An Interview with Titus Underwood
Titus Underwood is the principal oboist of the Nashville Symphony in Tennessee. In February, he became the first Black tenured principal oboist of an American orchestra. Originally from Pensacola, Florida, Underwood attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Juilliard School, and the Colburn School, studying with legendary oboists John Mack and Elaine Douvas.
This year, Underwood was a recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, an award given by the Sphinx Organization recognizing extraordinary classical Black and Latinx musicians. Underwood was also cited recently in the New York Times, calling for audition reform alongside colleagues from the Phoenix Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera. In September, Underwood spoke with VAN about his journey and vision for the future of American orchestras.
VAN: You now hold a tenured principal position at a full-time orchestra. So many people work for that for so many years. How has your perception of the job changed now that you’re on the other side of the audition process?
Titus Underwood: Before I got a principal oboe job, I had been auditioning for 10 years, and I had made it to the final round like, 15 or 16 times. I had been subbing in lots of different orchestras, playing guest principal, guest associate or whatever, so my perception of orchestral playing had changed drastically before I even got to the chair I hold now. I did learn more when I got to Nashville, and even more when I got tenure, but my overall perception didn’t really change because I had been studying for years by playing in so many different places. That gave me a broad view, a true view, of what the business is.
In a recent interview, you said that as a 6’2” black man, you’re not the stereotypical person that one might expect to see playing the oboe. On the other hand, your educational journey through the Cleveland Institute of Music, Juilliard, and Colburn is what one might expect to see in the principal oboist of an American orchestra. I’m curious as to how you’ve felt over the years regarding that insider-outsider dynamic.
I never expected to feel “in” or “out.” I never really thought of it that way. I just feel like I’m on my own thing. For example, when I first got into undergrad, I had long locs [dreadlocks], I was wearing Rocawear, Ecko, Sean John, stuff like that. Because that’s where I came from. And I also played the oboe. So for some people, that’s mad confusing. Like, What box do you put that in?
And you have to remember, that was the first time in my life that I lived in a majority white space, so there were some cultural differences. People getting on me for not listening to the Beatles. I didn’t grow up listening to the Beatles. I like the Beatles now, but that was just one of those subtle things that indicated to me that I grew up in a completely different America. But the longer I was in that space, the more I was just like, “Whatever.” With my friends, we’re just friends, no matter what background they come from.
How did you work through that feeling of knowing you were from a different America?
The more I worked on my craft, the more that difference became my superpower. And it’s powerful, in my opinion. I’m not saying that other people don’t have their own superpowers; everyone does. But I know that me being who I am, having grown up in Pensacola, being the youngest of six, growing up in a Black, basically-almost-Pentecostal church, listening to hip-hop, having a rap group with me and my brothers, doing slam poetry and step team—all of that cultural gumbo that was happening in the South now informs my oboe playing. It informs the way I move and interpret music and think about things. I’ve realized how incredibly valuable that is, and I’m proud of that.
So when I went into orchestra spaces, when I started to push through, I was confident and anchored in myself. I’m me, and this is where I come from. Understanding that added immense value to what I do.
It seems like everyone’s calling for reform in the classical music world these days, and there are a lot of different suggestions and perspectives. What are your priorities?
Well, I think a lot of issues start at the conservatory level, to be honest. Many of us who are in these orchestras come from these specific pipelines, so the mentality ends up being uniform because the source and the education are very similar.
But the United States is massive, and the culture is so drastically different from city to city. Baltimore is going to be different than Salt Lake City, right? And unfortunately, we’ve got people who’ve been trained within these very similar skillsets and mindsets, and there’s usually no further training on the job on how to reach their community in the city that they reside in.
We’re all taught to audition, but once you have tenure, your required training is over. So where is the incentive for people to change with the times? Where is the incentive to change according to the demographic of your city? And instead of making efforts to connect with and serve communities, a lot of times we get stuck in this international orchestral competition where it’s the Philadelphia recording versus the Berlin recording. That has its place, however, it’s the audition mentality. And that’s how we measure ourselves.
