Race on the Path to Choral Conducting: That Milky White Way

Shana Oshiro Oct 21, 2020

Learn more: choir management, arts equity

Dr. Brian Bartoldus conducting

It’s no mystery to us that our early childhood experiences, particularly those of encouragement and disaffirmation, strongly influence the paths we choose and the outcomes we expect. I know that when I was a kid, I was told that I “did not have an affinity for math,” and that I daydreamed too much.

But there were three things I remember particularly enjoying: drawing, reenacting my favorite scenes from Anne of Green Gables with my sister’s Barbies when she wasn’t looking, and singing — usually in church. Of these and other interests, I never considered myself to have much affinity beyond enjoyment, until my elementary school chorus teacher selected me to audition for the county wide honors chorus — and then I started to consider myself a singer. The affirmations continued and a path with valuable networks continued to unfold.

Even with this basic understanding of how early seeds are planted in our consciousness and identities, it never occurred to me how early these seeds must also be planted in some of the most prolific conductors in choral arts. As mentioned in my first interview of this series with Roberta Laws, whose path began somewhat similarly to my own, choral conducting came as a later surprise to her and possibly to those around her as well. In this interview with Dr. Brian Bartoldus, those seeds, rich with all the nutrients of parental guidance and early experiences which most children with musical training only get in voice or instruments, were planted with such affirmation and intent it’s no surprise that he’s found his way to the success described in his bio.

Our interview lasted nearly an hour and a half, as he managed to tell me quite possibly every detail about his path to and through the choral world and the twists and turns between (before I’d even managed to ask him a question, and I was still hooked the whole time). From the longstanding tradition of formally educated musicianship in his family to the big wigs in the choral world who looked at this precocious millennial and saw the smarts and the talent that were worth honing into a craft fit for the professional world, the networks and frameworks that unfolded through his path seemed all but foreign to me.

Had we gone to the same school, I can imagine having been on the other side of the room, watching him as he’d asked his high school chorus teacher for the free tickets she’d offered to the concert at the Kennedy Center where he’d first see Robert Shafer and know he was meant to conduct. (Actually, knowing me, I’d probably have been right up there in line, intent to invite myself along.) Not having moved through the same circles in my own community which happened to be predominantly Black, I can’t help but wonder whether there would be more BIPOC top tier choral conductors if there were more BIPOC students in top tier high schools like his.

Full disclosure, Brian Bartoldus is one of my best friends. And yes, even as I examine these issues of racism and White privilege that would give him such a different experience in the classical world from Roberta Laws or myself, I’d willingly fight anyone who’d minimize the substance of his giftedness or the depth of his goodness. He openly and willingly shares and thinks about these issues on a regular basis. So I’m proud to call him my friend and grateful for the perspective he’s offered on the matter of racism in the choral conducting world. I only feel sorry that there’s not enough room to share the full interview.

 

An Interview with Dr. Brian Bartoldus

image (2)DR. BRIAN BARTOLDUS

Brian Bartoldus was named artistic director and conductor of Handel Choir in April 2018. He completed his undergraduate studies in composition and organ performance at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, where his primary teachers included William Averitt, Robert Shafer, and Steven Cooksey. He earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in choral conducting from Yale University, where he studied with professors Marguerite Brooks, Simon Carrington, Jeffrey Douma, and Masaaki Suzuki.

In 2011, Brian founded Third Practice, a professional vocal ensemble specializing in the connections between contemporary compositions and the music of the past. The ensemble’s artful singing has won plaudits from the press, who have commended their “ethereal voices” (Patrick D. McCoy, Washington Life Magazine), “precise timing, careful balance and clear-cut phrasing” (Cecelia Porter, The Washington Post), “evocative heavy lifting” (Anne Midgette, The Washington Post) and “first-rate” musicality (Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times). Bartoldus has served as director of music ministry at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, since the fall of 2014. He is also music director and organist at Frederick Presbyterian Church in Frederick, Maryland.

In addition to conducting, Brian is active as a lecturer and clinician, presenting throughout the U.S. and England on subjects ranging from Gregorian chant to late 20th century masterworks. He has been commissioned by The Washington Chorus, The City Choir of Washington and Ensemble vOkabile (Hamburg, Germany), among others. Brian also performs as an organist, pianist, and chorister.

 

The following interview has been abridged.

 

SHANA

You referenced the “White” choral conducting community and the “Black” choral conducting community. Is this a reflection of what you noticed as it simply not being integrated or… why are they separate in your mind and/or in reality, do you think?

