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Lack of diversity in top orchestras remains a major challenge for musicians of color

Most classical music professionals in major symphony orchestras around the country are white, according to the League of American Orchestras.
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MIAMI — Nathaniel Taylor was 5-years-old when the deep, mellow sounds from a cello on Sesame Street commanded his attention. Elmo was the interviewer. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the musician.

Years later, when he began learning the cello, classical music stole his heart.

Now Taylor, 25, is trying to pursue a professional career playing the instrument he loves, but he'll need to break into the austere world of classical music for that to happen. That's a path filled with numerous challenges — arguably more so for Taylor, who's half African-American and half Filipino.

Most classical music professionals in major symphony orchestras around the country are white, according to the League of American Orchestras. That includes well-known conservatories like The Julliard School, The Curtis Institute, and the New England Conservatory, to name a few.

As a result, America’s orchestras aren't as diverse as the cities they serve. African-Americans make up 1.8 percent of orchestras nationwide while Hispanics make up 2.5 percent, according to an industry-wide study.

Those statistics inspired several performing arts organizations to form the National Alliance for Audition Support, which prepares talented musicians of color for auditions. Making it past that first hurdle is crucial as one opening in a top-tier orchestra can easily attract as many as a thousand candidates.

The group, supported by $1.8 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, pairs participants with mentors and offers them financial support as they travel across the country for tryouts.

“There are real barriers for African-American and Latinx musicians entering our profession, “ said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras.

When Taylor made up his mind to pursue the cello, he did it knowing that he’d probably be one of the few black symphony musicians on stage.

“I’ve had plenty of cases where people have said I won’t get very far because of the color of my skin,” he said Taylor. “And it can be damaging in a lot of ways.”

Taylor recalled being the only person of color showing up at various auditions at selective college conservatories only to receive rejection letters weeks later.

“It discouraged me quite a bit growing up,” he said. “But if you really love something and you have the right people in your circle, I think that’s one of the best ways to really push past that.”

Taylor’s experience mirrors that of hundreds of other musicians of color — plenty of whom have gotten rejections of their own after competitive tryouts.

Minority musicians who manage to pass audition hurdles, like New York Philharmonic clarinetist Anthony McGill, often share stories of how difficult it can be to succeed without the right mentorship and preparation.

McGill, who joined the New York Philharmonic in 2014, is the only African-American musician in the ensemble, according to an orchestra spokesperson. While Asian-Americans have normally been well represented at the philharmonic and other orchestras, the hiring of blacks and latinos has been sporadic.

Black violinist Sanford Allen resigned from the New York Philharmonic in 1977, telling The New York Times he "was tired of being a symbol." It can sometimes take orchestras years before new minority musicians join, as was the case with McGill.

The alliance "provides coaching and intensive audition preparation experience," Rosen said.

But even with the benefits of coaching, there are still plenty of other factors that can impact the result of a candidate’s audition — like nerves.

With that in mind, the initiative also spends time teaching musicians how to focus solely on their performance while playing.

“There’s this gap many musicians have between sounding great in the practice room and having a totally different experience on stage,” said Dr. Noa Kageyama, founder of the bulletproof musician blog.

Image: Nathaniel Taylor
Nathaniel Taylor, 25, is trying to pursue a professional cello performance career playing the instrument he loves by breaking into the austere world of classical music.NBC

Some of the strategies employed involve distracting musicians with jarring videos as they play audition excerpts and studying how athletes cope with similar high-stress performance situations.

The process by which musicians are selected into orchestras has evolved over the years to include what’s now called a blind audition, where candidates perform behind a screen as judges listen on the other side.

Industry insiders say this is a step leading symphony orchestras have taken to make the process more equitable. And the results show: More women have been hired since the practice gained popularity.

But many minority players believe it’s not nearly enough of an improvement when it comes to them.

“It’s not just the audition that matters,” said Emilia Mettenbrink, a violinist who is half white and half African-American. “It’s creating an atmosphere before that audition. So there’s not one or two people of color who show up, [but] there’s 50 or 60 of all different races that have chosen this as their craft.”