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We’re Calling on the ABRSM to Diversify Their Syllabi

We've sent a letter on behalf of over 70 organisations, musicians, music teachers and academics to ABRSM, demanding they take meaningful and measurable action to diversify their syllabi.

Photograph of a young child standing in front of a chalk board, learning the violin.
Music education is a subject that should thrive on diversity. To limit the subject is a disservice to students, teachers and the composers who aren’t being played. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The letter to the ABRSM was drafted by members and activists and underlined key concerns that the syllabi’s lack of diversity is contributing to the erasure of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian People of Colour (BBIAPOC) from Western European musical history. The letter then went on to set out the key actions that the ABRSM must undertake.

The letter to the ABRSM

Dear ABRSM,

As an organisation with a huge influence on young people’s musical and cultural development you have a responsibility to reflect the diverse heritage of music and improve diversity in the music education sector. There have been concerns for many years that you are failing to do either, that your syllabi lack diversity and contributes to the erasure of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian People of Colour (BBIAPOC) from Western European musical history.

While seeking language that accurately reflects our aims, and acknowledging that this may be imperfect terminology, we use BBIAPOC in this context to recognise ABRSM’s role as a global institution with links to the white colonial communities that have settled in New Zealand, Australia and North America, where Indigenous peoples continue to be racialised and oppressed by non-indigenous or whiteness.

A music syllabus that reflects the diversity of music teachers and the students they teach is integral to improving representation and participation in music education. We all have a responsibility to ensure that music education is accessible to and reflective of the most diverse range of students possible - and ABRSM is pivotal in making this happen.

With over 650,000 candidates sitting ABRSM exams each year in more than 90 countries, you are in a privileged and unique position to create and drive change in the music education sector.

ABRSM’s history is entwined with the history and legacy of British Empire. As David Wright’s social and cultural history of the ABRSM notes, your organisation is a legacy of Victorian Britain and the colonial project having been created to expand the technological and professional workforce needed to run the British Empire. Many Black and Brown musicians and composers in the Global North are here as a direct result of that, and their absence in syllabi speaks to the ongoing erasure of their contributions to Western European Classical music.

This is not a new issue. Various individuals and organisations have raised the lack of BBIAPOC composers with ABRSM numerous times in recent years, most recently a petition started by Grace Healy that to date has received over 4000 signatures. Many of us have received inadequate responses.

Whilst we welcome your revised commitment to diversity and the launch of a mentoring scheme these commitments still have no measurable targets. Without publicly stated, measurable targets, your commitment feels like another inadequate response.

The recent music industry initiative called #theshowmustbepaused has brought a renewed focus to this issue. The Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the UK has shone a spotlight on what happens when there is a lack of BBIAPOC people in positions of power and influence and arts, culture and music has a huge role to play in sharing our collective histories and stories as a nation. Including BBIAPOC voices is essential to creating a more fair and equal society.

There is a wealth of BBIAPOC composers to choose from. There is a wealth of BBIAPOC composers to commission new work from. There is a growing number of musicians, academics, students and music teachers asking you to be more diverse. Another inadequate response is not enough. We demand to see tangible action.

We, the undersigned, demand the ABRSM undertakes the following actions:

  • Include works by BBIAPOC composers throughout your syllabi and guarantee a minimum standard of inclusion in policy going forwards
  • Conduct a review of your processes for selecting pieces for your syllabi, including how pieces are assessed and who assesses them, to ensure a fair and transparent process – and publish this report
  • Commit to commissioning a minimum of 50% of all new works by composers from BBIAPOC communities by the end of 2021

We also demand that any task force, board or committee that discusses how these actions will be implemented must include BBIAPOC to ensure this commitment.

Who composes the music we teach matters. Young BBIAPOC musicians need the opportunity to learn about BBIAPOC role models if they are to aspire to be musicians and composers.

Music education is a subject that should thrive on diversity. To limit the subject is a disservice to students, teachers and the composers who aren’t being played.

ABRSM must address these inequalities or it will be left behind.

Demanding change

Over 70 organisations, musicians, music teachers and academics have signed the above letter calling for change.

Signatories include:

  • Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, Double bassist, Founder, Artistic & Executive Director of Chineke!
  • PRS Foundation
  • The Ivors Academy
  • Leon Bosch, Conductor, Double Bass Virtuoso and Professor at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
  • Ammo Talwar MBE, Chair of Diversity Taskforce at UK Music
  • Dr Anna Bull, Senior Lecturer at University of Portsmouth

For the full list, please contact equalities@theMU.org

Black Members’ Network

Black members are invited to join our Black Members’ Network for regular opportunities to get involved, have your say on what we do, contribute to consultation responses, and help make policy that reflects the truth.

Teachers are also encouraged to join the MU Teaching Section, email teachers@themu.org to join.


Published: 03/08/2020

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