Instead, I want to see orchestras asking themselves, “What is the cultural export from the region that I’m playing in?” Why isn’t there something every couple of years where we learn how to do better education, how to speak to audiences, how to speak to patrons, how to be culturally aware of the times? Right now, people can learn [Western music history] and sight-singing and excerpts, win the job, and it stops there. We need to learn how to better the skill sets of the people who work in our orchestras.
Who’s responsible for making that change?
I think the responsibility is on the musicians. And look, I’m not saying there aren’t boards of directors that do things wrong, I’m not saying that there aren’t systemic problems. There are. But in each orchestra, it’s the musicians who pick other musicians. It’s the musicians who negotiate [collective bargaining agreements] with management to determine the priorities of the institution. A lot of times it’s portrayed like it’s the evil empire against the musicians. There aren’t any evil empires. There can be good and bad people on both sides. So I’m really interested in musicians taking the lead on this conversation in the way that they should.
So what reforms should musicians be working towards?
Blind auditions. Because the truth is, “blind” auditions have never been blind, except for maybe two or three orchestras. I always make the analogy that the screen in American orchestra auditions is like when you tell kids not to look, so they cover their eyes with their hands. Then they spread their fingers so they can see.
I want to see the screen up in the final round. No trial weeks, and no talking between orchestra members on the committee. Because when you discuss a candidate, you’re undermining the conviction of the listener.
Some would say that the trial week is important because a player can sound great in a blind audition but then might not play well with the orchestra.
That’s what the tenure process is for. People need time to adjust to the orchestra. And on top of that, candidates play different repertoire from each other in trial weeks. That’s not fair. So I’ve never heard a good justification for a trial week.
I think the whole framework needs to change, and when people say they don’t want to do it that way in their orchestra, I call that states’ rights. Some things need to be federal. Don’t you think that the process in which we are hired should be the same, or at least fair, across the board? The things that should vary from orchestra to orchestra are the things that happen once you’re in the institution, like the tenure process and the post-audition training. That’s how I look at it.
Do you think orchestras and the classical music industry in general are capable of making these kinds of changes?
Anything is capable of change. You just have to be willing to do it, and you have to have personnel who are capable. I think a lot of people get exhausted because of how much work there is to do, but you have to imagine how much deliberate time and effort was used to establish the current system in the first place. It was very deliberate that they only wanted men in orchestras, just like it was very deliberate to have male composers. It’s not that women don’t write dope music—it’s that they were deliberately excluded.
When you read Grout or Norton or Shanker, these theorists and historians that we all learn, did they ever talk about the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Did they ever talk about colonialism? My instrument is made from Granadillo wood, which comes from Africa. Do you think people from those countries were just like, “Oh, you need to play the oboe? Well then, here’s all this wood you can have.”
You can’t talk about Shostakovich without talking about Stalin. You can’t talk about Beethoven without talking about Napoleon. So how can I go through a whole Western classical music education and not know any of this? Some people say it’s because the system is broken, but the system was designed this way and it’s working exactly how it was intended to.
But it’s functioning at the expense of others, and people feel like that needs to change. It’s a lot of work, but you have to start bringing in other perspectives. If you want the culture to change in an orchestra, you need people in the orchestra that are capable of changing it.
That’s why I think we should be measuring more things than just playing ability in the tenure process. If someone’s a great musician and they also speak well and bring a unique or new perspective, then they have valuable cultural information and they should be valued for that. They should be on the stage. Not just brought in for panels or some education team or something like that. That’s how we move in the direction of longstanding change.
Are there things you’re excited about in the classical music world going forward?
I’m still waiting on what I’m excited about. I’m excited about what the business could be, but only time will tell. We could fall back into the same thing, which does work for some people—there are a lot of people that enjoy it. But I’m excited to see what the young people demand and what they’re going to bring forth. You know, a whole different set of repertoire, a new set of standards, new presentations, new concert forums. I think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg of where this moment takes us. ¶