On Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Jacobs School of Music
By Kyle Adams
Republished here by permission of The Ryder Magazine. Editors Note: This article reflects a collaborative spirit through input from several colleagues on the Diversity and Equity Committee which includes Frank Diaz (Music Education), Sarah Wroth (Ballet), Connie Glen (Music in General Studies), and also Sachet Watson, the Jacobs School’s Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator.
The Jacobs School of Music lives in two worlds.
One is the world of the nineteenth-century conservatory, a rarefied stratum where young musicians of the highest level come to study with esteemed mentors, where they become virtuosi, and where they take a deep dive into musical masterworks. The other is the modern research University, the marketplace of ideas, in which young minds are challenged and in which they grow into critical thinkers and scholars. For most of the school’s history, these two worlds reinforced each other: young musicians entered Jacobs with a singular drive to become performers of the highest order, receiving along the way a broad and robust educational foundation that prepared them for success both as artists and as human beings.
Or so we thought. In recent years the school has taken stock of itself, asking difficult but crucial questions: does the music we teach reinforce assumptions about what “counts” as great art, and great music? Can we do more to broaden our students’ horizons? Can we be more inclusive, both in our student body and in our curriculum? Spurred by initiatives throughout Indiana University and by recent socio-political events, the Jacobs Diversity and Equity Committee has sought to explore these questions, and in so doing to reshape the way we conceive of a school of music going forward.
The time to diversify is now; it’s part of the experience of being a college music student.
I co-chaired the Diversity and Equity Committee during the 2018–19 academic year, and that felt wrong due to the fact of my demographics: white, male, and middle-aged. I simultaneously felt honored to take on a leadership role with respect to issues that I’m passionate about, and deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of centering my voice in a conversation that should not even involve me. But the presence of people like me on committees like this one represents a crucial component of efforts at diversity and inclusion. As tempting as it might be for me to abdicate responsibility under the pretense of feeling that it “isn’t my place,” it is unfair to place the entire onus of diversity and inclusion on people of color, especially when their suggestions are too often met with condescension, dismissal, or outright hostility. The Jacobs administration is completely white, as are the majority of department chairs (myself included). Thus, we need to do our best to amplify the voices of our faculty and students of color in their need for change, while recognizing that the responsibility for implementing institutional change lies with those in the majority and in positions of power.
Efforts at diversity and inclusion, particularly at Jacobs, involve navigating some quite turbulent waters, steering a course that avoids tokenism in favor of meaningful change while simultaneously preserving the strongest aspects of our curriculum. These efforts have been guided by a single question: what do our students need?
First and foremost, our students need careers in music, and preparing them for these careers can present one of the most formidable roadblocks to diversifying their education. Classical music is one of the most reactionary art forms in America, and there is broad agreement that musicians need to expand the canon to include the considerable body of work by women and BIPOC composers. But in order for our students to create change from within orchestras and opera companies, they must first secure positions in those groups, which in turn means that our curriculum must continue to prepare students for the standard European audition repertoire that will be expected of them. All the same, when our students ultimately find themselves in positions to affect change, they need to have a wide body of existing repertoire to choose from. It is irresponsible for Jacobs to say, in effect, “we’re only going to prepare you with classical European repertoire; you can seek out and learn the music of underrepresented composers when you’re a professional.” The time to diversify their repertoire is now; it’s part of the experience of being a college music student. This gets to another issue. The Jacobs School not only needs to respond to our students’ needs, but to guide them to become more well-rounded musicians, with a body of repertoire that reflects musical culture writ large in the 21st century. The assumption continues that our students’ only possible career path is—or ought to be—classical-music performance, a path becoming narrower and narrower each year.
Musicians have come to the uncomfortable realization that the continual programming of the same music by the same European composers is not only a result of the quality of that music but also a result of the systematic exclusion of composers from underrepresented groups.
Just as Jacobs has undertaken significant efforts towards building entrepreneurship skills in our students, we are beginning to recognize that diversifying both the repertoire our students learn and the tools that they use to understand that repertoire can pay significant dividends throughout their careers. There will always be ample room at Jacobs for Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven; but just as we have long been leaders in expanding the traditional conservatory curriculum to include jazz studies, we have also come to feel that students graduating from a school of music would be well-served by familiarity with Florence Price and William Grant Still, not to mention Billie Eilish and Kanye West. Sarah Wroth, Chair of the Jacobs Ballet program, put it elegantly: “Any institution with a responsibility to service a classical education must take great care not to forfeit that education in the pursuit of diversity and equity; however, there is an equal responsibility to make sure every student sees themselves in the work they are studying and has the opportunity to expand their education beyond the predictable cast of white, male, European choreographers and composers.”
