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Ending Systemic Racism Starts at Home: Are Conservatoires Doing Enough?

Following the murder of George Floyd , and resultant worldwide expressions of rage against systemic racism, White people, like me, have been challenged to reflect on the part we play in furthering a system which seeks to limit the opportunities, modes of behaviour, freedom and power of Black people across the world. Living in a society where my own freedom is both anticipated and experientially normalised creates a culture where the system which grants this privilege also has the effect of concealing itself from view. The result becomes a dangerous societal 'blindness' to systemic racism. The protests around the world have ripped these 'comfortable' lenses from our eyes, subjecting us viscerally to the grotesque reality of Racism. I don't want to live in this world. But what to do...?

It is easy to feel hopeless when considering resistance of forces which are sufficiently powerful to change the course of History, the identities of Nation States and the lived experiences of billions of people. The quickest route to equality is not just to 'raise opportunity' for Black people but to relinquish wealth, opportunities and power 'ourselves'; at least to return what was taken through Colonialism. In our Neo-Capitalist state, this relinquishing of Capital and Power, seems like naive Utopianism. For as long as we brawl over the last toilet roll, and reign in Foreign Aid spending it is highly unlikely that there could be any sort of democratic support for increased taxation towards Colonial reparations. The link between Racism and European Imperial Capitalism is not hard to make and the outlook, I believe is bleak; we are too individualistic a society to achieve Racial Equality using standard democratic methods.

Within this context and the 'impossibility of change', the supposed 'criminality' of the direct action of protest observed over the last weeks can be understood. How can be power be reclaimed when peaceful methodology has proven ineffective. 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Masters House' and Decolonisation is always necessarily violent as Franz Fanon teaches us:

"The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters" (from 'Concerning Violence' / The Wretched of the Earth).

Violence is an inevitable reaction to the violence of Imperial ages, the violence of Slavery and Racial discrimination . A societal emancipation from Racial bias will be necessarily violent (as all effective De-Colonisation movements have been). As societal agents, and units of democracy, we will need to contribute to this 'violence' if we seek transformational change. A Post-Racial society will not be given but must be won! But just as the violence of Racism is often Symbolic rather than physical, so can the nature of the violence of our response. Violence is never 'peaceful', confrontation must be made and destruction actioned, but our violence can also be Symbolic in nature; Physical violence and 'Violent' protest is not the only way.

We have been 'Colonised' by Racist ideology and bias; therefore we can also be De-Colonised through emancipation of our own taken for granted, blind, notions of social hierarchies and Cultural value systems. The Symbolic Violence of Education as cognitive emancipation! We learnt to be racist, it is not 'Natural' and we can un-learn. If we change our minds, aspirations, ideologies, attitudes, actions, praxis (Habitus) we change our World, and through the changing of our own world, the World around us changes. The Inner domain of self can be (re)crafted, shining outwards to create new phenomenological subject/object interactions, creating new results. But to change we must confront ourselves and recognise the 'Oppressor' within, the Neo-liberal individualist, complicity reinforcing the systems of oppression which provide us with the comfort of normality we enjoy without question.

Education, and the change of the world, starts at home and works outwards. Once a through excavation of the Habitus has taken place, we then need to be looking outwards by order of association, firstly to the institutions we engage with and contribute to. Are our institutions also seeking to confront the negative aspects of Racist Hegemony? Particularly important, especially for me as a HE Music Educator, is the 'state-of-play' in UK HE Music Education and within these institutions. If an end to Systemic Racism starts at home, are Conservatoires doing enough?

As a Musician who has worked in Conservatoires, in varying capacities, across the UK and the world, I have been interested in how systems of power interact with the 'Conservatoire' as ontological objects. What exactly are Conservatoires 'conserving', and how? To what extent can our institutions of 'elite' HE Music Education problem-pose Epistemological assumptions in relation to Pedagogy, Curriculum and the nature of their contributions to the Economy and wider Society. Especially as Music of Black Origin, namely 'Jazz', has become institutionalised and academised within the White Walls of the European Conservatoire, we must question who holds authority to propose value-systems of knowledge/truth/beauty/Capital to students.

