Friday, February 16, 2018

Marlon Daniel: It's hard to believe, but classical music is finally getting somewhere with its race problem

Conductor Marlon Daniel with the Chineke! Juniors 
Credit: Chineke! Juniors

The Telegraph


15 February 2018

Late last month (actually 31 Jan), in a sea of bad or worrying news, there was actually something to cheer about. The names of the young musicians who’ve made it through to the category finals of the BBC Young Musician 2018 were announced. Among them were a fair sprinkling of musicians from a BME (black and minority ethnic) background. And no less than four of them were members of the Chineke! Juniors, an orchestra set up for gifted BME children. That’s 16% of the total number of finalists.
For an organisation that’s only two years old, that’s an astonishing result. These kids are going places, and one day we may well see them on a bigger stage. To take just one example: Elodie Chousmer-Howelles is forging ahead with her violin studies, and is now pondering whether she should study at the Royal Academy of Music or the Juilliard School in New York. And it shows that change is possible, in an area where it seemed it would never come – partly because no-one thought it was needed. The racial bias in classical music was a fact that lay shamelessly open, in full view. And it still does today. It’s plain every time you go to an orchestral concert, and behold that sea of white faces below on the platform – and all around in the audience. Yet for decades no-one noticed, as if were actually invisible.

Now it’s no longer invisible. The view in recent years is that if the ‘high arts’ such as theatre and high opera and classical music are to be publicly funded, then they must be open to every part of our ethnically and culturally diverse population. And if that means instituting ‘affirmative action’ programmes to encourage participation, as practitioners and audience members, so be it. Both here and in the US, there has been in upsurge to encourage more BME participation in the arts. 

Within classical music, progress so far has been frustratingly slow.  A survey in the US in 2016 found that while take-up of Asian players had risen to 9%, Hispanics and African-American players accounted for only 4.3% of the total. A researcher at King’s College London surveyed the British orchestral scene in 2015 and found that out of 629 professional orchestral players, “only 11 (1.7%) could be identified to be from a Black and Minority Ethnic background.”

If change is to come, it must start at the bottom, in schools. Music Colleges and conservatoires can only train talented BME musicians if they turn up in some numbers at auditions. And that means the cultural barriers to participation need to be to be torn down, so that the BME children feel able to participate without feeling they’re out of place and don’t belong.


Which is where Chineke! comes in. As the orchestra’s founder, the unbelievably dynamic and visionary double-bass virtuoso Chi-chi Nwanoku, never tires of pointing out, ‘what you don’t see you can’t be’. If you’re a gifted musical BME child looking out at an all-white orchestra, the thought might well cross your mind, ‘That looks fun, but I don’t belong there.’ The existence of Chineke! Juniors changes all that at a stroke. Speak to the parents or the children, and they all say the same things. On the one hand, it’s exactly like any other top-level youth orchestra, such as the National Children’s Orchestra. It aims high, and so gives the children something to aspire to. But unlike those orchestras, it makes BME children feel comfortable with themselves. They no longer stand out.

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