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How Diverse, Inclusive, and Accessible is Classical Music?

  • 05 March 2024, Tuesday
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How Diverse, Inclusive, and Accessible is Classical Music?

The classical music industry receives much criticism for being inaccessible, elitist, and homogenous and for not doing enough to become more diverse and inclusive. This article discusses various dimensions that influence how much or little access individuals have to classical music education and careers and what steps the industry can take to change the status quo.

Access to classical music careers: who has more, who has less?

Affluence and class: Is classical music elitist?

Launching and sustaining a classical music career requires much practice, experience, and ongoing monetary investments. It also tends to come with many prerequisites: careers often start at an early age, with parents introducing their children to music education by signing them up for instrument classes. Acquiring essential skills when they are young allows music enthusiasts to move on to formal education at colleges or conservatories. Since the industry values professionalism, formal schooling is usually considered a crucial step towards success.

Unfortunately, many are limited in their access to opportunities at an early age. Instruments and music classes cost a lot, which many cannot afford. Meanwhile, college education is usually even more expensive and, therefore, even less accessible. These factors matter, as class strongly influences the chances of aspiring musicians entering the industry. According to a study by the Arts Council England, 80% of the UK's classical musicians grew up in more affluent areas. At the same time, young people from higher-income families are significantly overrepresented across the industry's elite training opportunities. So, is classical music elitist? The numbers would say yes.

Race and ethnicity: how diverse is classical music?

While class is one major determinant of access to classical music careers, race and ethnicity also play a significant role. According to statistics, the majority of classical musicians and industry professionals in the UK are white (and usually male). Meanwhile, a 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras shows that over the years, the rates of Black and Hispanic/Latinx classical musicians in the United States have only increased slightly.

Low levels of diversity among classical musicians are caused by systemic inequalities, overt and covert forms of discrimination, a broader lack of awareness and inclusivity, and (financial) entry barriers, which often disproportionately impact marginalized groups. However, they are also the result of a lack of diversity among the industry’s decision-makers. In an interview with classical Music (UK), South Bank Centre’s head of music, Toks Dada, explains: “If the industry wants to really and truly attract diverse audiences, artists, and composers, then it needs to demonstrate that there is diversity among the gatekeepers, the management parts of the industry."

Underrepresentation is yet another factor that can easily discourage aspiring artists from trying to embark on the journey of becoming a classical musician. Some artists fear not be taken seriously and are concerned about their physical and emotional safety. And as Black classical musicians Alador and Sador Bereketab explain, many question if they would even belong.

Further determinants

Many other factors influence people’s access to classical music careers, such as disabilities, age, or gender. For instance, ACE National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) reported that they did not know about the disability status of 75% of their artistic workforce.

Regarding gender, men continue to hold top positions, receive better training opportunities, and earn more money along the way. According to numbers, out of 4,857 analyzed concerts worldwide, 88,55% contained zero compositions by women. From an intersectional perspective, this impacts women of color the most: as statistics show, out of 14,747 compositions from all over the world, only 1.1% were written by Black and Asian women (and only 2.43% by Black and Asian men).

Meanwhile, people who do not identify with the gender binary are often not represented in articles and studies, which sheds light on a lack of inclusivity of gender-diverse people.

What can the classical music industry do?

How can classical music become more accessible to artists and listeners across all identities? What steps have the industry and its members taken to create a more inclusive environment?

While the first step is acknowledgment, institutions and industry members should actively and consistently work towards creating safer, more diverse environments. This process requires significant changes in education, such as highlighting the works of marginalized artists rather than constructing curricula exclusively upon the works of famous white men from the past.

Similarly, offering free (or at least affordable) music lessons at schools and providing members of systemically disadvantaged groups with scholarships or financial aid would allow more people to participate. When it comes to work opportunities, the industry should encourage people from all backgrounds and identities to apply for jobs and ensure they also get hired. In this context, creating new roles to represent various groups could help highlight their voices, create more opportunities, and establish safer environments.

Some institutions are taking steps towards more inclusivity by introducing initiatives to broaden the opportunity to engage with classical music. For instance, the Wigmore Hall in London introduced affordable concerts for those on a low income and “low stimulus” performances for neurodivergent individuals. Nevertheless, the lack of initiative remains an issue, which is why many artists decide to take things into their own hands. And thankfully, their efforts are often met with financial support from organizations and cultural institutions.

One example is the Chineke! Foundation, Europe’s first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra. The foundation, founded in 2015 by Chi-Chi Nwanoku, aims to provide career opportunities to Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians across the UK and EU. The orchestra performs a mixture of standard orchestral repertoire along with the works of composer from various backgrounds.

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Another example is an educational project by violinist Hayden Afele-Nicke, artistic director and senior tutor at the music education charity Arohanui Strings. Hayden aims to make orchestral music education more accessible to children from low-income backgrounds. By offering group music lessons, he helps them get acquainted with music education and reach their full potential.

Access to education also lies at the core of the app Maestro, launched by the Armenian Classical musicians Lucy Bichakhchyan and Arus Nazaryan. “The idea behind creating the “Maestro” application is to make classical music education more attractive and enjoyable. Traditional methods of music education can sometimes seem dry and unappealing. These methods discourage young people, and they lose interest in music over time,” explained the team when asked about its intentions to launch the EU-funded project.

Conclusion: accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity in classical music

Classical music, in many ways, remains inaccessible to many aspiring musicians. Class, race, ethnicity, and gender, among other aspects of identity, strongly impact how much or little access people have to classical music education and careers. While institutions are taking steps to make classical music more accessible and diverse, there is still much work to be done.

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