This is Amanda Collins’ second year teaching at the MU School of Music. The “humble French horn player” — what she always calls herself — had been involved in diversity focused projects before she decided to come to MU.
Collins looked up Census data before she accepted the job, only to find out how challenging life could be in Columbia.
“It was 10% African American,” she said, “and I’ve never lived in a place like that. I’ve always lived in a really diverse community, or mostly Black. I didn’t know what to expect.”
But with the decision to help underrepresented populations — especially music students of color in a predominantly white community — being an assistant professor at MU makes her feel right.
“There’s a group of people beyond the scope of what you see in your day-to-day life, especially here in Columbia, where it’s predominantly white. And they’re struggling,” Collins said. “I personally want to do anything I can do to empower underserved and underrepresented people.”
Collins is the leader of the School of Music Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Collective, which was established during the summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death. With the acknowledgment of long-term systemic problems in music education and the industry, the school is reckoning with its lack of diversity.
According to survey data obtained from the UM System through a public records request, 8% of the student population awarded degrees in the MU School of Music in the academic year of 2018-19 identified as Black or African American.
During the past decade, the percentage of Black students in the music school has been as low as 2% in 2011-13, according to the survey data, with the decade average at 5%.
The white student population has averaged 80% in that time. Overall, MU’s student population was 76% white and 7% Black this fall.
Some gains have been made. The ratio of students of color to white students was 2:25 in 2010 and 2:9 in 2019. For this analysis, the Missourian did not include a category that groups both students who chose “other” and those who declined to answer.
UMKC has the most degrees awarded annually among three UM System campuses that have music major programs, with about 500. Over the past decade, Black students have represented 4% of the graduates, and that number was no better in 2019. But its white population earning degrees is down to 65% in 2019, the lowest during the past 10 years.
UMSL saw its Black population earning degrees drop to 9% for 2019 from 16% in 2011.
UM is not alone. Nationwide, 6% of music degrees were awarded to Black students, with 56% to white students, in 2019, according to the data from the U.S Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
History, culture contribute
Carlot Dorve is an MU student pursuing a doctorate in music education. Dorve said that to understand the systemic racial inequity in music education in the U.S., the history of music education in the States centuries ago should be brought to the table.
In the 1700s, when music education was widely discussed, the decision was made to focus on European music, Dorve said.
“They could have taken Asian music, for example, but they did not. There were Asians in this land as well, there were Europeans in this land,” said Dorve, “but they focused on European music, … maybe because most people who immigrated here who are professional musicians, a lot of them were European.”
The canon for classical music is white-based, Collins said. “Up until very recently, all anybody taught or played or thought was valuable was music of dead white men or living white men.
“For a long time, orchestras have been struggling with what to program,” Collins said, because classically trained musicians all learned from the same European-focused canon.
David Pelino, a master’s student in vocal performance at MU and president of the school’s IDE Collective, said the number of Black people in orchestras and operas, on stage and in companies, show that Black people are not valued in the classical world.
“Black kids don’t see themselves on that stage, and so it’s hard to go in and try and choose something that you don’t see yourself as,” Pelino said.
Stephanie Shonekan, professor in the School of Music and an associate dean of the College of Arts and Science, thinks that, like most conservatories and music schools, the fact that the curriculum itself is based on an idea of music hierarchy of high art and low art is problematic.
“The discipline, historically, has been strongly focused on a particular canon and a particular approach to music making,” Shonekan said.
Although Black music is increasingly popular in the mainstream music industry, such genres as hip-hop, gospel and soul aren’t included in many institutions’ curriculum because such popular music has been regarded as less than or inferior to Western classical music, Shonekan said.
“You get students who come from different backgrounds, and some of those backgrounds include an approach to music making, that comes out of say, the Black church,” Shonekan said, “and these are students or potential students that are incredible performers in a certain aesthetic. And if that aesthetic is not valued in our discipline, then that becomes a problem.”
Money as a barrier
Dorve is originally from Haiti, and although he didn’t see much racism as he grew up in a Black republic, he used to believe that only people who are wealthy enough could play classical music.
Music education, with its high cost for purchasing instruments, training, traveling, etc., was a challenge for Dorve, and he believes it’s a challenge for most people who don’t come from an economically stable background.
People need to pay a lot of money or even take loans to get into school, but not everyone can be successful and make that money back, Dorve said. “And sometimes they don’t even have money to even apply,” he added.
According to Collins’ previous experience, not only personal wealth but also the wealth level of an area determines if the ability to play music is accessible to the people who live there.
Collins used to work as a French horn teacher at an inner-city performing arts high school. During the six years she taught there, she only had one French horn student who had already played the instrument.
Getting good at an instrument and getting ready for an audition to a college takes years, Collins said. “So, if you don’t start young, … you don’t start at all.”
Sam Griffith, director of Jazz Studies at the MU School of Music, said according to his experience, acceptance into a music program at a university also requires more financial investment than just playing music on the side.