My interest in this area, and in a bid to wage war of violence on my own Habitus*, led me to write a piece about 2 years ago, investigating Racial Bias within UK Conservatoire. This piece was used as a research piece, shared with, and used by, a Conservatoire leader to inform discussion within Arts Council meetings. The conclusion I have come to is that UK Conservatoires need to do more, more than simple statements of Solidarity. You can read the piece here in .pdf format or continue reading...

* (If you are interested in conducting a Racial Bias Test, you can here I was suprised and horrified when first taking this test in 2018 that I held a Racial Bias towards White people)

‘Blackness’ within the Conservatoire: Access, Capital and Epistemologies (2018) Recent ‘equality information’ released by Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (2017) reveal inequalities relating to Black students within the institution. The Conservatoire approximate that 3% of their UK resident HE status students declare themselves Black, recognising this ‘as below HE sector average’ (6.6%, according to latest HESA figures (2018)). Black students were one of the most least likely ethnic groups to achieve 1st Class degree classifications, mirroring the stark attainment gap across the wider HE sector (Buckley-Irvine 2017). For a Conservatoire with a transparent and ambitious equality and diversity policy, evidenced in their Access Agreement (Trinity Laban 2017), these figures are likely to represent ‘above sector’ performance.

The Association of European Conservatoires (AEC) collectively share the vision that ‘the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should reflect the diversity of our populations’ (AEC 2007). This is at odds with Trinity’s data and wider sector metrics. The Royal Academy of Music, for example, is exceptionally unsuccessful in accepting students from state schools (44.1% against location adjusted benchmark of 88.5%) (HESA 2018) leading to justifiable concerns that endemic inequalities exist across UK Conservatoires today.

‘Conservatoire education is elite but not elitist’ (Conservatoires UK 2015). However, it is difficult to reconcile the AEC’s vision of representative diversity with statistics gathered by the Nuffield foundation showing that ‘black Caribbean and ‘black other’ groups were the least likely to target elite institutions’ (Noden, Shiner, Modood, 2014). Research commissioned by Kings College London finds that ‘success rates of applicants to the UK’s Conservatoires find persisting levels of inequality, with those from wealthier backgrounds being significantly more likely to be accepted than others’ (Scharff 2015). ’18 and 19 year olds accepted to study music, drama and dance courses are over six times more likely to come from privileged, than from disadvantaged backgrounds’ (Music Mark 2015). The conclusion is unequivocal: ‘Conservatoires are clearly not doing enough’! (Scharff 2015)

Donald Funes (1991) offers suggestions regarding possible challenges in recruiting Black students to HE music programmes. He identifies, primarily, ‘cultural’ and ‘socioeconomic’ factors with ‘Poor urban schools not having the same clout as rich suburban schools’ whilst highlighting the ‘pervasive racism that still plagues our society’. Although set within the context of HE in the United States, not specifically relating to the UK Conservatoire sector, I believe these observations give valuable clues as to barriers of access and modes of racial inequality in the UK.

It is interesting to note how closely Funes’ categories of inequality correspond with Bourdieu’s ‘Forms of Capital’ (Bourdieu 1986), hinting at modes of power and domination relating to Gramsci’s theory of ‘Cultural Hegemony’ (Gramsci 1971). In this essay, through the lens of theoretical concepts of Capital and Hegemony, I aim to identify the social, cultural and political factors that conspire to propagate racial inequality of ‘Blackness’ within UK Conservatoires. Capital Considerations Bourdieu (1986) tells us that ‘Capital is accumulated labour’, representing ‘the principle underlying the imminent irregularities of the social world’. ‘Capital’ is the disruptive force, un-balancing this ‘imaginary universe of perfect competition or equality of opportunity’. ‘Capital’ can manifest in many forms (i.e. ‘embodied state’, ‘objectified state’, ‘institutional’ etc.) with social agents capable of enacting processes of ‘transubstantiation’, converting various forms of Capital into alternative, ‘profitable’ types. Comparative studies, identifying features of ‘embedded’ and ‘contingent’ HE ‘choosers’, (Ball, Reay, David 2002) highlight how deficits in various forms of ‘Cultural Capital’ affect ‘choosing’ in Higher Education. What are the ‘embedded’ qualities of typical Conservatoire entrants and what modes of ‘Cultural Capital’ are required?