 

BRIAN

Well, of course, if it's in my mind, I'm going to think it's reality, right? But I think it’s reality. I told [my wife] about how I feel going to ACDA conventions. I am truly, honestly, a guy who likes personal connections. And honestly, I really don't do it to get a leg up. It’s because I love it. One of my favorite parts of my job is sitting down and talking about music with people.

But I told her that going to the ACDA [conventions], I feel like I fell asleep on a photocopier and woke up at a convention center. I look at these people and I'm like, Oh, my God, you're like, variants on me. That’s shorter me, and thinner me, and fatter me, and no glasses me… I just find it oppressively samey samey. There's a better term for that. Please don't quote me.

Yes, I absolutely quoted this term of “oppressive samey-sameness.” For one thing, I enjoy millennial assaults on the English language. Also, what an interesting counter narrative compared to those of us who actively create spaces to be surrounded by variations of ourselves to affirm the validity of our own existence.

 

SHANA

Well, with that in mind, ACDA being the main convention that you're describing as a place that is off-puttingly homogeneous, you said that there's a White community in the Black community: is that the main collective for what you see is the White community?

 

BRIAN

It's other things, too. The other thing that frustrated me about the American Choral Directors Association [is that it] sounds like it's a place for choral directors. But... in my mind, there are four big types of [choral conducting careers]: there’s educational/academia, there’s community, there’s church, and there’s professional. The ACDA, since the bulk of their membership are in educational circumstances, they're teaching at a school. That wasn’t helping me, and they were not talking my language. They were not sharing repertoire that was useful for me. They were not all of these things. But they were still presenting themselves, intentionally or not, as the umbrella organization [for all choral ensembles]. And I found that that was the reason I became frustrated with it.

So as much as I was saying that, “they’re all photocopies of me,” I was feeling rather... not shut out, but not catered to by ACDA. Even though they were saying, “Hey, we're everybody to all people now at the same time.” I think a lot of people felt that way. And that might even make ACDA more geared to only one race.

 

SHANA

You’ve said so many things- and let me backtrack and connect a couple of dots.

You described the beginnings of your exposure to choral conducting being connected to your mother and her job as an organist and conductor at the churches where she worked. And you did a lot of “sidekick” work for her, between filing hymns, organizing music and maybe, occasionally, practicing your beginner conducting chops. This led you on a path that connected you with a number of different musicians that guided you toward both your lifelong investments in this profession alongside that of composition and your pursuit through education and summer programs and so on.

 

BRIAN

There's also in this thread of European superiority that was given to me by my mother's side of the family, which sounds like White supremacy. There was something slightly different from that, but it still had an insidious quality.

My great grandparents, like all of the family, came over from [Europe] and they all came here. My great grandmother was the 14th child of a wealthy family. She was very well educated. She came over to the States, married a guy with a penny in his pocket and had the musical education, had the literary education, et cetera. But her kids grew up in the Great Depression. And America was the land of poverty.

In the mind of my great grandmother, Europe is the seed of culture that she was divorced from, and she wanted to pass on that education. You work with the seed of education culture. She wanted to pass it on to her daughter, but she was unable to. And her daughter, feeling that she was deprived of something because of their poverty, insisted her children, including my mother —who is her adopted child —be given musical and literary education in European tradition. Does that make sense?

 

SHANA

So how do you see that as different from White supremacy?

 

BRIAN

In some ways, I don't. Because there was a White cultural supremacy that was placed on me.

However, I think there's two important differences and I don't want to say that they make them better or worse. I'm just saying it is number one: when my great grandmother and my grandmother were going through this, it was against the reaction to the White culture around them, not against other cultures that were not White.

There was a respect that was given to Black and Hispanic music and culture because it came from another place. But White culture of America that was a popular culture was kind of “lesser than.” Like, God damn you, if you listen to bluegrass or country.

 

SHANA

...both of which are Black music in their roots. So at the end of the day…

 

BRIAN

...at the end of the day, yeah, but who was playing it? What was the face of it? What did they associate it with? If Black people were playing it, it would be fine.

 

SHANA

So you brought this in to acknowledge an undercurrent of a Eurocentric value system toward music and formal education in general that was humming along in your subconscious. I guess as you’re traversing through this long journey of musicianship, development, and career aspirations?

 

BRIAN

And it was very easily reinforced. And I'll tell you how: on one hand you have my classmates, who knew nothing about music in high school, strumming along on a guitar with their four chords, talking about stupid pop music that they sang to themselves and wasn't that interesting at me. And on the other hand, I have this grand European tradition for people who are trained, singing amazing things that connected with me, and then we can get together in this amazing communal experience that people pay bunches of money for so everyone can break down in tears and applaud raucously.

Why wouldn't I think that that was superior? It was so easy to believe.

