Race on the Path of Choral Conducting: The Wings of a Black Woman

Shana Oshiro Sep 17, 2020

Learn more: racial equity

Screenshot 2020-09-14 at 2.56.25 PM

The uproar of unrest that erupted in the wake of George Floyd in the midst of the pandemic’s peak has all but disappeared in more recent months. In the aftermath of millions of hashtags and organizational statements ranging from gingerly to explicitly condemning racist discrimination and violence, the slew of declarations and outspokenness against such practices has ebbed — leaving leaders of such organizations with whole-hearted convictions at something of a loss as to how to make good on their stated dedication to justice and equity.

In all fairness, to be sure, moving toward racial justice would not have been an easy feat even in what felt like more certain times, much less amidst the volatile landscape of a pandemic approaching a presidential election. The question as to how to broach the subject of racism in the choral world can present as an abstract and unsolvable problem — where the residues of explicit systemic racism may appear ineffable by way of any individual’s effort, regardless of the purity of their intentions.

With a working understanding of the history of this particular system and the structures which persist to the present day along with a connection to the lived experiences of racial oppression, however, the task of dismantling racism as it presents in any community space can certainly appear clearer, albeit certainly by no means easy. Understanding the structure of racism as "the totality of social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege," the task of its dissolution begins with "uncovering the particular social, economic, political, social control, and ideological mechanisms responsible for the reproduction of racial privilege in a society" (Bonilla-Silva, 2017). For the choral community, therefore, it behooves us to examine the access to and trajectory of careers in choral leadership and the differences in how these paths develop between/among different racial identities.

In a nutshell, from personal experience, I imagine that I can at least sketch how these trajectories with their disparities present and probably predict gaps in the narrative from the perspectives of white (male) conductors compared to their BIPOC counterparts— especially African Americans. Between lack of representation in choral leadership in the mainstream of the choral conducting world, the explicitly racist practices which led to the development of musical leadership and expression in their own communities (e.g. choirs of historically black colleges and universities), and the typically exclusive emphasis on European music as the gold standard for legitimate choral and orchestral works — the BIPOC choral conductors who did emerge in their own standard of excellent leadership, musicianship, and creativity would rarely filter beyond the margins and therefore would be presumed nonexistent by those at the center of choral communities throughout the United States and, consequently, abroad. Therefore, it would often be rationalized that the lack of representation was due to lack of interest if not sheer capability and dismissed as a nonexistent problem. "If they’re not interested in or otherwise suited for this career, why should we recruit them?"

While the emerging emphasis and popularization of "diversity and inclusion" might (legitimately) argue that diversity of representation would allow for the opportunity to integrate "fresh" music perspectives that could both lead toward novel musical developments and (perhaps most importantly) attract a broader audience, the first issue to address with this fractured logic is the false assumption that there is a lack of interest and/or ability among marginalized racial/ethnic groups. And the question becomes: if there is a collective of people who would thrive in this career — what controls are in place that prevent them from doing so?

Rather than sketching or speculating, my approach to exploring this question is to inquire of those in the field of choral conducting. To learn the origins of their interests and the pathway to their success, as well as who walked that path alongside them and how they were perceived by one another. While these interviews are by no means exhaustive with respect to the quantity of narratives, the reflections offered by these four conductors — Roberta Laws, Julien Benichou, Brian Bartoldus, and Jessie Caynon — provide interesting insight as they diverge from and intersect with one another, as well as with both my own speculation and experience. The first of these articles features Roberta Laws, internationally acclaimed soprano and conductor of the North Carolina Central University Choir.


An Interview with Roberta Laws



Soprano Roberta A. Laws hails from Brooklyn, New York and earned both her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Vocal Performance from the Boston Conservatory of Music. She has graced audiences worldwide on both the opera and concert stages of San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Dallas Opera, Portland Opera, Opera Carolina, Opera Grand Rapids, The Kennedy Center and the Den Norske Opera House in Oslo where she portrayed the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess for the King and Queen of Norway as well as George Gershwin's "Bess", Dame Anne Brown. Ms. Laws joined the voice faculty of North Carolina Central University in 2014 where she currently serves as Voice Instructor and Director of the University Choir.


The following interview has been abridged.



Roberta, could you tell me about your career in conducting and what brought you to this point?



I know it sounds odd to say it was happenstance, but it really was.

I discovered that I loved conducting while taking a conducting course in college. I love rhythms and found it to be really interesting and challenging. I enjoyed it but I didn't think any more of it at the time because my focus was voice.

