On June 19, Kedrick Armstrong ’16 and 766 signatories sent an open letter to the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music confronting the lack of diversity in the curriculum. In response, the Conservatory has changed concert repertoires, formed a new strategic task force and released a statement on their commitment to diversity.
The letter, published at dearwheatonconservatory.com, accused the Conservatory of complicity with systemic racism in classical music, a field “dominated by the music of white European men.” Armstrong called ensemble directors to review planned concert programming and asked faculty to develop “a curriculum that tells the full history of Black music.”
Armstrong, a Conservatory alum, conductor and director of worship at First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, realized in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery that “most of the things that I know about Black music I didn’t learn at … and for me that was heartbreaking.” He began reaching out to fellow Conservatory alumni, conducting a survey that found that Black composers wrote only 2-3% of pieces performed by large ensembles in the past ten years. The results were published at dearwheatonconservatory.com with Armstrong’s letter and a compilation of organizations, databases and podcasts that promote Black voices in classical music.
“We repent for the ways that we have fallen short in best serving our students, alumni, faculty, staff, and the world – including systemic racism and discrimination,” the statement read. “We commit ourselves to an open process that offers open records and accountability, establishment of a committed strategic task force, short and long-term action steps, regular progress reports and avenues for feedback.”
Connor Jenkins ‘18, a digital marketing specialist, activist and friend of Armstrong’s, helped create dearwheatonconservatory.com and social media posts encouraging followers to sign and re-post the letter.
“This came out of both of our skill sets and talking about the moment in history and the way in which we want to enact real change in the bubbles we have,” said Jenkins.
Before they learned of and signed Armstrong’s letter, conservatory seniors Mitchell George and Allison Chang had considered writing to the Conservatory requesting more pieces by composers of color in concert repertoires.
“The types of music that we play and history that we learn are still so heavily rooted in what has been accepted as normal—which is to say, Eurocentric and white,” said Chang.
When Armstrong began playing classical music as a teen, his Black friends called it “white people music.” “There was this idea that if you want to be successful in this field there’s certain requirements for success,” Armstrong said. For that reason, he stopped playing the gospel music he grew up with.
“When we think of music history, the translation for that in academia is classical Western music history,” said Professor of Music Kathleen Kastner.
Currently, the only class music majors must take outside the Western tradition is World Music, which for the first time this semester is four credits rather than two. Kastner’s proposal to expand the class and add a Global Perspectives tag was approved last December. Since she started teaching the course in the 1990s, Kastner has been asking, “How can you have five semesters of music history and only eight weeks of world music?”
Jazz History and Music of the African Diaspora have been offered as electives for over a decade but are not required for a music degree.
Professor of Music Johann Buis, who teaches several ethnically inclusive courses, including those Armstrong’s letter mentions, said most students only show interest in his classes that have Christ at the Core tags.
“There’s such an emphasis on Western classical music to the exclusion of everything else,” said sophomore music education major Marnie Bruemmer.
“We received Kedrick’s letter openly and warmly and understand what he sees,” said Professor of Music Sarah Holman. “I’m very excited to work with my colleagues as we lead a more concerted and structured task force.”
All Conservatory faculty will participate in the task force, led by a steering committee of Holman, Buis and Professor of Music and Associate Chaplain for Worship Arts Donté Ford. Task force sub-committees will assess and promote diversity in various facets of the Conservatory, releasing semi-annual reports starting this January.
Wilder, in an interview, highlighted the “seriousness and the depth with which music faculty are taking this on.”
Daniel Sommerville, Wheaton’s orchestra conductor, has planned a piece by a composer of color for every concert this year. At their first streamed concert, each of the two orchestra ensembles (divided this year due to COVID-19) played a piece by an African-American composer: one ensemble performed “Sophisticated Lady” by Duke Ellington, and the other played William Grant Still’s “Out of the Silence.” Chang, a violist, said she appreciates the quick changes to repertoires, which are usually planned far in advance.
Other Conservatory faculty are also working to promote ethnic inclusion. For example, Ford is incorporating styles from the global church in his Worship Arts course and chapel band repertoires. Professor of Music Shawn Okpebholo premiered Two Black Churches, a piece he composed lamenting the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the Charleston church shooting, this summer. Associate Professor of Music Lee Joiner performed a blues piece at a recent recital Bruemmer attended for her Recital and Concert Attendance class.
“I don’t know that I would’ve sat down to a recital or concert attendance and heard that a year ago,” said Bruemmer, who signed the petition.
Wilder emphasized “this isn’t new work for us.” For example, the Conservatory’s hirings of Ford, Francisco Xavier Beteta, Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Gina Yi over the last six years have “multiplied the resources” of the Conservatory. “But bring a bit of focus to our work now,” said Wilder.“We want to build a structure that’s going to be solid and lasting and bring about the kinds of opportunity that the diversity commitment of the college envisions.”
Kastner said the Conservatory, like other schools of music, focuses on Western classical music to prepare students for graduate school entrance exams.
“We’re a conservatory that’s part of a larger problem,” said Okpebholo. “We have to prepare for graduate school, so for example, if their audition lists or the orchestra repertoire lists are full of white male composers, we’re going to have to be a part of this larger movement to change that.”
Armstrong learned about BIPOC and women composers as a conducting fellow at Chicago Sinfonietta, an orchestra that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion, after graduating, but he said he missed those opportunities previously. When Wheaton awarded Armstrong the Presser Scholarship for outstanding music majors, Buis urged him to bring up diversity issues and ask why there hadn’t been more Black recipients in past years in his acceptance speech. He didn’t.
“I wasn’t in a place where I was secure in my Blackness in the scope of classical music,” said Armstrong. “It was years of assimilating just to survive in classical music, in this predominantly white space.”
In 2019, 79 percent of music majors were white. Among students of color, only 3 — 2 percent of music majors — were Black.
Armstrong said writing the letter has helped him process his experiences at Wheaton. “As I’m calling the Conservatory to be a more diverse and inclusive place, I also have to repent for not taking classes and for not speaking up.”
Jenkins said many Wheaton alumni, especially Conservatory graduates, can relate. “There’s a common thread that we all saw this and did nothing about it. And the school was silent, too.”
Wilder and Armstrong corresponded and met this summer to collaborate.
“I’m not writing this letter and running away. I’m not lighting the Conservatory on fire and just leaving,” said Armstrong. “Wheaton has given me so much, and I want to make sure that every minority student who comes through that Conservatory feels like they are seen and feels like they are heard in the music that they make.”