Chicago College of Performing Arts

The Center for Arts Leadership is a newly launched center for empowering students and alumni of the Chicago College of Performing Arts through experiential learning and growth opportunities in community engagement, social justice and career development.

design for "by binding light"

‘By Binding Light’: Illuminating the Artist’s Responsibility

by Haley Henning (BMA ’21)

When you have a platform, use it.

Four of my brass-playing colleaguesDavid Nakazono (PD ‘21), Kerry Thomas (BMA ‘22), Cooper Johnson (MM ‘21), Bradley Geneser (BM ‘20)and I have a large platform this Friday: Roosevelt University’s virtual commencement ceremony. When asked to record a few standard ceremonial pieces for brass quintet, I found it difficult to say “yes” knowing the current climate we find ourselves in: dealing with a pandemic while protesting police brutality and systemic racism does not make for the most celebratory of times. Would it be appropriate to perform the National Anthem and Pomp and Circumstance right now? Does the Class of 2020 even want to celebrate? These are some of the questions that we discussed as a quintet while deciding whether or not to participate. Through our conversations, we realized that declining this opportunity would simply be trivial performative activism, and that we instead needed to use this platform to support and fight for Black lives.

Brass Quintet

The RU Commencement Ceremony Brass Quintet, with members David Nakazono and Kerry Thomas (trumpets), Cooper Johnson (horn), Haley Henning (trombone), and Bradley Geneser (tuba)

I decided to reflect on how we as a brass quintet are using our platform in support of Black lives in order to illuminate some of the ways people can turn everyday opportunities into meaningful acts of supportwhether financial, artistic, or otherwise.

Promote Black artists: Katahj Copley, composer

Katahj Copley is a composer based in Georgia, USA. A euphonium player himself, he wrote a piece for brass quintet titled By Binding Light. This three-movement piece showcases one of my favorite aspects of the brass instrument: its ability to exude bright, powerful energy as intensely as it creates stunningly gorgeous colors. I can see why each movement is titled after a metal; not only are brass instruments made of metals, but the sounds they create can be as strong as they are sweetmuch like gold, bronze, and silver are tough yet beautiful.

design for "by binding light"

Graphic design for Copley’s “By Binding Light,” courtesy

Our tubist for the quintet, Bradley, was tasked with finding a piece for us to perform alongside the usual commencement pieces. While he searched for a composition that could capture the energy of a commencement ceremony and be a good fit for our ensemble, he noted that “it isn’t hard to program Black composers, and there is a piece out there for whatever people are looking for.” It’s true: finding a piece for your instrument or ensemble by a Black composer is an easy task that holds great value. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend going to the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD)’s website. “Dedicated to the celebration, education, and advocacy of music created by composers from historically underrepresented groups through online tools, research-based resources, and sponsored initiatives,” the ICD has a composer database that makes it easy to find compositions by diverse composers. It is integral to our craft as musicians to perform as diverse a range of music as we can by composers of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and beyond; however, it is important now more than ever to use the platforms we have as artists to promote the works of BIPOC composers and artists.

Support local organizations doing the work: My Block, My Hood, My City

Located in Chicago, non-profit organization My Block, My Hood, My City (MBMHMC) “provides underprivileged youth with an awareness of the world and opportunities beyond their neighborhood.  [They] take students on explorations focused on STEM, Arts & Culture, Citizenry & Volunteerism, Health, Community Development, Culinary Arts, and Entrepreneurism.” More recently, MBMHMC has created a Small Business Relief Fund to repair damage done to small businesses by out-of-state looters trying “to tear down Black communities.”

My Block, My Hood, My City logo

My Block, My Hood, My City logo, courtesy

As a brass quintet, we met with CCPA’s Dean Marcozzi to discuss how we could use our commencement ceremony platform to do as much as we could for Black lives, which is when we decided to donate what would have been our payment for the ceremony to My Block, My Hood, My City, our donation being matched by the CCPA Dean’s Office. Providing financial support to the organizations best equipped to make a positive impact in our communities is one of the most important things we as individuals can do. In the words of Amber Navran of Moonchild, “Our collective financial power is huge, and we have to take advantage of that.” 

I write this because I want others to see that we are all given platforms on a daily basis that we can use to shed light on the most important issues in our society. I don’t write this to pat ourselves on the back; I write this because what we as a brass quintet did is an easy way for musicians to say “we want a better future for musicand for our entire worldthan what we have now.” It is a starting point for musicians to say “if we are all about engaging community and connecting with others through our art, then let’s do so by engaging and connecting with those whom our institution has systemically oppressed since its inception” or “let’s do so by using our craft to help financially support those who are qualified and ready to do the most important work.”

This is a way for us to start doing something.

And there is a long road ahead of us; we cannot dismantle the systemic issues in our industry without knowing that doing so will be a lifelong effort. All of us—individuals and institutions alike—can begin that effort now by finding ways to address these issues whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself. 

About the author

Haley Henning is a member of the CAL team and studies Trombone Performance and English Language in the CCPA Honors Bachelor of Musical Arts program. Along with performing in orchestral and chamber settings, she enjoys writing about musings regarding the classical music industry and beyond. She is interested in how the arts—particularly the world of classical music—must grow in the 21st century.

Haley Henning • June 24, 2020

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