Access to Classical music, let’s discuss …

IN LOTS of ways I had a strong musical upbringing starting from my personal community all the way to studying at the top musical institutions in the country.

I grew up in a Caribbean household and music was and is integral to the culture. There was always music playing in the house – everything from Eddy Grant and Bob Marley to Ray Charles and always gospel music greats like Kirk Franklin and the Clark Sisters on the weekends.

In terms of my formal music education I attended a state primary which recognised the power of music and had high quality music provision. I began having piano lessons early on but later switched to having violin lessons at secondary school.

As a pupil premium child later on in my school life, receiving violin lessons for free was a huge source of support and validation of my potential. Outside of school, I attended a Pentecostal church where I learned music by ear, sang in multiple-part harmonies and recreated complex rhythms with ease.

This was of course all very informal but the truth is that I didn’t realise I was learning valuable musical skills which I would later draw on in my life as a professional violinist performing with artists such Alicia Keys, Heather Small, Ed Sheeran and Adele.

I tripped and fell into being a violinist. There was no-one in my family who was a professional musician in the classical world or even just someone who could help me to read music.

There were no role models to speak of and I, at times, felt like the odd one out.

It was a journey I started and just kept going with until I found myself leading my local youth orchestra as a teenager and then received a full scholarship to study at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, one of the world’s best specialist music schools.

However, as I went on my musical journey, I was always aware that I was often the only black person in my orchestra or my school band and whilst I was used to it, I knew it wasn’t right and I couldn’t be the only Black classical musician out there.  

It was as an undergraduate at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire that I began to question the fact that despite my musical education at prestigious institutions, I had never really been taught about music which reflected my own cultural and musical upbringing and could not name a single female composer.

Truth be told, there was always the subconscious feeling that the music tied to my cultural heritage wasn’t of value in those musical institutions and that there was an unseen but tangible musical hierarchy between “real music” and other music.

Finally in my second year, we learned about Julius Eastman, an African-American composer and from that point, I became obsessed with finding out about other black composers – as it turns out, there are loads, dead and alive!

In the following years, I played a few gigs featuring Caribbean music for the first time professionally and I began to question how I could continue being the change I have wanted to see, particularly in the classical music world.

I simply began talking to others about my experiences which has led me into work not as a violinist but as a music educator, board trustee and advocate for cultural diversity within the music sector.

There is lots of talk of improving access to classical music and I agree that breaking down financial, cultural and other barriers is important.

I have received various grants, scholarships and schemes which have helped me to be in places I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. However, in my experience, access on its own is not enough. Institutions, companies and organisations need to adopt an ethos where individuals can be heard, understood and feel like they truly belong in the space once they gain access.

Mahaliah Edwards (pic by Olivia Davy-Hoffmann)

Growing up as a musician, I spent a lot of time trying to fit in because I had worked hard to get in and I wish someone told me it was okay to be my full self. Now, as an educator working in schools and with young people, I empower them to embrace their own cultures and identities and bring it with them unapologetically.

I know that I would’ve been a more confident musician at school if a teacher had picked up on my ability to play by ear easily and acknowledged how my culture had positively impacted my musical development. Being a BBC Open Music trainee was just one recent experience where I really felt I could be myself, promoting music which I love and enjoy but also which has cultural significance to me.

There’s so much musical richness which can come out of recognising cultural diversity and I’ve really enjoyed uncovering it for myself whether it’s finding out about more black composers or going to concerts myself and being pleasantly surprised by the offering on the concert programmes.

In 2022, the London Community Gospel Choir teamed up with the London Symphony Orchestra for a concert which celebrated choral, gospel and orchestral music by black composers.

It was really amazing to see people of all different walks of life in the Barbican concert hall – it was truly one of the best concerts I’d been to in a while.

I think this was a great example of cross-collaboration between perhaps unlikely parties which would have improved access and preconceived ideas about what classical music is and can be.

The classical music landscape is still on a journey to being more accessible, more inclusive and more diverse.

I think we are all vital players in being part of the change; whether it is parents supporting their children with learning a musical instrument or a group of friends deciding they want to try out a classical concert for the first time or simply supporting local music-making in your area. Music belongs to everyone.

Mahaliah presents the third episode of Sounds Connected on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 24/07. The series can be found on BBC Sounds:

Source link

Comments are closed.