‘It puts me off’: musicians on why white syllabuses deter black talent

‘It puts me off’: musicians on why white syllabuses deter black talent

More than 4,000 people have signed a petition calling on the exam board of the UK’s royal schools of music to include more black composers in their syllabus. This follows new research, which has revealed that 99% of pieces in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) exam syllabuses are by white composers. Musicians, academics, teachers and students tell us why the overwhelmingly white syllabus is deterring young black talent from pursuing classical music in higher education and as a career.

‘I don’t see enough people from ethnic minorities’

Aseye Olympio, violin student at the Royal College of Music

Aseye Olympio says she had been discouraged from applying to study further at the conservatoire partly because of its lack of black representation.

Olympio, who is 17 and lives in Kennington, south London, says: “It does put me off when I don’t see enough people from ethnic minorities, especially black people, in higher roles, like conductors, theory teachers, musicianship teachers, even one to one violin lesson practical teachers. I think: ‘How come people like me are not in a position like that? How come we don’t have the opportunity to be in this role?’”

Her mother, Patience Vivor, says her daughter was not exposed to black composers during her music education. “I didn’t know that black composers actually exist,” she adds. “I was very enthusiastic when I found out about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. It would be very useful for black children, [as] they are not widely represented in the college, [to] have the opportunity to study music from black composers. These conservatoires need to really change not just the culture but the curriculum.”

‘There is a lot of black talent out there’

Kadie Kanneh-Mason, former university lecturer

Kadie Kanneh-Mason.

Kadie Kanneh-Mason. Photograph: Screengrab/BBC/Swan Films

Former university lecturer Kadie Kanneh-Mason’s seven children have all attended the Royal Academy of Music and its primary and junior academies. Her son, Sheku, became a household name after performing at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018.

She and her husband introduced their children to Coleridge-Taylor and other black composers. She says: “What we did was say to them [was] you should listen to music that is not necessarily classical but is by black artists. We very much wanted to give them a sense that all music is owned by everybody, and there is a lot of black talent out there. If you are a child learning music and you see a black composer and you’re learning that piece of music, I do think that makes a huge difference.

“We’ve never really found that the classical music world itself is not welcoming. But I know that when they all turned up – I’m especially [thinking of my daughter] Isata when she first arrived at junior Royal Academy – she was the only one. And that is, I think, slowly changing.”

Kanneh-Mason believes the main barrier to improving diversity in classical music is the cuts to state school music education. She adds: “I think in defence of the conservatoires, you can’t accept students who are not there to apply. It has to start with the state school curriculum.”

‘Conservatoires should choose composers from all ethnic groups’

Eleanor Alberga, composer

Alberga, an internationally renowned composer whose choral work Arise, Athena! was performed at the Last Night of the Proms, says ABRSM previously asked black and minority ethnic composers to write pieces for its syllabus when public attention was drawn to its lack of diversity. But, she says, the board will always “revert to the status quo”.

“The ball is dropped, it’s picked up again and then it disappears again. Conservatoires should regularly be choosing composers from all ethnic groups and should celebrate their own distinguished alumni by performing their work.”

“We need to build up audiences as well. If students don’t take up music, at least they might become interested in classical music and they’ll go to concerts. But from that huge body of people who are being exposed to classical music from primary school we should start getting more black teachers, more black performers and more black composers. I think that’s the only way. They can’t just fall out of the sky at age 20.”

‘Some musicians say black people are biologically unsuited’

Uchenna Ngwe.

Uchenna Ngwe. Photograph: Clifton Harrison/Uchenna Ngwe

Uchenna Ngwe, artistic director of Decus Ensemble

Ngwe, whose historical project PlainsightSOUND documents classical musicians in Britain of African and Caribbean descent, says racist stereotypes still hold black students back. She explains: “There have been black students at conservatoires since they were established in the late 19th century. But even now you have teachers and prominent musicians openly saying that black people are biologically unsuited to playing particular instruments or unable to sing specific styles or genres of music.”

“Despite what we’re often taught in this country, classical music has never existed in a cultural silo. Black people have participated in it for centuries and more research is going into understanding the cross-cultural influences that are still evident in European history. It’s extremely strange that this is still ignored in our teaching on classical music history.”