Black violinists in the Columbus Symphony advocate for more diversity

Black violinists in the Columbus Symphony advocate for more diversity

Growing up in Atlanta, Maalik Glover was accustomed to seeing classical musicians who looked like him—until he started progressing in the field.

“The higher you go in classical music, the less people will look like you if you’re a person of color,” said Glover, a 25-year-old violinist who is Black. “It feels a little bit alienating to be a part of something that seems like you don’t really belong in visually. And this is one of the reasons why a lot of people quit.”

More:Columbus teen receives full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston

Glover, however, continued to play and obtained degrees from Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). He and 26-year-old violinist Mwakudua waNgure were accepted into the Columbus Symphony in September.

They are the only Black members of the orchestra at this time.

Glover and waNgure advocate for more outreach to young musicians and more diversity programs for adults, but stress that even more effort is needed to fix the root of the problem.

“We still live in a time where it’s unique for a person of color to have a seat in a notable orchestra,” Glover said. “And there is, of course, a socioeconomic (disparity) between people of color and people who are in classical music. And it’s hard to really bridge that gap sometimes.”

CSO Violinist Maalik Glover

Violinist Maalik Glover is one of two Black musicians who has recently joined the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.

The Columbus Dispatch

Both Glover and waNgure are graduates of the CCM and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Diversity Fellowship program. And last summer, they participated in a music program at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education center in New York.

They met Rossen Milanov, who is the director of both the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Columbus Symphony.

“When he heard them play, he wanted to bring them to Columbus on one-year appointments with the orchestra as full-time musicians,” said Daniel Walshaw, chief operating officer of the Columbus Symphony. “We see these two fantastic young players as some very promising musicians.”

Unfortunately, Glover and waNgure are still minorities in the industry; only 1.4% of orchestra musicians in the United States are Black, according to a study by the League of American Orchestras.

“I think of fellowships as being a good starting place, but maybe kind of like a Band-Aid on a larger, socioeconomic disparity think that is largely unaddressed,” waNgure said.

Buying instruments, paying for lessons, preparing for auditions and traveling to music festivals may be too expensive for some families of color, said waNgure and Glover.

Fortunately for waNgure, who grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, his parents prioritized lessons for him and his three siblings. They all played violin at the insistence of their father, who wanted to be a musician, but didn’t have the opportunity.

“He’s from Kenya. He wanted to be like a Kenyan pop star,” waNgure said. “My parents made it a priority. We didn’t do sports or martial arts or anything.”

waNgure went on to study at the Interlochen Arts Academy and obtain degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory and University of Michigan.

CSO Violinist Mwakudua waNgure

Violinist Mwakudua waNgure is one of two Black musicians who have recently joined the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.

Barbara J. Perenic, The Columbus Dispatch

Glover credits his success to a fellowship with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. As a teenager, he was granted access to private lessons as well as summer festivals.

“My mom was a single mother, and as much as I would’ve wanted lessons before my acceptance into the talent development program, we just knew it wouldn’t be financially possible,” he said. “Without that program, I’m not confident that I would have a career.”

Targeting people of color early is the only way to change the future, said Glover, who recently partnered with Urban Strings Columbus, a classical music program aimed at young string musicians from underrepresented communities.

“They’ll be able to absorb the information a little bit more organically, similar to their friends who are not people of color,” he said. “They’ll be able to be on the same track and have the same chance.”

More:A family atmosphere: Urban Strings orchestras foster rich environment for participants

While the Columbus Symphony has already been working with Columbus City Schools, Walshaw said the organization is in the early stages of developing a special program for diverse elementary and middle school students.

“We can always do more,” Walshaw said.

“Rossen has made it a priority to have diverse voices on the stage with the guest artists that work with the orchestra, and the music that we pick. When it comes to actual members of the orchestra, that’s a worldwide problem we all have in making sure that there are employment opportunities and a pathway to employment for minority groups that haven’t traditionally been a part of this art form.”