by Lecolion Washington
My organization, PRIZM Ensemble, is based in Memphis and is focused on building a diverse musical community.
Though there is a growing conversation around diversity in classical music, PRIZM Ensemble is among that small group who demonstrate what can happen when an organization is wholly dedicated to this ideal and holds themselves accountable for their success in achieving it. We don’t just create strategies around the work. We DO the work. This fall, we launched the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble whose demographic diversity mirrors almost exactly our city of Memphis (a city that is approximately 70% people of color). The PRIZM Chamber Orchestra’s 31 members represented 16 cities and 11 states, many of them being local or former Memphians. We collaborated with Opera Memphis in a production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. I remember thinking when we put the orchestra together, that we may be creating a process that doesn’t exist much in classical music. Because we were certain that all of the musicians were of an extremely high quality and because we were very confident in the diversity of our networks, we then had the space to ask other questions such as:
“How many people of color are in the orchestra?”
“Are there enough black musicians in the orchestra in a city that is 60% black?”
“How many women are there?”
“Will the young people in our educational programs see themselves in the musicians that we bring out into the community?”
“Do we have strong enough representation of local musicians in the orchestra?”
Many organizations feel a strong sense of discomfort when asking these questions. For that reason, they never engage in them in a deeply meaningful way.
PRIZM’s philosophy, on the other hand, is to lean into discomfort in a constructive and respectful way, so we were able to navigate these conversations in a way that was genuine and productive. We believe that there is a beautiful world on the other side of these conversations, and that we can’t go around these conversations and arrive at that beautiful world. We must go THROUGH them.
I can’t describe the excitement that I felt when I picked up the musicians from the airport. I’ve known most of these musicians for at least 10 years or more, and it was like greeting family coming into town for a reunion. I was very transparent about the thinking surrounding the project when booking the musicians, and I could immediately see that everyone who participated really bought into what we wanted to achieve.
I also performed as the principal bassoonist in the orchestra, and that first rehearsal was magical. I could feel and hear that these musicians were bringing something extra to the music. The vibrato of the strings was a little bit more unified. The tuning of the woodwinds was a little bit more centered. The blending of the brass was a little bit tighter. We were saying something to the Memphis community, to the country, really. We all knew that we were playing for something that was bigger than this performance, bigger than any individual there. Because of this, we gave something extra, and the singers told me that they noticed and were inspired by it.
While the musicians were in Memphis, they also took part in PRIZM’s in-school programming, visiting two schools where they played for and with young musicians. is another key component of PRIZM’s efforts to create opportunities for young people to feel that they might have a chance to join a future classical music scene that is more diverse. What people fail to realize is that representation is very important to a young person. The study The Qualities of Quality from Harvard Project Zero (HPZ) in 2009 asserts that the greatest determinant of quality in arts learning is the motivation of the learner. Is the student intrinsically motivated to learn? I remember growing up as a young bassoonist. I was the only black bassoonist that I’d ever seen up until my college years. The next black bassoonist that I saw wasn’t a colleague at school. He was Rufus Olivier, principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I saw him in a picture. It changed my life. I remember feeling this weight lifted off my shoulders, and I was more motivated than ever to have a life as a classical bassoonist. I remember feeling that I didn’t have to be the first one. Being the first one is the most difficult. I remember feeling that I just had to be the NEXT one.
Because of the feeling that I experienced as a young musician, I know firsthand how important it is that parents, educators, and leaders take responsibility for creating opportunities for young people to see adults who look like them doing amazing things.
To be honest, PRIZM is trying to create a world where this commitment to diversity isn’t a novelty. We want ALL classical music organizations to think “We try to identify the best musicians AND we try to make sure that all of our activity celebrates, honors, mirrors, and represents the community in which we live. We don’t do this for optics, for grant dollars, or to be nice. We do this because we want to actively and intentionally be inclusive. We don’t just want people to feel welcome when they come to our events. We want everyone to feel included.”
My dream for PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is that we continue doing our work in Memphis, it expands and spreads nationwide, and then it becomes something that’s not necessary anymore. My dream is that this philosophy isn’t something on the fringe, but rather it’s at the center of the work. It’s part of the culture.
Often people have told me that, if we’re more diverse then we have to lower our standards. I’m always amazed at how comfortable people are when they say this to me. It’s as if they don’t realize that they are speaking to an award-winning African-American classical bassoonist who has had a wonderful performance career. What I wanted to show with this orchestra is that you can have both an extremely high-level performance and an extremely diverse group of people. And so the question that I want to raise with the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is: If you can have all of this, why would you ever settle for less than that?
Lecolion Washington, Jr. is a bassoonist and founder and director of the PRIZM Chamber Music Festival. As a member of the International Double Reed Society he has been invited to perform at conferences in Austin (TX), Ithaca (NY), and Birmingham (UK). He has performed as soloist with many groups including the Eroica Ensemble, the Meadows Symphony Orchestra at SMU, and the orchestra at the International Festival Institute at Round Top. During the summers he teaches and performs at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in South Africa. His CD, Legacy: Music for Bassoon by African-American Composers was met with favorable reviews in several magazines including Fanfare Magazine and The American Record Guide.