University of California, Irvine Detroit Symphony Orchestra Read the following 1989 article from the New York Times , Discordant Notes in Detroit: Music an

University of California, Irvine Detroit Symphony Orchestra Read the following 1989 article from the New York Times , Discordant Notes in Detroit: Music and Affirmative Action, (Links to an external site.) by Isabel Wilkerson, (PDF is here.)
Write a short essay (no more than 5 paragraphs or 2 pages, double spaced) that addresses the following questions.
1) What are the two main positions staked out in the article?
2) Where do you stand on the issue? (Take a position and explain why you feel that way.)
3) Suggest a possible alternative approach. Discordant Notes in Detroit: Music and Affirmative Action – The N……
Discordant Notes in Detroit:
Music and Affirmative Action
By Isabel Wilkerson
March 5, 1989
See the article in its original context from
March 5, 1989, Section 1, Page 1 Buy Reprints
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Discordant Notes in Detroit: Music and Affirmative Action – The N……
The closed and competitive world of symphony orchestras has been shaken in
recent weeks by an extraordinary show of political pressure to change the
hiring practices of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Over the opposition of several members, the financially troubled orchestra
recently waived its stringent audition requirement to hire the first black
musician it has hired in 14 years.
The action came after several state legislators withheld nearly $1.3 million in
state aid and threatened to boycott and picket the orchestra’s concerts if the
orchestra did not hire more blacks. Legislators said the 98-member orchestra,
now with two black members, should better reflect the population of the city,
which is is more than 60 percent black.
The case has challenged the artistic prerogatives prized by all symphony
orchestras and has raised questions about the ability of an orchestra to
become top-notch and still mirror the demographics of the community in
which it performs. It has also illustrated the political vulnerability of
orchestras dependent on state money.
And it has made other symphony orchestras nervous about the possible
intrusion of politicians into artistic decisions and forced them to re-evaluate
their own reliance on public financing. ”This has made orchestras more
attentive to their relationships with politicians and made those who were not
paying attention to affirmative action pay attention,” said Catherine French,
chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, an
associaton of 870 orchestras.
The fear is that, as troubling as the Detroit case has been, the political
intrusion may not stop with affirmative action. ”We could have politicians
trying to dictate the repertoire, the length of concerts, the choice of music
director,” Ms. French said. ”You can imagine what kind of damage this could
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Still, leaders of music associations say they support the orchestra’s decision to
hire Richard Robinson, a 25-year-old bass player, who had been a substitute
player for the ensemble. ”It’s unfortunate that it had to come to this kind of
pressure,” said Brad Buckley, chairman of the 4,000-member International
Conference of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians. ”But it was a
courageous step in the right direction.”
The developments in Detroit have particularly outraged black musicians who
fear that abrogating standard procedures diminishes their legitimate and
hard-won achievements.
”Now even when a black player is hired on the merits of his playing, he will
always have the stigma that it was to appease some state legislator,” said
Michael Morgan, assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
who is black. His Joy Was Spoiled
The Detroit case made headlines in February when state legislators withheld
more than half the symphony’s state allocation, saying the ensemble did not
have enough black musicians. Within days the orchestra, while on tour in
Europe, voted to hire Mr. Robinson. He had the unanimous support of the
orchestra’s bass section, but many orchestra members, and Mr. Robinson
himself, question the way the decision was made.
”I would have rather auditioned like everybody else,” Mr. Robinson said.
”Somehow this devalues the audition and worth of every other player.”
At the root of the problem is the shortage of black classical musicians, a
scarcity that has made it difficult for some orchestras to find blacks even to
audition for openings. Few blacks seek careers in classical music. Many innercity schools provide little, if any, exposure to it, and poor black families are
unable to afford the years of classical training required to be a symphony
musician. Where Role Models Are
”The Detroit Symphony Orchestra cannot change the educational structure of
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the United States,” said Nick Webster, managing director and executive vice
president of the New York Philharmonic. ”The role models are in jazz and
popular music.”
Blacks make up only 1 percent of the 4,000 classical musicians playing in the
country’s major orchestras, according to a study by the Music Assistance
Fund of the New York Philharmonic, which provides fellowships to minority
classical musicians.
