How is Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Seeking to Boost Diversity in the Classical World?

How does a classical orchestra promote diversity within its ranks? Furthermore, how can it promote diversity in a climate where competition is fierce and well-paying jobs are scarce?

For one possible answer, we turn to New York City, where the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra received a $400,000 grant to "engage musicians of varying demographic backgrounds."

But before we take a closer look at the orchestra's three-pronged plan to address this challenge, let's first step back to get a deeper understanding of what they're up against.

It goes without saying that the classical field is notoriously difficult. Simply getting into a high-caliber classical institution can be miraculous in its own right. Take Julliard, for example. In the fall of 2013, they received 2,854 undergraduate applicants from all over the world — and admitted just 191 of them (that's a 6.7 percent admission rate for those keeping track at home).

Then there's the problem of burnout. The Julliard graduation rate is an impressive 81.1 percent, meaning that approximately 38 students per year won't finish their degrees. That said, there aren't reliable statistics regarding graduates or professional musicians who, due to crushing student debt and grim job prospects, simply hang up their violins and transition to a new field (the overall unemployment rate for college graduates is a whopping 45 percent).

Also, according to PBS, 75 percent of New York’s nonprofit performing arts groups — those most likely to employ the classically trained — slashed budgets post-Great Recession and few, if any, are back to pre-crash levels.

It's within this grim context that Orpheus, with Mellon's help, is trying to promote "diversity on and off the stage." Here's their three-pronged plan:

  • Establish an apprenticeship program for a limited number of pre-professional musicians to be invited into the Orpheus Process, playing alongside the orchestra at specific rehearsals and attending artistic planning and administrative meetings.
  • Introduce a select number of newly professional musicians to Orpheus through rehearsals to familiarize them with the orchestra's distinctive music-making process.
  • Expand the existing personal and artistic qualifications for hiring within the primary substitute pool to include a consideration for diversity.

Upon review, you'll see the third point directly addresses the issue of recruitment. On the other hand, the other two elements seek to articulate a career path for select candidates pertaining to non-performing jobs like administrative and programming positions.

In fact, this latter element echoes what Mellon is doing in the area of art conservation. After all, not every art student is going to be an artist, and careers in art conservation and preservation can be equally viable for a burned-out student. (Check out our take on Mellon's partnership with the University of Delaware's Art Conservation graduate program here).