The report on Pre-College Music Education (Polifonia 2007) found that 90% of Conservatoire students had ‘received some kind of institutional education at pre-college level’. This was defined as prior participation within a ‘higher education institution preparing students for training in higher music education’ (e.g. Conservatoire Junior School) or engagement with a ‘private institution outside the compulsory education system’. The overwhelming advantage procurement of private education ‘buys’ indicates the necessity of economic capital reserves; able to mobilise profitable transubstantiations in pursuit of probable Conservatoire entry.

Funes (1991) highlights that the ‘influence of positive high school experience on students’ decisions to participate in college music programmes cannot be underestimated’ with Treagear (2014) identifying a ‘particular nexus between classical music and private school education’. However, patterns of specifically ‘Black’ discrimination within UK Independent Schools are not immediately clear. The Independent Schools Council published figures (ISC 2015), heralding that ‘ethnic make-up at ISC schools broadly mirrors that of all state- funded schools’ with 29.1% declaring as BME. By 2017 (ISC 2017) BME proportions of 31% were ‘above state funded sector at 30%’. Ethnicity splits were not isolated however, with the link between Blackness and wealth more discreetly evidenced through actions to attract more Black students to avoid living within a ‘wealthy cocoon’ (Espinoza 2016). ISC statistics do not go far in dispelling the fear that ‘Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy’! (Gill 2017)

Black UK families do possess less Economic Capital and are, therefore, less able to access education at ‘private institutions outside of the compulsory education system’. Government ‘Ethnicity Facts and Figures’ show that ‘the highest rates of persistent low income were found in households from the Black, Asian and Other ethnic groups’, ‘16% of all Black UK citizens live in a low income household’ compared to 8.5% of WhiteBritish/ WhiteOther and, in 2016, ‘a larger percentage of White British and White ethnic minority groups were employed than the other ethnic groups combined’ (GOV.UK 2017).

The persistence and necessity of ‘economic advantage’ is particularly poignant when compared with the public sector. The, ironically titled, ‘The Importance of Music’ (GOV.UK 2011) described the Government’s plans to reduce funding year on year, stating ‘£77m/ £65m/£60m will be available in the three years from April 2012. The vast majority of this will be invested in hubs that will also supplement and draw-in local and national funding for music’, ‘funds will be distributed to hubs following an open application process. This will be conducted by Arts Council England’. This reduction of central Government spending was conducted ‘in tandem’ with previous austerity measures. The ‘Spending Review’ (GOV.UK 2010) resulted in council budgets subject to ‘26% reduction by 2014-2015’. The Arts Council is primarily funded by local authorities (Harvey 2016) and these multiple funding reductions caused Local Authority deficits, resulting in mounting pressure on Councils to cut music education funding (Hill 2014).

Due to the nature of council tax estimations, council budgets, and therefore music education funding, are lowest in areas of cheaper housing. This disproportionate damage to funding was highlighted in the ‘Funding The Arts in the Age of Austerity’ report, warning that ‘there is a danger that better off areas will do better as their already strong and mature economies will generate more revenue’ (Harvey 2016). Excellent community projects exist, helping young Black musicians in deprived area, but these are often charitable, relying on volunteer services e.g. Aston Performing Arts Academy (2003).

