Thoughts on Classical Music’s Status-Quo, Racism, and Activism

I’ve been reflecting on racism and classical music over the last two months. Here are some thoughts I’ve written during this time, for me and whoever wants to listen, especially those who hold positions of power in classical music:

• All-white programming and all-white festival rosters are wrong. They feed a structurally racist system. These systems have become classical music’s status-quo, and status-quo actions inevitably hold back and harm minority communities.

• The delusion that nothing is wrong with classical music’s status-quo also feeds a structurally racist system, and inevitably holds back and harms minority communities.

• The delusion that white supremacy only exists via klan hoods and burning crosses, and not in our music spaces via status-quo thinking and actions, also feeds a structurally racist system that inevitably holds back and harms minority communities.

• If you cannot bring yourself to say or talk about white supremacy, systemic racism and their function in our music scene, I suggest taking time to educate yourself, and to get comfortable with those words and how they exist in our spaces.

• As a person of color, I recognize that the systems of racism within classical music have been normalized, even for me. It’s easy for people of color to be conditioned to see all-white programming or festival rosters and not think twice about it, because that normalization is inherent within the system, and in part why it is so harmful.

• I am a person of color, but that does not make me an expert on the topic of racism. My perspective is just that. I continue to learn and grow. And if I can learn and grow, white friends and colleagues can certainly do the same.

• Representation matters. “Mexican-American” is in my bio because I want the Latinx community to know that I’m here. I want to show young Latinx musicians that this thing is possible. Some people reading this may not realize it, but minority musicians carry the weight of our communities on our shoulders. If you are in a position of power, you can help lift up our communities by hiring more minority musicians.

• “There just aren’t many musicians of color to choose from” and “we really like to program people we’ve worked with before” are things that should not be said in 2021. That is antiquated thinking and continues to produce status-quo results.

• “There’s a standard of excellence we aren’t willing to compromise” is not acceptable. There are many minority musicians that are more than capable of meeting and exceeding the standards you have set. There are many of us out there. We are capable.

• Every institution has, at some time or another, worked with and hired people of color. Please don’t use these instances as tokens to be redeemed when your institution screws up.

• If you are looking to make meaningful, lasting change, you must first recognize the structures and biases you have forever operated in. That is a sentence that has been written thousands of times inside of thousands of books and online postings. But here it is again for whoever needs it.

Some Thoughts on Activism

Lastly, and this is the part I’m still unpacking, and perhaps something other people are feeling too: Nearly every institution in our field has inevitably been centered in whiteness, from the institutions we teach at to the orchestras we play in, to the publishing companies we support to the concert presenters who make the whole thing go. It’s inevitably baked into every corner of classical music. To use an analogy from Sonya Renee Taylor, “you can’t take the ingredient out the cake.”

And this is where I feel frozen. How do we navigate an entire ecosystem that was structured this way? Should we continue to speak out, raise hell and call on problematic institutions to change until they are good enough? Or should they be dismantled and built anew? Maybe the better question is: How do we eliminate systemic racism and white supremacy from classical music’s identity? This is a loaded question but one that’s been swimming in my head recently.

The last thing I’ve been thinking about is personal: What kind of activist do I want to be? Do I want to lead with agitation, anger, dogma, openness or grace? Maybe all of these methods can co-exist to help the cause? Also, should I expect everyone to speak in the same vernacular on the issues, to know the right way to respond to every situation involving social justice? Should I shame those whose journey has not yet arrived at a place of allyship? Is building a mass movement that is inclusionary of, and dare I say it, different ideological viewpoints and perspectives, the way we ultimately arrive at a more equitable, less racist space? To quote Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement: “More than a moral question, is a practical one. Can we build a movement of millions with the people who may not grasp our black, queer, feminist, intersectional, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideology but know that we deserve a better life and who are willing to fight for it and win?”

Honestly, I had trepidation expressing this vulnerability here, for fear of being called out for being problematic, for moving the conversation away from the issues at hand and towards my own feelings. These are very similar to the feelings I had in my younger, religious years, when I decided to speak out of step with my church and ask questions about the how and the why. I was ultimately dealt shame, guilt and emptiness for doing so. This is not a healthy way to experience church, or activism for that matter, and I have more reflecting to do here.

Back to the Issue

My existential feelings aside, let me get back on track here. To those in power, from deans to professors to publishers to instrument companies: Systemic racism and white supremacy exist in our music spaces to the detriment of minority musicians. Making progress involves acknowledging their prevalence, and I don’t see enough people in power taking this step. I don’t see them acknowledging that an all-white festival roster is harmful, or acknowledging how the tenure system at universities has historically kept people of color out of positions of power, thus perpetuating the status-quo. These are just two realities of many that minority musicians have lived with everyday.

I don’t hold a position of power, but I do have a platform. I wrote these words to call on those in power, who I know will read this, to start acknowledging and talking about white supremacy and systemic racism at their institutions, and to do so out loud, as uncomfortable as it might be.

