The Musical Modernizer: Carol Carlson

By Katy Macek | Photography by Hillary Schave

Representation matters, and Carol Carlson is working to bring inclusivity of all backgrounds into classical music, one of the most stereotypically white, upper-class, male-dominated genres.

Making high-quality classical music lessons accessible to all children is why she co-founded Music con Brio in 2011, an after-school instrumental music program that admits children on a sliding-scale tuition. The program runs out of Emerson Elementary School and is open to all students in first through fourth grade (once admitted, they can remain enrolled through the end of high school).

“It’s about quality, affordability and accessibility,” Carlson says. “We’ve literally never turned away a student because of financial need.”

As the organization celebrates 10 years in 2021, Carlson feels she’s succeeded in many ways. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, Carlson noticed McB lost many nonwhite families as instruction pivoted online. As summer gave way to social unrest and protests downtown, she found herself reckoning with a “crisis of consciousness.”

The program, she realized, hadn’t done enough to meet nonwhite families where they are and incorporate their interests and needs into programming.

She turned to McB board member Kimberly Gilmore, who joined because it reminded her of an after-school music program she had done growing up in Detroit. Gilmore, who is Black, put it bluntly to Carlson.

“We were having trouble getting young people of color to stick with the program,” Gilmore says. “Well, there’s no teachers that look like them. It goes even past that to the composers you’re using, the songs you’re teaching. How many Black composers do we have? What’s the context of the music?”

As McB kicks off its next decade, Carlson is overhauling the curriculum, including curating three pieces of music per year by composers of minority backgrounds.

She’s also hoping to expand McB by partnering with Goodman Community Center to host programming, starting with a community arts showcase this summer. They’ll also ask Goodman Center families what kind of programming would be appealing, and eventually, hold weekly sessions at the center.

“We’ve been guessing what the Black community wants, and [we’re] not very good at that,” Carlson says Gilmore told her. “A much better tactic would be to ask them.”

Gilmore believes McB has the potential to expand outside of Madison.

“Carol has the blueprint and the structure that’s just phenomenal,” Gilmore says. “She did the groundwork, and we have to extend that vision.”

2021 could be a pivotal year for Music con Brio. Carlson looks forward to putting in the work, starting with ULTRAVIOLET, a 10th anniversary celebration and fundraiser that will feature Chicago-based The CoverGirls Violin Show, a violin group her sister plays in.

“I’m excited about moving in a direction where we can truly be inclusive and diverse,” Carlson says. “We are a community music program, so we want to make sure we’re representing the community.”

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