The Fellowship of the Strings

The Fellowship of the Strings

The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s new diversity program gives underrepresented students the opportunity to make the leap to a professional career.

The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) is hoping to change the face of American orchestras. The CCM Diversity Fellowship Program, which CCM hosts with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO), is the first of its kind to include a major conservatory and major symphony orchestra. 

“Cultural institutions should reflect the diversity of the communities that they are embedded in, and Cincinnati is a very diverse community,” says Curt Whitacre, director of marketing and communication for CCM. “Unfortunately, the data shows that there is a lack of diversity industry-wide in symphony orchestras.”

According to the League of American Orchestras, African-Americans or Latinos comprise roughly 4 percent of American orchestras.

Peter Landgren, UC interim senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, had the chance to perform with the CSO during his time as a student at CCM. He credits that experience with jumpstarting his orchestral career, and he has been eager to find a way to replicate his opportunity for future students. During his time as an orchestra member, Landgren noticed the industry still lacked in diversity, so he worked with CCM faculty and the leadership at the CSO to develop a program that could help remove the roadblocks preventing students from pursuing careers with major symphony orchestras.

In summer 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded CCM a $900,000 grant to help launch the Diversity Fellowship Program, a specialized two-year graduate track for students who want to complete a master’s degree or artist diploma.

The inaugural fellowship class arrived on campus this fall. The fellows – Emilio Carlo, Diana Flores, Blake-Anthony Johnson, Vijeta Sathyaraj and Maurice Todd – range in age from 21-37 and come from a variety of backgrounds. And they have an incredible opportunity to play onstage with the CSO during select performances.

“The fellowship is open to populations that are underrepresented in both American orchestras and professional music conservatories. African-Americans and Latinos are underrepresented in classical music, as well as first-generation college students and students who take non-traditional pathways to higher education. So, this is a very broad definition of diversity. The ultimate goal is to empower students and provide them with the tools to succeed in their chosen fields,” says Whitacre.

What makes this fellowship different than other programs is that the students will get paid for their professional experience, as well as coaching and tips from faculty and CSO mentors, while also earning their graduate degree, says Andrea Fitzgerald, assistant dean of enrollment services. Taking the financial pressure off, CCM awarded each fellow a full scholarship, an annual $10,000 stipend, a one-time $3,000 Graduate School Dean’s Excellence Award and $8,000 from the CSO.

“This is a very competitive industry, so we want to give our students every leg up,” says Whitacre.

“Students expect it and they appreciate it,” adds Fitzgerald, a flautist turned administrator who obtained her doctorate from CCM. It’s changing education for students. “They’ll get more real-world stage experience.”

Along with the financial assistance, the students will have each other as support. “The program is designed to be a cohort. They will experience (the program) together instead of alone,” says Whitacre, adding that the orchestra and faculty will provide support as well. 

They have to partake in a rigorous, two-round audition process: first in front of a panel of CCM faculty members and then in front of musicians with the CSO. More than 100 applicants au-ditioned for the program in 2015, which only accepts a maximum of five fellows per year.

“CCM and the CSO want this program to challenge the status quo of the industry. Our fellows are excited to be a part of something that will make symphony orchestras a better reflection of their communities,” Whitacre says. 

The fellows made their first appearance with the CSO on September 8 and 10 during the orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. From September 16-18, select members performed with the Cincinnati Pops during the “Hollywood Action and Adventure” concert.

CCM is now accepting applications for the second fellowship class through December 1, and up to five more fellows will be selected to join the program in fall 2017. 

The CCM Diversity Fellowship is only a pilot program but it has caught the industry’s attention, including being featured in publications, including Musical America, Strings’ Magazine, Symphony Magazine and Inside Philanthropy. Landgren and CSO president Trey Devey have also been invited to present on the program at various industry events around the country. 

“People are very excited (and) are definitely talking about it,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ll know a lot more after this academic year about where the program will go from here.”

The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music is located at 290 CCM Boulevard, Cincinnati, OH 45221. For more information, call 513.556.6638 or visit

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