I’m the Director of Emerging Composers and Diversity for the American Composers Orchestra. Thanks for joining us today for this webinar about equity in orchestras. This webinar is co-presented by the American Composers Orchestra and the American Composers Forum. I wanted to thank so much to our help — sorry, for the help that ACF has given us through this with their president, Vanessa Rose, Billy Lackey, Damien Strange, and Laura Kreider. I’d also like to thank our funders for the series: the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Arts, and our individual donors. If you have any questions throughout the panel, please put them in the Q&A panel down underneath the video. It’s just one click and you’re able to type your questions straight into there. For the rest of the chat you can use the chat on the side for any of your other commentary, but if you want to ask the panel specifically a question make sure it’s in the Q&A panel. This webinar will be recorded and available to watch on ACO’s YouTube and ACF’s website starting tomorrow.

So, I would like to introduce our amazing moderator and panelists today. We have Pratichi Shah with us, who is an HR strategist and thought leader with 25 years of experience in talent and HR, both in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. She’s the founder of Flourish Talent Management Solutions, a firm focused on increasing impact in non-profits and philanthropies through strategy, culture alignment, equity and inclusion, training and organizational development, and leadership coaching. She serves on the board of the League of American Orchestras and BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and she’s also on the advisory councils for Equity in the Center and Fund the People. So, we’re so excited to have you all here today. Pratichi, all to you.

Pratichi Shah:

Aiden, thank you so much and thank you all for joining us. I think we are all particularly aware of issues of equity and racism given the events that have unfolded really over the last year and, let’s face it, many centuries, but particularly also the really tragic events over the last couple of weeks. So all the better that we’re talking about a serious subject, hopefully with a little bit of lightness injected into our conversation as well. Again we’re welcoming your questions today for our incredible panel. I have the great, great honor to be joined by some amazing colleagues that you’re going to hear from, and with that, let me just ask each of my colleagues on the panel if you would please introduce yourselves and just tell us a little bit about where you’re speaking from today, if you would share that with us, and a little bit about yourselves, and then we will dive right into the conversation. So Nebal, can I start with you?

Nebal Maysaud:

Absolutely. So hello, my name is Nebal. I am coming from Alexandria, Virginia and I’m a queer Arab composer. I write mainly Middle Eastern and experimental music and I explore the boundaries there in my art. I’m also a writer — I contribute writing to — sorry, something just popped up on my screen — but I regularly contribute to I Care if You Listen, I’ve contributed articles to New Music Box, and do some freelance writing and consulting.

Pratichi Shah:

Thank you Nebal, thank you so much. Melissa, over to you as one of our hosts and panelists today.

Melissa Ngan:

Hello, I’m Melissa Ngan. I am the President and CEO of the American Composers Orchestra, which I’ve been at for about five weeks, and I’m coming from Fifth House Ensemble which I founded 16 years ago based in the Chicago area. I am calling in from Algonquin, Illinois, which most of my Chicago colleagues call Iowa, which is the traditional lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, and Potawatomi people, so I’m definitely giving my respect to the elders past and present.

Pratichi Shah:

Thank you so much for that Melissa, and from that we’re gonna go over Daniel, my friend and brother.

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

My friend and sister, it’s so good to see you always, Pratichi. Let’s see, I’m gonna do this, try this in 10 seconds. My name is Daniel Bernard Roumain. I am calling you from the land of the Massachusetts and Wampanoag people. I’m a black Haitian-American composer. That’s it.

Pratichi Shah:

If we were giving away prizes that would win potentially, solely for time, not assessing quality because we have just too much quality and fabulousness on this panel, but that is amazing. Thank you, thank you for keeping us there.

Nebal, I wanted to start with you. We shared the article that you wrote about time for classical music to die. It’s also been shared in our chat, and it was provocative, it was a very provocative piece, and laid out — I almost feel like the word struggle isn’t strong enough — but it laid out, really, the the intense struggle that people of color have found themselves in with the entire genre, with the orchestral community. What are you hoping that people take away specifically from this article?

Nebal Maysaud:

Right, so first I just wanted to add I am currently in the land of the Piscataway and Nekocheck — that was the pop-up I was trying to check to make sure — but with regards to the article, I wanted to really bring communities of color together. Particularly, you know of course people in the community, but also people who have tried to join the community of classical music and have left or been stranded by it or, you know, have, as all of us have, been abused by it. So, my ultimate goal is really for us to band together so that we can dismantle these systems of oppression that thrive on the hierarchies they create and the tactics of divide and conquer that they use, because I think right now a lot of us — you know, we get into these things and so often people of color are among the only ones in like a sea of whiteness and, we believe that going in, especially in education and in young programs, there’s this belief that’s like, “Oh, I have to go through this on my own,” or that “This is my problem,” and so what I really wanted to do was sort of a love letter to my colleagues who have faced this abuse, and for us to say “Hey, we can get together. We can solve this, but we have to be together on it.”

