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Student Spotlight: Asher B. '20 Explores Diversity in Classical Music with Junior Workshop Project
Students perform at winds concert

Asher B. ‘20 might not know the top radio hits, but it’s safe to say he knows Beethoven, Bach and Tchaikovsky better than most high school juniors. A talented musician himself, Asher has been playing the oboe since sixth grade and has developed a passion for classical music. For his Junior Workshop project, Asher turned to his love of the genre and paired it with his interest in social justice, opening up an important conversation about the world of classical music.

Asher’s project explores the work of composers with marginalized identities, aiming to highlight their work while questioning the status quo of musical institutions. Asher hopes his project can change the perception of classical music as being elitist, celebrate more diverse artists and make the music he loves more accessible. “Classical music, in my opinion, carries so much emotion. I just want everyone to appreciate and listen to this music,” he says.

Below we chat with Asher, discussing his project, process and what he hopes his project will accomplish.  

Can you explain the concept of your project?

Over my brief life as a musician, most of the music I have played has been music written and composed by white men. My project aims to highlight composers that have been marginalized because of their race, gender or any combination of those identities.

The main culmination of this project will be a group conversation. I curated a playlist of eight different composers with various identities. I am inviting Upper School students and teachers to come after school to listen to music and talk as a group with guidance from a curated list of discussion questions. I will share an exit survey with participants to gauge whether their perspectives broadened as a result. Did they like the music? Would they listen to more classical music? The group conversation is there to elicit responses about how we, as a society, can change the perspective of classical music being a white-only, male-only music genre, and how we can encourage institutions to include works composed by people of color.

What was your process of bringing your idea to life?

During the introductory weeks of Junior Workshop students receive a process notebook, which we are encouraged to write in every single day to record our thoughts and feelings about our projects. It’s through the process of trial and error that you figure out what might work. At the beginning of the year, my idea was classical music, but I didn't know it would take the form of a group discussion, or even talking about composers of color. You start big, and as the mod goes along your idea becomes more centralized and specific. The process is about presenting an idea and letting the community around you shape it.

How did you find the artists you have chosen to highlight?

Early in my research process I found a resource called the Composer Diversity Database. You can search for composers based on nationality, ethnic identity, if they are a man or a woman, or if they are gender non-conforming. I went through the list and then did additional research to find brief introductions to their lives. Then I listened to their music and thought about how accessible their work might be to those who aren't as acquainted with listening to classical music. I also had to consider availability because some composers, unfortunately, don't have any of their works recorded, or their manuscripts well kept.

Asher in class

How can issues of equity be addressed in the music community?

It's about creating opportunities. [Being a musician] requires having a patron in your life that will support you in purchasing an instrument, paying for lessons with a teacher or at a school that teaches music on a particular level. There is a lot of money that goes into becoming a musician and if you are from an under-resourced community, you're not going to have these opportunities to play music in the same way. To that end, I think it's about making music more accessible in general, through fundraisers and scholarships.

What do you hope participants of your group conversation will walk away with?

Aside from addressing social justice issues, I want people to listen to this music. If there is anything I hope people walk away from this conversation with, it would be to listen to and remember these artists. I hope that people will leave feeling that they would like to listen to more classical music and know more about it.

What I hope this conversation brings to light is that people are interested in seeing institutions present music, ballets and operas written by people other than the big-name composers we all know.

What did you feel you learned from the Junior Workshop process?

I think if Junior Workshop has taught me anything, it is to be really driven about my own work. The program really encourages students to hold themselves accountable and set deadlines.

I also learned how to reach out. Before I thought that I had to do it myself, but then I began to unlearn that and knew to reach out [to advisors and peers] when I needed help. A project really can't be successful without consulting and listening to others.

Learn more about Junior Workshop and other student projects by visiting the Junior Workshop program page