After coming home from college, I went back to singing in the church choir. We had an extensive music department at my home church, and my father, who was the pastor, asked me if I would consider taking on the Senior Choir that primarily sang classical music in the form of anthems. There had been a shift in musicians and he felt that the Senior Choir was not getting the musical attention they needed. You know, when you're young, you sort of operate with no fear. So... I thought, "Oh, yeah, I know this material. I've been singing it all my life in church". I was just starting my opera career and sometimes studied and sang in the chorus ensembles. So, I said, "Sure, I'll help you." And that's how it started.

When I began to dissect choral works and teach them and conduct them, I thought, "Wow, this feels good!" When you bring those sounds, harmonies and textures together and you're looking at the music from a different perspective as a choral conductor. It just fascinated me. It brought me joy. I felt "at home."

I was influenced by renowned conductors such as Maestro Robert Shaw. He had a lottery for a master class he was giving at Carnegie Hall. I decided, what the heck, I'll sign up for it. I was chosen to participate in that symposium and what an awesome experience. Watching Maestro Shaw move through the different layers of warming up the choir in a very simple manner, then teaching the parts, paying attention to text, adding the dynamics. He took a room full of perfect strangers from bare bones to musical perfection.

Then, I had wonderful people come into my life without me understanding or realizing who they really were. There was Dr. Nathan Carter, who was a renowned composer and conductor at Morgan State University. His brother, Rev. Dr. Harold Carter was a friend of my father. And then there is my dear friend Dr. Roland Carter, whom I met when I was thirteen. He was the choral conductor at Hampton University (formerly known as Hampton Institute). My sister was in the choir and introduced us. And there was John Motley, who was the director and conductor of New York City All City Concert Choir. I had had all these seeds being planted in my life all along the way, so that's how my exposure to choral conducting started.

When I was not performing on the opera or concert stage, I would conduct various church and  community choirs when invited. When I joined the music faculty at North Carolina Central University, I really was coming to be a voice professor. Before leaving my home in New York, I had so much responsibility for so many things on so many levels in my life that when I was offered the position at NCCU, I was looking forward to having the singular responsibility of voice professor. That was my first year in 2014. In 2015 that all changed. The University Choir found themselves in need of a director and the department chair at that time walked into my studio and said,"Professor Laws, we need you to take the University Choir... because we just lost our conductor. Will you do this until we find someone?" I consented thinking I would be the interim conductor for the year. Well, the students fell in love with me, and I fell in love with them. And spirit just started to speak to me about all of the possibilities and opportunities for the choir. I was honestly concerned about not having a degree in choral conducting but my department chair said, "You have what they need." So, I prayed and took a deep breath! I knew I could help them grow and go places that they didn't think that they could go. I saw more for them. I saw them being a social voice, being a civic voice. 

In 2018, at the Barbershop Harmony Society annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, I met the HALO quartet, and I thought, "Wow, my students need to know about this! They need to know about barbershop and its roots that are to the African American heritage; the relationship to social justice and racism." So all of these different ideas and visions are being given to me which made me realize that I'm being purposed to do something bigger than just make music but to manifest the purpose through music.


Side note: Roberta and I met through an event hosted by the Carolinas District of the Barbershop Harmony Society in an event called the "Barbershop Revival," celebrating the African American roots of barbershop music. HALO is the first quartet of African American singers to compete on the international stage in a barbershop organization. With three of us being classical singers from an HBCU, it was love at first sight.



Beautiful. So your students and all the things that you see for them — what have you seen emerge and what appears like they're seeing for themselves? And how would you compare that to what you saw for yourself at a similar point in your education?



I am still encouraging them to see what I see for them. I never put any limits on where I could go or what I could do or what I could achieve. Unfortunately, when I began teaching, I didn’t see that "limitless possibilities" mindset in all of my students here. I didn’t always see the work ethic needed to achieve the things that I know that they can achieve. But now, I see a better work ethic, more responsibility and more accountability.

My students have a better sense of self-worth. If I give them a technical exercise or assign music that is a challenge and they start to say, "Miss Laws, I can’t or we can't or…" I am quick to say we don't use that word in here. We don't use the word "can't" in this room.

What I ask of them has little to do with what is going on inside of these four walls named NCCU but more about life once you leave these four walls. They don't even begin to realize how much they're poured into, nurtured and loved, and protected; maybe sometimes too much. So I want them to be prepared for the world when they step outside. I say to them that in a professional world, when you arrive on time, you're already late. So, you arrive early so that you can be ready to start on time. They better understand that, especially as a musician.