Pratichi Shah:

Yeah, thank you so much for that. There is this notion in both kind of company and solidarity and unity. We’ve seen so many cries for that again especially with the acts of hatred that we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks and there is so much for that especially to be seen, particularly in our community also to be heard in every way imaginable given the nature of the community. So yeah, thank you for saying that. I wanted to shift over and talk about one of the the foundational things that we have to continue to reckon with, really, to get to this place of understanding the relationship, and that is you know “let’s talk about racism.” Daniel, you have often defined this as being kind of in the new racism, if you will. So walk us through your sense of what is the new racism, and how is it here, how does it unfold within the orchestral community and its culture.

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

Great question. To post, I’ll post it again, but I’ll give you a little bit of the kind of, because I think the poetic, the poem, the essay that I’ve kind of started and not finished is important. So what I wrote was, it’s a series of questions: What is the NEW racism? (Capital N-E-W.) Is it saying no and no and no? Os it saying not now? Is it to delay? Is it to dodge? Is it to undervalue? Is it to debate endlessly? Is it to meet mindlessly? Is it to discuss and not do? Is it a continuous lack of courage? Is it tradition over invention? Is it marginal change? Is it monolithic whiteness speaking but not listening or seeing or hearing or caring? Is it cis white men doing the same things to us over and over again and calling their delusion inclusion? Is it money over morality? Is it the cost before the cause? Is it white lies blurring the lines that shatter black lives making us all blind and some of us invisible? Is it inclusion but not centering? Is it insisting I negotiate my contract, my respect, my value, my place, my space, and my power within a system that won’t negotiate fairly or with empathy? Is it a tradition of trauma? Is it humiliation as badge? Is it the volume of my voice and the velocity of my words aim precisely at you to demoralize and remind you who the target is? Is it rage as status? Is it slamming things and throwing things and yelling things and screaming things and doing things we would never do in the office but do in rehearsal? Is it apology or embrace after it, because you know I don’t have a choice or a voice in it? Is it you saying “Well, I want to, but”? Is it you speaking for me without permission? Is it paycheck as a weapon? Is it you laying landmines for me waiting for a delayed detonation? Is it my fatigue that cools the fires that lead to red-hot changes, or is it personal fear as institutional tone? Is it indecision as mission? Is it evasion mistaken for a discussion? Where is the new name? Where is the new racism? Everywhere.

All right, so I don’t know how helpful that is, but Mike Duckworth, who is asking a very important question, I’ll say this: it’s probably all those things. The new racism, succinctly, is nuanced. It is, I would say, no instead of now. And I’ll tell you this: I personally feel that the new solution may be a class action lawsuit. And why not? I think there’s so many lessons to be learned in the Me Too movement, where sexual assault became a series of lawsuits. So, I think that’s where things might be headed. That’s getting into the weeds a little bit.

Pratichi Shah:

So let me then, you know, you all have laid forth kind of context and some verily provocative questions. One of the things that strikes me in this is how much we have either diffused or dismissed BIPOC voices. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terminology, BIPOC is Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. So one of the the key things here is really beginning, not just beginning to, but immediately listening to those voices and centering those. And Melissa, I’m wondering if we can go to you and if you could talk a little bit as the leader of an organization, as someone who’s been so central to the entire orchestral community, how do we center the voices that for so long we have not necessarily heard?

Melissa Ngan:

Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question, and I think that one of the things that’s really interesting, and one of the reasons why I’m here at ACO, is because I think it’s really hard to talk about centering voices when you’re not considering the music that you’re playing, and the ways in which we’ve decided what music we’re going to value, and, you know, the idea that we made a choice that we were going to hold as excellent a certain kind of music from a different time, place, and people than our own, and to sort of freeze that as a moment in time. And then we ask all these questions about whether or not people feel like they belong in that, you know? So I think it’s worth it for us to consider that a lot of the conversations that are happening around inclusion and around centering, which is an even better word, thinking about who are you centering in your decision making, who are you centering in the process of your choices both on and off the stage, and how are they being listened to, not just listened to but actually included in the decision making process as active participants, right? And how are they compensated for their time in doing. So those are all really important decisions, and we’re having a lot of conversations about those structures. So Daniel, I really appreciated the piece of your comments earlier about how it’s, you know, it can be endless conversation, right? But if we don’t actually touch on this sort of original decision that got us here, which is “We are going to center and prioritize and monetize and create training systems around a particular form of music that is different from our own, that is separate from us,” instead of recognizing that music has been a part of all of our native cultures since the very beginning of time, and when we take that away from people, that agency, that connection, that living, breathing organism that is part of how we share our stories and history and culture and how we heal and how we connect to spirituality, when we remove ourselves from that and instead say this other music is more excellent, and here’s how you pay to be trained to be qualified to play that music, and here is who is educated enough to participate in the hall, and here are the people who we’ve auditioned to be in those chairs, it’s no wonder that we are in the place that we are. So to me, the reason for coming to ACO is to help to reshape what the orchestra is through the music that it chooses to play, and to expand and redefine the role of the composer in that process.