The introduction of the English Baccalaureate further compounded strains on maintaining a vibrant musical education within the public sector. A system which ‘judges schools on the proportion of pupils who get good grades in English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language—but not the arts’ had predictable impacts on numbers studying music with ‘barely one in 20 pupils taking music GSCE last year’ (The Economist 2018). Other media groups were quick to warn of the dangers heralded by the Ebac. warning of an ‘extinction’ of music in secondary schools (Burns 2016). ‘Music and drama could become ‘preserve of the elite’ if Ebac. proposals go ahead’ (Busby 2016). Elitism was ‘even more entrenched in English society than it was twenty years ago’ (Reay 2006); there is evidence of continued ‘entrenchment’ since.

Inequalities of wealth across racial and class lines are ingrained and persistent but how does increased economic capital transubstantiate into useful forms for Conservatoire entry? How does the ‘embedded’ chooser become embedded?

Firstly, and most fundamentally, are the high level instrumental skills required of Conservatoire entrants. These practical skills are, almost without exception, developed through years of private study with a skilled instrumental teacher, often a Conservatoire or HE Music graduate themselves. How does Cultural Capital transubstantiate? Social C Economic Capital = Procurement of Private Study

Provate Study = Embodied Capital + Institutional Capital + Social Capital

Within this context we can describe the nature of these resultant forms of Capital.

  • - Embodied State - ‘This embodied capital, external wealth converted into an integral part of the person, into a habitus’ (Bourdieu 1986) imbues the learner with knowledge, skills and experience necessary for entry. Although contingent choosers may possess high level musical skills, these are unlikely to be ‘the right’ ones tested at audition (e.g. sight reading, scales, performance of notated works) (UCAS 2018).

  • - Institutional Capital - ‘The objectification of cultural capital in the form of academic qualifications’ (Bourdieu 1986). Private study would enable learners to pass pre- requisite Graded Examinations. ‘Applicants are normally expected to have achieved ABRSM Grade 8’ (RNCM 2018).

  • - Social Capital - ‘Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships’ (Bourdieu 1986). Elite instrumental tutors, having studied at Conservatoires themselves, will have access to the networks and contacts necessary in aiding student entry. ‘Formal or informal gatekeepers to elite careers ... can have unusual sway over the fate of a young person trying to establish a career’ (Tregear 2015).

Debate continues around possible modes of ‘offsetting’ HE entry requirements for less affluent student, compensating for deficits of pre-transubstantiated capital (Kentish 2017). However, this is incompatible with AEC findings (Polifonia 2007) stating that the ‘majority of Conservatoires ... are fairly rigorous in their admission tests, making no exceptions to the admission process. Those who make exceptions do so to assist students from distant countries by giving the option of sending a CD, DVD or video instead of attending a live audition.’ Berry (1990) sees the ‘failure of institutions to offset the lack of college preparation’ a key challenge to minority recruitment.

Black Populations

Contingent choosers value ethnic mix, it is an ‘active variable in choosing’. In contrast, embedded choosers see ethnic mix as ‘marginal or irrelevant’ to choice (Ball, Reay, David 2002). Inequalities of Black student Conservatoire populations have already been outlined and, unsurprisingly, these inequalities move upwards to staff numbers. In ‘Race and Achievement’, Archer and Francis (2007) discover ‘worryingly, for some groups (notably Black Caribbean children) the achievement gap actually broadens, rather than narrows, as children progress through compulsory education’. These achievement gaps continue to the highest levels of Academia.

HESA figures (HESA 2017) show that, of the 565 Academic ‘Managers, Directors and Senior officials’ across the UK, 0% were of Black ethnicity. In the following year (HESA 2018), Black senior staff only represented 0.9% of total numbers. Similar inequalities are noted within proportions of professional academics. 1.59% of academics were black in 2015/16, raising slightly to 1.67% in 2016/17. Even when achieving academic positions, BAME staff are ‘more likely to be employed on short, fixed-term contracts’ (O’Hara 2015).

