Classical music and diversity: a talk for the Nordic Association of Orchestral Managers conference

In September 2022 I spoke at the Nordic Association of Orchestral Managers conference in Reykjavik (sadly, over Zoom rather than in person) about diversity in classical music. I’ve posted my talk below.


Thank you for inviting me. My background is as a classical musician who has become an academic. As a musician, I worked with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Wellington Sinfonia, but late retrained as a sociologist and have been combining my specialisms to try and understand some of the challenges around diversity in classical music. I’m going to focus my comments primarily on the workforce, and who plays classical music, but I think this is important because who plays classical music also influences audiences.

To start off, I want to think back to the 19th century. As I’m now based in the UK, I’ll use the UK context as an example, but in many other European countries there are similarities in the ways in which classical music was institutionalised. When I say institutionalised, I mean the 19th century was the era when, for the most part, institutions such as orchestras and conservatoires were established. This history is important for understanding where we’ve got to today, and the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that we have inherited, because these institutions were set up by the middle and upper classes of the time. In some cases they were set up with the purpose of creating a space within the city where the bourgeoisie could come together. In others, they were set up to as a tool to ‘improve’ working-class people. On the whole, however, they were set up by the middle classes, for the middle classes, and to varying degrees in different cities, there was an implicit purpose of keeping out working-class people. In other cases such as some music education institutions, there was an implicit purpose to “civilise” the working-classes through the discipline of ‘good’ quality music – and sometimes, in the UK, to make a profit from doing this.

Of course there are a lot of nuances to this history and it’s different in different countries so I am generalising, but the key point that I think stands up is that this history – of classical music’s institutions as designed to exclude people on the basis of class, or only let them in if they will behave like middle-class people in so-called ‘respectable ways’ – is not something that’s left behind in the past. In fact, it’s still present in the music itself – in the ways that classical music’s canonic repertoire and instruments require a long-term investment of time, effort and money that is more possible – and makes more sense – for middle and upper-class people. But our ideals of ‘good quality’ music help to keep those barriers in place. Because of classical music’s ideal that we have to play the music as the composer intended – with all the technical difficulty and long-term investment and standards of perfection that this requires – these barriers to join the profession are camouflaged and we can say, “the reason classical music is not open to more working-class people is because they can’t reach the musical standards required”. That position obscures the fact that the way we make music and ways that ideals of musical beauty are institutionalised structurally privilege the middle and upper classes.

So, my provocation to you is: how does the genre of classical music, and the music itself, have to change in order to enable access to people from different backgrounds? Even though many people might have an idea of classical music as a heritage art form, I’m sure this is not a view that all of you will take – that it is and it needs to be a living, breathing art form, that is changing as new people come in with new creative ideas. My suggestion is to allow the social renewal of classical music to happen alongside the creative renewal. As you envisage how the genre – the music itself –  is changing under your stewardship, you can also think about how it might be changing socially.

For me, this means more openness to, and dialogue with other genres of music; it means musicians who are more adaptable and can play across genres and have creative as well as technical skills. And this provides an opportunity for social inclusivity.

Turning from the past to the future, I want to reflect on ways forward, and I know the other speakers will also continue on this theme. Ways forward need to be both economic, addressing the fact that some musicians, particularly working-class musicians will not have the financial resources that others do, and also cultural, to address attitudes, stigmatisation, as well as moving towards a big picture vision of the creative and social renewal of the genre.

My first suggestion is around thinking about who you’re recruiting and how.

An immediate practical step to diversify your workforce would be to employ musicians and other staff who are not from a classically trained background, whether this is to train your musicians to improve their creative skills, to lead your outreach programmes, or as creative directors and programmers. And of course such jobs have to be good quality work – not short-term contracts.

As well as recruiting non-classical musicians, think critically about what you are looking for in auditions and trials for core players. I’m guessing you already receive a high number of applicants who can already play a Mozart concerto and orchestra excerpts perfectly, so think about what else you are valuing. The audition requirements will also send a message about what kind of organisation you are – so for example do you want musicians who have community engagement skills? Who can lead creative workshops? Who are adaptable at playing across genres? Who can teach these creative skills to other classically-trained musicians? If you start valuing and asking for these skills, then higher education institutions will start valuing them too, so there will be trickle-down effect across the wider system.

If you are recruiting more diverse musicians, then your organisation may also have to change to make sure it is a safe working environment for them. Tackle racism, sexism, and classism in your organisation, setting the tone from the top and making sure your HR staff are skilled up to handle these issues when they arise.