Pratichi Shah:

Yeah, thank you for that. So then, let me ask you, what is it, you know, that we often talk about, and it’s been brought up by the audience as well, kind of, we often talk in the conceptual nature of these kinds of things. What are the tactics? What are the strategies? And I say that with the caution that we know that in kind of organizational culture, which is obviously my background, organizational culture that is centered around white supremacy or dominant culture tends to kind of, tends to center action and urgency and perfectionism and so I wanna acknowledge that, and that’s not what we’re talking about, but if we think in terms of bringing this conversation from the conceptual to the actions of those of us that are in this conversation today and here, what is it that we do? And again not to create like a false sense of activity for the sake of it, like let’s be harried and let’s be frenzy, not that, but what is it that each of us does, and it would be amazing to hear from each of you on your thoughts on that. Whoever would like to go first.

Melissa Ngan:

Daniel, I’m nominating you because of the many things that you have done in many rooms to help set up action. So I’m nominating you to go first.

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

Wait me? Oh man, okay, okay. I was going to nominate you. First of all, I do want to give it up to Melissa, uh, Ngan. Did I say that right?

Melissa Ngan:

Ngan, just like non-dairy.

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

Ngan. I think it’s, you know, I am privileged to have had a wonderful and I hope continuing relationship with ACO, and I think it’s very important that Melissa Ngan, as I believe the, well, multiple first in this role, I think it’s important that we support and are very vocal about our support so Mike Duckworth — love you, brother — that’s one way we can start, you know, micro and macro support is important. Every tweet is important. You know, it becomes a part of a record, you dig? Not just your record, but a public record. It’s actually really important. Number two, I think that — I’m answering questions in three places, so bear with me, because I want to make sure we use our time lightly — I do think we need to rally as many white musicians as possible. That’s it. We gotta rally them, you know? How much more blunt can I be. Because once, I mean, they are the problem and the solution. And I know that some don’t want to get into it and they just — no, no no no no no. I think that white musicians have a real opportunity now. I mean, just think of it: if the majority of any orchestra, which is monolithically white, said “We no longer want to be monolithically white,” it changes, Mike. It changes. But here’s the other thing that’s a little more sinister that I would say. I think we need term limits. Look, I think we need term limits. How else can I say it? I don’t play the violin as well at 50 years old as I did at 20. Right? You literally have people online playing my music much better than I do, and this notion that we can play in an orchestra until the person decides to not, I think that needs to be investigated. We have term limits in our presidency, you know? I personally — look, call it ageism, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry — but I can tell you, I have seen musicians in our best orchestras unable to play my music and the music in the canon, right? So let’s just forget about, for a moment, let’s just table audition process, let’s just look at what musicians can and can’t do when it becomes 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. And the reason I say it this year is that, if we can incentivize the gift of a term limit, “I’m going to be in this orchestra for 10 years and then make room for someone else,” oh, think about what could happen in less than 10 years, you dig? And the third thing I — and again, let’s not make it a dirty word — we keep saying that, “Oh, term limits is…” Yeah, we should investigate everything about the union and about the expectation of what it means to be an orchestral musician in this country. And I will go first. I have no problem never playing the violin again if it means somebody who’s 20 years old right now who is playing my music better gets that slot. Why not? Why can’t Josh Bell, for example, say, “You know what? You engaged me, I’m going to give five of my engagements to some,” oh, I’m just making this up right now real quick and I’ll stop. Souldn’t that be cool? Every — I’m calling them out, well the violinist —Michelle, oh not Michelle, sorry, Josh Bell is a great person to call out. He is already being engaged for concerts in the future with a lot of people who represent orchestras in this chat. Why not? I will go to Josh Bell and say, “Hey Josh, you know it’d be so cool, as an opening act, even, give half of your fee and half of your time on that stage to a BIPOC musician. Yo-Yo Ma, same thing. Why not? There’s an idea. Boom. And the last thing I’ll say because I’m going to keep saying it: let’s look at the American way of justice. And I think lawsuits are a good way to go. You cannot have a system, you cannot have a system that is so blatantly racist. So let’s investigate it in the court. Why not, you know? And I think that’s totally — I know people are going to go “Whoa,” but you know, I think that that’s a really good and healthy thing to do, you know? If you couldn’t go into a movie theater because you were black, right, there’d be a lawsuit overnight, and that’s exactly what’s happening. There are musicians who cannot go into an orchestra, I know, because of the color of their skin.

