Dead White Men

As I was cleaning up my studio from the recent tidal wave of recitals, I dug into the file box I use to store previous programs. I have a program from every recital I’ve given since 1998. It’s a lot of programs. They’re all organized by year into folders. (I know it’s still hoarding if it’s organized, but it makes me feel better.) As I do occasionally, I went hunting through the box to see just what I was performing 5 years ago, 10 years ago, during my various degrees and stages of my life.


What did I notice this time? Dead white men. As I’ve become more aware of the discrimination that women and people of color face in the classical music world, I’ve begun to notice the absence of their works on concert programs. An orchestra or chamber ensemble sends me a season notice and I’m disappointed that a single work by Jennifer Higdon or a George Walker is the only work IN THE WHOLE SEASON not composed by a white man (and usually a dead white man). But I hadn’t realized how much my own programming choices (and the choices of those in my degrees) had contributed to this. I was simply shocked by the dearth of works I’ve performed by women and people of color. Shocked. And saddened. Saddened that I don’t know more music by women, people of color, Latinx individuals, and transgender people. Saddened that I know so little of it that I don’t know how to incorporate it into my pedagogy in a meaningful way.


Let’s recap. I’ve completed four music degrees. For those degrees, I’ve given nine total degree recitals. (I’ve given hundreds of recitals while I was in school, but I’m talking about recitals for which I received credit.) In those nine recitals, I played music for solo piano, music for voice and piano, and instrumental chamber music of various combinations. 42 pieces of music total (sonatas, trios, concertos, song cycles, etc.). Let me briefly list the composers present on those recitals:

BA Recital 1: Scarlatti, Beethoven, Chopin, Barber
BA Recital 2: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Shostakovich, Walker
MCM Recital 1: Crumb, Schumann, Dvorak, Beethoven, Burleigh, Copland, Brahms
MCM Recital 2: Kuhnau, Schumann, Liszt, Crumb
MM Recital 1: Barber, Debussy, Heggie, Weil, Bolcom
MM Recital 2: Adams, Bach, Mozart, Heggie
DMA 1: Britten
DMA 2: Schnittke, Brahms, Schumann
DMA 3: Lindo, Sharp, del Riego

What do you notice? All but two of these pieces are by white composers (Burleigh and Walker are the exceptions). All but one of these pieces are by men (del Riego is the exception). All but five are by dead people (Walker was alive when I performed his music, and Bolcom, Heggie, Crumb, and Adams are still living). These are terrible statistics. I’m ashamed.

I’ve been following the statistics of orchestras and the ways in which they don’t perform music by women and people of color. It’s horrible. And yet, as I look at my own experience of musical education, it’s not wonder that we’re in this state. If all we’re teaching students in music school is to worship the canon, to perform music by dead white guys, it’s no wonder that the programs designed by these people when they take over arts organizations are full of the music of dead white guys.


Over the last three years or so, I’ve been very conscious of the music I perform, teach, and assign. I’ve been more aware of the prominence of dead white men in the recitals I perform and have made efforts to change that. But it’s still not my go to, unfortunately. Performing an occasional piece by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich or assigning Nathaniel Dett’s piano works aren’t enough change. I need to be even more aware of these issues and institutionalized omissions.

This isn’t tokenism. In fact, we already have tokenism. What I want to be a part of is incorporation – a way of learning and teaching that takes the music being written by all sorts of composers and places it on the same level, treats it with the same respect and care and investigation as the “canon” composers. What I want is to topple the canon. (And don’t get me started on the whole notion of canon and its role in reinforcing white (and particularly German) supremacy in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.)

This is more than giving a Clara Schumann song to collegiate singer, more than finding a piano suite by Ginastera to add rhythmic interest to a recital. This is a fundamental shift. This is me learning enough about the music of living women composers that I can select from that repertoire without having to look it up (in the way that I know the Bach preludes and fugues or the Chopin etudes without having to consult a reference book). It means me practicing a lot of music by black composers. In the same way that I would assign a student to listen to a lot of music by Brahms to get a sense of how that music goes, I need to do the same with the music of Florence Price. And it means you doing the same.

I’m tired of performing and teaching and studying primarily the music of dead white guys. There’s some of that music that I love. Some of it that I will perform forever. But I should be performing it because I like it for it’s own merits, not because it’s in the canon, or because I don’t know any other options. And I want know more and different music, I want to hear the voices of others, the voices of those who have been silenced, the voices of those our culture (and musical world) need so desperately.