by Coco Khan

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.

London20090703evening_audience3Currently, 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 classical music 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.

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El Sistema was a social project started in 1975 under Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez. 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?

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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 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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Coco Khan Coco Khan is a London based journalist writing on the arts and politics with a pop culture skew. She is currently Editor-in-Chief of arts and lifestyle magazine, Kensington and Chelsea Review, Culture Editor at Complex UK and is a blogger for Independent, Huffington Post, New Internationalist and more. Tweet her @cocobyname

4 thoughts on “Why is classical music still as white as ever?

  1. Well said, all. Yes, there can be an issue here – though not necessarily because ANYONE wants it to be. All the classical musicians I know (I’m married to a pro orchestral player) want their music to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of what they look like or where they come from; and we must remember that some pro performers come from very humble backgrounds – realizing musical gifts of all sorts can be, and sometimes is, a way of moving on from limited circumstances.

    That’s one of the many reasons some of us seek to ensure others know about musicians such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, arguably Britain’s greatest black classical composer (1875-1912). He stuck out for diversity in performers (singers, if no players) and was one of the first signatories to the Pan-African Congress pronouncements in 1900, in London.

    It’s important to ensure, as I know others here would agree, that no unnecessary perceptual barriers are put in the way of children (and adults) who seek classical music for their souls and spirits. Class and skin colour are quite irrelevant to what the music can offer.

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  2. Though I can’t play a classical musical instrument (I was only taught steel band at school because my school couldn’t fund an orchestra). I loved classical music from an early age and listened to it religiously throughout my teen years. Although it’s elitist Western veneer can be intimidating, beautiful music is beautiful music that transcends race, nationality, language, social background etc. (call me idealistic!) And I hope that the classical music initiatives to reach out to non-traditional audience continue and prosper.

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