Melissa Ngan:

Yeah, I just want to say, I think one of the biggest things that I’m learning coming into this space from where I came from, it has to do with a lot of what Daniel is bringing up, in terms of, we’ve had a lot of conversations about how people come into an orchestra, you know, the audition process. We haven’t arrived at a place where we understand that or have consensus on it as a field, but I will say at the very least we have the NAS guidelines which were just released, and I’m happy to put a link in the chat, which at least get the conversation started, and I know that a lot of my peers are thinking about that and considering what it means for them. But there’s a very other important part of the conversation, which is how do we make room? Because without being able to understand when those seats open, you know, I have been in a position to advise and be a partner to higher education institutions and to orchestras, both of which have very strong tenure situations. There’s the union involved, and I have a lot of respect for that as a person who has sat in the chair as an orchestral musician for a really long time, and know that there are certain protections, there are certain things that are really helpful to a person. I once played a concert, for instance, where they were shooting things off Fourth of July, and like there’s literally shrapnel falling on our heads. Like, for us to know that there are certain protections in place are extremely helpful. But I will say that one of the challenges we have as a field, as a nation, is that in order to get people where we would like them to be, there needs to be space created for them to walk into. And at this moment, we’re more in a spot where people need to self-select into that choice. So for instance, I’m really glad that there have been people ahead of me who very intentionally said to me, “You know what? I am an older person. I am white. I am male. It is time for me to get out of the way. Enjoy this.” You know? And I really appreciate that, but that is their choice, that is their decision. And I think, Daniel, to your point, we have to find a way, we have to find a mechanism or an approach that creates the kind of space we want to make, because as I talk to my peers that’s one of the biggest question marks, frustration points, most difficult areas of the conversation, which is, how do we actually make change when the systems that are around the orchestra are designed to keep the same people in the same spots for as long as possible?

Pratichi Shah:

Yeah, thank you Melissa, thank you Daniel. Nebal, let me go over to you and weigh in on, kind of, what what does one do for any individual. What do we do? How do we move this forward?

Nebal Maysaud:

All right, so I agree with everything that’s just been said. I think there are some really, really good ideas, but especially you mentioned, Daniel, and, you know, I think a lot of it also has to come with, I want to get back to rallying white musicians. White supremacy itself and these systems of oppression — misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia — all of these are ideologies, and they’re societally made out of nothing, which means that there is nothing inherent in an individual about them. So what that means is also that, you know, not only do we have to be making space for, like, BIPOC individuals, but we also have to think about this ideological battle and create a paradigm shift. Because if this paradigm shift does not happen, if we do not convince our white musicians, and if white musicians do not use their privileges to fight that ideological battle with us, then what’s going to happen is that any change we make will be transformed and executed in a way that will reinforce these hierarchies of power. So with what we do, a big part of it is also educating each other on how these systems of oppression work, and being able and comfortable to help each other improve on our behaviors and our practices. And so when we say stuff like, you know, making people should have the individual choice to make room, we should be encouraging that, and — I don’t want to say rewarding that, because people will do it just for the reward and nothing else, but I do think there is a point to, you know, creating community and creating a sense of unity. So I guess like what I’m just trying to say is like unionize us. In a way, we should talk about how unions work in practice, because sometimes they do uphold white supremacy. Look at police unions — they, you know, they’re they’re not helping any labor force. But we should unionize in a way where we keep voices of color at the front and voices of color who believe in the ideologies that dismantle systems of oppression. That is a very important part, because one thing that I am worried about and one thing that I do think is part of modern-day racism is the fact that there are people of color, there are minorities, who are given one position, and that’s it, to represent all minorities. And usually — not always — but there are very often cases where that individual is in it for themselves and is not interested in using that power to dismantle, to give opportunities to more people. That’s a better way of saying it. And the way to counteract that is by, you know, making sure that we have systems in place of support so that we are able to do collective action in case, for example, that one person of color actually does do the work and faces retaliation. We need to create communities, we need to create, like, funds, we need to create resources that will make sure that we take care of each other as we fight this ideological battle.

Melissa Ngan:

Yeah, and I think one of the things that I’m hearing you say is, first of all, this is our collective responsibility, right? This is our collective responsibility. We are not whole as a society and as a field until we get to the place where we understand that. And then, one of the common threads that I hear between what you and what Daniel said is incentives. So one of the things that I love to say, that I know Daniel and I both say a lot: follow the money, right? So if there’s a behavior that you would like to see, you need to invest in it financially. You need to invest in it with your time, and you need to make sure that people understand the value system that is behind your choices, because at the end of the day this work is institutional, it is artistic, and it is personal, and all of the choices we make as institutions, as artists, and as people come from a value system. It’s important to realize that. So for us to be able to articulate with clarity why we are taking the actions we are, and to get on the same page about that value system as much as we can, that’s a really important piece of it, and one thing that I’m grateful for on this panel and in any conversation that would follow on this topic, is that when we talk about diversity, we’re also recognizing that to have conversations like this, diversity means a diversity of experiences and of related perspective, that the sum total of what people bring to these conversations is the total of their life experiences, which have shaped the eyes with which they see and the ears with which they hear, and the many people that they have encountered along the way. So we need each other in order to come up with solutions to what is a very complex issue. We’ve taken a long time for us to get here, so we need a lot of hands and a lot of help in getting ourselves out.

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

I just want to make sure, did I say, did I quote you right? If there is an equity you would, you would need, you would like — oh, I messed it away. If there is an equity you would like to see, you need to invest in it financially.

