Orchestra: a diverse and dynamic future
Updated: Sep 12
A conversation with Lecolion Washington
In consonance with the Black Lives Matter Movement and outpour of support, the conversation of systemic racism has been a poignant one. Here at Harmony Project Phoenix, we are continuing to grow and hone our professional development curriculum to better prepare teachers to address our students' needs with a more holistic mindset.
We are excited to announce the launch of our blog that will feature several conversations with members of the orchestra community surrounding the important issue of representation in our nation’s orchestras, reframing music education, and learning from racial justice uprisings. During a time of reflection and reevaluation that our country is facing in every industry, it is important to look within ourselves, and ask the simple and yet unanswered questions.
With intentionality in mind, our first conversation features Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston (CMCB) Lecolion Washington.
An advocate for music as a means for social change, Mr. Washington served from 2009-2017 as Co-Founder and Executive Director of the PRIZM Ensemble, a Memphis-based organization that builds a diverse community through chamber music education, youth development, and performance. Under his leadership, PRIZM has created community engagement and youth development programs such as the OMusic Project, a music program in the first African American neighborhood to be built by African Americans. He also oversaw the PRIZM in the Schools program and the PRIZM International Chamber Music Festival. Mr. Washington was later invited to join the Memphis Music Initiative (MMI) as Director of In-School Programs. During his time at MMI, he led a team that created and implemented a teaching artist program, oversaw teacher/principal professional developments, and fostered partnerships between schools and local music nonprofits. In 2015 he was named by the Memphis Business Journal as one of the Top 40 Under 40.
From 2006 to 2013, Mr. Washington served on the faculty of the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in South Africa. He has coached chamber music, performed concerts, and conducted masterclasses all over the world. His CD entitled Legacy: Music for Bassoon by African-American Composers was released by Albany Records to much acclaim. For 14 years, Mr. Washington served as Associate Professor of Bassoon at the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis, receiving tenure in 2009 at the age of 33. He holds a master of music in orchestral performance from Manhattan School of Music and a bachelor of music in music studies from University of Texas at Austin.
Alexis (interviewer): According to a The New York Times article, in a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top orchestra ensembles were Black in this nation; just 2.5 percent were Latino. That number for me was staggering just being a minority myself and having done orchestras in high school and college and hearing that. Why do you think the numbers are the way that they are?
Lecolion: The reason that symphony orchestras don't have any Black or Latino people in them is not because they're playing Beethoven. It's not because of the content, it's the culture of the place. That is the thing that needs to pivot.
People tend to be solving for the wrong thing. People tend to be solving for, “Why don't we have black and brown people in here?” which actually puts the impetus on black people, brown people, and women as the problem to be solved for. They're not the problem to be solved for — your institution is the problem to be solved for. It has nothing to do with the quality of black and brown people to be able to get into community orchestras and conservatories.
The thing that gets missed in that metric that you shared is the number of people who have gotten into the orchestral field and quit. The metric doesn't test for that. It just takes a snapshot. I know a couple of dozen people who were in that game, and bounced. They were of a quality in which they could have gotten one of those jobs, and they were in it for a minute and quit. They either quit on their own, or on some level they got expelled by that system.
The challenge with diversity initiatives is that they don't change the structure of the host institution. And so what you've done is you've now put a person into an oppressive space. Your metric is better, and yet the person is being damaged. The person who made your statistic better is being damaged, but we call it success because the number went up. We don't acknowledge the fact that sometimes folks are being damaged by it.
People are damaged by these institutions. And I think that they have to acknowledge that and create systems to not damage people. Be like a doctor and do no harm.
If we’re trying to seek quality musicians and trying to have some of the world’s greatest, we’re missing a lot of musicians because of the culture within that either chases them out (where the people just give up) or it expels them. I think that more people need to be talking about the realness of that. Because it's the truth.
Alexis: Could you explain what you mean by the culture of an organization versus the content?
Lecolion: When you're thinking about creating an organization and trying to do some type of an evolution of an organization, you can either build things from the ground up or work with what has already been established. I've done both. So starting off, I built things from the ground up. That’s easier because you can build things into the DNA of a place and, in many ways, you don't have to deal with the system because you have something new that wasn't in the system.
All you got to do is make sure it doesn't get impacted by the system, but you don't have to build it with the system in mind. This is very different than when you have an organization that's been in the system, because then you got to deal with the infrastructure and culture within the organization first. That was actually something I had to learn a lot about, because I knew how we might consider thinking about things from a content perspective, but then I realized you can’t really get to content unless you’ve managed culture.
If you start with content, and you've already got content experts in the room like a violin teacher and a flute teacher and a clarinet teacher — and then you're saying, “yeah, we're gonna re-envision what content is” — you don't want to do that from the start and jump ahead.
Essentially, what we have been doing here is we started with infrastructures, making sure that we had a foundation for it. And then we started to manage culture. We started to normalize the idea of rethinking about eurocentrism as a thing.
Alexis: What does it mean to have a culturally responsive repertory? Is it important to question the eurocentric culture that often takes the spotlight during rehearsals and concerts?
Lecolion: This means that when we have a concert series, let’s think about diversifying what's on that concert series. Let's just look at that and say, “the content that we're sending out to our community is homogeneous, and homogeneity tends to lead to oppression. How do we combat that?” So we started with that, and we started with asking people to be more aware of what they were sharing with the students. What is the content as it relates from a cultural competency perspective? Is everything in your content based on 17th, 18th, and 19th century European music?
If that is all of your content, then we can't be an inclusive space if you excluded literally every other country.
So let's just try to think about what it looks like — if we included some more of the rest of the world.
From a leadership perspective, I'm not saying that every flute teacher has to teach this piece and every violin teacher has to teach that piece because that's essentially recreating the oppression that already exists in the system. Because our system says “you got to play this piece to get into that orchestra, and only if you play those pieces can I recognize your quality of playing.” Right. According to that logic, the only way I can recognize how you play and your worth is if you play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. If you were to play a Concerto by Florence Price, I can't tell if you're any good. Which makes no sense whatsoever, but that's the system.
I don't want to recreate that system, and just put brown people in it. To me, that's not what the end goal is. I think the end goal is to remove that system and try to liberate everybody, even those who think that Western European art music is the only type of music that we should be teaching at community music schools.
It really begins with us trying to just understand what are some of the things that are being excluded. It begins by just asking the question, often enough, “Who's being excluded? What genre or culture is being excluded?”
Then we look at our organization and who are the people in our organization. Shouldn't the cultures of the people who are here, be reflected in the culture that we're sharing?
Alexis: You bring up a very good point on the steps that can be taken to introduce a cultural change.
Lecolion: Right, that's the beginning of the cultural shift. And then once you get to a cultural shift, then you can go to the content experts and ask, “What does that mean for you?” If we want 60% of our pedagogy to be outside of the Western European classical tradition, what does that look like?
My goal is to simplify the solution. It is checkers — it ain't chess. You know, try to find some really simple questions to ask. And once you've gotten through those binary questions, then you can ask the real question, “Why not here?”
I think that as educators it starts with us, because we have to decide what we are going to teach. We're going to teach people to do that. We're also going to teach people to recognize what is wrong. We're going to teach people that their cultural heritage has value.
To reflect on this, we pose the question to you: What does cultural shift mean for you?
Alexis Alabado is the social media & marketing manager for Harmony Project Phoenix. Now in her senior year at Arizona State University, Alexis is pursuing her degree in journalism and mass communication with an emphasis in public relations. Her passion for the arts and helping others stems from her experience playing violin in her youth orchestra and believing that music transcends language.