They also have a higher level of confidence around choirs and musicians that don't look like them. The North Carolina Central University Choir is open to all disciplines on campus. Some of my choir students don't read music. Some of them continue to learn more by rote, and they're in the choir for the love of singing and the sense of family that it provides. But, some of them can now read and follow a choral work, and have a better sense of being a chorister.

We recently did a wonderful collaboration with the Choral Society of Durham Chamber choir. This is a predominantly white community choir of an older generation than my students. They are directed by a very fine conductor, and they sing beautifully. Our young black and brown students walked into the first rehearsal feeling somewhat intimidated but emerged with a sense of pride about who they are and what they were there to do.

During the portions of the concert where it was just the university choir singing, the music that was presented was of a diverse nature. I try to expose my choir to all genres and complexities. The reaction from both the audience and the Chamber Choir was nothing short of awe-inspiring. They responded with a standing ovation. Some of my students remarked, "Wow, we're able to stand toe to toe. We're good enough." Sometimes in life you just have to be reminded that you are enough.

Some of my students are now ready to run rehearsals which has become invaluable to me during this pandemic. Some have expressed an interest in becoming a choral conductor. Through this experience they now begin to see and understand a little about the demands of a choral director. They better understand through trial and error what works and what doesn’t; how to look at music through the eyes of an instructor; how to relate to a student who doesn’t read. I’m just taking the ceiling off for someone who was told they "couldn’t" and now they know… "they can." And that's the big thing that I want for them right now, I want them to feel limitless.

Our mascot is an eagle and that's so important in my life because it brings to mind one of my favorite scriptures: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles. We are constantly reminded on campus that eagles soar high above any other bird. And yet, in the midst of the struggles of their young lives, I found that although my students heard it and even repeated it, they didn’t really embody it; they weren't really soaring. So I hope that I've helped them soar a little bit higher.




You mentioned that when you were young that you didn't have the same kind of attitude where you put limits on yourself. And this is different from what you see in your students as you talk about the challenge of work ethic and needing to have a new story about themselves, from the feeling that others put on who they get to be. Why do you think that difference is there between who you were and who they are?



I think there are many reasons why this generation of young people feel limited but as for me, I thank my parents and the many things they exposed me to. I was able to travel when I was young. Some of the students I teach have never been out of Durham, much less out of North Carolina. That was a blessing.

My parents never put any limitations on me. If I came home and said, "Mom and Dad, I would like to do such and such," as long as it was healthy and educational then I could spread my wings with their blessing. I knew my whole life that I never really wanted to do anything but sing but I studied at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater for fifteen years, because I loved moving my body and my parents never said I couldn’t. Years later, that contributed greatly to comfort on the opera stage. My friends call me a stage beast.

I was asthmatic as a child. When I grew out of that, when I could walk a block without feeling heaviness on my chest, that made me want to run. So when I wanted to run track, they said, "Okay." They didn't put any limits on me. They let me spread my wings.

I was accepted and attended the Boston Conservatory of Music because my high school guidance counselor told me I couldn't. She told me I would only be accepted at an HBCU because my father could use his connections. What???? I was a student with a 3.6 GPA played piano and I could sing... LOL! In my mind I could go anywhere I wanted.

I didn't know what she meant. I didn't even understand the implications; the racism or the bigotry, hatred, and condescension in that statement, I just knew she told me I couldn't. So I did.

I treasure my time and memories at Boston Conservatory, it was amazing. I still keep in touch with some of those college friends. It changed my life and set me on a path to enjoy a 35-year career in opera and classical music. There was a point in my life when I better understood in hindsight that I had missed something wonderful by not attending an HBCU but I am having that experience now.



So where did the opportunity to travel come from?



My father was a prominent minister. He was often invited to speak and preach around the country, and he not only took his family, but he took his church. When he became pastor of my home church in Brooklyn, he felt that it was important for us to go places on the anniversary of our church and not just stay in the building but to go out and socialize and have new experiences. And so we did church cruises to the Caribbean and London on the Queen Elizabeth 2. On one landmark anniversary, we flew to the Holy Land and Paris. And when my father was invited to speak, during the summer, we would go and we would meet other PK's (preacher’s kids) and get out and about to museums, concerts, shows, movies and restaurants. He loved fine dining!

My mother was an educator. We would go with her to education and ministry related conferences. She’d pack up her kids and take us with her. My first time flying, I was not yet four years old, on a plane to St. Louis with my mom. She was going to a conference. I was exposed to people, and other people's children from around the country. I was exposed to different types of music and had many new experiences. So, yes, my parents were outgoing, upwardly mobile people. And so I'm sure that's where I got it from.