Melissa Ngan:

Yeah, and you know equity is a great word. I think, like, if there’s a behavior, if there’s an action, if there is a value system you would like to see, you need to invest in it financially, because otherwise you’re lying, you know? You are, because the thing is that if you’re not willing to put your money where you believe that the system should go — so for instance, if you are a leader of an organization and you believe that education and community-focused work is important, but you won’t pay your people, that’s a problem, you know? Or if you want people to feel valued in the transition out of a position as much as they feel valued in the transition in, in the way that you’re suggesting, Daniel, that’s a decision you could make as an institution to make that not a pain point, because otherwise it is. Think about the idea that many of us — and I say this as a person who recently transitioned out of a career where I was primarily performing — we associate our lives with our instruments and with our work, and when we don’t have that anymore it feels like a part of us has died, and we don’t know who we are. So it’s not just a financial question, but it is also a financial question, because many people don’t have another place to go or another place to land because they’ve been in a particular spot for a really long time. So I strongly believe in that, that we need to invest in the change we want to see with our dollars.

Pratichi Shah:

Is there a place where we feel like this is happening? Are there orchestras where this is happening? Are there trends where we can see this happening? Because there is kind of the question of, like, who’s getting this, quote, “right,” right? And again, I’m not saying, there’s no finite peace here, right? It’s a constant evolution. But who has a trajectory that is one we can kind of hold up? Is there any one, any orchestra, any community that we can hold up as kind of a light here?

Nebal Maysaud:

Mind if I take this one? So I think one thing that’s important to remember is that the European classical orchestra is not the only type of orchestra. There are tons of orchestras all over the world, so, like, when you thought, when you say, like, people are doing it right, you know, there are two things that I’m thinking of. One is the constant jingle: there is no consumption under, no ethical consumption under capitalism. Like, there is no way to do it right under capitalism. There is ways to move forward to dismantle it, but these systems all work together.

Mona Eltahawy, who I follow on Twitter, is an amazing Egyptian feminist and activist. She has this analogy of the octopus, where patriarchy, where there’s this, like, one octopus, and it has all of these arms. It has patriarchy, it has capitalism, it has misogyny, it has racism, homophobia, transphobia, all of that. These are all legs of an octopus that are all held up together by this one creature. So you have to get rid of all of those together, and then we’ll start seeing things being done right. As far as, like, people having made it to being completely equitable. That said, there are a lot of orchestras working on actively decolonizing the harm that has been done to them by European musicians and values. For example, in the Arab world there have been, over the 20th century, there have been a lot of work being done to kind of water down the diversity of music styles all over the Middle East in order to better appeal to European tastes, and as a result we have situations where it was easier for folks over the 20th century to learn classical music, western classical music, versus maqam. That is changing now — a lot of folks are saying like, “Well, wait, we don’t want to give up this part of our culture,” and using music as a way to decolonize and get back to and ask the question, “What were we before we tried to be white?” And I think that, looking at those orchestras, like the National Arab Orchestra is one, but also there is one, there’s like, there are so many orchestras full of minorities in the Middle East. There’s one in Afghanistan that’s all women, there’s another, I think a blind orchestra in Egypt, and those folks are really using music to uplift all of our voices. There are also, but — I’m just speaking from my own experience being Middle Eastern and seeing that — but I’ve seen these orchestras and these decolonization practices happening all over the world, and so really, I would say look at what people of color are doing to try to decolonize and connect with their culture. And doing that — because connecting to your culture, that is an act of de-radicalization. We are all radicalized under white supremacy, and getting us out of that radical mindset that we’ve been taught, can, and, like, looking at other cultures who are doing it who still have remnants in their history, and looking back at their history, and trying to both, and try to use that history to pave a path forward with how they treat each other. I think that is the key. So don’t look at classical orchestras, don’t look at majority white orchestras look at the orchestras of people looking to reconnect with their cultures all over the world.

Pratichi Shah:

Yeah, thank you for that. Yeah, changing changing the model, ultimately, and changing kind of what we’re holding up ultimately changes all of the culture. So, I appreciate that. I also deeply appreciate the kind of staying in connection to one’s culture, which I think is such a really big deal, and it’s an incredibly important facet to this entire conversation of having the space to show up connected to your culture, right? And so I just want to underscore that. So Melissa, I think, were you gonna, you were gonna add something, yeah?

