Summary of The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music

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The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music summary

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In the world of classical music, systemic racism is pervasive. In the top dozen US orchestras, only about 2% of musicians and conductors are Black. The heart of the matter is the image of a Black musician playing – or a Black conductor leading – Beethoven or Wagner amid racist fear that classical music may lose its traditional culture. One donor actually said, “You people have jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Why can’t you leave the classical to us?” Mark MacNamara’s article in the San Francisco Cultural Voice explores a rarely addressed topic: the struggle of Black musicians against this “culture of exclusion,” and one man’s effort to bring equality to the concert hall. 

About the Author

Journalist Mark MacNamara writes for Nautilus and San Francisco Classical Voice (


White audiences remain largely unaware of systemic racism in the world of classical music. 

Most musicians who reach a position in one of America’s top symphony orchestras make their way from an early age through a network of teachers and coaches, endless auditions, ever-finer instruments and ever more prominent orchestras. However, young Black musicians who show promise cannot assume they will find support. They face limited opportunities and their ambition comes with the caveat that to succeed they must always out-perform white musicians. They often find it hard to obtain experienced coaches who have been to the top themselves and can teach the nuances of auditioning, choosing the right school and getting the right introductions.

Today only about 2% of US symphony orchestra musicians and conductors are Black. A more representative number, suggests conductor Chelsea Tipton II, would be 15% to 20...

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