Low representations of Black academic staff are more shocking within the Conservatoire sector with Trinity Laban stating a figure of only 1% of their academic staff being of Black ethnicity. If we include all BAME numbers across all job categories we see 6.3% within the Conservatoire sector, and 9.6% across the HE wider sector (Trinity Laban 2017). These figures are particularly low within the context of Black population figures in the UK, currently 13% (GOV.UK 2017).

Similar to student entry requirement subsidies, Clements (2009) endorses ‘flexibility in hiring practices by recognising other experiences than the doctorate as being valuable to the insitutions’ but with neoliberal, faux-meritocratic, Human Resources processes required to ‘impartially’ measure applications against various ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ criteria, without consideration of wider social issues, it is difficult to see how this could be implemented. Trinity Laban aim to ‘increase Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation within our staff population’ but can only instigate ‘a programme addressing avoidance of unconscious bias; fairness in advertising, interviewing and appointment processes’. In other words, an equality of opportunity at the ‘point of application’ should be structurally implemented without compensation, regardless of disparities in eventual equality of outcome (Phillips 2004).

A more insidious explanation for low Black representation in staff recruitment, one in keeping with Funes’ accusation of society’s ‘pervasive racism’ (Funes 1991), is explored by Beattie, Cohen and McGuire (2013), uncovering ‘possible unconscious ethnic biases in higher education’. In this study ‘participants (48 White and 48 non-White) were presented with matched CV’s of White and non-White applicants and were instructed to rate the suitability of candidates against two predefined job descriptions’. Participants were also asked to complete a Implicit-Association-Test (IAT), measuring their implicit attitudes to BME groups.

The results of this study showed that Anglo Saxon names were 50% more likely to be offered an interview than African American names. There was also an inequality of outcome based ‘on the meritocratic principles on which universities are founded’ with White names preferred for shortlisting, even when credentials were the same. ‘This is even more surprising given that well educated individuals typically espouse egalitarian and liberal attitudes’ (Beattie, Cohen and McGuire 2013).

‘Literature on racial biases has consistently revealed that over 70% of White Americans who complete a race IAT hold some degree of implicit racial preference towards Whites over African Americans’ and, more suprisingly, that Black participants also ‘exhibited a pro- White bias’. This was explained through phenomena that ‘disadvantaged social groups living in a culture where they are exposed to the same racial views held by the dominant group may well acquire culturally learnt negative attitudes towards their own ethnic group’ (Beattie, Cohen and McGuire 2013). White bias is not just a problem in the US. All European countries exhibit a pro-white racial bias to differing degrees (Stafford 2017). More explicit forms of racism within HE have also been revealed within the media (Bouattia 2018), (Kennedy 2017).

Modes of Domination

‘Images, of one kind or another, are the primary currency of cultural appropriation in the arts’. In this sense, ‘images’ are literal - the actual ‘image’ of the White Conservatoire is there for all to see. One does not need to ‘imagine’ this. ‘the images employed do not even need to be misrepresentations for the relevant harms to be generated’. Matthes (2016)

It would be simplistic to conclude that Black populations are low within Conservatoires due to ‘cultural choice’. After all, what has the Euro-centric, White, male, Western Art Music canon got to do with Black culture? This would be a less complex assumption if one did not take into account the pervasiveness of Jazz education within Conservatoires today.

The beginnings of Jazz are inextricably linked to African slave migration and the music and dancing of Congo Square in New Orleans (Goioa 2011). ‘The music, born out of the heart and soul of Louisiana before it migrated north in the early 20th century, has been dubbed “America’s one true artform.” But when glancing at many of the nation’s most acclaimed musical institutions of higher learning, such as the Berklee College of Music, the makeup of the faculty does not reflect the origins of this popular and praised form of expression’ (Williams 2014). How has a ‘Music of Black Origin’ come to be taught and practiced in the ‘White space’ of the modern Conservatoire?

