With the scratch of dry leaves on pavements, and ghoulish masks glaring from shop windows, October has reached its conclusion. The UK’s Black History Month is always a welcome opportunity to discover and celebrate black artists past and present. But in music teaching, their work has long been scandalously overlooked. So, we’ve decided to take a look at what, if anything, is being done to put this right.
The omission of black artists is a very real problem. In 2020, a study found that 98.8% of the pieces on the ABRSM syllabus were written by white composers. ABRSM are the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the country’s biggest music exam board. In schools too, black representation has been sadly lacking in music lessons. Black Lives Matter have repeatedly called for the UK government to “decolonise” all subjects. And questions have also been raised about university and conservatoire courses.
Understandably, music students from black ethnic backgrounds often feel let down by white-only syllabuses. In 2020, the Guardian asked a handful of black musicians about the rejection of black composers in classical music teaching. One student said, “I didn’t know that black composers actually exist.” Others admitted to feeling frustrated by ABRSM’s lack of effort to change the “status quo”. And research by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) points to a worrying trend.
According to HESA’s data, music conservatoires have extremely low enrolment rates for black and minority ethnic students. In fact, between 2014 and 2018, the Royal College of Music enrolled no black British citizens at all! Whitewashed programmes are far from the only reason for this. But many feel strongly that they represent a significant brick in the wall.
Read more about representation in the music industry.
With students, teachers, protest groups, artists and academics calling for change, there are at least a few flickers of hope. Last year, a piano teacher named Grace Healy, circulated a petition online. It rightly argues that black composers have helped shape the history of classical music. It names Florence Price, considered to be the first black woman ever recognised as a symphonic composer. And Joseph Bologne. It is believed that Mozart plagiarised several of Bologne’s violin concertos. And the list goes on. The petition urges ABRSM to reflect this in their educational material. And more than 4000 people have signed it.
In March, the UK government issued a new music curriculum for state schools. Various press releases promised a more inclusive work scheme. Nina Simone, Coleridge-Taylor and Little Richard are among the featured artists. And at Oxford University, professors recently proposed an “easing” of the focus on “white European music from the slave period”. Their ideas include a more global approach to sheet music. They argue that Western sheet music is a colonial language in itself.
But some have questioned whether the new school curriculum, which was co-written by ABRSM, goes far enough. Concerns have also been raised about the way it categorises music from other parts of the world. And the Oxford proposals quickly came under fire on social media. Several individuals falsely claimed that the university was planning to scrap sheet music altogether. They referred to this as an “attack of the woke”. So, it seems the path to change might be a rocky one.
It should go without saying that black artists have contributed as much to music as anyone else. So far, the bodies that govern music teaching have shown a reluctance to recognise this. But since the murder of George Floyd in the USA, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained ground. The idea of decolonising subjects is now a serious consideration for education authorities. And the first steps, however small, have been taken. Hopefully, this points the way to a more inclusive future for music education.