Alexander Laing: Equity & the Arts
Alexander Laing thinks a lot about diversity, inclusion, and equity, especially in the context of the culture of orchestras and classical music. He’s spoken on the topic at symphonic conferences in the US and in the UK. Through a practice focused on sound, words, and people, the Phoenix Symphony principal clarinetist is hoping to be part of the solution to building symphonies that better reflect their communities.
When Alexander began his career in Phoenix in 2002, he discovered a very welcoming community, incredible colleagues who inspire him, and 299 days a year of sunshine! Since then, the Phoenix Local 586 member has performed around the city and become deeply involved in his community.
“In many ways we’re a typical mid-size American orchestra—hardworking, somewhat under resourced, with beautiful music making that just keeps getting better. Phoenix is a young city that’s more focused on reinvention than tradition. That’s influencing and supporting our explorations around how an orchestra serves and engages people,” he says.
“Over the years, I’ve been lucky to play a lot of great concerts—in concert halls, the ballet pit, and classrooms all over Phoenix,” he says. Among two that stand out were concerts led by James DePriest, and a concert celebrating the music of John Williams, hosted by Steven Spielberg and conducted by AFM member John Williams [an AFM. “I think the whole band was trying to honor Williams and thank him with our playing. It felt amazing,” says Alexander.
In February, he took part in the world premiere of Opera Philadelphia’s Cycles of My Being. This summer he will be on the faculty for the League of American Orchestra’s Essentials of Orchestra Management course in Los Angeles.
He’s also involved with the League of American Orchestra’s diversity forum, which was convened to address strategic priorities in diversity, equity, and inclusion. He’s on the board of the Gateways Music Festival and Arizona School for the Arts. In 2015, Alexander founded his own nonprofit The Leading Tone.
Alexander says that all of his activities boil down to how he defines his practice. “For me, music is about sound, words, and people,” he says. “Sound speaks for itself—I try to make a great sound and play great. I’ve been intentional about my words and about trying to use those words to reveal and examine the operating systems in the art form and in the business. And, I’ve been intentional about the people I want to serve, engage with, and make central to my practice.”
At the end of 2017, Alexander was recognized by Musical America as one of its Top 30 Professionals of the year. On March 21, he will receive a Sphinx Medal of Excellence and $50,000 career grant. The Sphinx Organization is dedicated to changing lives through the power of diversity in the arts. It awards the medal to extraordinary emerging classical artists of color who, early in their professional careers, demonstrate artistic excellence, outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination, and ongoing commitment to leadership.
“It’s exciting and genuinely humbling because there is a lot of really good work being done,” he says. “For them to shine this light on me is amazing. It has made an impact on my career and family in ways I can only be grateful for.”
A union member for almost 20 years, Alexander first joined in the summer of 1998 when he had an opportunity to sub with Boston Symphony Orchestra for a Tanglewood concert when he was fresh out of graduate school.
“My real education in the role of the union in orchestras came when I got my job in Phoenix and became active, serving on committees and being engaged in that way. The union and my committee work have been a big part of my professional development, especially on the words and people front,” he says. “The AFM has done so much to professionalize music making, having practice space for this art form that offers an adult, professional, living wage drives this whole thing.”
The seeds of Alexander’s community involvement go back to graduate school where he was introduced to the concept of community engaged music making. “Up until that point, I had a desire to connect to community and serve, but music was not a part of that. In fact, sometimes they were at odds with each other,” he says. “The idea of practicing this art form in engagement with community, not just as a one-way exchange, was exciting for me. It allowed me to imagine a whole new practice for myself in which music, blackness, coolness, youthfulness, and community were all intertwined.”
This led to The Leading Tone, a nonprofit that uses quality out-of-school music opportunities to help students learn to succeed. “You don’t necessarily touch a broad cross section playing concerts,” he says. “This is work I wanted to do to feel complete as an artist and connected to community.”
Alexander says that Local 586 played a big role in helping him start a pilot program in the summer of 2015 where he created a bucket band with elementary students. The local donated space, put him in touch with someone who ran a youth development organization, and the program’s first teacher was a fellow union member.
Since its inception, the program has changed in ways that Alexander could never have imagined. “Every year it’s been a different program,” he says. The current focus is The Yeti Records Project in which kids are making and recording their own music, using keyboards, microphones, and computers.
Alexander recalls how music shaped him early on. “Learning to play an instrument gave me an identity at a time when many young people didn’t have one,” he says. “With the support of my first teacher, Charles Stier, I really started to organize my life around the clarinet, practicing, and competitions.”
In his senior year, he received a fellowship with the National Symphony in Washington, DC, then attended Northwestern University for clarinet performance. Midway through, he made the bold decision to withdraw for a year to spend time on what he calls a “clarinet retreat.” He went to the Sweelinck Conservatorium, Amsterdam, where he earned an artist’s diploma under George Peterson, principal clarinet Concertgebouw Orchestra.
