I love classical music. I love it so much that when there’s a longstanding systemic problem within it, I get gravely disappointed because I know this art form can be more. It has the potential to create, share, heal, and change humanity and when that potential is blunted, it’s beyond disheartening.
One of the many issues within classical music is the lack of representation and as artists, we have a duty to be a part of the change we need to see. As a white man, it’s just as much my responsibility to champion works by composers who don’t look like me or have a similar experience as me.
I’ve listened to my colleagues share their stories and experiences, which is how we learn. Now, after listening and continuing to listen, what comes next? We must take action. Change is vital.
I believe there is power within each of us that, once tapped, can forge new paths. The only thing is, that first step of standing up for your morals and taking action can be daunting. Here is my first step.
I’m excited to announce that I’ve founded a new organization: Perfect Day Music Foundation (PDMF). In the works now for over a year, our mission is to represent the inclusivity and diversity of people today by using classical music as a relevant medium to address current issues through a traditional art form.
It’s a mission that needs more awareness and will require the assistance of every effective ally we can find.
How It All Started
Earlier this year I recorded my first album. Yes, it’s finally happening—my debut solo album! It’s a huge moment in my artistic life to have reached this point, and choosing the repertoire that represented what I wanted to say in my first-ever album was crucial. I decided to record American art songs in the tradition of American baritones before me.
There is no “one true way” to be American, so my goal was to represent the stories of others, as well as my own. I chose to sing a wide array of music that involves a diverse representation of composers, poets, and stories. I sought out repertoire written by people from all walks of life—a truly all-encompassing depiction of America.
I dug and dug and scoured American art songs, and after searching for literally 8 hours a day for many odd weeks, I managed to find a number of pieces by underrepresented composers that I had never heard before. These pieces were spectacular and moved me to my core. But why was it so hard to find this music? Why aren’t some of these pieces in the standard repertoire? What has held these composers back from being at the forefront of this genre?
I recognized a problem, one I’m sure many others have noticed before me. I was witnessing the suppression of the work of these minorities—women, people of color, Indigenous Peoples, etc. in how and where I found these pieces. But what could I do? I was just one opera singer. I realized that I could use whatever platform I might have to record their songs and program their work to sing in my upcoming recitals.
Apathy is the Enemy of Progress
As a white man, I sometimes feel there isn’t much I can do. But from what I’ve learned from listening to those with less privilege than me, it’s equally my responsibility to use whatever platform I may have to research, take action, and uplift their stories, to share their experiences as an act of sympathy and celebration of a unified “us”.
At the very least, I can try, because if I’m not doing something about it, then I’m part of the problem.
Yet this still didn’t feel like enough. I then decided that all of the profits from my debut album would be donated to the cause of spreading awareness and diversity in the world of classical music… yet none of the organizations I came across seemed like the right fit for what I was trying to achieve.
I’m often reminded of this amazing and inspiring interview by Jordan Peele (yes, from Key and Peele and the director of Get Out). He said that, as he was writing Get Out, he was designing his favorite movie that he had never seen before. He made the movie that he wanted to see! Brilliant!
This story inspired me to create my own foundation whose mission is to champion works by underrepresented composers and make them more accessible and readily available for musicians. Thus came Perfect Day.
The Beginning of a New Foundation
My wife Irina and I put down on paper our vision for a program that would start conversations, gather ideas, create projects, and put some plans into motion.
My idea of a “perfect day” is a common goal of striving towards a day where all people are given equal opportunity. It is also a song by American composer Carrie Jacobs-Bond depicting the beauty of togetherness—one of the songs on my upcoming album.
This was yet another song I came across in my research that is very rarely performed. The fact that she was a woman writing music in the early 1900s at a very successful level (“Perfect Day” was one of the biggest hits of her time) made me think, have we not come much further after 100 years for female composers for them to be at the forefront of the genre? It was just another example of the systemic issues in classical music and further cemented my drive to effect change.
I never wanted to tie my name to the name of this foundation because it’s not about me and hopefully, one day, I’ll pass the responsibilities of this foundation on to somebody else. When I came across this song, “Perfect Day”, it felt like a perfect fit for what I had in mind for the mission of the foundation.
What’s Our Plan of Action?
Discussions about diversity are the first step. It’s when we listen and how we educate ourselves. Next, we must act, because actions speak louder than words. I’ll never understand what it’s like to be non-white in America. At the same time, I want to help the cause and do something about it.
Perfect Day Music Foundation has a number of interesting projects and events in store. The first event will be a virtual voice competition of music by African-American composers and poets launching this fall. The judges will be Lawrence Brownlee, Angel Blue, John Holiday, and David Lomeli. Open to all singers (participation is free), this initiative will get the music that deserves to be heard in the hands and ears of performers and audience members—in this case, social-media goers. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks.
This foundation is the least I can do. I hope it takes flight and inspires others to start other foundations, programs, projects, and so on.
My Perfect Pledge
Growing up in the South, where racism is so prevalent, my mother taught me to stand up for myself and for others. She taught me that everyone deserves an equal shot. I witnessed many injustices in my childhood (and there were undoubtedly many more that I missed), but I was too young and cowardly to speak up or do anything about it. Now that I’m older, I still witness injustices in my professional field and in my personal life, but I work to take responsibility for my actions, and especially my inactions, and I do my best to stand up for what is right.
Another PDMF project is a dedicated blog that will solely feature guest artist writers sharing their experiences, thoughts, and viewpoints on diversity in classical music. Each post will finish with the writer’s “perfect pledge” of their personal commitment to better the classical music community.
My perfect pledge is to never cease striving for the best in myself and to never stop growing and learning about this subject. Just as I strive to make each performance better, I promise to never stop trying to be a better ally, on and off the stage.
My actions are my responsibility and I have full control of those. Complacency is the friend of the oppressor. It’s time to roll up our sleeves. Time to get to work.
For more information on Perfect Day Music Foundation, please visit our website.
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