Marcus Pyle sits in front of a stack of his favoriate books

Making Classical Music Inclusive

By Dulcy Israel
Portrait courtesy of Marcus Pyle

As a child, Marcus Pyle was a self-starter, taking up the viola in fourth grade, conducting home concerts in the tails his mother bought at his request, and creating his own orchestra. As an adult, his enterprising spirit endures, and in 2010 the Texas native, now a professor of humanities at Davidson College, founded the classical music institute ChamberWorks! He earned a PhD from the Graduate School of Arts and Science in historical musicology.

What inspired ChamberWorks!? The area where I’m from in Dallas has a really active public school music program, starting students at age 8 with access to instruments. But the classes are large, and one teacher goes between two elementary schools, and in the summer there’s nothing to do. As a sophomore at the Royal Academy of Music in London, I’d come home for breaks and realized a good way for students to keep up their playing would be to offer a [summer] program. Who is eligible to join? Anyone who’s taken at least one school year of orchestra or the equivalent. That usually means students who are 11 to 18, though we occasionally have someone closer to 8. There’s no audition process. Regardless of ability to pay? Yes. We’ve never turned anyone away because they couldn’t afford it. I tell students, as long as you can find a way to [get to] ChamberWorks!, you should apply. Even though private instruction is pretty affordable in our area, it’s still a barrier for a lot of students. What disparities have you observed in terms of access? There’s the stigma of classical music as being something that’s pretentious and that’s White. Even in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, there have only been two African American performers, at least since I’ve been alive, and [one of those two], the bassist, passed away last year. It’s consistently reinforced that it’s not a field for them. That’s why it’s important we have faculty of color doing different things well. They get inspired by that. We have had students who want to go on into performance, musicology, music education, and plenty who have no interest in becoming a musician but still benefit from the ChamberWorks! experience. What are those benefits? Critical listening, leadership, understanding, and conflict resolution. A lot of times you see that underprivileged students have a hard time engaging with or speaking up to people in positions of authority. I try to train that out of them. We perform with the students, we want them to critique us—we’ll occasionally add subtle mistakes so they get comfortable critiquing us and offering their opinion—and we help them shape their criticism and how they confront people. Why the exclamation point at the end of ChamberWorks!? A friend in London came up with several mockups for the logo and I liked the one with the exclamation point because it conveyed a sense of excitement. I didn’t want ChamberWorks! to ever feel like school. How did it feel to win a 2020 Making a Difference Award from NYU? I was very shocked. 2020 was such a difficult year, but that was really nice.

Close-up of books

Read why Wisdom chose to pose with these books that inspired him.

“There’s the stigma of classical music as being something that’s pretentious and that’s White. Even in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, there have only been two African American performers, at least since I’ve been alive.”