On Diversity & Music Education


I attended the Mayor of London’s Summit on School Music yesterday, at which there was a lot of talk about promoting diversity in music education.

Much of this talk centred around raising the participation of minority groups in classical music. I’m not saying this is wrong, far from it, our orchestras and choirs do need to be more representative of the rich diversity of the population of Britain. However, I do wonder why we are not also talking about getting more white people involved in music of other cultures?

Actually that question was rhetorical. I know that the answer to that is that classical music is still held by some to be the pinnacle of musical ambition. But why? Classical music is an oddity, in that it’s the only form of music that is considered ‘mainstream’ in this country that was written hundreds of years ago. Most music comes and goes with generations, and before I’m told that the reason classical music is ‘the best’ because it has ‘endured’ through time, let’s remember that actually it was Mendelssohn in the 19th Century who championed the return of Bach and Handel into the performance repertoire because their work had largely been forgotten. Classical music has had to be resuscitated with campaigns and funding in a way that, say, the music of Adele has not, because Adele is current, relevant and alive*.

Now I’m not against classical music. In fact I have a PhD in the vocal music of Henry Purcell, and spent a good few years as a classical singer specialising in Early Music. But what I am against is the view that classical music is ‘better’ than any other form of music. Other cultures have equally long-standing and artistically significant musical traditions. Why are we not making room on the pedestal for these? Why are we not encouraging white performers to get involved in ‘minority’ music? Why are we focusing on raising the participation of minority musicians in (white) classical music? I have to confess that I find this uncomfortable.

YES classical music needs more ethnic diversity. But music education also needs musical diversity.

I know that there will be countless diverse musical projects all over the country. Perhaps you run one and are shouting at your computer screen at this very moment. But we’re not hearing about these from politicians and policy-makers. We’re hearing about making classical music diverse, as if classical music was the gold standard of all music.

It isn’t.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford

23rd March 2016

*Yes I am aware that there are many living classical composers – I work with several. But their music is often marketed as ‘contemporary’, and treated differently from the works of the classical canon. I don’t believe that when politicians etc talk about ‘classical’ music that they are referring to the work of our fantastic living and breathing composers. They’re referring to long dead white Europeans. Nick Gibb, for example, name-checked Handel and Allegri yesterday…