By Alexa Smith
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, field trips to historical sites centered on farming. We learned about agriculture techniques of the 19th century with hands-on experiences. We discussed with curiosity what life might have been like for the residents. Most who tended the land were Black and lived in small houses. The white family who owned the land lived in a large house. The white people managed the Black people who, by the way, were enslaved. But we don't do that anymore, they would tell us, and we are better for it. On this particular field trip, I learned that the act of enslaving others was bad, but since we fixed it, it was no big deal. I did not know the enslaved people's names, but I knew the white ones. Therefore, I knew which people were important and which did not matter. This began the pattern of defining importance in my life: who mattered, and who didn’t.
Those who choose to educate enter a sacred profession. The world becomes what we teach. As a fourth-grader, I depended on adults to provide me with critical knowledge to succeed later in life. I valued my teachers, I looked for their approval, and I believed them. I went on to learn from wonderful teachers from a performing arts high school, an undergraduate program at Roosevelt University, and a master's program at Manhattan School of Music (MSM). At MSM, I felt honored to be among the country's best music educators, absorbing their knowledge and expertise. Attending a school like MSM, you understand that you will learn from the best about the best. And, in a way, you do.
In my first year at MSM, I entered the Harlem Opera Theater Competition to get my feet wet in the vast New York City music landscape. The competition required an art song by a Black composer. At the time, I did not know a single Black composer who wrote songs that were not spirituals. It still hurts to see that written out.
After speaking to three faculty members, the best response I got was, "does Joplin have any good songs?" In the end, I decided to ask the only Black voice faculty member who, at the time, I did not know personally. I emailed Hilda Harris, whose quick reply was, "Happy to help, I have plenty. Start with these and let me know what you think." She suggested a dozen composers from Hale Smith and Margaret Bonds to Florence Price and Adolphus Hailstork. I advanced to the finals with my Hale Smith song right next to my Donizetti and Mozart arias. Exactly where it belongs.
That week of searching for repertoire was painful. Looking back, it made me feel like music created by people who look like me does not matter and is not good enough for a serious musician. My education did not include these composers in the curriculum, and the esteemed faculty couldn't even suggest one. I spent hours learning French, Italian, German, English, American, Russian, and Czech repertoire. With my two degrees, I can list hundreds of influential composers and their contributions. But it was put upon me to educate myself of the other American composers with more melanin in their skin than Poulenc.
That is an incomplete education.
After hearing this story, you might wonder why I am back at Manhattan School of Music and serve as Chief of Staff and Assistant Vice President for Special Initiatives. While I hope to lead an established American art institution one day, I have an opportunity to make a real impact now. I feel fortunate that I found my way in the classical music world. I enjoyed singing and felt fulfilled with the performing I did. I learned and performed even more music by Black composers. But my work in helping an open, collaborative faculty and staff understand how a student like me might feel marginalized in a music history class learning about Beethoven and not Chevalier de Saint-Georges is bigger than my singing career could have ever been. A student might learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance in the humanities department but wouldn't discuss Florence Price in a music literature class, even though they were contemporaries and collaborators. That's a change I can help make.
This year marks Beethoven's 250th birthday. Ludwig is going strong and for a good reason: his music is sublime. When I talk to white musicians, they often ask, "are we just supposed to get rid of Beethoven and Mozart?". Maybe the better question is, why is this your first response? If we ask for a wheelchair ramp in front of our school so folks who use a wheelchair can attend concerts, do you ask, "so are we just supposed to get rid of all the stairs?". Come on, y'all. We can do better.
There is room for more art in our music programs. If we are not willing to make that room, then we should find a new job. We ask our students to learn from one another. We ask our orchestra members and opera casts to grow from their interactions to produce highly creative art. But if we do not come to the stage with equal liberation, this concept is not possible. Artistic liberation comes from a shared idea of what matters. Free expression and interpretation matter. Technique matters. And the person whose music you are singing or playing matters.
I am optimistic. At MSM, we have created learning opportunities for everyone in our community to move the needle. In response to the murders of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breona Taylor, we asked our community to include a Black creator or a creator from the African diaspora on all programs this year. Yes, we are asking everyone to check a box, but we do that anyway with class and recital requirements. Requirements define what is important.
I now get emails from our students discovering new works. Some explore indigenous and Latinx creators, while others explore music from their home country. Classical music isn't dying, I assure you. But white supremacist ideology that is so embedded in education we don't even recognize it is a threat.
We have a chance now to redefine for students what is important.
When the concert halls are back with full seasons, what will you bring to the stage?
Alexa Smith is the Chief of Staff and Assistant Vice President of Special Initiatives at Manhattan School of Music. She is in the SphinxLEAD program with the Sphinx Organization and a Board member of New Camerata.