On Tuesday May 9th exactly one year after the Black Orchestral Network (BON)’s “Day of Solidarity” addressing anti-Blackness in US orchestras, the organization released a statement on social media protesting the Kansas City Symphony’s recent denial of tenure to acclaimed Principal Percussionist Josh Jones. Represent Classical’s Jay Julio interviews BON co-founder and Steering Committee member Jennifer Arnold about this latest development.

Hello Jen — thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today over a 12-hour time zone difference! Would you mind introducing yourself, your current work with the Black Orchestral Network (BON), and what led you to this role?

I’m Jennifer Arnold, and I’m a Steering Committee member for BON. I’ve always felt the need to do advocacy work for classical musicians, primarily for Black musicians, particularly in the past fifteen years or so, based on the stories and what I’ve heard from other Black musicians in the field.

I was a member of the Oregon Symphony for fifteen wonderful seasons, then went on to be the Director of Artistic Planning and Orchestral Operations for three seasons at the Richmond Symphony — I’m on sabbatical right now in Taiwan working on passion projects, such as BON.

We’re here today to shed more insight on BON’s statement of support regarding Josh Jones, principal percussionist of the Kansas City Symphony, who was denied tenure this year after a 2-year probationary period with the orchestra. Before we dig into that, I was hoping you might talk a bit about BON — in your own words, what is it, and what were the conditions that catalyzed its birth?

BON is an organization that serves Black orchestral musicians with a mission to build community and tell our stories. It came out of a series of discussions that Black musicians were having during the pandemic and how we can make it better for Black musicians in general — it wasn’t specifically classical music-oriented at first, but we found out that the orchestral space was one most of us were comfortable speaking to. We’re led by a Steering Committee — which I’m a part of — made up of Black industry leaders.

I think a lot about, as artists, what we can do to improve people’s lives both on stage and off, and I believe that politics and civil rights are part of artistry.

For those who haven’t taken an orchestral audition, it may seem as easy as simply playing your best the day of an audition. However, the process of tenure adds further considerations for musicians and for the orchestra. Would you mind speaking further on the process of tenure?   (Note: A typical orchestra has members of the orchestra serve on a tenure committee, reviewing new members’ performance over the course of their probationary period. Feedback is compiled and anonymized over this time and shared with the member in question in ways and at times that differ from ensemble to ensemble.)

There’s many things about tenure. First of all, we’re not trying to eliminate tenure. Job security is very important, which is why it’s important to hire Black musicians so we can also have that job security.

For my CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) in Oregon, tenure was a two-year closed-door process — you don’t know who’s on the committee, how many people there are, or who said what. 

That anonymous feedback is given to the music director to share with the musician. Let’s say you’re in a 52-week orchestra. The music director might be there only 13 or 14 weeks a year. The committee is basically the eyes and ears of the orchestra. 

I will say the Oregon Symphony made me feel very welcome during my tenure process. But that isn’t always true.

In Josh’s case, he is a leader of the section. We already know that a lot of people in the US have never had a Black leader, a Black manager, someone to tell you what to do — already that brings in possible conflict. I won’t say that that is specific to Josh’s case — but we have heard about so many stories already.

The NAAS (National Alliance for Audition Support) Recommended Audition and Tenure Guidelines ask for transparency during the tenure, and we are calling for comments that are documented. You should be able to know what is being said about you and who it is coming from.

We don’t want tenure to be hazing anymore. We don’t want tenure to be secretive anymore. We want the process to be clear and constructive.

From personal or second hand knowledge, how much warning do musicians get if they are unlikely to pass tenure? Are specific incidents often brought up, general issues, or does it differ from orchestra to orchestra?

It differs from orchestra to orchestra, definitely. This is an industry issue. Often, orchestras don’t even know what happens in other orchestras. I think we need a more universal process across the board.