My next idea relates to how you train and rehearse with the musicians in your organisations. These ideas draw on a new book I’ve edited with Christina Scharff and Laudan Nooshin, coming out in early 2023 called ‘Voices for Change in the Classical Music Profession: New ideas for tackling inequalities and exclusions’. This book includes chapters from musicians, academics, and music leaders. One of the themes that came up – which I’m particularly interested in – is rehearsing. How might modes of rehearsing be combatting inequalities or embedding them?

One chapter is from Thai-American multi-instrumentalist and ensemble leader Jon Silpayamanant. He trained as a classical cellist, but then started exploring his Thai musical heritage and leads ensembles that work cross-culturally. In this chapter he reflects on his experience of leading a cross-genre ensemble. What I found fascinating in his account is the description of how he trains his musicians. In classical music the musicians who get jobs are the highly proficient instrumentalists, but he recognises that musicians with different training come into his ensemble with different skills and so in order to work across genres – including opening up classical music to new ideas – means that musicians need to be trained on new skills.

By contrast, a chapter from Kristina Kolbe describes an intercultural opera project carried out by a opera company in Berlin, which was trying to open up classical music to change by including Turkish musicians in the orchestra for a new opera. However, by trying to do something new and different without changing the rehearsal practices and normal ways of doing things – trying to fit new ways of making music into the old ways of rehearsing – this project was not as successful as it could have been, and the Turkish musicians were not able to influence the music as much as they should have been because they were required to work in the ways that were set out by the classical musicians.

These two chapters work in dialogue with one another as examples of successful and less successful attempts to diversify classical music as a genre, by changing the music itself and therefore changing how musicians rehearse and work together. Even when experiments don’t go to plan, as in Kristina Kolbe’s study, we can learn from them – and it’s in the nature of experiments that you don’t know what is going to happen. These kinds of failed experiments should be part of what the social and creative renewal of classical music involves – and doing things differently in the rehearsal room is a key part of opening up the music to change.


My third and final suggestion – again drawing inspiration from some of the voices in the book – is to engage with activists. I’m sure this is something that you are already doing, or perhaps you are yourself an activist for change in classical music. In the book, we’ve also documented some of the exciting new activism that is taking place in classical music. Ten years ago when I was first carrying out research into classical music, there were few activists or activist groups – and indeed talking about an ‘activist classical musician’ seemed like a contradiction! In the initiatives that did exist there was often a legacy of the ‘civilising’ influence of classical music – the idea that if excluded groups could have access to classical music, that would somehow magically alleviate their poverty, or make them act more like middle-class white people. But now, there’s an exciting array of voices advocating for changes – for example, making available works by forgotten Black or women composers, forming ensembles that make space for Black and racially minoritized musicians, or perhaps drawing attention to areas where only a narrow set of voices are being heard, or more positively, celebrating new voices who are drawing together different genres to make music within a classical tradition.

I know that for cultural and institutional leaders, activist voices can be difficult to engage with – activists may not see all of the work that is going on behind the scenes to make changes that are nevertheless slow in coming to fruition, and they don’t see all the barriers and challenges of day-to-day work running a large organisation. Nevertheless, activists bring passion and energy and drama – all things which are valued in classical music – and as I’m sure many of you have experienced, engaging with activists, while sometimes a difficult process, can also be very rewarding. In the book we’ve documented some exciting ongoing work around inclusivity for disabled musicians, strategies for addressing sexual harassment, and different approaches for addressing racism and racial inequalities in classical music. There are competing voices – we are a long way from being in agreement on many of the issues raised – and so orchestras will inevitably have to dive in and get their hands dirty with these political issues – but ultimately doing this will make your work more relevant, more progressive, and more exciting.

Overall my message is to think about the strategic vision for social and creative renewal of classical music and how social and creative change can work together – if the people are going to change and then the music needs to open to change and new voices. Of course, changing the music itself doesn’t necessarily lead to diversity – it’s possible to have exciting new musical ideas that still draw on and celebrate the same groups of people who have historically dominated in classical music – so changes have to be carefully thought through in order to ensure that musical change opens up classical music’s spaces socially, rather than closing them down. But I think it’s possible to do this musical opening up and inviting in different genres while retaining the essence of what people love about classical music. Many of the aspects of the genre that people love are not just the repertoire – they might be the sense of intimacy that you can gain from an acoustic aesthetic, the spectacle of a huge orchestra playing together, the stillness alongside togetherness that can occur with hundreds of people listening closely to something very quiet – and so what would happen if we take the essence of the genre not as the canon but as the experience, and think about how a more diverse set of musicians – and with them, more diverse audiences – might offer creative ideas for reinvigorating the music itself.

Classical music and diversity: a talk for the Nordic Association of Orchestral Managers conference

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