You mentioned that you attended Boston Conservatory. I feel like I know the answer to this, but what was the race, nationality, and even gender of most of the people you work with and encountered, especially in conducting?



Boston Conservatory ended up being an interesting place to go because, while it was predominantly white, there was a pocket of African American students that I met when I got there. Actually, when I went to audition, it was because my then boyfriend had a friend who attended Northeastern University. During his freshman year he introduced himself at a jazz concert to students from Boston Conservatory and Berklee who were African American. A lot of them had come from the High School of Music & Art in New York. When I arrived there for my audition, I was welcomed by a small nucleus of African American students who insisted if accepted, I say 'yes,' and come to Boston Conservatory. Not knowing what the population would be, once I was on campus I found a larger than expected nucleus of black and brown students throughout the Berklee School of Music and the Boston Conservatory of Music. Because Boston Conservatory was a college of music, drama, and dance I found there was this large family that I didn’t expect to find and I am still friends with many to this day. By percentage we were small in numbers, but we were large in presence.

Oddly enough, because of the kinship we had, many of the white students wanted to be part of our family, and they were hanging out with us. You know, we would have jam sessions in the basement practice rooms. That was a part of our background, that's how we grew up. That wasn't something that they necessarily experienced in their growing up and they wanted to know and be a part of this thing that brought us so much joy. Funny how music can do that!



Would you say that there is an equal representation in the professional world of choral work and conducting, relative to your experience and that educational tenure at Boston Conservatory?



The representation is not equal. It was not equal at Boston Conservatory, it was just powerful. While there is certainly more representation than there used to be, one has to experience organizations like the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), the Intercollegiate Music Association Conference (IMA), Gateways Music Festival, and the Colour of Music Festival to understand the breadth of our presence as choral and orchestral conductors. We honor Moses Hogan, Roland Carter, Nathan Carter, and Stacey Gibbs, Uzee Brown, David Morrow, just to name a few. We stand on their shoulders — but there are so many more.

There are so many that the aforementioned champion for every day. There are so many, but they haven't been afforded the opportunity and they haven't been given the visibility. So, no, playing field is not level and even less so for African American female conductors. And that's just the way it is. It has been a white, male-dominated society. So, even though we're talking about choirs, when you go to the Met, you're not going to see an African American woman in the orchestra pit. But, we continue to move forward until it becomes more level. I don't know if it will ever be equal.



What have you seen and what do you think happened between that passage into career from the educational setting that the numbers of the BIPOC conductors fall?



You know, I can't honestly answer that, Shana, because I didn't come out of the conservatory with a conducting degree. I came out of the conservatory with a vocal performance degree. So my transition from being a student into a career was as a classical singer. It was not as a conductor. Many choral conductors start out as vocal performance majors and not choral conducting or composition majors. I can't honestly speak to that transition.



As a singer, would you say that the numbers are any different in terms of representation from education into career? Or do you think they have a similar falloff?



They have a similar falloff.



And what have you seen in that setting as being the reasons?



People of color are disproportionately absent from the conversation. We are not represented in the way we should be in decision-making positions, in artistic advisory positions, sitting on boards, etc.

I don't believe that any opportunity that was for me didn't happen. But I know that there were situations where something could have been for me, but someone felt threatened because of the color of my skin and said, "No, we're not going to allow her that opportunity". I have experienced that, personally.

Sometimes it is about the comfortability of the person sitting on the other side of the table listening to your audition and that is why more of our presence is so critically important.



Can you give an example of a bit more subtle or implicit discrimination that you noticed and an example of something that was more explicit in terms of discrimination?



Okay, let me start with the explicit. I was once offered an opportunity for a very prominent house, which I will not name. And my manager, at that time, who was a very good friend of mine as well as my manager, couldn't understand why the opportunity that I was promised in the audition (to then sing for the artistic director of that house) kept being pushed back, pushed back, and postponed.

He had a friend on the inside, because all managers do, which he called hoping to get some insight on the situation because he was not understanding. He was told by that person in a private conversation, that the person who auditioned me was systematically blocking me from singing for that artistic director because there had been an influx of African American singers into that company, and they were doing very, very well. He felt like they were taking over the roster of that company. His concern was that I would be a person of interest to that artistic director who was also a conductor and went on to say to my manager point blank, "I will not recommend her because we do not want any more Black singers in this company."



When did this happen?



