Abandoning Classical Music Escapism and Redefining Excellence

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Abandoning Classical Music Escapism and Redefining Excellence

Dalanie Harris, Host of Classically Black Podcast

05-04-2021

In a lot of ways, I was steeped in Black music growing up. It wasn’t until college that I realized there were areas where someone needed to actively be advocating for Black music. I wasn’t totally aware of this because I grew up surrounded by and participating in gospel music, one of the most deep-rooted musical traditions of Black America. When I started studying piano, I was introduced to what many of us know as “classical music,” and began to learn names like Haydn, Bach, and Mozart. This is also the point in time that I usually reference as the beginning of my musical training. Only recently did I notice that distinction, and the reason why is directly tied to what that “musical training” looked and felt like. Though I had been making music for some time, the centering of Western European classical music as the pinnacle of musicianship affected how I thought about my own music-making. Eventually, I realized that this limited musical perspective was doing more than creating a hierarchy—it was inhibiting musicians from tackling crucial and relevant issues, and hindering equity.

In the performance world, not much is asked of you beyond “learn how to play this and play it well.” On the surface, this approach may seem like a harmless way to prioritize technical efficiency. But in reality, it serves to whitewash classical music—not just by creating a composer hierarchy based on ideals rooted in white supremacy, but by stripping the music of all social and political context, particularly if that context can be seen as too topical. When that happens, we begin to hear things like “music transcends race,” “music will heal all wounds,” or “just focus on the music.” These statements are what I call “classical music escapism,” a form of toxic positivity that hinders progress by attempting to divert attention away from issues that can be labeled controversial. These “controversial” issues usually have something to do with systems and structures on the stage, in the classroom, or behind the scenes that are not inclusive to or equitable for non-white musicians. For me, the stressors around race were often exacerbated, not assuaged, by my involvement in classical music, because of how the field refused to acknowledge its active role in maintaining racist structures.

Harris at a Los Angeles Philharmonic community concert in 2016.

At age 12, I began playing in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and Harmony Project. These programs are responsible for much of my classical music foundation, especially the learning structures that could make or break my access to higher education, like private lessons. Throughout this time, I was still deeply involved in playing Black music. And yet my view of classical music and what it meant to be an “excellent” musician still did not change. It wasn’t that I didn’t see excellence in the music of my people; rather, I had been compartmentalizing that music, keeping it separate from my classical training. Even then I continued to describe my introduction to classical music as the beginning of my musical career.

In my junior year of college, I launched Classically Black Podcast to address the dichotomy between Blackness and classical music. Using the platform to draw connections between Black culture and classical music, I began to see the ways in which these two things were already connected. Hosting Classically Black instilled in me a sense of responsibility to bring more Black perspectives from within classical music to our listeners. Learning more about these perspectives took a lot of independent research. At some point I asked myself, “why?”

I was at an institution that trained musicians at a high level and prepared them for “excellence;” the fact that this idea of excellence included nothing about Black composers was a hard pill to swallow. Harder still was realizing that, fundamentally, this was how my classical music education had always been structured. It hadn’t begun suddenly at college. From that point forward, I vowed to do all that I could to supplement my education with material that would close this gap. As a collective field, we need to escape classical music escapism, and for good.

So how do we begin? The first step is accountability. Many of our field’s standards of excellence erase the experiences of Black musicians. It isn’t easy to unpack the ways in which you uphold those standards, but it is the necessary foundation of this work. An important next step is that we move past incrementalism and engage in unlearning expeditiously. The state of classical music demands that we shift our priorities and criteria, and I have made an active decision to do so. That means always engaging in unapologetic advocacy for those who have not always had a place here. Although everyone needs to be involved in this work, music educators hold a unique power to not only embody these changes but support future generations of musicians, who will no longer see equity as a goal but rather a requirement and a reality.

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