To Classical Music Audiences: Use Your SWAY to Advance Social Justice

by Aaron Grad

As a composer and program note writer, I work with classical music organizations around the country, and I applaud the fact that all of them are waking up to the need for racial equity in the arts. At the same time, I have encountered one stubborn rationale for resisting change that I want to challenge here: the notion that disrupting the status quo will alienate existing supporters. I address this message to you, the lovers and patrons of classical music, because my experience within the field leads me to believe that you will be the ones to drive meaningful change toward social justice. All you have to do is use your SWAY.

 Let’s first ask the all-important question: Why is change necessary? You could point to the historic injustice that the classical music field has perpetuated—a form of white supremacy that is as hurtful in our concert venues as it is in our polling places, schools, prisons or anywhere else. (It is an article of faith within the classical music industry that works by certain dead white men are superior, and that the art form in general possesses intrinsic value that can be appreciated by all; these positions that elevate European/Colonial perspectives over others are, by definition, a form of white supremacy.) If you already see music and race this way, you won’t need much convincing. But if that argument is uncomfortable for you, I offer another. Quite simply, expanding the boundaries of classical music will create a more pleasurable listening experience, and it will ensure the survival of a performance practice that deserves a future as bountiful as its past.

That brings me to my first recommendation, the S in SWAY: Stretch your ears. There is no innate human trait that programs you to like a certain kind of music; it all depends on acclimation and familiarity with that music’s social context. Fortunately, social context is a muscle that you can stretch and strengthen throughout your life. If you encounter a piece of music that rankles you, try asking yourself, “What social context am I missing?” By understanding the particular “rules of the game” that any given composer or performer operates within, you can better appreciate masterful execution. Follow your curiosity by reading program notes and other resources that help you understand the composer’s world, or ask experts (such as the staff or musicians of a favorite ensemble) for insights and other listening recommendations that would help you fill in the missing context. And just like in the gym, repetition is essential for gaining strength and flexibility, so find a recording and keep listening until your ears acclimate.

Let me say too that we professionals are hampered by the bias of having steeped ourselves in the social context of classical music, and it is easy for us to lose sight of how this music is received by people with different experiences. Our job is to help you stretch your ears and open your hearts to this beautifully complex and ornate system for organizing sounds we call classical music, and we need your help being reminded when we fail to support you with the contextualization and scaffolding you need.

The second component of exercising your SWAY is to Walk the Walk. When you see an institution presenting artists or programs that advance social justice, make sure you buy tickets. Invite your friends—and maybe lead them in some ear-stretching if they are new to this social context. Prove to organizations that they are right to bet on progress!

Showing up to listen passively is one part of how you become part of an arts community, but if you really want to use your SWAY, you have to Activate. Call and send emails to tell your favorite groups that you want social justice to be central to their mission. Ask them to set up charitable campaigns earmarked for their equity efforts, and donate generously. If something feels off to you in the way they are talking (or not talking) about race, raise your concerns. You will be astonished how responsive arts groups are to their patrons, even first-time ticket buyers. A group might hear from a handful of loud voices resisting change, so be part of an even louder chorus demanding it now.

The last and most critical component of SWAY is to own Your Truth. Addressing systemic racism is painful and messy, and individuals and organizations inevitably fall flat if they avoid looking at the uncomfortable reality. External change starts with internal work. There are many powerful books that can guide you; How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo are excellent points of entry.

When allies in the classical music community join together with maximal SWAY, institutions will rise to the challenge, and the art form will leap forward into an expansive future of electrifying, soul-connecting performances where all are welcome, onstage and off. I can’t wait to see you there.

Aaron Grad merges his rock and jazz roots with his classical training to create music that The Washington Post has described as “inventive and notably attractive.” He majored in jazz guitar at New York University, and for his master’s degree at the Peabody Conservatory he studied composition with Christopher Theofanidis. While a student, Aaron won awards from the ASCAP Foundation in both their classical and jazz competitions. Recent commissions include Honey-sweet we sing for you, a chamber cantata for Burning River Baroque that updates the myth of the Sirens, as well as Strange Seasons, a concerto for the Seattle Baroque Orchestra that pays tribute to Aaron’s adopted home city of Seattle. As a performer, his greatest joy is playing the electric theorbo that he designed and built himself, as heard in Old-Fashioned Love Songs, a song cycle with countertenor. Aaron is currently developing Many Messiahs, a contemporary reframing of Handel’s Messiah around themes of activism and awakening, in collaboration with a diverse group of genre-bending artists.

Aaron also channels his enthusiasm for communicating with audiences into the program notes he writes for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, 92nd Street Y, Seattle Symphony and many other clients. He serves as the host and resident musicologist for the Commissioning Club Salons presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and he has launched his own lecture series, In the Key of Connection, which explores the intersection of chamber music and social and emotional development.