 

SHANA

So this is part of the fuel to your passion in your drive to accomplish all of this. You mentioned that whenever teachers would pile a matter of task for analysis and literature, reviews and research, your attitude was, “Thank you. May I have another?

And even though, at least as you described, you weren't necessarily the most outstandingly talented composer or conductor in whatever circles you were moving through, you were, if nothing else... what's the word?

 

BRIAN

The smartest.

 

SHANA

That's right. You did say you were the smart one.

 

BRIAN

It was an identity. It means I have something to offer.

 

SHANA

Yes. And then you go into the phase of your career where you’re coming out of your Masters studies where the country is still kind of adapting to the great recession that we experienced, coming out of the Bush administration. Lots of resources for music. And a number of organizations had collapsed and a lot of people were out of work...

 

BRIAN

I would not say that's not what impacted me because what’s affected me more than anything is that there were a bunch of choral directors who normally would retire at any given time. Their life savings is wiped out. So they all decided to stay on for three extra years.

 

SHANA

Right, yes. And so that is contributing to [what you described earlier in the interview] the landscape where work was scarce for you and people like you.

And you were struggling, just recently married. And while you're in the struggle with the debt to deal with and a life transition, you are fortunate enough to have family and friends connections to cushion the fall until you are able to utilize the networks that you have built up up to that point that eventually led you to the job that you have to this day 10 years later.

Within that you'd also acquired a couple of other opportunities. And the short version is that you're describing the necessity and usefulness of, or the contribution of, those networking connections that you had through your mother and your education and everything, as well as the financial security that your parents had to draw on to support you until you could get on your feet.

 

BRIAN

I want to say something with that. I actually did not draw on my parents financially much at all. But I knew I could. And knowing I could, allowed me to take risks other people who did not have that cushion would not or, at least, should not have.

That even happens to this day —when I pay off student loans, I do so with less room than I would have during coronavirus, than I would allow myself if my parents couldn't sweep in and fix the family if I got on a ventilator.

 

SHANA

Right. So with all of that as your composite narrative, you also spoke of a White and a Black community for choral conducting. But essentially, it sounds like you see the main community of choral conducting as being a White one.

 

BRIAN

Yea, 100%. Because a) there are more White people than Black people in this nation, b) that's where the money is, c) [White people] were even a larger share of the population when these institutions were created, d) they were even more in charge of things in those institutions they created. So, of course, they’re the main one.

 

SHANA

So going back to considering the trajectory of your path into choral conducting, what other reasons would you give for why there aren't more people of other races who have integrated into this community from their starting points?

 

BRIAN

The reasons are legion. First of all, I think there's a lot more than are seen in the ACDA. I think there's a lot more Black and Hispanic choral directors that are not on the radar of organizations that are not in my circles, and I just don't see them. And the reason I don't see them is because many of them are not part of these sorts of organizations. Many of them are part of the churches, they’re parts of different religious denominations.

And as opposed to saying something, that’s more objective like business or math or the sciences, I'm dealing with cultural artifacts. That's my entire work. And I describe myself and the culture, in my case, being the small circle of people who are both members of my chorus, friends and family, the larger circle, I just talk about curating a culture. Many times I mean that this is not going to be a group of people where we’re sniping or are jerks to each other or [racist toward anyone]— two baseline examples of decency that I would demand in that culture.

So when I was applying for jobs the first time around, I saw a job posting for a school I had never heard of. And I called them up and l put in my application. At that point, after my five minute conversation with folks, I look it up online and realize it’s an HBCU and there's no way in hell I would feel like I could be a choral conductor at an HBCU. So do I even feel like I could be a music history or music theory [teacher]? Or another teacher at an HBCU? Yeah, that's a little more difficult, but definitely not a choral conductor.

In my mind, that is the last faculty job that should ever go to a White person. And it's because there is a culture that you’re curating. You need to be able to produce, have a repertory knowledge that engages with the longer tradition that people are part of, and that tradition for Black people is not independent, but separate and different. And I knew in my heart of hearts that I was not given the tools to be more knowledgeable about even Black classical music than, I'm sure, some of the students who will be coming into my class and that is insulting.

 

SHANA

If to you the knowledge base and familiarity with [Black music traditions and culture] is the disconnect by which you would consider yourself unqualified to conduct a chorus and it would even be “sticky” to teach other music oriented subjects... what value do you think there would be for aspiring musicians in non-HBCU schools of music and conservatories to study Black music and other world music more deeply?

 

BRIAN

If I could change one thing about the field, it might be that. But the problem with that is like the infrastructure isn't there. Most schools only have one choral conducting teacher. They don't have the money to hire on a second. And all of these people, not all but a large amount of them, if they do any music by Black people, they were taught by White people.

