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UK royal schools of music exam board must address the colonial legacy

Concerning analysis revealed that 99% of pieces of ABRSM’s syllabuses were by white composers, even if many were the solicitors that asked for a change.

The exam board of the UK’s royal schools of music is being urged to address the legacy of its colonial origins after research found out that 99% of pieces on its syllabuses were by white composers and only 1% from BAME musicians.

It has been counted that more than 4,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), which was founded in 1890 and exported its ideals of musical standards across the British empire shaping the world’s music, to include “black composers who have shaped the course of western classical music".

Image credit Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Twitter

However, none of the 255 pieces in the new piano syllabus, published earlier this week, were written by black composers.

The petition denounced the fact that the exclusion of renowned figures such as the mixed-race English conductor and composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, most famous for his choral work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, and Joseph de Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was born in slavery in the French colony of Guadeloupe and became a composer in Marie Antoinette’s court, amounted to the “erasure of people of colour” from history.

The colleges’ music students, teachers and musicians expressed their concern, as the overwhelmingly white curriculum was preventing black talents from applying to conservatories, particularly the four royal schools, namely the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), the Royal College of Music (RCM), the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Royal Northern College of Music.

The ABRSM shapes the musical lives and tastes of millions of people worldwide by delivering more than 650,000 exams and assessment every year in 93 countries. However, a forthcoming study by Austin Griffiths, a senior teaching fellow at University College London (UCL), revealed that white composers wrote 98.8% of the 3,166 pieces on the latest exam syllabuses for 15 instruments.

Sterling Elliott closes his eyes while playing Édouard Lalo's Concerto for Cello. Image credit AlJazeera

Only 14 (0.4%) of pieces for the piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, or harp were written by composers of African heritage, with another 23 by Asian and other minority ethnic composers. There were only eight black composers, including Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

Luckily, there is some light in this miserable tunnel. Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder of the Chineke! Foundation runs the first professional and junior orchestras in Europe made up of mostly of black and minority ethnic musicians. His efforts to support and promote BAME musicians were fully described by one of his declarations, where he said that there is an appalling “woeful lack” of ethnic diversity in the ABRSM syllabus.

Nwanoku, a professor of double bass at the RAM, added that four years ago she had raised several concerns with the board’s executive director, Lincoln Abbotts. Nwanoku claimed: “Did he do anything? No, nothing at all.”

ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2019/20. Image credit Pianodao

She said Abbott had signed a letter that she sent to Boris Johnson this month, which demanded the government implementation of a “real institutional change” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, including decolonising the curriculum to celebrate the contribution of black, Asian and ethnically diverse musicians. Nonetheless, the letter aimed to address Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and the impact of colonialism.

Nwanoku added that she expected Abbotts to commit to the letter’s demands.

Scott Caizley, a researcher and PhD student at King’s College London, also joined the discussion, saying that the exclusion of black composers amounted to systemic racism, and the ABRSM should make its syllabuses less white if it was really “committed to seeing a more racially diverse intake of students entering conservatoires”.

Caizley pointed out the miserable evidence that views the four ABRSM royal music schools to have only enrolled a few black British students in recent years, according to his research from the Higher Education Statistics Authority.

The RCM, which states that credible undergraduate applicants usually have “one or more distinctions” at ABRSM grade eight, has admitted – as there it is in black and white - that only five UK-domiciled black students in the past five years, with none admitted between 2014-15 and 2017-18.

An RCM spokeswoman declared: “As an institution, we are making strides to improve diversity and we now offer BAME scholarships to attract applications from those from underrepresented communities.”

European Doctors Orchestra November 2009 Royal Academy of Music, London. Image credit

Anna Bull, a sociology lecturer and author of Class, Control, and Classical Music, admitted that the “overwhelming whiteness” of the ABRSM syllabuses reflected its colonial origins. She enhanced: “As a result, it is hardly surprising that there are very few black British students at UK conservatoires.”

An ABRSM spokesman responded that the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US, had made the ABRSM think deeply about its efforts to get more black composers in its syllabuses. He added that the board had committed to launch a mentorship scheme in September 2020 for BAME composers, specifically to increase the pool of pieces to include in syllabuses.

However, will this ever be the opportunity for a real change, or is this statement a try to mitigate the received critiques that might ruin the ABRSM’s reputation?


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