“Playing music does require, especially at a high level, a lot of extra things as a young person that might not be always available to a lot of individuals who don’t have the means for private lessons or a functional instrument, or to pay for other musical activities,” Griffith said.
Pelino said resources and education for talented people of color at young ages is essential to add diversity.
“You get to the audition point for our college, right, and you’re sort of already behind the ball if you haven’t been doing it for over 10 years,” Pelino said.
Dorve, who saved up his pocket money to purchase his first trumpet, felt blessed to get scholarship opportunities at Michigan State University and to be a teaching assistant at MU. He said financial opportunities should be open to people from all backgrounds.
Providing scholarship and financial support is one of the key areas that the School of Music IDE Collective brought up for this fall, according to a post by Collins.
Julia Gaines, director of School of Music, said the school is reevaluating scholarship consideration this semester and established a new ad hoc scholarship committee, which includes the school’s diverse faculty.
Gaines said the process looked at only one aspect of an individual — their ability to perform — and didn’t take other important factors into account such as leadership and writing skills. It also needed to be updated with diversity and inclusion concepts, she said.
The school has changed its scholarship application forms and process to attract a wider pool of applicants.
Gaines said the school is trying to make sure that it is being “really intentional about, ‘Are we evaluating these students on their whole self, … not just the exact musical notes they play in the five minutes we hear in audition?’”
The School of Music’s new IDE collective will focus on what the school needs because each department and unit should have its own set of priorities to change the culture, Shonekan said.
Collins said being the only person of color, or one of only a few, can lead to feeling isolated, judged or misunderstood. When Shonekan, who had been a faculty member at MU for several years before leaving for the University of Massachusetts, announced she was returning to MU, “I instantly felt that I’m not alone,” Collins said.
The MU School of Music had six full-time faculty members of color, including two who are Black, and 33 white full-time faculty members for the academic year of 2019-20, which represents the highest number of faculty members of color during the past decade. In 2010, only two members of the faculty were people of color, with no Black instructors.
The situation at UMKC and UMSL is similar. From 2010 to 2020, there were seven years when not a single Black full-time faculty member held a position at UMSL’s Department of Music; the highest number of non-white full-time faculty members was three. For the UMKC Conservatory, the number for Black full-time music faculty has been no more than three. The decade average for white full-time music faculty members is 37, although that number has dropped since 2010-11, when it was 49.
Diane Petrella, dean of the UMKC Conservatory, said the faculty has become more diverse in recent years, with seven of the last fourteen faculty hires being individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, but the Conservatory is still facing some issues that other campuses might not have.
“We don’t have the turnover that campuses can have,” Petrella said. “When people join our faculty, they often stay for 20 or 30 years. We have very little turnover on our faculty, so openings here don’t come up as often, making it more challenging to change the demographics of the Conservatory faculty the same way.”
Shonekan said it is important for all students to see non-white faculty members in classrooms.
Shonekan said it also helps white students to see that there is excellence among people of color at every level.
Griffith said all six classes under the Jazz minor are mostly taught by him.
“I do think having multiple viewpoints is very important,” Griffith said. “The more varied the experience, the richer the experience for the student, and like everything, they will gain from this.”
The School of Music used to offer a master’s degree in Jazz Performance and Pedagogy, which started in 2015 and paused in 2018 because of the limited faculty, Gaines said.
Griffith is aiming to expand class offerings, which will include two jazz history classes focusing on jazz development with social changes in Kansas City and other places in the states. But rebuilding a jazz graduate degree program is still a question.
“I’m basically the only jazz person,” he said. “So, in order to facilitate another degree, we would need additional faculty support.”
“If we continue to approach music education as we have always done, we’ll just stay where we are,” Shonekan said. “But we are realizing that change is important and necessary and we are, hopefully, on our way to creating a space that is attractive to a diverse population of students and faculty.”
Shifting the system is a start
Systemic racism in music has been a long-term issue recognized by people inside and outside the music industry, but just acknowledging the problem is not solving it, Pelino said.
The School of Music IDE Collective “is a way to start the conversation. It’s a way to start reaching out to those who have not been reached traditionally,” Pelino said. “But I think there’s a long way to go in terms of what we would want to see in music schools and just academia in general.”
Shonekan said more and more faculty are becoming involved to figure out different ways to provide nuanced support.
Other than figuring out specific plans to increase diversity in student, staff, faculty and curricula, both Shonekan and Dorve mentioned another change that should take place – changing people’s mindset and raising awareness, which will take time.
“National Association of Music Education, they are working on shaping the conception, the teaching, the philosophy of music,” Dorve said. “I think it probably will take a while for the mindset to shift.”
Collins said the School of Music IDE Collective, with MU’s IDE committee, is making efforts toward changing recruitment strategies, such as starting to reach out to underserved and underrepresented schools and engaging with their students.
“Diversity is a very hot topic right now in music, classical music, but also in higher education,” Collins said. “Ten years from now, I’m hoping we’re not having this conversation and I don’t even have to talk about diversity because it’s just the new normal.”