ASO’s Talent Development Program brings diversity to the orchestra and the audience

Azira Hill and Mary Gramling look back on helping minority musicians get their due

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Talent Development Program
Azira G. Hill, left, and Mary Gramling

Photograph by Stephanie Eley

When Azira G. Hill, the Cuban-born wife of civil rights activist Jesse Hill, became an American citizen in 1960, she wanted a way to show her appreciation. Inspired by her love of music and attending concerts with her husband, she began volunteering with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

There, she came to know Mary Gramling, then ASO’s audience development chair, and the two commiserated over how few children of color there were in the Youth Symphony Orchestra. At the time, Gramling was working to diversify the Symphony’s audience; her research showed that the black community was purchasing artists’ CDs but not attending performances.

Representation was a big factor in their disinterest, Hill says: They didn’t feel welcome. After hearing excuses like “most blacks don’t know how to audition,” Hill and Gramling were finally able to bring the Symphony on board with their ideas. They figured if they started supporting and training black musicians from a young age, it could help increase diversity both in the orchestra and in the audience.

As a result, the Talent Development Program (TDP) was born, and students in grades five through 12—trumpeters, cellists, violinists—were invited to audition. TDP hosted 10 musicians from Fulton County and Atlanta Public Schools for the first time in 1993.

“We just provided the opportunity [for them to learn],” Hill says. “We were preparing them so that when the opportunity came [to join an orchestra or do a concert], they could grab it.”

Now serving 25 students per year, the TDP provides private lessons, audition preparation, solo recitals, and, with the help of Hill’s scholarship fund, financial assistance for students to attend summer music programs. Students also occasionally perform with the Symphony.

Since its inception, TDP has helped more than 100 musicians from Atlanta earn spots at universities like Curtis Institute of Music, the Peabody Institute, and the Juilliard School. Among them is cellist Khari Joyner.

He followed his brothers’ footsteps into the program and enrolled once he discovered a love for cello in middle school.

Following his time at Juilliard, Joyner, now 27, has continued to tour and teach around the world, releasing his first solo album this summer. He says having a strong support system and a dedicated teacher helped him see a future in music.

TDP has inspired similar programs at organizations and symphonies nationwide, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continues to invest $250,000 each year, in addition to outside donations.

“It was really the first time I experienced musicians that looked like me and could talk to you [about their careers],” says Joyner. “TDP is where I started becoming more empowered to do what I was doing musically and know that I had something to offer as a musician of color.”

This article appears in our May 2019 issue.