In general, I do think people get feedback from orchestras. The issue is the type of feedback — how often it’s given, and the way it’s presented. The AFM will say this: most hiring is done by management. Thus, the music director is the one who grants tenure, and usually is responsible for deciding winners of auditions too. But the feedback itself is coming from the audition committee.

And often people are called in for unscheduled tenure meetings, when they should know ahead of time. In these tenure meetings, there might be a representative from management, such as a personnel manager, but often musicians don’t have a representative with them.

That’s one thing we’re calling for. Not only in their tenure meetings, but also over the whole tenure process. That way they have an advocate — someone to answer their questions, someone to offer guidance 

If we think about outside of the orchestral industry, if I’m in the office — if I have an issue with a staff member, there’s usually an improvement plan, and you work with them to improve their work. It should not be an opportunity to fire someone.

Are there specific issues with regards to how feedback is given?

In my experience, if you leave it to the music director to lead the conversation, they’re not equipped to do that, mostly because they’re not always able to directly state what needs to be improved. We give them this responsibility without training them.

Furthermore, what the music director hears from the committee may not always be what the music director says to a musician. Maybe the music director doesn’t agree with it or maybe they don’t think it’s important. 

Most review committees don’t talk to the musician in question, as they are advisory in nature — they and the music director are two separate entities. 

As an organization made up of current and former Black orchestral musicians, BON seems to be uniquely poised to shed light on this issue. What concerns has BON specifically raised during Josh’s tenure process?

We believe that he deserves better from the Kansas City Symphony. He is an excellent percussionist who is well-known in the industry — he is highly revered in the percussion community. We have members on the Steering Committee who have been through difficult tenure processes or denied tenure as well. We want to let it be known that this is not about Josh’s musicianship — this is about the Kansas City Symphony’s poor decision-making.

Denial of tenure is seen in this industry as something deeply negative — there will be whispers that will follow him if he seeks out another job. We think that his denial of tenure was flawed. We think that if the Kansas City Symphony had the NAAS Guidelines in place, this would not have happened.

Josh appears to have made quite an impression both in the percussion scene as a pedagogue and within Kansas City as one of a precious few Black artists in the symphony, and likely the most visible one, having already served as a concerto soloist. Does BON feel that his level of popularity across musical boundaries has complicated the process in some way?

We have not had this conversation within BON, but I can tell you my own personal opinion. The Kansas City Symphony — and this is not specific to Kansas City — needs to think about  future musicians that come in. We should be nurturing artists, we should be welcoming them into the organization, and looking at them not only as fantastic players but also assets to the community and the organization. It is not just about your 2 and a half hour orchestra rehearsal anymore. 

I will say he played a concerto with the orchestra in October (Adam Schoenberg’s Losing Earth) and, seeing the reviews, to think that a few months later he was denied tenure — it’s not right.

Lastly, in a deeply segregated city such as Kansas City, what unique offerings does BON feel that Josh has that may not be available from another candidate?

We know that Kansas City is an American orchestra. And we know that Black Americans — Black people — we’ve developed music, style, fashion, and culture in this country. People say that we’ve created the American style. Is it even possible to call yourself an American institution if you don’t have Black people?

Regarding Josh — I think Josh clearly has a love for education, a love for public speaking, community, social media — all the things that the modern musician, the musician of the future, brings to the orchestra.

I think Josh is unique in many ways because of what he is. He’s an exceptional talent, he’s a people person, he’s an educator — he loves the orchestra, and he loves Kansas City. This was a blow to him. He felt that Kansas City was his place. This wasn’t just a job to him. He is an asset to the orchestra, and we want to encourage more musicians to bring their whole artistry to the table.

I worry that if we don’t allow people to do this, we will have young people not auditioning for orchestras. This is about a specific Black musician, and this is about changing tenure guidelines, but this is also about orchestras in general. If you have the NAAS Guidelines in place, and if you have someone who has proven himself in an audition, who isn’t causing interpersonal problems, you shouldn’t fire them.

This interview was lightly edited for length and style.