I can’t write this note without putting focus on the hate crime and domestic terrorist attack that happened in Atlanta, which killed Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Grant, Suncha Kim and Yong Ae Yue. This was a hate crime targeting Asian women, and one deep-rooted in racism, xenophobia and misogyny. AAPI musicians in our community need to be supported and heard, and I offer my solidarity and love to you.

Specifically to my fellow percussionists: The influence and contributions from Asian artists to our space is so significant and vast. The percussion community is indebted to these artists, and also owes AAPI musicians a safe space to create art, one without bigotry, or stereotypes, or status-quo behavior.

There are those who want us to believe racism and white supremacy had nothing to do with the Atlanta attacks. This is the same delusional thinking that minority communities and musicians in our space deal with everyday. Let me say this again: This is status-quo, delusional thinking that inevitably holds back and harms minority communities.

To donate to the families affected by the Atlanta shooting, and to donate to fundraisers assisting those affected by Anti-Asian hate, please visit:

Hop the fence.

Dear Musicians,

Perform for poor people. Perform for people in rural communities. Perform for people who don’t look, think, or act like you.

Places like Brooklyn, LA, and Austin will offer you inspiration. You will be surrounded by art and you will love it. You will surround yourself with other like-minded musicians who will support you at your concerts, and you’ll support them at theirs. People will talk like you, dress like you, and think like you. They will even vote like you. You will be happy.

I’m writing this to ask you to consider the effect your music can have on people who are not like you, people who don’t have the opportunity to experience art and music on a regular, or even semi-regular basis.

I ask that you consider what your purpose is as a musician, and if any part of that is to cultivate change, then consider where that change is needed. In New York City, a newspaper critic might write something nice about you, or you’ll impress someone at Le Poussin Rouge, or maybe you’ll find monetary gains gigging in and around the city. But in Victoria, Texas, for example, you won’t find any of those things. Instead, you’ll find a kid like me.

I grew up in a trailer park. The one pictured above. I was poor and loved music. I just didn’t know a lot about it, academically speaking. Lucky for me, a guy named Phillip moved into my town. He was an Eastman School of Music graduate, who, instead of moving to a big city to chase his dreams, moved to Victoria and helped me find mine. He took a job as a music teacher at my high school and taught me how to be a percussionist, how to work hard, and how to practice smart. I had no idea what classical music was, much less what a music conservatory was, until I met Phillip. In three years, eight of his students went on to study music collegiately, four at Eastman and four at University of Texas, all majoring in percussion. I was one of those eight kids. Phillip was my out, and if not for him, who knows where I would be right now. Thank you, a million times, Phil.

I share this story to get you to critically think about the possibilities your music can offer and the effects it can have on others. Maybe Phillip’s journey is not the journey you want to take. That’s totally ok. I’m not asking you to move from your arts city and take a job in rural town, USA, but I am asking you to consider how you can impact people in places like Victoria. Or Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, for example.

My friend George Clements has been hosting a percussion festival in Lewisberry for 10 years now, and it is flourishing. It’s called the West Shore Day of Percussion. I was there this past weekend. It was an absolutely beautiful event with over 50 public school percussionists participating in masterclasses, clinics and performances of some pretty elaborate music. This rural town and surrounding community has embraced our weird art music / percussion fest over the years. I met a father who spoke to me with such sincerity. “My son has been attending this festival since he was a little boy. He looks forward to it every single year. It’s truly a highlight for him.”

It’s a highlight for me too, and I know Aaron Staebell, Mark Boseman, Drew Worden and Erik Forst, all on faculty this year, feel the same way too.

I just read an article about how listening to music from other cultures helps people value diversity. This article reminded me of an earlier year at the same festival, where an elementary school student made an under-his-breath comment about me hopping over a fence to get here. He wasn’t talking about the metaphorical fence between my echo chamber and his. He was talking about an actual fence, to get to the U.S. from Mexico. Because I’m brown. There aren’t many people with my complexion in his area, and who knows what his home life is like.

Fast forward a few years to this past weekend. I coached the same kid in a music group. He was respectful and attentive, fully engaged in the music we were making. He was happy, and so was I. I’m not sure, but maybe this yearly music festival has opened up his mind to new ideas? Maybe our shared musical experiences have created a shift in his perspective, even if only a little bit? Perhaps this little festival in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania is the most important gig I do? This is why music is important.

As you go out into the world, by all means, chase your dreams. Move to a big city and make your mark if that’s what you want. But don’t forget where your music is needed the most. Perform for poor people. Perform for people in rural communities. Perform for people who don’t look, think, or act like you. That’s how profound change happens. Hop the fence.

With love,


Searched for Drugs, Riding a Bike, and more Summer 2016

Summer has been wonderful. Traveling, teaching, writing. My wife and I are building a home; I feel lucky. Not everything has been smooth though, and one incident in particular bummed me out.

