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The Future Is Female For Young Classical Musicians Of Color In LA

The Fortissima fellows pose for a picture during one of their monthly sessions. (Photo by Jazmín Morales/Colburn)
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The Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles has a fellowship program for aspiring young female musicians of color. It's something Jazmín Morales, the school's Coordinator of Community Engagement and Career Development, wishes she had growing up.

"It's kind of jarring ... where you're watching the musicians you respect most in the world, and not one of them looks like you," she said. "It makes it feel as though that's not really a space that you can enter as a woman of color, and so that of course was the biggest challenge, just the difficulty of being able to visualize myself in that space."

A 2016 study by the American League of Orchestras found musicians of color make up less than 15 percent of orchestras. There are currently 13 women of color in the LA Phil, according to a spokesperson.

Morales, a classically trained violinist, participated in both youth orchestra and mariachi growing up.

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"I eventually became the concertmaster of the regional youth orchestra where I lived, but I was always lacking the sense of empowerment and community that I felt when I would make music with my mariachi peers, she explained. "And frankly I struggled to earn the respect of my orchestral peers as their concertmaster and always sort of found myself longing for something more there."

In music, if you're supposed to play or sing something loudly, you write a little f. It stands for forte, which means strong. But if you want the musicians to kick it up a notch, and be really loud and really strong, you write two f's -- fortissimo. Morales wants her first class of fellows to be really strong -- that's why she calls them the Fortissima fellows.

I spoke with Morales and some of the young women about music, friendship, identity, and the future of classical music. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do you think you all got along so well from the very beginning, even though you go to different schools and play different instruments?

Jackelinne Rodriguez, cello, Alliance Collins Family College Ready High School:

Just having similar backgrounds and knowing that we all have a passion and love for music, so having that foundation is already a plus, because sometimes you don't meet musicians, especially musicians of color, so knowing that we have those similarities, I think that's exactly what made us have a really strong bond at the first moment we saw each other.

What are some activities that you have done that you feel like have helped you?

Zephania Hartojo, viola, Temple City High:

Last month, we did a mindfulness session. We did yoga and combatting performance anxiety and stuff, which I do struggle with. And I noticed that after that session, I was able to not be as nervous in performances.

What do you think is the solution to having more women of color in classical music?

Karah Innis, violin, Hamilton High:

We should all use what we have learned here, and teach other girls of color, teach other girls who feel insecure in the big orchestra setting. Use our knowledge and our all of that we learned, like the etiquette class we took today, how to create your alter ego and how to exude that personality on stage, and how to conduct yourself in an audition, and how to use your mindfulness jar, and use that to teach somebody. Spread it around so that way people like us won't feel the way we do now.

Jackelinne Rodriguez:
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Like us, there are a lot of other girls who probably play an instrument and don't have the confidence to pursue it, either because they don't have the support, or they just feel like, "Oh there aren't people that look like me up on the stage so why should I even pursue it?" So programs like these ... not only do they make you want to be a better musician, but they also make you want to be proud of who you are.

Anything else?

Monserat Rodriguez, clarinet, Alliance Gertz-Ressler:

The LGBTQ community and people of color are underrated, and I want to do something with that.

Karah Innis:
All of us here we're different races, we're different ethnicities, religions, different sexualities ... But we still manage by some act of god [laughs] to come together and use those differences and embrace those differences ... This is an open space. This is a place where you can feel comfortable ... That's the way it should be all the time, especially for people like us.

Jackelinne Rodriguez:
A way to celebrate our differences, because that's what makes us who we are.

Karah Innis:
No one's exactly the same.

Jackelinne Rodriguez:
That would be boring.

Zephania Hartojo:
I have anxiety and I'm really insecure, but when I'm in this group, it's like I can just be myself and these people are just like family and friends, and it's just a really great feeling to know that someone's there for you. Representation and role models really matter. Seeing someone who is like you doing something that you never thought you could do, is a really big inspiration.

Like Jazmín, she's an amazing person ... It's been really inspirational to see what she's done and how much she's achieved and all the people that she's connected us with to specifically make sure that they're all good people, and [that] we have mentors through this group who are also professional classical musicians, and are women of color. All that representation and that role-modeling is really inspirational for us.

Jazmin, hearing all of this from them, what's your response? How does this make you feel?

Jazmín Morales, Coordinator of Community Engagement and Career Development at Colburn:

It's been the most rewarding experience of my life to be able to meet you all ... In the same way that you all have talked about how music influenced your life and it's made you want to give back to your community, to see my desire to give back to my community realized in this way just fills me with utter joy, and just the satisfaction that my hard work means something and that it is truly making a difference in your lives. It means the world to me.

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