Prouty (2005) in ‘The History of Jazz Education’ tracks the transition from early modes of communication, ‘Orality’ or ‘pre-institutional’ pedagogy, to Jazz education as a field of study akin to the study of Western art music where ‘jazz can be structurally analyzed using the methodological tools of Western music theory and musicology’. To refer to Bourdieu’s field theory (Bourdieu 1993). Jazz education has evolved to become ‘compatible’ with the ‘field of the Conservatoire’ through altered discourse and pedagogical evolution. This transformation, or Doxa shift, asks questions relating to ‘Cultural Hegemony’ (Gramsci 1971). It is ironic that the music born of oppression may have been subject to a ‘2nd colonisation’. Has a form of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ occurred?

One possible definition of Cultural Appropriation is ‘the use of artistic styles distinctive of cultural groups by non members’ (Mathes 2016). The main problem associated with theories of Cultural Appropriation is the inextricable link to ‘Cultural Essentialism’. ‘Distinguishing cultural insiders from cultural outsiders requires criteria for cultural membership’ and this tends to represent cultures ‘as homogeneous, static and monolithic’. (Mathes 2016). Hierarchies of dominance can form based on ‘how aligned’ members are with the ‘essential ideal’ of the ‘field’ stereotype. Therefore, essentialism can be as harmful as appropriation. ‘There would be no blues without black culture. But it doesn’t mean that white people cannot play the blues’ (Rahman-Jones 2016).

Another possible perspective is that ‘Appropriation’ occurs when ‘someone else becomes the expert on your experience and is deemed more knowledgable about who you are than yourself’ (Coombe 1993). Conservatoire ‘academic staff are chosen from the cream of the performing arts professions’ (Conservatoires UK 2018) but, as previously outlined, do not directly reflect the multi-cultures of which they teach. ‘Members of dominant cultures, in virtue of their social status, already have ... a “credibility excess”: their credibility is inflated beyond what is epistemically warranted’ (Mathes 2016). Therein lies danger of White ‘hegemony’, ‘coloniality of knowledge’ and ‘epistemic violence’.

Burcet (2017) provides a provocative perspective. She states ‘Musical notation appears as a problematic aspect in the debate about the forms of coloniality of knowledge. It is often seen as an instrument of domination because it imposes itself as a mode of representation for music coming from oral tradition’. ‘This epistemology entails a Eurocentric perspective of musical notation that has colonized music education’. Musical notation IS a symbolic language and the lack of modes of translation between the contingent and embedded chooser creates environments of Epistemic violence, ‘a failure of an audience to communicatively reciprocate, either intentionally or unintentionally, in linguistic exchanges’ (Dotson 2011). The ‘Dominant’ language ‘own’ the means of truth and the modes of ‘speaking’ it.


An equitable re-balancing of Blackness within the Conservatoire is unlikely in the short term. As UK music education struggles to survive repeated assaults through Government policy initiatives and funding cuts, access to the Conservatoire will continue to be for the wealthy, predominately White, middle classes. Conservatoires and HE providers continue to ‘aim’ for representative diversity within student and staff populations but possible solutions, e.g. implementing equality and diversity models (Hanesworth 2015), primarily in fear of TEF ‘relegation’ (Marshall 2017), are reactive, lightweight and ineffectual. Implicit racial bias limits speed of change in installing Black musical mentors at our leading musical institutions, resulting in ‘White’ epistemic domination.

Jaqueline Stevenson (2012) outlines a more radical approach in her ‘Ten Guiding Principles’, most notably, the need for ‘a holistic, longitudinal approach’ to reduce the attainment gap ‘from pre-entry, aspiration raising, activities through to progression to post- graduation study and/or employment’. Initiatives designed to reduce the attainment gap of minority ethnic students should ‘be based on clear evidence and have timely and measurable outcomes. However, ‘implementing faster and more substantial change may require a degree of risk-taking’. Of what ‘risk’ does she refer... a true equality of outcome?

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