Radical Musical Reciprocity

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Radical Musical Reciprocity

Dalouge Smith, President/CEO, San Diego Youth Symphony


The theater director Peter Sellars spoke four years ago at the L.A. Phil and Barbican-sponsored “Future Play: Music Systems in the 21st Century.” He called for the democratizing of classical music and music education. “I have to ask the classical music world to respect reciprocity, which is the basis of all human interaction. And not have this one-way flow of ‘all these kids will learn to play Beethoven.’…We have to move into radical structures of reciprocity.”

This summer’s Take A Stand Festival Orchestra demonstrated the beauty, joy and empowerment that arise when radical reciprocity is achieved. The Festival Orchestra was overwhelmingly comprised of teen musicians of color. They had clearly trained and dedicated themselves to perform the Western classical repertoire programmed for them. They infused it with musicality and confidence. Yet it was an action by a small set of these musicians that revealed the power of “radical structures of reciprocity.”

At the Take A Stand Symposium earlier that day, concerns had surfaced about the narrowness of Western classical pedagogy. Festival faculty members, most of whom were professional musicians of color, shared their own experiences confronting the cultural limits of classical music training. They admitted to committing “cultural suicide” and segregating their musical lives from their own cultural identity in order to stay focused on classical music. Discussions about classical music’s aesthetic barriers to inclusion of other cultural idioms revealed that young musicians in Sistema-inspired programs may experience cultural self-erasure. A sense of anxiety that this could be the ultimate outcome for thousands of young people was absolutely present by the end of the Symposium.

Fortunately for us all, the remedy arrived in the hands of Festival musicians. After the faculty bows, the tubas initiated an unprogrammed original composition. Clearly, along with their orchestra training, these musicians from Baltimore had been taught to express their own musical point of view. Percussionists and other brass joined the tune, while every other Festival musician danced, filmed, smiled and shared in owning the moment. This finale performance was our 2017 reminder to create “radical structures of reciprocity.” If we don’t, we risk forever dividing our students’ musical selves from their cultural identities.


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