One thing most people don’t know — even my closest friends — is that I played classical violin for nearly all of my childhood.

Weekly lessons, all levels of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras, school orchestra, quartet, chamber ensemble, violin competitions, summer music camp, all-state orchestra. 

Classical music taught me discipline, rigor, love for music and humility — so much humility. No matter how good you are or think you are, there is someone sitting a few chairs away who is conservatory bound and a thousand times better.

Playing in a symphony orchestra was one of the most viscerally joyful, transcendent experiences of my life. 

But as I grew older, the dissonance I began to increasingly observe between the pluralistic, social justice-oriented world I grew up in and the Eurocentric, white male-dominated world of classical music began to strike a sour note. In all of those years of playing, I never saw a woman conductor and, as far as I know, never played pieces by composers that were not white men.

Increasingly I could not reconcile writing and learning about the world from the perspective of thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Chinua Achebe in school while spending all my time exploring the finer points of music by a tradition that largely excludes women and musicians of color.  

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It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I first encountered classical music that bridged that disconnect. Violinist Quinton Morris’ string ensemble, called The Young Eight, was a group of Black string musicians who came together to perform and make classical music more inclusive. Morris, of Renton, and the octet not only played the “classics” but also performed arrangements of hip hop songs and other work.

Watching them perform reminded me of what I loved about classical music in the first place.

I thought about all of this recently when I learned of Seattle Symphony music director Thomas Dausgaard’s abrupt resignation. Like most major orchestras, the Seattle Symphony has only had white male music directors over its nearly 120-year history. It made me wonder, might this be the time for some major change?

In the 30 years since I last performed music, not a lot has changed in terms of who performs classical music. According to a 2016 League of American Orchestras report, the percentage of Black musicians in U.S. orchestras remained almost completely flat between 2002 and 2014, with a dismal 1.8% of Black musicians in 2014.

Women music directors still made up just 9% of the total in 2016.

At the Seattle Symphony, only 1% of musicians identified as Black and only 2% of the audience. Sixty-five percent of the musicians are male, the symphony said.

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I talked with Morris last week about what has changed — and what hasn’t — and the work he is doing to bend the arc in classical music. 

As the late Tom Keogh wrote about Morris in The Seattle Times in 2016, “Virtuoso violinist, filmmaker, polymath: Quinton Morris might make you feel like a slacker.” 

Today, Morris is a tenured professor of violin at Seattle University and the founder and director of Key to Change, a nonprofit that provides underserved students access to high-quality music education. Key to Change also has a violin/viola studio to serve South King County students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

In 2021, Morris became classical station KING FM’s artist scholar in residence to create a dozen programs featuring composers of color and started a monthly show called “Unmute the Voices,” to showcase composers and performers of color. Morris said the show is “a way to introduce the listeners to all of these brilliant, amazing people of color that they would never know anything about.”

Through Key to Change and all of Morris’ work, he is subverting what students and the community think of when they think of classical music.

At Key to Change, Morris said they have normalized guest artists and teachers from a wide array of backgrounds, all outstanding at their craft. “We teach our students that you don’t have to be rich, white, come from the Eastside, in order to experience what excellence is.”

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To increase exposure to more diverse composers, Morris has a radical proposition: For a year, he said, “I think the big 20 or big 10 orchestras in the United States need to come together and say no Beethoven, no Mozart, no Bach, no Haydn, no Tchaikovsky, no Brahms.” If people want to hear those composers they could go to regional orchestras, where they will certainly be showcased. Instead, major symphonies could perform works by people of color and women. 

“If the big orchestras who have the big endowments and the big budgets said, ‘We’re going to do this as a social experiment, and let’s see if we can make this a symphony for the people and play music that is representative of all people,’ you might actually see a major change,” he said.

For its part, the Seattle Symphony said it would be featuring a number of composers of color in their current main subscription series, and its inaugural Octave 9 series features newly commissioned works by nine composers, including eight composers of color.

These are great steps, but the music director opening is a chance to make bolder moves. 

Like all art forms, Morris said classical music must embrace change. “I think the field of classical music needs to evolve in its thinking. I think they’re trying to. But I think that we’re at a point now where it’s time to make radical change.”