Rhinegold Photo credit: Becan Rickard-Elliot

Phoebe Watts

Report: Diversity and Inclusion in Composition Conference

11:08, 20th October 2016

Britain is diversifying and the classical music industry needs to diversify with it, was the general consensus at Radio 3’s Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference, which took place at the Royal Northern College of Music on 19 October.

The importance of changing the current methods of inclusion of BAME students was made clear by one of the first keynote speakers, Tunde Ogungbesan, head of diversity and inclusion at the BBC. He made the point that increased industry diversity leads to a more productive, creative and innovative society, particularly in relation to the BBC, of which he said ‘we want to be the most creative organisation in the world’.

Ogungbesan’s views were reinforced by Vick Bain, CEO of Basca (British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors), as she ascribed the survival of British classical music to the essentiality of diversity within composition. Taking a more urgent tone, composer Eleanor Alberga stated that regular inclusion of BAME composers and young musicians needs to start immediately but also cautioned that we must ‘make sure this is more than another gesture’.

The conference included a talk on unconscious bias entitled ‘What does a Classical Composer look like?’ given by Aesha Zafar, head of talent development at BBC North. It started with a short film in which audience members at a classical concert were asked what a composer looked like. A large majority of the audience thought a composer would be male, often with long white/grey hair. This added to Zafar’s idea that unconscious bias is the result of lots of tiny, nondescript events, which ultimately prove detrimental to the progression of inclusion and diversity.

This was shown to particularly affect classical music. Zafar stated that within an audition scenario, ‘when applicants were behind a screen, the percentage of female new hires for orchestral jobs increased from 25% to 46%’. By utilising blind auditions, the risk of unconscious bias is much lower and results in a fairer audition system, where the applicant is judged based only on their skill and resulting sound. This would mean that eventually, if all orchestrs were to apply this system to auditions, diversity would occur naturally within the groups.

Later in the day, a talk about the bigger picture of diversity in the arts looked at why the classical music industry has been slower to diversify compared to say, contemporary dance. Bill Bankes-Jones, artistic director of Tête à Tête, believed that the stage should be a reflection of Britain’s changing diversity and stated that ‘we must put on stage what we want to see in the world’. Toks Dada, programme co-ordinator of Birmingham’s Town Hall Symphony Hall, was interested in this idea, and spoke about delivering a concert representative of the diversity of the city in which it takes place. He also added that he wanted to avoid marginalising BAME musicians by integrating them into performances, but that it was down to organisations to change the way they work in order to promote diversity and inclusion.

The conference was summed up perfectly in a statement by Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder, artistic director and executive director of the Chineke Foundation. Asserting that the root of diversity issues comes from within our education system, Nwanoku said that if every child had the same standard of musical education, ‘we will all benefit from a more inclusive art form’.

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