 

SHANA

What do you think of seeking out scholars from HBCU’s instead to teach these courses? Since they've been schooled in both, likely.

 

BRIAN

Yeah, one would hope. To me, that seems valuable... What do I actually think about it? I think that the guy, I think that the only close HBCU to Handel Choir is the [director] at Morgan... and that he is the most overbooked, over-requested musician in this state.

 

SHANA

Dr. Conway?

 

BRIAN

Yes! And like, I feel like when I walk into a room with him, I feel like he's counting down the seconds that he can allow me. And that's not his fault. Because I think that every single music institution wants a piece of him, because Baltimore is a Black city and needs to have representation in classical music. And he's the name in town who they know can produce quality and who can do the kind of classical music that they want to engage with. And everyone wants to collaborate with [the Morgan State University Choir].

And then meanwhile, they're also the goodwill ambassadors for the school, like choruses usually are in any school. You know, you toured with them — it was nuts! So I look at him and say he doesn't have the time for me. That’s honestly what I think — not in a bad way. If I were him, I would not have time for me!

 

SHANA

You said the one thing you would change in this regard would be to integrate more in-depth study of musical works and traditions outside of the European construct. It's interesting because a couple of mentions have been made from previous interviews about the influence of church — and these were from Black women — that ignited their interests in choral conducting.

 

BRIAN

I bet you that half of the conductors you talk with who had any experience in the church that many Black conductors have the same rough details.

 

SHANA

And then you mentioned the disconnects and the differences among denominations and the music traditions that are within those. But of course, embedded in that is the segregation…

 

BRIAN

Oh God, yes.

 

SHANA

... that is integral to denominational separation and congregations, even within the same denomination, a Baptist church is pretty much going to be either White or Black predominantly, with exception to some Catholic churches.

 

BRIAN

Honestly, I think they do a better job integrating.

 

SHANA

Yes, but many other denominations tend to be much more segregated. Even Unitarian Universalist ones. So, can you talk a little bit more about the role segregation plays in people in the lack of diversity and representation and choral conducting?

 

BRIAN

I don't even want to say it stains everything. It is everything. It really is. Because music is so cultural, there's a reason that we currently live in a pluralistic society where at school, you can't openly talk about religion, and yet the majority of public school choirs are singing sacred music, what, half the time? Could you imagine if in any other subject people were doing that say, maybe the visual arts? It’s insane!

Everyone acknowledges the segregation of the church. People who say “I don't see color” lament the segregation of the church. You know, they are viciously aware of it and want to stop it. And they don't know how or they don't want to believe the ways that they need to do because it's hard...

And it also impacts the music that's composed. I've often said to folks, I don't like choral music that’s, like, “popular.” And by that I mean to say, at any given time, there's a “samey-saminess” that's always going around. There's, like, one way to write music. That's the thing, and that's all well and good, and a lot of people do it, and I actually might enjoy some of the pieces that come out of that, but like there's a heck of a lot of the music that needs to be explored. So I want to focus myself on all the other stuff that no one's talking about, which is most of everything at any given moment. And it changes.

The new phrase this year that's been going around is “non-idiomatic Black composers.” And the reason I say the new phrase is because it was attached to a paper that went around. In this case, it means basically not a spiritual, not gospel, not something that is Black-forward culturally/historically... Black composers write spirituals, and that's expected of them. And that has to do with their tradition, and it’s because of the expectations.

 

SHANA

I hear a very big problem with referring to even that as “non-idiomatic” works by Black composers. I wonder if you can hear it, too?

 

BRIAN

So, when I hear that one assumes that Black ensembles, meaning ensembles that have a majority Black membership, that only Black cultural music is idiomatic to that group, and vice versa for White groups. That's the issue I partially took with it.

 

SHANA

The problem I have with the term “non-idiomatic” for works by Black composers is that while othering the styles and expressions of Black composers, it also necessarily centers and defines Western European music as the standard definition and expression, universally of music, composition and expression. And I think that’s terrible.

 

BRIAN

I get that. I'm not sure what the phrase even means. I mean, I know what it means in the context of this specific discussion.

 

SHANA

“Anything that doesn't conform to Western European traditions of music making is, therefore, an idiom.” And that’s idiotic.

 

BRIAN

Uh, that's what that word means. Yes, this is exactly the problem. I never connected the word idiom to idiomatic. Isn’t that stupid?