The canon of classical music tends to be self-perpetuating. Musicians want to program works that will ensure they have audiences, which means falling back on the music people “know and love.” But audiences know and love Beethoven precisely because his music is programmed all the time. Musicians have come to the uncomfortable realization that the continual programming of the same music by the same European composers is not only a result of the quality of that music, but also a result of the systematic exclusion of composers from underrepresented groups.
Personally, I believe in “great” music, and remain unapologetic on that point, but I also believe that the pantheon of great composers and compositions is theoretically infinite, unbound by geography or by demographic considerations. If the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is relatively unknown, that’s because it was intentionally kept that way, not because it wasn’t good enough to become part of regular programming. His music was passed over in favor of “the classics” by pedagogues teaching young children; then it was passed over by conservatory instructors who never learned it in their own instruction; then it was passed over by musicians who were crafting their concert programs because they thought no one would know it. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: so it goes.
My mention of young children brings up one of the crucial issues facing diversity and inclusion efforts, especially at Jacobs. As Sachet Watson says, “classical music has historically been an exclusive field and an expensive one,” comprising significant financial and cultural barriers to entry. Lessons are costly and time to practice can be difficult to come by. And while classical-music concerts are fairly cheap in comparison with, say, a Taylor Swift show, the sheer amount of ritual involved can be exclusionary to anyone not raised in that culture. Frank Diaz refers to this and other cultural barriers as socio-economic gatekeeping: “a student from a disadvantaged background is unlikely to get into Jacobs because what we define as “excellent” … necessitates an upbringing and environment which is inaccessible to students without financial and other means.”
This cycle is another self-perpetuating one. When students from historically marginalized groups do not see themselves reflected in classical-music performances, they come to believe that the world of classical music is not for them, and thus elect not to pursue music studies, which leads to fewer such performers, and so on. This “pipeline problem” is not one that can be solved exclusively by the Jacobs School, but by recruiting and nurturing students and faculty from historically marginalized groups, we can show younger musicians that the world of classical music is one in which they belong. Watson continues, “for students of color, students from low- income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and other historically marginalized groups, the arts have to be something they can see themselves succeeding in.”
Students graduating from the Jacobs School of Music would be well-served by familiarity with Florence Price and William Grant Still, not to mention Billie Eilish and Kanye West.
The challenges of diversity are many, and meaningful change tends to happen over the long term, a problem noted by Sarah Wroth, Connie Glen, and Frank Diaz. But the faculty at Jacobs are working together on solutions that can both be implemented now and remain viable for years to come. We believe in the principle of incentivizing diversity and inclusion, rather than presenting it as yet another curricular requirement to check off. To that end, Connie Glen pointed to several of our recent successes, beginning with the publication of resources for faculty and students that help expand their knowledge of composers and works. She further characterizes our series of Community Conversations, which began in summer of 2020, as being “designed to give previously unheard or quiet voices a venue in which to share their life and career experiences”—a way for our students and the general public to hear raw, unedited perspectives of successful musicians from historically marginalized groups. We are inaugurating a series of concerts honoring the diverse backgrounds of our students, beginning in the coming academic year with a concert in celebration of the Lunar New Year. Most significantly, the Jacobs School has instituted its “competition celebrating diversity,” in which students learn and perform music by underrepresented composers, with the best performance receiving a monetary prize.
In addition to public-facing events, though, we have also tried to bring about change at a more philosophical level, beginning with the diversity strategic plan, noted by Sachet Watson as a substantial success. Among other recommendations, the plan outlines best practices for hiring and retention of faculty and students from historically marginalized groups, and further sets accountability metrics for the school, building in opportunities for the administration to reflect on where we are in relation to our goals. We have also endeavored to suggest subtler changes in the way our students and faculty think about their colleagues from marginalized groups—for example, with a new set of gender-neutral guidelines for concert attire.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to true diversity, inclusion, and equity is summarized by Frank Diaz: “We tend to identify issues and promote solutions based on gross generalizations about our students’ needs and perspectives based on what is expressed by a limited number of students and faculty,” he says, “causing marginalized students and faculty with dissenting views to be excluded from the conversation. There is no one way to be black, latinx, queer, poor, etc.” We need to see our students as individuals, with individual needs, backgrounds, and career goals, and to ensure that each of them feels valued and feels that they have a seat at the table. This work is ongoing, and will change just as people change. As Sachet Watson says, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice should be “part of everyday operations like curriculum, budget, human resources, facilities, etc. … [and we] hope that the presence of DEIJ principles, values, and competencies are common place and that students have come to Jacobs to learn how to be a world-class, socially just musician/artist.” A music school the size of Jacobs—the largest in the country, as of 2021—needs to, and can, lead the field in preparing young musicians for 21st century careers in music. There is a long road ahead, but we are committed to walking that road, and we remain eager to see where it leads.