Melissa Ngan:

Yeah, so the one thing that I’ll say is that in the last 16 years of work, whenever I didn’t see an answer inside of classical music I think it’s important for us to look outside, because we wouldn’t have gotten here if we knew all of the answers to begin with. So, for me a lot of learning along these lines has always come from theater companies, who I feel like are ahead of where we are in terms of their practice, their how of how they accomplish their work. And one person, because I think this is an institutional question but it’s also an individual question, because each individual has to do their own work along these lines and to model out the behaviors they want to see, one person that I just want to bring up is Willa Taylor at the Goodman Theater, who I think is a phenomenal mentor and model for what we all can be. And one of the things I really appreciate about her work is that she really pushes for, Pratichi, as you were saying, what are the specific actions that we can take, you know? When she designs work with communities, she shows up as a guest before she’s a host, right? That’s an important piece of it, and that process might take years. And one of the things that she’s comfortable with saying is, we could be here for years and have invested a lot of resources and then come to a place where we say, “You know what? We are not the right partner to do this work. Here’s another organization who is right in your hometown who’s perhaps smaller than we are that might actually be a better fit.” So I think a lot of times arts organizations would look at that moment and say that’s failure, and we are prevented from making the choices we should. She also is a person who really advocates to my previous comments about, you know, showing your values in your balance sheet. She really advocates for when you’re working with community partners, making sure that you are compensating them for their time, their artistic talent, their emotional labor in that process, their participation with you and planning. A lot of arts organizations will get a big grant and then go out and do this work and assume that they’re doing everybody else a favor, and why wouldn’t they show up and invest their time? It’s a very different approach and one that I really appreciate. And also thinking about holistically, how you’re involving people within the decision-making process, not just in that program, but of your organization overall. So I think that’s a really important thing. And then, last thing that I’ll say here is that, you know, that idea of showing up as who you are culture-wise is a complicated question for me, I will say. You know, if someone were to say I need you to connect to the music of your own culture, I wouldn’t know what to do, because I’m not fully one or the other. I’ve actually never met anybody who has like Brazilian-Cambodian background. I actually never met anybody who looks like me, and I think it’s really — the thing that I’ll just note about that is that there’s a sense of belonging that comes from knowing who made you, in terms of your culture and what that music is. But I’ll also say that many of us come to this from different places, and this is where I say having multiple perspectives in a conversation like this is really important, to where, you know, I know what my mom listened to, I know what my dad listened to, and then they both also listened to classical music, and I grew up listening to hip-hop and top 40, like child of the 80s, like, and 90s radio station stuff, and, you know, whatever else I could get my hands on. So, my musical background is broader than what my birth certificate would suggest. And so that’s just a complicated thing. That is a question for me, when you have people who come to that honestly and with love.

Pratichi Shah:

Yeah, and well, you you bring up a really great point in calling out the dimensionality, right? We are all dimensions, that we sometimes tend to kind of fall back on these monoliths, like we’ve heard it a million times lately, right? Like Asians, especially in the last couple weeks, I mean that, it’s a continent, people. Like that there’s a lot, or even to say, you know, black or African American, not all black people are of African descent, I mean there’s just so much depth here and so much dimensionality. And again, it comes back to the individual, the human being, that has multiple facets, and clearly you can tell that I feel pretty strongly about this. And so how are we letting that human being show up in all of the dimensions that they are. Every dimension may not be in every second, but every dimension always exists, right? And so how are we creating spaces that let that person show up? So thank you for calling that out Melissa, really appreciate that. DBR, you were about to say something, yeah?

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

Just, I’m in gospel church right now, y’all. So I’m just like, you know, yes, boom, confirmations.

Melissa Ngan:

Hundred percent. And this is one of the things I love about you, is that, like, in our last conversation like this together, you said, you know, it’s not about background or race, it’s about experience. Like, that we have, we all have different experiences, and even people who look the same, even if I did have a sibling, which I don’t, you know, like, our experiences would be different. Our perspectives would be different. Yeah.

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

Yeah, yes. I mean, Pratichi’s like, Asia, it’s a continent y’all. I mean, now that’s a t-shirt right there, right? That brings it home. Sorry, you know, I’m, what I’m expressing right now is that when I’m, when I feel like I’m around my people, when I’m in my, by my people, I mean like-minded individuals — please don’t mistake my laughter and giddiness for happiness, it’s not, because there’s a lot of tragedy, a lot, least of which what happened in Atlanta last week and what happened in Boulder, Colorado, was that yesterday, by the way, or two days ago? I can’t remember now, or just a few days ago. It’s all related and I think that, I think about a shared morality or the absence of one. My laughter and my happiness and my joy right now is that, you know, out of all the things that we’re all doing there are these little moments — this is one of them — where I feel like I’m in a room on this panel and in this chat room, y’all. I see you Garrett, Taurian, Leah, Kate, where I feel like there’s a shared morality, that the conversations are complex. I’m sorry, I’m gonna try to get to all of them, oh and Stephany with a Y, Stephany Prince, you know, I get it, and I feel that I’m calling out your names because it’s important. I’m joyful right now because I feel like even though we can’t, even though we don’t, oh, we don’t have to define the fact that I have a really good sense that we are in a room with a shared morality, and that brings me great joy. That means that there’s a code, my father would talk about a code of ethics. It’s not written down, it’s not necessarily said, but it’s passed around generation to generation, this code of ethics. The woman, older woman, Asian woman, who was attacked in San Francisco and fought back, put that man in a gurney, I just love that. I’m sorry, I’m not, I’m not a proponent of violence, but that was self-defense.

