Small Expressions of Power in Pursuit of Big Change

Voice faculty and students alike may feel that systemic change is out of their power. In this article, find ways to create positive impact in your university experience.

For most voice programs, the fall of 2020 was full of discoveries. Schools explored music by Black composers, both new and previously overlooked. There were internal examinations of bias and systemic racism. Academic offices established groups to devour books on racial justice. Countless afternoons of events were held with industry insiders debating whether or not Madama Butterfly should be retired and analyzing the problems with Porgy and Bess. Myriad singers confronted the industry on social media platforms such as the Instagram account @operaisracist to share gut-wrenching accounts of racist behavior and macroaggressions. Colleges produced Black History Month musical programs, some for the first time. A massive wave of momentum following the public execution of George Floyd seemed to put us on a path to change.

We can agree that the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin was a historic triumph of accountability. But what followed reflected what I was dreading: racial justice moved to the backburner. With an exciting return to on-campus learning this fall, the focus has shifted to a restoration sameness. 

I am thrilled to see the return of singers on stage without masks and with orchestras and partner pianists creating live art. But a return to this setting can and must be realized without diminishing the work set in motion to bring equity and equality to voice departments across the country. We have spent over a year in a discussion on what needs to change. Now is the time to put those thoughts into play. Let’s get to work.

Professor Kristin McCormack at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University gave a recent lecture on diversity, equity, and inclusion in leadership and wrapped up the session by saying, “The biggest mistake leaders and managers make is not using the power they have.” For many leaders, the idea of not using the power you have in service to students can easily be the thing that keeps you up at night. But after countless conversations with voice students and faculty members, I noticed that sometimes the hardest thing to realize is what power you even have.

 The university system can be complex with what can feel like countless roadblocks to real change. It is easy to feel ineffective as an individual. Nevertheless, we are all guilty of overlooking the small but critical efforts within our power that can create lasting effects. Knowing that we have the influence to ensure racial justice remains front and center, where it belongs, is liberating. Still, tapping into that power feels difficult even for the most confident leaders among us. 

Below are three sources of power you may be overlooking based on Kathleen L. McGinn’s landmark publication Power and Influence: Achieving Your Objectives in Organizations, and are accompanied by examples of expressing that power in the vocal arts college community.

Personal Power

Aligning your actions and values is crucial. Recognizing your values both personally and professionally with clarity takes time and self-awareness. It is hard, continuous work, but similar to practicing arpeggios in a practice room, gets easier over time and unlocks creative solutions.

  • Put pen to paper and outline your values. Create a short statement and sketch a few action items you want to work toward. It can be as simple as seeking out a new podcast, curating a reading list, or creating a playlist of diverse composers to find music to add to your repertoire. When you’re ready, swap your plan with a friend to hold each other accountable. 

 

  • Think about how to bring those values and actions to your work. If you teach a class like diction or art song literature, actions toward racial justice can feel impossible. For example, how might you use your German diction class to celebrate Black culture? My colleague at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Nils Neubert came up with an innovative solution. As he chooses examples for the class lieder playlist, he highlights Black artists like Jessye Norman, known for her renowned interpretations of lieder. Other faculty members take a moment to point out the dearth of contributions by diverse artists due to their erasure by a white-centered industry. Using your expert power no matter the area can still be used to influence even the largest institutions.

 

  •  Students often find power in creating a coalition, even without a student union or formalized group. Discussion-based sharing can be some of the greatest learning opportunities available on campus. And if you have an idea for a way to improve your learning, don’t be afraid to ask. Faculty and administrators are there to support you and can often provide resources that might be unavailable to you. 

Positional Power

Even department chairs can feel roadblocked by the bureaucracy of colleges and universities. However, authority in these formal positions must be leveraged for change. If you manage budget allocation for your department, consider some of the following low-budget/high-yield decisions you can control:

 

  • Purchase art song collections by Black and Brown composers. Because many students may not know specific composers to search for, anthologies are a great way for students to discover many composers at once. They are also easier to search for within library collections. Consider pairing the anthologies with curated Spotify playlists, which are easy to distribute to an entire department. 

 

  • Design discussion opportunities for your department. Call a meeting once a month or use an existing meeting to create a consistent and recurring conversation. Share an article to read together and allot time to discuss. At MSM, we consider intentional conversations to be as good as formal training for faculty and staff. Treat difficult discussions like you would any difficult aria—practice!

 

  • Leverage connections outside of your organization to introduce new voices to institutional dialogues. Masterclasses are great opportunities to show the fullness of artistic expression as the event is a public discussion shared right alongside singing. If they’re comfortable, welcome and encourage guest artists of color to share their experiences both onstage and off. Not everyone may take you up on it, but they will know that you value their perspective.

 

  • If you hire directors, conductors, or other creative advisors, inform them of your department goals and ask them to commit to sharing these values while they are on campus.

 

  • If you’re a faculty member, encourage your students to speak up. And then listen. I repeat: listen! 

 

  • If you’re a student, you likely crave a courageous space to express your experiences and learn from your peers. But at MSM, I remind students that to ensure we work together to make a just world, we must look beyond safe and create brave, courageous, vulnerable, respectful, and accountable spaces. For most of us, the world is not safe. But building resiliency through fellowship can be a powerful medium. Work together to create community agreements to set boundaries and support.

Relational Power

Years ago, during a staging rehearsal for Le nozze di Figaro, I was diddling through the opening duets with Figaro, and it just wasn’t working. The good student that I was, I knew the music cold and had done extensive character analysis to connect with Susanna. But I felt disingenuous. The director, Eve Summer, said to me, “How would you, as Alexa, react to Figaro there?” This is a pretty straightforward question from any director, but I knew Eve well enough to know she was trying to pull more out of me. “I mean, I wouldn’t do it how I did it—but when you say me ‘as Alexa,’ I’m Black, right? So, I’d say it very differently!” Eve said something along the lines of “Great, well, permission to do that granted,” and we continued. 

Eve had built a trusting relationship with each of us, and I now had the permission I didn’t even know I needed to explore a more authentic character. I quit wondering if people would be thinking I was too “sassy” or any of the other stereotypical words used to describe my mere melanated presence on a stage. It’s a small thing, but an acknowledgment that you, as you are, deserve to be seen on a stage that may not have been made for you can be the key to artistic freedom. It was for me. 

Building trust through relational power is key. It is the bread and butter of creativity and yields more compelling and interesting art. Building trust and alliance in musical settings leads to liberated artists, free to take bigger risks and produce distinctive experiences. Trust removes barriers. It eliminates the need to code switch or alter one’s behavior or language to conform to a mainstream aesthetic.

 In college programs, we want and need more students of color. But we must also be honest about what type of environment they are entering. Is it a culture of trust where Black and Brown students will be able to bring their full expressions to the stage? Will they find themselves on the shelves of the library or within the required recital repertoire? Voice departments can look to relational power as the foundation of creating an ecosystem where every student artist is liberated and can create the art they were destined to bring to the stage. 

 The good news is that if you are a vocal arts teacher, you likely possess the ability to build trusting relationships with your students. If you are a student that made it to the collegiate level to study opera and classical singing, believe me, the resilience already exists within you. You spend hours practicing, perfecting, and creating. You show up early and never quit. You go above and beyond for the art form. 

We must now go above and for each other. Let’s get to work. 

Alexa Smith

Alexa Smith is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Innovations and Special Initiatives at Manhattan School of Music. She is the winner of the 2021 Sphinx Venture Fund Prize to create the Duncan Williams Voice Competition for Black and Latinx Young Artists. For more information, go to DuncanWilliamsVoiceCompetition.com.