The challenges of diversifying the classical music profession

Ed Vaizey, the culture secretary, has just tried to give the classical music sector a wake-up call, in a speech to the Association of British Orchestras conference, saying that it needs to diversify itself. I haven’t found the full speech online yet, but the media reports quote him suggesting that established musicians should mentor those who are excluded due to issues of cost or culture, and singling out the work of the In Harmony project for praise.

I have written about In Harmony elsewhere; suffice to say here that a programme that spends millions to benefit only a few thousand children a year is problematic (I estimate around 3000 children in England take part in In Harmony, given that there are eight programmes with between 200 and 500 children each). I’d need to hear more about Vaizey’s ideas for mentoring to make a judgement on those, but this idea alone would be far from sufficient to overcome the barriers of cost or culture in gaining access to the sector.

Instead, I want to say something about how classical music’s particular history contributes to its lack of diversity. To be fair, as regards diversity, classical music has a lot in common with other creative industries – publishing, film, literature – which are all getting noticed for their whiteness and middle-class-ness at the moment. And I hesitate to confirm the exceptionalism of a sector and a tradition that already regards itself as different and special. But having said that, classical music’s particular history plays an important role in its lack of diversity today. The history has shaped the repertoire, the instruments played, the ideas of beauty, and the ways of playing together that have become normal in classical music. These historical ideas have sedimented to form the way the music is learnt and played and experienced now.

Classical music as we know it today emerged in parallel with the (white) middle class in the UK in the 19th century. It was this group who set up music education institutions, orchestras, and festivals, and built concert halls (presumably on earnings from slavery and other imperial ventures). These were all set up as ways for the middle class to consume their culture in dedicated spaces. This is not to say that working-class people did not sometimes attend these venues, but they were predominantly built by and run by the middle classes (with aristocratic patronage), and often had gatekeeping mechanisms to keep other groups out. Think about how the concert hall is sonically insulated from any sounds outside – this is just one of the ways in which the middle class were setting themselves up as separate from the riff-raff. They were also setting themselves up in suburbs (away from the inner-city working classes), and had their own separate education system (or before 1870 in England, they had the only education system). Classical music was one way in which the middle classes drew boundaries between themselves and the great unwashed.

This boundary-drawing is part of what gives classical music its identity today. As Bennett et al. found in their study of class and culture in the UK in the early 2000s, musical taste is one of the most heavily stratified forms of culture, in terms of class (2008). People use music to assert their identity – and to demarcate their difference from others. Bennett et al. also found that 23% of their sample (which was representative of the UK population) ‘strongly disliked’ classical music. It is a genre of music that people build their identity around, or against.

So there are particular challenges to diversifying classical music. I think that this means that classical music has to diversify its repertoire, its ideas of beauty, its modes of making music, its instruments, and to shake up its relationship with technology, in order to change the demographic who play it (and listen to it). This idea is already present in policy, in the Creative Case for Diversity, and I’m very interested to see how the classical music sector will address this. But in the shorter term, there are changes that can and should be made immediately, as outlined in Christina Scharff’s 2015 report on equality and diversity in the classical music profession. Her recommendations give some clear starting points for the sector: first, gather data, especially on ethnicity and class which appear to be particularly absent; secondly, start having some serious conversations about inequalities; and thirdly, start implementing structural rather than individual solutions, such as blind auditions, quotas, mentoring schemes, and campaigns. Blind auditions have been demonstrated to work in improving gender inequality in US orchestras. I got my first (and only) orchestral job through a blind audition. Another example is Morley College’s course for women conductors. This is not rocket science. But it does require some imagination, and a lot of political will.


Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright. 2008. Culture, Class, Distinction. 1st ed. London: Routledge.

The challenges of diversifying the classical music profession

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