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Q&A with Reena Esmail, Composer & Luna Lab Mentor

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Indian-American composer Reena Esmail works between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music, and brings communities together through the creation of equitable musical spaces. As a Luna Composition Lab mentor, she addresses the gender imbalance in the field of classical music by encouraging girls and young women to compose. Below, she discusses Luna Lab as well as respresentation, diversity and equity in the music world. Above photo: Reena with Luna Lab Fellows Caroline Bragg and Helen Lyons.

What are you most looking forward to about working with the new group of Luna Composition Lab Fellows this year?
I am looking forward to the opportunity to understand this youngest generation of women, and to find new ways I can support their voices. Each generation has different needs, and different gifts to give. I know that through this one-to-one mentorship program, I will truly have the time and bandwidth to understand my mentee and how I can help create a world that supports her and her peers.

Does it make a difference for young composers/performers who have not traditionally been represented in the field of classical music to see someone who looks like them, or has a similar background to them, on stage? To be mentored by them?
Being represented is just the beginning. It is the very least we can do. I want to be clear: Women and minorities are fully aware that they are just as capable and creative as the people in the majority. But when they don't see themselves represented, it just conveys to them that our field is still too biased to accept them – and that perhaps they should take their talents elsewhere. We are simply losing talent by not demonstrating to our youngest creators that we are capable of fostering their voices at all levels. Mentoring is truly where the heart of the change lies. I mentor each student differently – based on their own unique vision for the world they want to see, and their place in it.

What role did mentors play in your career path?
I’ve been so fortunate to have some incredible mentors who saw in me what I never would have been able to see in myself, who supported me at the most nascent stages of my process, and continue to be incredible sources of support today. Some of my closest mentors have been Aaron Jay Kernis, Susan Botti and Chris Theofanidis. In many ways they feel like my “composer parents.” They have always held up mirrors to me that allow me to see myself and my work in the most bare and telling ways, and yet they have always had so much patience and compassion for me as I take the time I need to figure myself out. I’m still figuring it out, and they are still so deeply supportive. (This answer is from Reena’s recent interview in I Care If You Listen.)

Why is it important for the classical music world to be mindful of diversity and inclusion?
I think it is incredibly important for each organization to truly ask why diversity is important to them. There is a lot of discussion about diversity being a “should.” But we run the risk of simply tokenizing the very people we are trying to feature if we aren't clear on what the purpose of their presence is in an organization.

For me, personally, the answer is so simple: I don't want to spend the rest of my career alone. I would love it if my voice wasn't the only representation of my race and/or gender in so many spaces in which I currently operate. I have tried so hard in the last few years to seek out women composers who are older than me, to truly sit down with them and have the hard discussions, and to take their advice to heart on everything from avoiding career burnout to the decision to have children. I need those perspectives, and I am overjoyed that as a team at Luna Lab, we can provide a true community for the next generation of women composers to begin to ask us the tough questions.

I also think we should be moving past the ideas of diversity and inclusion and into the idea of equity. Inclusion still implies a hierarchy. Diversity still feels like it can stop at cosmetic solutions. But I have been so fortunate to work with many organizations who truly partner with minority groups to put their voices front and center – to move beyond simply stuffing them into an already existing structure, but to restructure their practices, inspired by the people they are partnering with. This is how we move past minority groups feeling like they are being recruited for the purpose of metrics, and how truly sustainable relationships begin.

As a mentor, what is the most important thing you’d like the young people you work with to understand?
You have so much more power than you think you do. You don't have to opt into practices that hurt you. Listen to yourself, to your voice, to what feels true within you. And do everything you can to bring your own truth into this world. For so many of the most creative young people, your ideas might just be too big for your body at this moment. It will take you years to truly grow into them and be able to express them in a way the world can understand. (And who are we kidding – professional artists struggle every day with that same gap between conception and expression. It is an integral part of an authentic practice.) But keep trying to find that unique way to express yourself. We adults need your voice more than we are willing to admit. Don't give up on us – don't stop trying to teach us. We are listening.

Photo: David Andrako