Classical music is dominated by white men – and this Washtenaw County org is working to change that

Voce Velata is putting underrepresented composers at center stage through a youth ensemble and educational resources.
Since its beginnings, the classical music canon has consisted almost entirely of music written by white men. The merit of their music notwithstanding, this lack of diversity is a result of inequitable power structures that have denied oppressed groups entry into the classical music world, as in so many other areas of society. But Voce Velata, a Washtenaw County organization blending music and social justice, is putting underrepresented composers at center stage. 
Voce Velata founder Kasia Bielak-Hoops.
"I love Bach," says Kasia Bielak-Hoops, Voce Velata's founder and a classically trained cellist. "His cello suites speak to every stage in life. So there is brilliance, there is masterfulness, in the works that we adore. And there is brilliance and masterfulness in the works that we have suppressed. The idea is that both/and thinking."

Named after a musical term meaning "veiled voice," Voce Velata includes a youth ensemble as well as professional development resources for music educators. 

The ensemble gives intermediate- to advanced-level musicians ages 11 to 22 the opportunity to study and perform the music of exclusively Black, Indigenous, people of color, and women composers. Their culminating concert for this year is May 22 at 7 p.m. at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, featuring collaborators who will make up a 17-piece chamber orchestra.

"It’s going to be a great concert," Bielak-Hoops says. "The music is all living composers. However, the music is very accessible."

The roots of Voce Velata — and the future of an inclusive music canon

When Bielak-Hoops was 15, her orchestra was invited to an international festival in Japan, where musicians from around the world performed collaboratively in the spirit of friendship. She was chosen to represent her orchestra at a meeting of the festival's directors — a big ask for a self-professed shy teenager intimidated by public speaking. 

"But when I was asked to speak, it was the first time I ever felt something rise out of me that felt natural and flowing," she says. "Essentially what I said was, ‘I want to make this happen again. I'm so inspired by this.’ So that became my career goal, my North Star: to bridge cultures through music." 

Her career would take her to Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, and Arusha, Tanzania, where she spent a total of six years cultivating collaborative performances. Upon returning to Michigan, she worked at the Community Music School of Ann Arbor, first as artistic director and eventually as executive director, a role she held for seven years. During that time, she founded the Brandenburg Project, a student ensemble that played Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on period-appropriate instruments with lessons from early music experts. In 2020, that ensemble was slated to perform all six of the concertos in the Ann Arbor area, and the radio program "From the Top" had shown interest in featuring the ensemble.

"Then the pandemic hit and George Floyd was murdered. And those two things were the impetus for Voce Velata," she says. "I was in a space where I could launch something, but also in a space where I had to do something." 
Voce Velata collaborator Alden Rohwer.
She approached the musicians in the Brandenburg Project and proposed taking the ensemble in a different direction. 

"That idea is really what caused Voce Velata to come into being in response to political and social justice movements," says Alden Rohwer, a Voce Velata collaborator and University of Michigan junior studying violin performance and mechanical engineering.

The ensemble’s first year was mostly virtual, except for the last two weeks before its culminating concert. Since then, Voce Velata members have had more opportunity to meet in person, clarify their mission, and move the needle toward a more inclusive classical music canon. 

Deep study and authentic performance

For the Voce Velata ensemble, unveiling the work of underrepresented composers goes beyond playing notes on a page. 

"I take them through a research process that allows them to get to know the composer, their lives, and the sociopolitical context of their work. In addition to that, there is an intentional social justice aspect," Bielak-Hoops says. "We talk about white supremacy, whiteness, and the white racial frame of classical music." 

She does this through a creative youth development model, which lets students take the lead on projects. 

"As much as Kasia is a mentor to the core members, they are really the ones carrying the group forward and deciding how these things are going to be presented," Rohwer says. "The students can really create their own roles within the group."
Composer Kebra-Seyoun Charles.
Students are encouraged to translate cultural context through their interpretation of a given piece with the goal of broadening audience perspectives. Rohwer says this approach lets audiences enjoy the music on two levels.

"One, it's all amazing music. It just sounds nice," he says. "But then the second is really appreciating the full presentation that the group can give on that historical and cultural context of the music."

Whenever possible, the musicians meet via Zoom with the composers whose work they're performing — like Kebra-Seyoun Charles, composer of "Neo-baroque Chorales," which the ensemble performed last year. Charles, who melds jazz and classical into a genre they describe as "counter-classical," was a natural choice for a collaborator — not least because they’re striving to make classical music more approachable for a wider breadth of audiences and performers. 

"Because I'm a Black non-binary person, I want to inspire kids who have never felt like they looked like the traditional classical musician," Charles says. "I would like for those kids to feel like this art is just as much for them as it is for anybody else."

Reshaping music education

According to the most recent Michigan Department of Education data, 91.6% of Michigan’s teachers were white, while 33.4% of students were minorities. Bielak-Hoops says this type of disparity can create a psychological block for minority students who might want to pursue a career in music. Even teachers who might want to diversify their repertoire face challenges within the larger education system, including a lack of resources to teach in a culturally responsive way and the necessity of adhering to rigid standards. 

"They have to bring students along a specific learning curve that doesn't necessarily leave room for contextualization and building in sociopolitical consciousness," Bielak-Hoops says. 

In response to this need, Voce Velata offers music educators a database of resources for responsibly diversifying repertoire, including lists of composers, artists, music, and contextual literature. It also hosts a monthly meetup titled "The New Narrative: Recognizing and Eradicating White Supremacy in Our Music Curriculums." 
Kasia Bielak-Hoops leading a Voce Velata rehearsal.
"There's personal resistance, as well as societal resistance, to this work," Bielak-Hoops says. "I'm hoping to help music educators get over that personal resistance and really commit to the work."

Bielak-Hoops says she sees encouraging signs in her efforts to build a more inclusive classical music world.

"I do see movement. I do see hope," Bielak-Hoops says. "I feel like we're at a point in history where there is an opportunity for that momentum to keep going."

Brooke Marshall is a freelance writer and recent transplant to Belleville. She first visited Ann Arbor on a cross-country bicycle tour; you can read that story (and more!) in her first book, "Lucky."

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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