My last name is pronounced Tre-vee-NYO. Yes, like with an Ñ. I’m Mexican-American. I get my name from my dad, but the Mexican comes from my mom. She was born and raised in Mexico, in a small border town called Reynosa. She had a tough life growing up and her family had little money. She didn’t get to go to college, so me going was extra special. As a young teenager, she got a job at a souvenir shop to help her family, and to buy books. She’s the smartest person in our family, and it’s not even close. She’s now a US citizen and is proud of it, and I’m proud of her.

She taught me something when I was younger, about the police. She said, “If you ever get pulled over, put both hands on the steering wheel so the cops can see you.” In other words: “Make sure they know you don’t have a gun. Make sure they know you are not a threat.” I was telling this to some of my white friends, who never recalled such conversations with their mothers…

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I was pulled over while driving in New Jersey, for a “sudden turn”. Two officers approached my car, one on each side shining flashlights into the car. I had both hands on the wheel, just like my mom taught me.

They didn’t believe my story, that I was a musician traveling from NY to a music studio in NJ, that I had flown in days earlier for a gig in Corning, NY, and that my rental car was rented using my band’s company credit card. I even presented them with the rental car paperwork.

They kept pressing me, with ridiculous statements like:

“You’re going to a music studio in Montague, NJ? Seems weird to us.”

“Do you even make money doing this music thing?”

“Your story is just not adding up.”

After much discussion, they asked me to get out of the car, and then asked to search my car for drugs. I said, “Go for it.”

They searched the car up and down, removing seats, searching the glove box… Of course they found nothing. I stayed cool, but damn I was worried. Not because I did something wrong, but because something wrong could happen to me.

30 minutes later, I’m still on the side of the road. My hands down by my side, my heart rate up, and I’m thinking about my mom and what she would tell me. “No sudden movements, no looking at your cell phone…No talking back.” Kind of sad, isn’t it?

They asked me where my car was rented. Since I didn’t rent it, I was honest. “I’m not sure, maybe Newark airport? Again, my bandmate rented it.” The officer quipped back. “It was rented in Pennsylvania!” A big voila moment for him.

I quipped back. “I didn’t rent the car, so I wouldn’t know. But my band’s studio is minutes away from Pennsylvania, so that makes sense to me.” A big voila moment for me 🙂

Still more waiting…

Finally, they realize that I’m not a threat, that I’m not smuggling drugs from Mexico, that I’m just a musician with brown skin trying to get to where I need to go.

They let me go with no ticket and this explanation: “You took a sudden turn, and then your story wasn’t adding up. That’s why we stopped and searched you.” I simply said, “OK”, got in my car and drove away, both hands on the steering wheel.


If being searched for drugs was the worst thing that happened to me this summer, Chosen Vale was the best thing! Doug Perkins and Amy Garapic are king and queen of summer camps (sorry, seminars). They know how to do it. The atmosphere, the good vibes, the sense of community. It really is a Shared Space at Chosen Vale. See what I did there?! It was beautiful. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for summer enrichment. I was enriched. And I LEARNED TO RIDE A BIKE! You read that right! Here are some photos, and a hilarious video:

Speaking of good vibes, a big thank you to my pals Aaron and Sarah Staebell for hosting us at their beautiful cabin in Rainbow Lake, NY. Love you guys.

CYMBALS. STEVE GADD PHOTOS. AMAZING. I was a guest at the Zildjian factory. I played cymbals all day and hand picked some Kerope and Avedis crashes and ride. But by far, the coolest thing was meeting Leon Chiappini, head cymbal tester. Leon has been working at Zildjian since 1961 and has played and tested over 9 MILLION cymbals. He was gracious in sharing his time and insights with me, and some funny stories too. No photo with Leon, so google him and his story. He’s great. 

I’ve been writing a lot this summer. Here are some things I’ve been working on:

Space Junk for percussion quartet + narrator. I wrote a children’s story, and set it to music. My buddy Mike Turzanski is illustrating the book. It’s a thing now, as he has started drawing. See below <3  This piece is commissioned by Lagan Percussion out of Waco, TX.

View this post on Instagram

Making moves

A post shared by Mike Turzanski (@dipdripper) on

Float Like a Butterfly
for solo marimba. This one was written in memory of Muhammad Ali, who demonstrated such amazing social activism during the 60’s and 70’s. One of my favorite athletes and social figures, ever. This piece is commissioned by Mark Boseman for his new marimba technique book, which will be available at PASIC 2016.

The Bird That’s Flown Into My Room. for cello and percussion quartet. I wrote this for my friend Meta Weiss of Queensland Conservatorium. She is good at the cello!

Untitled saxophone solo. I used to be a sax player. Excited about this one.

Texas PML: some of my solos and ensemble pieces were added to the TX Prescribed Music List! Really grateful for that.

I also arranged some of my music for an upcoming documentary called New Chefs on the Block. I’m a foodie and am excited about this documentary. It should be out by the end of the year or early next year.

I’ve got a few more commissions coming up, and then I’m taking a break from commissions to focus on my own things.

Me and my wife are building a home, and it’s almost done! We move in in less than a month.

Music Room!
Music Room!

Happy summer everyone.

With love,