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Racial diversity in classical music: A daunting experience for non-white professionals working in the industry today

Coco Khan
classical music getty 300x225 Racial diversity in classical music: A daunting experience for non white professionals working in the industry today

(Getty Images)

“Going into a concert hall, you see an entirely white orchestra, a white audience and a white soloist”. I am talking to Julian Lloyd-Webber about the lack of black and ethnic minority people in the cut-throat world of classical music. He describes a common scene; by his own admission a “daunting” one for the handful of non-white professionals working in classical music today.

Currently, just five per cent of classical music professionals working in the UK identify as black and minority ethnic – and this figure shows no sign of rising, according to the Arts Council Staff Survey. Compare this to the 12 per cent slice of the UK population made up by the same group, and the under representation in British classical music speaks for itself and it speaks volumes.

The problem of racial diversity in classical music has long been the elephant in the room. Anecdotally, the stories are prolific. Only last year Hollywood screenwriter Candace Allen (the ex-wife of conductor Sir Simon Rattle) branded the British classical world “racist”.

Allen claimed that a combination of discrimination and lack of exposure to classical at an early age meant that black people were unlikely to make it to the concert hall (be that in the audience or in the pit) so when they did, their sense of alienation made the experience not one to be repeated. On this second point, Allen can’t be faulted.

“People need role models,” Lloyd-Webber tells me. “They need to see someone like themselves out there”. It’s long been accepted that one’s relationship with music starts at a young age. That counts for any genre of music, so any suggestion that classical isn’t ‘relevant’ is absurd. Listening to Mozart might seem odd for a young black kid living in an estate, but no more so than listening to a K-Pop star speaking in Korean while he dances like a horse; it’s all about exposure.

Hearing it at home, in school, visits to concerts, a few friends with the same interest, all these factors contribute to one’s sense of community in music, and without this sense of community, forming a meaningful bond to any kind of sound is nigh impossible.

To this end, a number of outstanding outreach programs have developed. There’s over 20 years of the London Symphony Orchestra Discovery Program, a music education scheme that touches 60,000 children with a particular focus on East London.  At the Barbican, the famous avant-garde programming has actively (and successfully) sought new audiences by breaking boundaries in concert hall convention, be that by fusing classical musicians from India with a jazz band or by giving Aphex Twin a remote control orchestra. Orchestras Live are creating pop-up performances in shopping malls to recontextualise how we see classical, and perhaps most moving of all, is Julian Lloyd-Webber’s In Harmony El Sistema project in Liverpool and London, modelled on its Venezuelan namesake.

El Sistema was a social project initiated under Hugo Chavez that encouraged community activity and adolescent discipline by providing poor children with lessons in an orchestra. Venezuela now boasts over 300,000 children in the program and one of the best orchestras in the world. “The conductor [Gustavo Dudamel] is as famous as any footballer”, Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei and composer) tells me.

“The audiences are young, the players are young, the performances feel like a party”. Here in the UK, Lloyd-Webber’s program has reported equally outstanding results. “I am positive that for most of the kids in our program, they have had little to no exposure to classical,” Lloyd-Webber tells me. “And now it is their life”.

So why, after all this, is classical music as white as it has ever been?

“Traditionally, most people in the classical world have grown up in a family where classical music was played,” Prokofiev tells me “and as far as I can see, that hasn’t changed”. The outreach work of any number of organisations may have helped to engage audiences – but without sustained exposure, and, if the child wants, the costs of lessons and instruments, the status quo cannot and will not change. This is particularly true of BME communities where classical music – a largely Western movement – can be perceived as alien.

These changes cannot, and should not come from non-elected bodies such as orchestras and community projects. They should, and can only, come from the government. Music education funding was shredded to ribbons under Thatcher; Michael Gove’s National Plan for music education has been in full swing for just under a year, and it is perhaps too early to say whether it has succeeded or not. But the instances of ‘theory-only’ music classes to meet curriculum requirements, or no music programme at all, compounded with the challenge of giving a child continued access to an instrument, remain widespread.

If you happen to live in an area where people like In Harmony, LSO and others are working, then your child might just fulfil their musical potential regardless of their colour or class. If not, the postcode lottery of music education might get the better of you. But what does it all matter if classical music still looks set to stay white? According to Kathryn McDowell, director of the LSO, “If we’re in receipt of public subsidy we have a responsibility”. Responsibility, if only that was a classic.

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  • Orchestras Live

    To pick up on an inaccuracy in the article, Orchestras Live has not created ‘pop-up performances in shopping malls’ but does focus its activity in under-served or hard-to-reach areas, working with orchestras and local partners within diverse communities to deliver meaningful projects with long-term impact.

  • inthestair

    What percentage of young White British children play bhangra and reggae? Would Simon Rattles ex like to comment? And is there a government funded programme my young relatives can apply to?

  • ArchiesBoy

    Apparently, Ms. Khan has never visited America. Thankfully, both our major and minor symphonies are generous repositories of the finest non-white musicians from all races, and from all over the world.

  • Pauken Kiger

    maybe it has something to do with the fact that if you are Muslim, and are caught even thinking about Western music, you get your head chopped-off…

  • petepassword

    Typical muslim whine. Perhaps because it’s a European artform and foreigners are recent citizens. Maybe also multiculturalism’s separate ethnic ghettoes won’t allow children to learn ‘western music or instruments’. Cultural separation, thought that was whaat multiculturalism was all about. Oh I forgot, muslims want evetrthing their way. There simply is no bar on colour, but muslims constantly try to make out there is.

  • Keep an eye out

    It says absolutely nothing except that other ethnic groups are not as interested in it.

    Is the author looking at classical music as some kind of jobs program that minorities are entitled to? Because that’s what it seems like.

    How much classical music do they purchase and how many concerts do they go to? If the answer is little to none then nothing is owed.

    The only elephant in the room is the disproportionate amount of crime that minorities commit and how ungrateful they are for being here. Boo hoo!

  • Keep an eye out

    No, no, it has to be racism. Have you taken the time to see a young minority into a career in classical music? YOU HAVEN’T! Then you must be a racist.

  • Keep an eye out

    But the author is a fan of Marxist dictators… so a couple decades doesn’t matter.

  • Keep an eye out

    Because of the knee jerk claim of racism.


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