And can I have a little bit more of a rant? Because this is something I am really frustrated with and passionate about. So I talked about there being this kind of White choral music and Black choral music. There are certainly Black conductors who are knowledgeable of these traditions, but who work primarily in the White, overarching choral world. And... I don't want to say they're tokenized. And they all compose music on the side or they do research into Black composers. So there is a creative aspect of that where they're very much forward on, “Hey, we are the conduit for you White people to see this Black music.” [Which is] better than that being a White person, that's great. But at the same time, that's still not allowing Black conductors to just be conductors in classical music...

And it's more than just a kid saying, “I don't see people like me.” It's so much more than that. It’s also the intermediaries. The people lower down, who push talented kids forward. I'm not going to say my mom, because every parent's going to push their kids forward practically. But I'm gonna say Cheryl Branham at TJ (high school choir director, former assistant conductor of The Washington Chorus), or Bob Shafer (conductor of The City Choir of Washington) they're gonna see people who look like them who are precocious, and that's gonna push them forward. That's gonna push them to the possible attention of the people who can actually make a career.

 

SHANA

So you mean, it’s not just young people who see grown people who look like them, but grown people who see young people who look like them?

 

BRIAN

Yeah, and I would dare to say, when you get to the people can really make a break a career — they know what greatness looks like and they see the people moving up the ranks. And if they see someone who’s diverse, many of them, I would hope, hope, and pray, if they see someone they would look at them and say, “Oh, my goodness, our field needs this. That could be marketable for you and that could move us forward.”

 

SHANA

You think that's what happens?

 

BRIAN

I've heard people say it. I've heard them say it to people of color who were talented and reinforce it and say our field needs people like you. You need to move forward. But I suspect that the middle band is even more problematic than the higher band.

For example, my wife got a lot of shit from her church congregants when she proved herself to be competent in so many ways, but because she held a guitar and had darker skin, a lot of people talked down to her. Now that she wants to be a priest, she's having conversations with bishops and they're saying, Oh, my God, please, please, please, you seem exactly right and your Hispanic background is a plus. We need you that makes you marketable.

 

SHANA

Well, they say that now. Exactly. And it's about marketability, because right now it's “hip.” Everybody's made in the last couple of months these statements about how they reject racist violence and discrimination, or maybe declarations. So, yeah, now it's certainly going to be marketable, and it behooves them to have something to back up their words.

 

BRIAN

But well, I think in this case they have a Hispanic ministry that's grown. They don't have enough priests to handle it. I think that that's the immediate [need], but yes, I agree. But it's always been the case.

In terms of craftsmen, the best composer that came out of Shenandoah University of my time was African American. He was fantastic. He had a shit family situation and it held him back. But it killed us to see him not progress. And our professor gave him as many opportunities that he could, but he's only one link in the chain.

It's still painful when I think of him, because, honestly, he had it. He had it. And he's doing fine, he's making a career. But, like, he could have been a freaking role model for someone and made a good amount of money doing it. And that hurts me because of the particulars.

 

Wrap-Up

Third Practice

It’s almost something of a paradox that because apparently Black conductors tend to adopt the tradition of also being composers and maybe sometimes performers, this plurality of focus/expertise contributes to their marginalization from the mainstream community of predominantly White conductors that might allow not only more young people to see them, but allow them to see more young people and encourage them to explore the possibilities in this avenue of musicianship. And then at the end of the day, even if the best people see you but the roots of one’s life situation are an additional barrier, the opportunities to see and be seen for BIPOC musicians seem rather scarce in comparison to those for their White counterparts.

One of the misconceptions of discussions concerning systemic racism and White privilege is the belief that those who acknowledge these as fundamental elements of American reality (and really, reality in many parts of the world) believe that White people don’t work hard for their success. This “milky white way” begins with homeownership and equity in neighborhoods in which Blacks were systematically prohibited to live, the well-funded schools with well-resourced programs, the positive and high expectations held for White kids (especially boys) like Brian, and within and around all of it the networks of other White professionals who push them along when they’ve demonstrated to whatever degree necessary that they’re worth the trouble.

Privilege is not pejorative. It simply refers to the factors of one’s identity that render opportunities and influence more accessible to them than those who do not possess this identity — being able to “reach the lock.”

While I may admittedly have what some might call a chip on my shoulder for leaders and institutions who make their statements and tokenize BIPOC for “marketability,” I do have sincere respect for those who truly invest in promoting racial equity in their circles. Third Practice, the ensemble which Brian co-founded, has initiated a BIPOC Commission Fund to support the commission and performance by Third Practice of new works by Black composers and others of color. I conclude this article by inviting readers to contribute to this fund and share it with your own networks. Because whatever the color or pavement of our respective paths, I do believe we all have a piece of the key.

 

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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 currently pursuing her Masters in Music Therapy at 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