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Levelling the playing field in UK music conservatoires: diversifying through decolonising

  • 20 July 2020
  • By Scott Caizley

This blog was kindly contributed by Scott Caizley, who is an ESRC funded PhD researcher at Kings College London exploring the lived experiences of underrepresented groups in UK music conservatoires.

On Thursday this week, HEPI will be publishing a major new paper about decolonising curricula.

This blog explores the concept of decolonising the Classical Music curriculum with the hope of battling the diversity challenges UK music conservatoires face on the recruitment of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) young people. Given recent events, it is crucial conservatoires make the same commitment to change as universities if they are committed to giving BME people the same chances of opportunity as their white counterparts. Not only this, but given their position as gate-keepers to the Classical Music industry, failure to address the racial inequalities now will threaten the future of the cultural and creative industries.

As these institutions are specialist and small in nature, their politics and practices as higher education institutions can at times, go unnoticed. The research arena of UK music conservatoires is also one which is heavily underdeveloped, with the majority of research focusing on the practises of music opposed to the social and cultural factors of both the music and the institutions in which it is taught. Given the continuous overlooked nature of conservatoires, research has still yet to address the fact that UK music conservatoires have some of the lowest enrolment rates for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students out of the entire UK higher education landscape (including Oxbridge). Not only do these institutions have extremely low amounts of BME people on their undergraduate programmes but also, data from HESA show how during the academic years of 2014/15 to 2017/18, the Royal College of Music had no UK-domiciled black student enrolments. Likewise, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland had no UK-domiciled black student enrolments for the year of 2015/16.

The traditional four-year BMus (Bachelor of Music) is the standard degree taught in UK music conservatoires with Classical Music acting as the primary style and focus. While Classical Music education has increased in popularity throughout the past century, one thing which has not changed is the music itself. In a New York Times piece named ‘The Greatest Composers’, the top 10 list were all exclusively white European males. While the works of Bach and Mozart are undeniably both influential and reflect genius, the Classical Music world has lacked racial diversity and since its earliest formations. Furthermore, despite efforts to promote racial diversity and participation for under-represented groups across the field of Classical Music, the sector remains overwhelmingly white and privileged. While we are unable to change the extremely white and overwhelmingly male-dominated history of Classical Music, we are however able to change how the music is understood today. I suggest this can be done through the act of decolonising.

In 2016, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) established ‘The Decolonising SOAS Working Group’ which came as a direct response from the ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ movement. This working group uses decolonisation as a tool to connect ‘contemporary racialised disadvantages with wider historical processes of colonialism’, ultimately seeking ‘to expose and transform them through forms of collective reflection and action’. Within their Learning and Teaching Toolkit for Programme and Module Convenors, SOAS declare their ‘ultimate goal’ as one which allows for the higher education sector to be as ‘equal and just as possible’. It is from this toolkit that conservatoires can also extract and implement within their own curricula. Given the gate-keeping culture conservatoires find themselves perpetuated within, decolonising these spaces could further act as a mechanism for a more racially diverse music sector. The toolkit sets out a list of questions which I urge conservatoires to engage with. These include:

  • What is the demographic profile of authors on the syllabus / programme?
  • To what extent does the content of my / our syllabus / programme presume a particular profile / mindset of student and their orientation to the world?
  • To what extent does my/our syllabus / programme allow students to understand the origins and purposes of this field of study in its historical context?

There are plentiful profound BME composers which conservatoire teachers can use within their lessons. For example, Joseph Bologne, Chavalier de Saint-Georges quoted by former US president John Adams as ‘the most talented man in Europe’. Another influential black classical composer is Florence Price who is recognised as the first African-American woman to have her works played by a major orchestra during the early twentieth century. Other prominent black composers include, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, George Bridgetower and Thomas Wiggins to name a few. However, because the sector is reinforced through white males, many BME composers have gone for too long, unnoticed.

Decolonising in this context is not about taking away but rather, bringing in. It is about giving under-represented voices a seat at the table. While conservatoire research belongs to a relatively small research arena, the problems they are facing do not just belong to them. Belonging to the UK’s higher education landscape requires them to function as higher education providers. In doing so, they must also act accordingly and take initiative when trying to widen participation and increase access to their spaces for those from BME backgrounds. As conservatoires and Classical Music progress into the 21st century, they must remain both relevant and accessible if they have any hope of retaining their unique positions within the cultural and creative industries. While decolonising is not a magic formula to eradicating racial inequality within these spaces, it is a step which should be taken if conservatoires are committed to both diverse curricula and diverse intakes of students from all backgrounds.

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