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We Need to Talk About Diversity in Orchestras

Almost 15% of our population identify as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, but do our orchestras reflect this? Catch up with the highlights of our Black History Month panel.

Published: 24 October 2016 | 12:00 AM Updated: 06 November 2023 | 1:53 PM
Image of the Diversity in Orchestras Debate

A torrential downpour on a dark Monday evening did not dampen the spirits at a lively debate, We Need to Talk About: Diversity In Orchestras, at Trinity Laban, South East London. It was held somewhat appropriately in October, Black History Month.

As ‘so white’ social media storms shone a light on the glaring absence of people of colour at keynote cultural events like the Oscars and the Brits in 2015, there is no reason why classical music should escape scrutiny in 2016.

Panelists Chi-Chi Nwanoku, founder of the Chineke! Orchestra, the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) ensemble that counts some 35 nationalities, bassoonist Lynton Stephens, percussionist Paul Philbert, violinist Sarah Daramy-Williams and David Burke, general manager of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, were refreshingly forthright in their views. Right from the off there was a sense that people wanted to outline the great extent of BAME underrepresentation in the classical world.

For example, Stephens had a telling anecdote on his earliest recollections of being a member of an ethnic minority who discovered classical music through the small screen in his front room. “I didn’t take up the bassoon until I was 16,” he said. “But I was watching the proms as an 8 year-old and I told my mom I hadn’t seen a single black person on the telly. Even as an 8 year-old I still recognized that there was something going on.”

Stephens, who studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and now successfully freelances for Halle and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic among others, defied the odds. So too did Philbert, a Trinity Graduate and principal timpanist at Opera North. Yet the essential issues of perception and visibility – whether BAME children even think that classical music is relevant to them in the first place, and the conspicuous absence of strong role models to convince them of as much – largely framed the whole debate.

Although BAME communities total 14.6% of the British population, a figure which is set to rise to 30% by 2050 there is no accurate data on black and Asian people in classical music because the numbers are so small, and that in itself tells a story. In 2014 Arts Council England made the Creative Case for Diversity and it is generally acknowledged in the business world that a multi-cultural workforce has mostly positive effects on a company’s performance levels.

Yet as logical as the argument for a challenge to the convention of white middle class dominance in the classical world may be, the panel was virtually unanimous in pointing out that the hurdles of race were compounded by those of economic status, which in practical terms means access to first rate education, not to mention the disposable income to pay for music lessons if children are to be able to reach the highest standard.  

As Nwanoku stated: “If there’s not a broad base [socially] at the bottom of the pyramid there’s little chance of progress at the top.”

But what of the top, the powerbrokers and decision makers? Do they need to open their eyes as much as those at the bottom? Both Nwanoku and Philbert revealed the existence of shocking prejudice on the grounds of gender [“The double bass is a man’s instrument”] as well as race, and all agreed that there was an urgent need for more BAME leaders as well as players. Performing well is one thing. Holding responsibility and affecting the lives of others is quite another.   

Needless to say there is no magic bullet, and when David Burke said of the current conundrum ‘It’s so great we don’t know where to start’ there was a sigh at the brutal expression of an inconvenient truth.

Action such as ‘screened auditions’, in order to avoid what Nwanoku called ‘unconscious bias’, was mentioned, though this was challenged by some audience members for the way it negates the personality of a player. Which raises the question of whether we can live in a truly colour-blind world. Race and racism are locked in a complex dynamic.

However, a degree of consensus was reached on the need for much more widespread education initiatives, which means that every capable musician should look to pass on knowledge. “We have to change the whole attitude towards teaching,” said Nwanoku. “We all have a duty of care. If you can play two notes then you can teach one. All skilled musicians graduating can. But where are the teaching jobs for them?”

That question of nurturing the next generation, the necessity and the resolve to do so, was arguably the most resonant theme of the night. But beyond the issue of race in classical music the panel touched on the bigger subject of the place of classical music in society, its detachment from the lives of ordinary people.

Then again the one thing missing from the debate was the existence of contemporary black British composers such as Errolyn Wallen, Tunde Jegede, and Jason Yarde. The latter is also an acclaimed jazz artist who works with soul, hip-hop and Afrobeat musicians. The morning after the debate one of his works was played on Radio 3’s Classical Breakfast show. Presenter Clemency Burton-Hill felt the need to say they were “focusing on diversity, celebrating a really wide range of composers from different backgrounds.” Quite uncannily, the piece was titled Rude Awakening!  

Journalist Kevin LeGendre writes about soul and jazz for Echoes, Jazzwise, The Independent and The Guardian. He has also presented programmes for BBC Radio 3.

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