Music-Education CEO Hits Bad Note on Minorities, Loses Job

The director of a national association of music teachers is out of a job after he reportedly told a diversity forum that blacks and Latinos lack the "keyboard skills" needed for the profession.

The Reston-based National Association for Music Education, which represents more than 60,000 music teachers across the country, said Wednesday it has parted ways with its executive director and CEO, Michael Butera. 

Attendees at a forum in Washington last month sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts say Butera stormed out of the room after questions about his organization's lack of diversity. 

Before walking out, attendees say he defended the lack of diversity by stating that "blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field" and suggesting that music theory was too difficult a subject for minorities.

Butera said his remarks have been portrayed inaccurately.

"(T)he reporting of these comments was a deeply inaccurate portrayal of the dialogue which took place that day," Butera wrote on a May 6 Facebook posting. He wrote that during the discussion, he "mentioned that the field of music educators, much like the general population of educators, is skewed toward white individuals. We have had ongoing and rich discussions in our Association community about how best to address this issue, but have not yet been able to actualize a solution. This is not for lack of trying."

Butera did not return calls or a Facebook message seeking comment Thursday.

The public controversy over Butera's remarks began when Keryl McCord, operations director for Alternate Roots, an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to arts and social justice issues, wrote a blog post May 4 about the interaction.

"I believe Mr. Butera said what he meant, and meant what he said," McCord wrote. "From my vantage point his statements were just one in a long litany of familiar tropes: Black athletes lack the ability to be quarterbacks, or to coach a team, or to manage whatever the sport, or to be doctors, astronauts, engineers, physicists, composers, or directors and writers. I would love to hear Mr. Butera explain his belief to Alicia Keys, John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Ellis Marsalas, Eddie Palmieri, Danilo Perez, Alice Coltrane, Norah Jones ... I could go on and on."

The new CEO of the music education association, Michael Blakeslee, said Butera told the association's executive board that he had no racist intent. Blakeslee said Butera's departure was a mutual decision between the association and Butera.

Blakeslee said that while he can't speak for Butera, he said the remarks, in context, "were not a reflection on the ability of kids, but a reflection of the availability of resources for them to blossom."

More specifically, Blakeslee said that many people see piano or keyboard ability as an important foundation for music educators to master. If private piano lessons are more readily available to rich, white kids than poor blacks and Latinos, then that becomes an obstacle to recruiting blacks and Latinos into music education.

"I do not believe he has racist intent at all," said Blakeslee, who worked regularly with Butera at the association.

Jesse Rosen, CEO of the League of American Orchestras, also attended the event and confirmed McCord's account of Butera's comments.

"Mr. Butera indeed said that he could not take action to diversify his board, and that African Americans and Latinos lacked keyboard skills needed to advance in the music education profession _ two statements which many of us around the table challenged. The group was unable to further pursue the meaning of his comments as Mr. Butera abruptly and angrily walked out of the room," Rosen said in a statement.

McCord said in a phone interview that she has mixed feelings about Butera losing his job.

"I'm really sorry it came to that, but I'm hoping it's an opportunity" to discuss and improve opportunities for diversity in music education and in the arts, she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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