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Bringing musicians from historically underrepresented backgrounds to the forefront of America's orchestras

representation in orchestras
Posted at 4:08 PM, Feb 14, 2023

BOSTON, Mass. — The sound of a symphony is created by each individual instrument. Just like you need strings, brass and percussion to create harmonious sound, diversity within music is necessary to represent society.

Originally from South America, musician Leonardo Vasquez had his sights set on pursuing music in the U.S. early on.

"It's important to see the symphony orchestra as a smaller version of its city or its community," Vasquez said. "Because it was really hard for me to get a good musical experience in Peru, it's just a very small country in terms of classical music."

Coming from a historically underrepresented background in American orchestras, Vasquez knew his journey would be even more difficult.

"The whole process of auditioning and the visas and moving and the language also, sometimes it felt like it wasn't going to happen," Vasquez said.

Musicians from African American, Latino, Asian, Native, and other non-white backgrounds, made up 3.4% of all musicians in 1980. By 2014, that number increased to 14.2%, but nonetheless, that proportion still remains low. However, Vasquez broke the mold with help from brand new opportunities like the Boston Symphony Orchestras Resident Fellowship Program.

"It's like nothing I have done before. I mean I've been involved in some ways in music my whole life but this is completely like I can't imagine a better musical experience," Vasquez said.

He is one of the first fellows to be a part of this year-long training and mentorship opportunity that's specifically designed for early-career musicians from historically underrepresented backgrounds in American orchestras. He is doing it along with his now good friend, musician Andres Vela.

"My experience with the orchestra has been amazing, like this is a dream," Vela said. "Classical music is not really a thing where I'm from. I'm from south Texas. The majority of the population are Hispanic so classical music is not even, people don't listen to classical music."

As a Hispanic American, Vela would love to see more programs like this within America's largest symphonies and orchestras.

"And I think it's important for them to see people like myself to be playing in an orchestra like this," Vela said. "Make them think like this could also be them."

Their goals align perfectly with the work Professor Daniel Donã is doing at Boston University, as the chair of the Antiracism & Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access committee.

"In investigating kind of what structural limitations there are especially for people from underrepresented communities that may also have economic hardships, is giving them access not only to training but to the instruments," Donã said.

It's an expensive passion, one that also happens to be time-consuming.

"A lot of people who successfully get into symphony orchestras, especially string players, tend to start as early as 3 or 4 years old," Donã said.

He says they are working to target kids at an early age, providing opportunities to reach that university or orchestra level.

"Once that happens I think it really serves the health of the organization and the community," Donã said.

It's efforts like these that will bring harmony to the faces, cultures and backgrounds represented in our country's most prestigious music institutions.