Diversity Fellowship opens pathway to orchestras

According to the League of American Orchestras, classical music has a serious lack of diversity. Racial and ethnic minority players make up just 15% of orchestra musicians. In 2015, UC College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) established the joint Diversity Fellowship program to help level the playing field for students of diverse backgrounds. As Director of Marketing and Communications at CCM Curt Whitacre explained, “the goal is to change the face of the American orchestra.”

Ian Saunders (credit Stephen Easley)Musicians in the program receive full tuition scholarship thanks to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. allowing them to earn a two-year Master of Music (MM) or Artist Diploma (AD) through CCM, while also playing alongside the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra throughout their regular season. “Between resources available with the orchestra and the conservatory, we are removing barriers,” said Whitacre.  

First-year student Ian Saunders, a double bassist from Norfolk, Virginia, spoke with Soapbox to share insights about his experience with the program so far.

How did you get into playing classical music?

I started playing in the public school system. We had this wonderful conductor as part of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra who made it possible to rent a violin for free, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to...When I went to college they said we need a bass player, and I said “great, I need money” [laughs]. There are more scholarships for bass players and I haven’t looked back since.

How has your journey been different than other players?

Typically in any orchestral career you have to play summer festivals in Aspen and Tanglewood, which you have to pay for. You’d be hard pressed to not see that in someone’s background. I came from a family where I couldn’t afford not to work in the summers.

What attracted you to the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship program?

The big thing that makes it wonderful is that you typically have an hour lesson with your teacher, but it’s really unheard of to have a lesson and then play with that teacher in a concert. It’s an apprenticeship that’s like nothing else around here. You’re just gaining this information by being around it. I’ve learned so much more in just a few weeks than I did in a lot of years trying to imagine how it might be.

What are some of the best things about the fellowship experience so far?

They’re very supportive, and they put a lot of time and resources behind us. The other thing about it is that the fellowship pays for auditions and things, which are really expensive. They provide audition support so we can just focus on practicing.

What do you hope the future holds after the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship wraps up?

The dream in general is to join a major orchestra, an A-tier orchestra like Chicago or Philadelphia. I feel like I’m now in a good place to compete for those.
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Kamal Kimball is a freelance writer and co-founder of Ampersand Creative Services.