My understanding is that a GoFundMe page was set up for her and it’s now approaching or has exceeded a million dollars. The older woman, Asian community in San Francisco. I assume she has a difficult life. I assume that because I assume she’s someone who could use that million dollars, right? And I don’t know why I assume that, I just do, right? Maybe that’s my own inabilities. It doesn’t matter, the point being I’m trying to make is that she’s going to take 100% of that donation and give it back to the AAPI community. 100%, all of it. I mean, that is what I would call a shared morality, right? It’s phenomenal. I know nothing about her, I know nothing about her life. All I can do is look at her and proclaim her example of selflessness, right? So, let’s think about BLM energy and convert it into DEI policy.

That’s why, I’m saying this with love, I won’t call out your name, you were brave enough to put it in the chat, but that’s why when I say something, it’s, when we as a community say something, don’t say no, try to get to now. “Term limits, no.” Hold on a second. This woman, I am sure, I don’t know, I’m just — okay I’m sorry, I just wanna — she is, she got a million dollars and she’s giving all of it back to the AAPI community, all right? I want to share that morality, that’s what I’m saying. Do you need to be in an orchestra for 40 years? Really? Can we look at term limit as a way of giving back? Because let’s look at it from another way. The fact of the matter is there’s a lot of white musicians who benefited from the fact that the pool was less. There were less musicians who were auditioning with you, and even the ones that were auditioning with you were not let in, okay? So I keep coming back to this notion of, let’s stop the notion of radical ideas being marginalized. Term limit is not a radical idea, and you know what’s unfortunate? I’m looking in the chat right now, it was a great question, Patricia. You know what’s not in the chat? When you were saying which orchestras are — there’s not one single major orchestra in that chat room, and that’s okay, right? Let’s convert the word “problem” into “opportunity.” Every major orchestra in this country has an opportunity to do better, to do right, to share the morality that that woman in San Francisco is demonstrating in her person. She fought back and in her morality she’s giving back. Esa Pekka Salonen should not be leading the San Francisco Symphony. The wrong choice. But now he has an opportunity to learn from Melissa Ngan. You see where I’m going? He has an opportunity to learn from Melissa Ngan. I will call him out and I will say to him, “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, we don’t share the same morality.” Let me just stop there.

Melissa Ngan:

I think you make a really good point about size of institution, you know. I just had a — in a moment of I don’t know what I was thinking, I just watched that scene from Titanic again where they’re, like, about to hit the iceberg, and they’re trying to shift and the ship is so big they can’t, you know? What I mean and the thing that I think about when it comes to that is that the larger the institution is, sometimes the slower change can take place, because, for many reasons, because there are many more people to talk to, because the traditions, the history, the legacy, it’s all entrenched, because of all of the things that we know. So sometimes the role of the smaller institutions is to break through that wall so that others can come through, and also to be able to understand that that is their responsibility, because we in the arts are trained to believe that when we do something we should hold it close and tight because there’s a competitive atmosphere to it, but I’ve always been in a place in my career to say the moment that I experiment with something, like, you know, nine times out of ten it might be a total failure, but maybe one percent of the time I feel really good about it. I want to teach that to somebody else, I want to share what I’ve done because they’re going to make their own version of it and it’s going to have a life, and that’s how a change happens. And I think that when we’re in a place to be able — like with ACO — to be able to be in a place to decide through the work that we’re doing what the definition of the composer is and expand that definition, and to provide support and to provide resources to the many people who I’ve spoken to who are in major institutions who say I would like to diversify my programming. I would like to know more people, I don’t know who they are. To be able to create more resources and more opportunity, that’s something that we can take on as our responsibility and say, “Let’s be of service in this way. Let’s hold hands, let’s do this.”

Pratichi Shah:

And actually Melissa, it’s perfect that you say that because that was, that’s one of them goes really well into one of my questions. So as we think about all the people that are listening — I’m conscious that we only have a few minutes left — what are, kind of, your words of wisdom, particularly for those that are with us that may not be in decision-making roles, right, but earlier you spoke, Daniel, about the need for individual activism, so what are the words that you would leave our group with today? If they’re, you know, words of support, words of activism, words of identity, what are you leaving our folks with today?

Daniel Bernard Roumain:

Oh, okay. Shared morality. Truth. Rehabilitation. Reconciliation. I think if we start to really tell the truth — we have to actually, any psychologist will tell you this, where there’s an ill, you have to be able to say I’m wrong, I’m sorry I’m complicit. I have not spoken enough, Pratichi, about Asian violence before Atlanta, and I had friends — you were there, you know, this was part of our board meetings. I was not, look what’s behind me now, right, it’s not nearly enough, but I’m complicit in my lack of being vocal to the violence worldwide perpetrated against our Asian brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. I think truth-telling is important. That can lead to a rehabilitation process. Racism is not just malice, it’s not just malice, it’s not just malice, it’s malady. It is a pandemic. There are vaccines — many. Love is one. Somebody said just now, Melissa, hold hands. Love is one. Love, love, love. And then reconciliation, reconciliation. And I will be the first person to say I think you’re wrong, right, I guess pointing a finger and then say how do we both get it right? How do we both get it right? I don’t want to be right. How can we both get it right? Shared morality, truth, rehabilitation, reconciliation.