In the 1980s. My manager sat across the dinner table from me with tears streaming down his face because he had to give me that news. I was more than his client, I was his friend. I had sung at his mother’s funeral. He, soon after that, left the business because he just couldn't handle the racism and the corruption.

In choral conducting, my best friend from college received her B.M.,Ed. from The Boston Conservatory of Music and her M.M.,Ed from Prairie View University. When she was hired for her first teaching job, after receiving her master’s degree, she taught K-12. Her principal at that time wrote a letter to her Superintendent and asked for intervention in her curriculum because she did not think it "appropriate" for the choral instructor to expose the students to spirituals or gospel music although she had also covered music in the classical, jazz, and musical theatre genres. She left the public school system and opened her own music school.

Implicit — I don't know. I find people being covert every day. I'm not paranoid about it, I don’t have time for that. I have a purpose to fulfill but I am aware. I treat people with openness and acceptance and love. Sometimes it’s returned, sometimes not. I once had an encounter with a white conductor facilitating a master class for my choir. The level of disrespect from the conductor towards my students, my accompanist, and myself was unnerving. The assumption that we were "less than" made itself known in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. This was a necessary but painful lesson for my students and they received it with a great deal of resentment, fortunately they turned that energy into a stellar performance. The performance was full to capacity with a predominantly white audience.



And finally— what would you like to see if you ruled the world? What would be a solution or two to level the playing field to have the same beautiful, gifted people that you see at school come out on the other side into the career space?



I would like to see a few things. I would like first to see the input in decision-making positions. Again we need to be on boards. We need to be in the conversation.

I would also like us to start thinking about creating our own opportunities. There's no reason why we can't have an opera company that is started by a person of color that employs conductors of color. There’s the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. And when you walk in there, every performer in the orchestra pit and every singer on stage is a person of color. There’s Gateways Music Festival where the performers are instrumentalists of color. You know, if you won't allow me into your house, then I'll build a house of my own.

So that's one thing. The other thing that I would love to see is — I know this may sound odd — but I once went into an audition for a very prominent company and got the job because I sang behind a scrim, so they couldn't see my face. When we submitted our resumes, we were not allowed to submit photos. It was amazing to see the number of African Americans that were employed by that particular company to do that particular piece. The playing field was very much leveled. Hear my gift!



More of that, I guess until people can get their prejudices together, huh?



Right. Stop feeling so incredibly intimidated by who we are. If we come into a situation and we rise and we shine, celebrate that. From one African American woman to another, when you come into the room with all of your beauty and you rise and shine, that doesn't take my light away. It should be that way no matter the color of your skin.

Until we as a human race embrace and understand that, only then can I rise and shine.  My light is the light that God gave me. And nobody can take that away. But that doesn't dim your light. So why are you so intimidated by my light? Why? Why must you put my light out? So, we need to get to that place — and I don't honestly have the answer as to how we get there — but that’s what I wish for my students.



Hearing Roberta share these stories with me was a little like hearing my jam on the radio with my boss in the car — very difficult to sit and listen rather than sing along. From the church connections, to the disconnects in standards of formalized music education for phenomenally talented HBCU students, to the subtle and occasionally explicit expressions of prejudice in the professional world, these stories echoed much of my own experience and those I’ve heard from many other professionals of color. Especially Black musicians.

From the perspective of someone experiencing prejudice, the key to change is blinding the eyes of bigotry that those in the positions of power would only see our abilities and not the texture of our hair or the color of our skin.

It’s tempting to stop at the story and perspective closest to my own — but racism is a construct in which we’re all encaged, even if there are some of us who can liberate us all if they so desired. So as one who would like to see the playing field leveled as much as Ms. Laws and other marginalized musicians — I intend to inquire of those who, at least from my point of view, could reach the key if not the lock.


The Chorus Management Network

Shana Oshiro

Shana Oshiro, is an alumna of Morgan State University with a BFA in Vocal Performance and a former Miss Maryland. She has appeared with Opera Philadelphia in productions of Porgy and Bess and Margaret Garner and made several appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as a featured ensemble member, as well as multiple local orchestras and chorales in the DC Metropolitan area. Shana is also a board-certified music therapist with a Masters in Music Therapy from Shenandoah Conservatory. She has continued her performance career combining her interest in community music therapy to address racism in the United States with her barbershop quartet, HALO, and their collective community music therapy initiative with their program Race and #RealTalk — a program in which people are guided through the listening and singing experience of Barbershop music to help engage with one another in difficult conversations about our country’s complex issues with race relations.

Shana Oshiro