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The following feature comes from the keynote speech given by Linton Stephens on day two of the MU Members' Conference 2022. If you’re interested in shaping MU policy moving forward, find out more about how to get involved with the MU Delegate Conference 2023.

Linton Stephens talking into a microphone on a stand in front of a background of Musicians' Union banners

I know what you're thinking, not another gay Black bassoonist here to lecture us! I grew up on the Wirral, one of seven. Anybody else who's from a big family will know that with six siblings, your voice doesn't get heard very often. That's just the nature of it. I went to school on the Wirral, and nowhere will you feel as undervalued as a young Black boy as the British Education System.

So much so that when I decided I wanted to be a bassoonist, I spoke to my careers officer who told me that it was really hard to get into music and that I should look to Tesco – and there's absolutely nothing wrong with Tesco – but they told me to look to Tesco for a job there. I could work my way up to management.

Fortunately I was quite a headstrong young person. Nonetheless, when I decided to go into music and went and studied, I didn't really think that my voice mattered. I didn't really think that I contributed to anything. I just got on with my job.

Making waves for the future of the industry

When I was about 30, maybe eight years ago, I joined the MU and all of a sudden my voice mattered. All of a sudden, what I said was being listened to and that was a massive thing for me. That never really happened in my life.

I now work as a freelance bassoonist and for BBC Radio Three – bit of shameless self promotion, my show Classical Fix, check it out – and I really thank the MU for that opportunity, for helping me to find my voice.

It was at an MU conference where a BBC producer came up to me and asked if I wanted to do some pilots for BBC. What I'm saying is these conferences are really important. The ripples we make today can make waves in the future for individuals and for the industry.

Habits can be a blessing, but they can also lead to complacency

People usually do what they're in the habit of doing. Now that might seem like a really obvious thing to say, but it's significant in a number of ways. Arguing in its favour, it's a comfortable way of living. There are a minimum number of decisions that require attention, and hopefully, the things that you're in the habit of doing and the manner in which you do them are all compatible with your idea of the ideal life.

If you're studying to be a concert pianist, or a rock guitarist or a gymnast or a tennis player, then you'd better submit to some rigorous habit forming, such as hours and hours of practice, something that I'm sure we all understand.

Arguments against forming daily habits though, that guide you through life without having to make any new choices are quite numerous. The old adage use it or lose it is applicable here. If one's formed a pretty solid day's worth of habits that carry him through the days and months and years, he's gonna grow smaller and smaller and smaller until age sets in and the more habitual he becomes, the sooner age will set in.

Somebody said change will help keep the balance sheets in order or something like that. And we're not talking change for the sake of change. We're talking about change for improvement, for expanding the consciousness, for an ever fresh and open-minded attitude to our piece of the universe.

Habits are a blessing if they mean that we don't have to relearn everything every day; brushing our teeth, tying our laces. But if they lead us down the narrowing road of complacency, they become a drag and not the good kind.

That's a quote from one of my favourite books. It's called Drawn to Life and it's by a Disney animator called Walt Stanchfield. He’s an incredible writer and the heart and meaning of his philosophical lecture seem to transcend the subject that he talks about. And he's not wrong either. But I'll circle back to that in a minute.

Equity is knowing that we all meet at the table with slightly different needs and addressing those

I want to focus on equality, diversity and inclusion, because that's what this conference is about. They’re words that are thrown about so much today that we're almost desensitised to them. They've become corporate signposts, meaningless commitments, virtue-signaling trends and mandatory training.

Whilst I say that with a bit of disdain, I do think it's good that it's on people's radar. But I want to take a moment to look at what those things mean, to me, in a very human way.

Diversity for me, well, diversity exists. It's a fact. Whatever room you walk into where there are other people, whether you like it or not, each person in that room has a uniquely different family, environmental, social or occupational makeup on micro and macro scales.

And diversity is amazing because what that affords us is wealth. A wealth of thought, a wealth of experience, and talent, a wealth of ideas, a wealth of approaches, and the ability to connect with a wealth of other people who recognise something of that in themselves.

Equality is my recognition that when I walk into this room, by my own virtue of what I bring, I have just as much opportunity as anybody else. I have the right to be treated like everybody else. Nothing about me that pertains to how I exist in this world outside of my control is a factor that should disadvantage me.

And inclusion for me is putting all those things into practice both for myself, but for everybody else as well.

And then equity, that's a word that's often tacked on at the end, but I think is probably one of the most important. Equity is knowing that we all meet at the table with slightly different needs and addressing those, we need to do that for the previous three to work. Making reasonable adjustments in my attitude, or my thoughts or my interaction so that we all meet on a level playing field or as close to as possible.

Equality isn’t political

Unfortunately, those words have now moved into a camp of having political cachet. They're synonymous with the ‘woke left’. But the funny thing is, politics exists in a sphere and not on a linear scale. And furthermore, equality isn't political. It's been politicised as a divisive tactic.

But if you speak to most people, and I mean really converse to listen and not to respond, you'll hear that they're generally in favour of equality, diversity and inclusion. In practice, most people hate racism. Most people hate sexism. Most people hate discrimination and unfair treatment in the workplace.

However, often, not always, but very often, people can't empathise with discrimination until it happens directly to them. Until the system that they're in no longer works in their favour.

Art is an ever-changing response to the world around us

Knowledge comes in two forms – explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is knowing that discrimination exists. Tacit knowledge is knowing how it presents itself in real life and living that discrimination. And this, I think, is where our challenge lies.

Most people know that discrimination is wrong. Lots of peoples and organisations however, don't know just how that discrimination manifests and how it affects people and how it plays into our jobs in the music industry.

So I'm gonna go back to my opening quote. You might remember I said that we're not talking about change for the sake of change, but for improvement, for expanding the consciousness. For an ever fresh and open minded attitude to our piece of the universe. And that's how I feel about music.

Art is ever-changing. It's an ever-changing response to the world around us. It's a reflection from our soul, of what it means to be human. And the change we talk of here at this conference and in music is a change for that ever-expanding consciousness. It's for that open-minded attitude to our little piece of the universe, and we don't lose anything by doing this. In fact, we get a more rounded picture because more people can create.

We only add to the incredible wealth of art that we're fortunate enough to be able to access. We expand that art form for a fuller picture.

Success can be helping even just one life breathe easier

History itself is never subjective. The people who teach it always are. And true history doesn't lie in the textbooks or in literature. It lies, I think, in art. And when I think about our industry, and I reflect on why I got involved in the MU, and I think about what success is for me – it's a word that I've always really struggled with, what is success? – of course, I want to be making my mark on the classical music industry.

I read this quote, and it really summed up success for me: “success, to laugh often and much. To win the respect of intelligent people and the affections of children. To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends. To appreciate beauty. To find the best in others. To leave the world a little bit better. Whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, a redeemed social condition. To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to succeed.”

An inclusive workplace is defined as a work environment that makes every employee feel valued, while also acknowledging their differences and how these differences contribute to the organisation's culture and business outcomes. An inclusive workplace is characterised by an affirmative action, wherein any impact of bias, discrimination, unequal opportunity is negated.

So, Conference, it's this type of success that I urge you all to find in the remainder of today: how can even just one life breathe easier because by being here you've helped make our industry more inclusive?

Help make our industry more inclusive

There are lots of ways to support the union’s work to make the union and the music industry more inclusive, from building inclusion in your working practice to getting involved in the union:

The MU’s Delegate Conference will be held at the Park Regis Hotel in Birmingham on Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 July 2023, and is a place where you can get involved in shaping what we do for the next two years. Find out more about how you can attend as part of your Region’s delegation.

Thanks to

Linton Stephens

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