Pratichi Shah:

I’m digging that, thank you. Not just with malice but a malady, and that love is the vaccine. Thank you for that. You guys have all said such unbelievable things, I feel like I wasn’t capturing it fast enough and I — so let me give it over to you Nebal, and then we’ll go to Melissa, and then we’ll wrap up. So, leaving our folks with words of wisdom today.

Nebal Maysaud:

So many in power want us to believe that we are powerless and we do not have the ability to enact change ourselves, and that is one of the greatest sources of ignorance we have, and part of telling the truth is acknowledging that we do have power. It’s just, maybe, power not assigned to us. Each one of us has the ability right now to take whatever artistic skills we have and start a fundraising event for it. When the Beirut explosion happened last August, and we are still reeling from that, that was one of the lessons I learned. I got together and I did a, like, 12-hour livestream where I composed a song for Beirut and I had guests over, and it was, it was, like, a great event, and that, and that was just a group of us coming together alone. We couldn’t have done it, but we had the ability to communicate with each other and we managed to raise a few thousand dollars. Now imagine if all of us did something like that. That would be groundbreaking. We don’t have to wait for orchestras to make change we have the power to do it and we have the power to pull resources together for each other. We do have the ability to make change, we just have to be creative in it.

Pratichi Shah:

Thank you for that, Nebal. We have the power to do it, we have the ability, we just need to be creative. Amazing, thank you so much. Melissa.

Melissa Ngan:

Yeah, I’m gonna build on that too and just say, you know, I strongly believe that creative acts can transform the world, and that is not just a kumbaya, arts-based thing. That is that, you know, coming back to something that Daniel and I talked about once in one of our planning calls, when you stop dreaming you die, you know? And recognizing that all of us are creators of the world around us with every action, with every act of perception, with every word, with the energy we exchange with one another, with every breath, whether we are in control of that or not. So I think any practice you can build into your own life that puts you more aware and in control of that process, whether it’s mindfulness work creativity work, writing your dreams down in the morning, recognizing that that unconscious space is where you connect that thing, that is elemental and will be there before you and after you. And the more connected you are to that as a human being, the more you will show up for other human beings in the best possible way. So I believe in connecting our human experience to art making and the other way around, and I also think that, you know, for us to be able to be in a place where we can say to one another, “This is another thing about our artistic practice that we need to unlearn. We believe that artistic practice is showing up and being perfect and knowing the answer,” and the way to this work is being vulnerable enough to say, “I don’t know the answer, I need your help to figure it out. I’m going to get this wrong a thousand times and that’s part of it.”

Pratichi Shah:

Yeah, Melissa, thank you so much. Being okay with not knowing the answer and connecting our human experience to the art-making and being in touch with that human experience deeply. Incredibly profound. Thank you all so much. This is not an easy conversation to have, from both sharing personal experiences but also sharing wisdom, and sharing calls to action, and sharing questions, and sharing, in some ways, the unanswerable and the answers. I will definitely — so thank you all, panelists: Melissa, Nebal, DBR. Thank you guys, thank you, thank you, thank you. To those of you who are with us today, please make sure that you do take a good look at the chat. People have been incredibly generous in sharing websites and resources. People have posted multiple times. I’m looking at you Toyan, I know you did multiple times. DBR has also answered some questions there as well, some of the ones we may not have gotten to. So make sure that you’re looking at that, and with that, I will just say my personal, again, thank you to my colleagues, thank you to all of you who are attending, and send things back over to Aiden, our host for today.

Aiden Feltkamp:

Thank you so much. You guys are beyond fantastic. I’m just here to wrap things up, unfortunately. So I wanted to say a big thank you to not only our panelists and our moderator, but also ACF, who’s behind the scenes with us, as well as our donors and all of our staff members here at ACO and ACF. I would ask you all to look out for an email from us tomorrow that will have a link to the recording of this if you’d like to watch it again. And also, there’s a post-webinar survey, if you could take that right now or when you get the email tomorrow, that would be fantastic. It helps us create more content like this, more webinars like this. We’d love to hear what you want to learn about, what you want to talk about. Our next webinar will be on April 7th at 3 p.m. and it will be with conductors Mei-Ann Chen and Alan Gilbert. They will be talking about the conductor-composer relationship, programming new works, and other topics that are relevant to composers. So come on by, ask your questions, I think it’ll be a great time. But thank you again for everyone who came today, and thank you again to our panelists and moderator. Have a wonderful day.

Our Mission & Vision

American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is dedicated to the creation, celebration, performance, and promotion of orchestral music by American composers. With commitment to diversity, disruption and discovery, ACO produces concerts, pre-college and college education programs, and emerging composer professional development to foster a community of creators, audience, performers, collaborators, and funders.

Receive the latest news

Join Our Mailing List!

Get notified about new events, opportunities and the latest ACO happenings