“I felt like I needed to do something dramatic if I was going to get to the next level,” says Alexander. “I put myself in a circumstance where the only focus was clarinet. It was a critical year for me. I rebuilt my technique and practiced a ridiculous number of hours.”
After graduating with a degree in clarinet performance from Northwestern, Alexander entered the Manhattan School of Music in its Orchestral Performance Program, a unique curriculum that also looks at orchestras as working organizations.
When he began studying under then Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Principal Clarinet Ricardo Morales (now principal for The Philadelphia Orchestra and a member of Local 77), he says it was transformative.
“We were both in our mid to late 20s; it was the first time I had a teacher who was nonwhite,” says Alexander. “It was the perfect situation for me—the closeness in age and cultural outlook, coupled with the most incredible clarinet playing I’d ever heard. I had my first lesson with him on Wednesday and was a better player by Friday.”
Today, Alexander is concerned about the lack of diversity in symphony orchestras as well as the culture of orchestras. In February, he moderated a panel at SphinxConnect, a conference of The Sphinx Organization. Explains Alexander, “Sphinx convenes the field, holds a competition for black and Latino musicians, and puts together an orchestra, which I first played in about 10 years ago.”
Alexander’s panel, “The orchestra as an inclusive institution?” relates to his work as co-chair of the League of American Orchestra’s Institutional Readiness Taskforce. “We are tasked with looking at orchestra cultures and seeing how our current culture helps or hinders our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and aspirations,” he says.
Other panelists were MET Second Trombone Weston Sprott of Local 802 (New York City), AFM Symphonic Services Division Director Rochelle Skolnick, Albany Symphony CEO Anna Kuwabara, and Alexander’s brother, Justin Alexander, who runs his own nonprofit arts organization, Hillombo.
Participants addressed orchestra culture from two perspectives. “Inside Looking In” examined the culture as stakeholders and “Outside Looking In” assessed orchestras as organizations within an ecosystem of other nonprofits in entertainment, education, and community dynamics.
“Orchestras have been talking about our lack of diversity for decades and not much has changed. I think we have to allow that there are bigger things standing in our way than just systems and talent development, like our values,” Alexander says.
Often, he says, “We are taught to think of our art form as silent on issues of cultural affirmation. Talking about the ‘universality’ and ‘classicality’ of the art form leads us to start to believe that this music is outside the bounds of race, space, and time.”
Stories often relegated to the background are what form frameworks and systems. Alexander says, “I think if we adopt different stories about what’s valuable about this music—ones that see it as more of a dialog than a monologue—then we would be able to see how we can make this music better.”
“There is also the question for institutions,” he continues. “Are we preservers and protectors of culture or are we culture makers? If we are makers, we need the different voices to make the best culture and respond to what is happening in our culture. What could it be like if there was more attention paid to the culture of orchestras as workplaces and artistic practice spaces? A lot of studies show that a diverse and inclusive team will outperform a homogeneous exclusive team.”
While Alexander agrees that unequal access to instrumental instruction is also a problem, he doesn’t believe it’s the main challenge. “Having played in the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra and Sphinx and gone to school with a lot of people, I reject the idea that the talent is not out there in the underrepresented communities that we say we want and need in our orchestras. So the question becomes, do we really want this?”
Though difficult, changing the orchestra culture is possible. “People do amazing and impossible things in this business and we make them normal at some point,” he says. “The Tchaikovsky violin concerto was considered unplayable when it was first written, and now students play it.”
Alexander says that the union has a role to play when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Certainly part of this will be working within our own union and conferences. We know as union members that change doesn’t always come from the corner office,” he says. “We can advocate for this ourselves—individually as bargaining units and collectively. We don’t have to wait for others to lead.”
He sees examples in what other unions are doing. The Chicago teacher’s union, for instance, is bargaining on issues for the students that go beyond teacher working conditions. “What would it look like for us to have a more outward focus? Could we advocate for equitable access to music instruction?” Alexander says, “We absolutely should be raising our voices as musicians, as union members, and as members of this ecosystem and our communities.”
Beyond the stage, he says, “There are other ways we express our values with things we control—our boards, leadership, the music we play, the soloists and conductors we hire, and the way we contextualize ourselves and our music.”
“Artists are discovering ways and spaces to bring their whole selves to their work,” he says. “Ultimately, I think orchestras are going to have to recruit and compete for the artists they want, not just against other orchestras, but against affirming musical and human experiences that artists are creating for themselves in chamber and popular music.”
“Ultimately, I hope that orchestras will become more reflective of their communities because they want to make better music and better musical experiences for people,” says Alexander.