According to the study, the Toledo Orchestra and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic have the most, four each. The New York Philharmonic has one,
Jerome Ashby, the associate principal horn player. A third of the 36 orchestras
surveyed have no black musicians. There are three black musicians in the
Philadelphia Orchestra and one in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
”We’re not talking about someone folding envelopes and licking stamps,” said
David Zauder, personnel manager for the Cleveland Orchestra. ”We’re talking
about a highly specialized gift. You cannot legislate talent. If it weren’t so
serious, it would be comical.”
Furthermore, for more than a decade most orchestra managers have used
blind auditions, in which applicants perform behind a screen, to prevent
discrimination and favoritism. Use of a screen makes affirmative action
nearly impossible, they say.
”How do we make a special effort to hire blacks when we aren’t allowed to see
them?” Mr. Zauder asked. ‘Music Is Music’
Several black state legislators said the Detroit Symphony had not done
enough to bring in more blacks. ”Are you telling me we can’t find qualified
black musicians after 14 years in this nation of 200 million people?” Morris
Hood, a Democratic Michigan State Representative, asked at a legislative
hearing on the matter.
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David Holmes, a Democratic State Senator, who with Mr. Hood led the drive to
withold the orchestra’s public money, said he believes more black musicians
could be trained to take these positions. ”Music is music,” Mr. Holmes said.
”Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. I learned that in school. Music has been one of the
major contributions of African Americans.”
Joseph Striplin, a violinist who had been the sole black member of the Detroit
Symphony, said he welcomed another black on the orchestra but did not
believe there had been any discrimination in hiring. And he said the
legislators’ crusade detracts from legitimate instances of discrimination.
”This is like hockey,” Mr. Striplin said. ”If the New York Rangers had to have
10 or 12 black players, they might have a lot of trouble finding them.”
Indeed, among the loudest critics of the move are black musicians who say
they want to be judged by their music and not their skin color. Incensed at
”I am incensed that two nonmusicians can presume to come into our territory
and force a symphony into this position,” said Darwin Apple, a black violinist
with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, who has played with the Detroit
Symphony as a soloist. ”The intrusion of politics into an area where
legislators are ignorant could wreak havoc with artistic integrity. This is going
to discourage blacks from going to Detroit, or even applying.”
Already the orchestra has lost two outstanding black candidates in recent
months, in large part because of the appearance of favoritism.
James DePriest, a black conductor who is the highly regarded music director
of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, was approached by the Detroit
Symphony to replace the departing Gunther Herbig, who will become music
director of the Toronto Symphony. Mr. DePriest declined the offer.
”It’s impossible for me to go to Detroit because of the atmosphere,” Mr.
DePriest told The Portland Oregonian. ”People mean well, but you fight for
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years to make race irrelevant, and now they are making race an issue.”
Patrons Are Disenchanted
Last October, a young black cellist who was trained at Yale, Owen Young, won
a screened audition in Detroit but chose instead to join the symphony in
The controversy has also turned off patrons, with several calling to criticize
the orchestra for ”caving in,” orchestra officials say.
The latest problems come at a time of great financial and political turmoil for
the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra is struggling against a $5.5
million deficit, falling ticket sales, a complete turnover in management and a
rapidly declining audience base, made worse by a 12-week work stoppage by
the musicians last season over a contract dispute.
The symphony has grown ever more dependent on state aid, this year
receiving $2.5 million from the state, about 20 percent of its budget. By
comparison, the New York Philharmonic receives about $475,000 from the
state, about 2 percent of its budget.
It is this heavy reliance that has made the Detroit Symphony especially
vulnerable to attack. ”We cannot be a suburban symphony or a whites-only
orchestra when we are supported by the state of Michigan,” said Robert
Stevens Miller Jr., the new chairman of the Detroit Symphony. ”But we cannot
use quotas and deadlines. That would destroy the dignity of any individual we
might hire.”
Many symphony orchestras are now seeking ways to build a larger pool of
black classical musicians. Some, like the Alabama Symphony, are joining with
black churches and urban school systems to teach classical music to young
blacks. For several months the Detroit Symphony has taken a more
aggressive stand, adopting a policy of holding auditions only if at least one
black applicant is seeking the post.
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”It’s healthy to think about this,” said Deborah Borda, the new executive
director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. ”This is not an institution of the
18th century. The symphony world is changing.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 4, 1989, Section 1, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: Discordant Notes
in Detroit: Music and Affirmative Action
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