Chineke!, created in 2015, is the brainchild of double-bassist Chi-Chi NwanokuEric van Nieuwland

Walk into most classical music rehearsals and you’ll notice one glaringly obvious deficiency. You may be too polite to point it out. You may not even realise you’ve seen it, but the fact will remain lodged in your subconscious. Two words: white, male. As it currently exists, the classical music world is dominated by this demographic, with diversity within this particular strand of the music industry suffering from a perennial and pervasive diversity crisis.

Relatively little research has been done into this issue of diversity, and yet the existing evidence is conclusive and damning. For instance, the research of Christina Scharff at King’s College London is a severe indictment of the narrowness of representation all through the classical music industry. Her team concluded that: of 629 orchestral players, “only 11 (1.7%) could be identified to be from a Black and Minority Ethnic background.” Similarly, organisation Bachtrack have successfully tracked the gender and ethnic composition of the classical music world, finding that although gender gaps are shrinking slowly, the BME community is still sadly underrepresented.

But this situation does not have to persist. One organisation attempting to buck the trend and encourage diversity is the Chineke! Foundation. Chineke!, created in 2015, is the brainchild of double-bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku. Europe’s first professional orchestra of black and minority ethnic musicians, it aims to provide professional musical opportunities for young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe. In Nwanoku’s own words, “It is about raising awareness, trying to level the playing field, altering the status quo a little bit and changing perceptions.” They play concerts throughout the UK and Europe, and are a shining light of inclusivity which the rest of the industry should follow and emulate.

Speaking to Nwanoku herself, I hoped to discover a bit more about this pioneering organisation and explore her thoughts on what more can be done to promote diversity. Born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, Nwanoku has been exploring this issue in depth for years.

“As an industry, we have spent years, even decades, talking about the issue of diversity,” Nwanoku starts. “In this time we have seen some improvements, slightly in opera, but in the area that Chineke! focuses on – British and European Orchestras – there has sadly been very little change. For example: when I began my professional career more than three decades ago, I was the only musician of colour in my orchestra. At the time I started Chineke! in 2015, I was still the only musician of colour in that orchestra.” Change is clearly a sluggish process, but Nwanoku remains positive about future prospects.

She continues, “I do think there has been a positive movement towards recognising this issue over the past couple of years. For the first time, all of our orchestras are looking at themselves and asking ‘why are we so unrepresentative of the population at large?’.” It seems that Chineke! has been central in encouraging this greater discussion of issues that Nwanoku hints at. However, she does not claim to be the sole instigator of change. Instead, Nwanoku applauds the wide range of organisations that have helped to “increase the number of aspiring young BME musicians attending music colleges and conservatoires around the country.”

Encouraging BME representation in youth music institutions does not always feed into the professional sphere, however. “While there has been an increase in BME candidates attending music colleges and conservatories, there has not really been any change in the makeup of our professional orchestras,” she argues. “These young, aspiring BME musicians, for whatever reason, are not progressing from university into the top levels of the profession.”

“young, aspiring BME musicians, for whatever reason, are not progressing from university into the top levels of the profession”

It is this breach between youth institutions and the professional world that Chineke! aims to mend. “We are helping to bridge this gap by giving aspiring professionals experience of playing in a professional orchestra, in an environment where they are surrounded by their peers and where they feel wanted and accepted.” In this endeavour they have already been successful. The Foundation runs two orchestras, a Senior ensemble and a Junior group, with many musicians from the former helping out and tutoring in the latter. According to Nwanoku: “Already, some of the Junior Orchestra alumni have started feeding into the Chineke! Orchestra, so our work is well under way.”

"When I began my professional career more than three decades ago, I was the only musician of colour in my orchestra"Penn State

It is clear Chineke! are doing a fantastic job, but in order to continually encourage musical inclusivity, a conception of the underlying causes of underrepresentation is needed. Nwanoku understands the complexity of the issue well: “There are a number of issues at work here,” she begins. “It begins with music education, which, at every stage, from preschool to post doctorate, is fast becoming a luxury rather than a right.” The cost of music education has been on the rise for the past few decades, and it will only become more expensive. While this affects all children, Nwanoku is correct in stating that “the blow lands hardest on BME communities: BME families, concentrated in urban areas where poverty is higher, are more likely to send their children to those schools most in need of peripatetic teachers, exactly the sort of schools who, when funding is tight, are forced to reduce or even close their music programmes.” A lack of music inclusivity is thus indicative of the wider socio-economic issues facing the UK.

But, as Nwanoku continues, there are other, more psychological problems at play here. “BME music students see so few professional musicians who look like them, that often they immediately assume this is not a career for people like them.” It becomes a self-perpetuating dilemma: “the fewer role models young BME musicians have, the fewer who choose to become professional musicians.”

“BME music students see so few professional musicians who look like them, that often they immediately assume this is not a career for people like them”

Even just a few role models can make a huge impact in altering the status quo and incentivising young BME musicians to make the leap into the professional music world. Nwanoku agrees: “The impact of someone like Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, in showing BME communities that classical music can be for them, cannot be underestimated. That Sheku is an ‘ordinary kid’ who attends a local comprehensive and plays football with his brother in his spare time only adds to his value as a role model.”

There is no doubt that high profile BME musicians like Sheku have a profound impact on the public’s perception of the classical music industry, and, in turn, provide relatable role models for the younger BME generation. However, if change is to occur on an institutional scale, greater government intervention and influence if needed. While Nwanoku acknowledges the work that the government has done to improve classical music diversity, she argues that current policies are restrictive and damaging.

“First of all, I must say that the government have been enormously supportive of my work in general and of Chineke! in particular,” she argues. “In fact, it was the former Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, who encouraged me to develop Chineke! from a mere idea into actual organisation!” In turn, Nwanoku is grateful for how the government does encourage the UK’s culture sector to grow and diversify. However, a recently reduced emphasis on music education in policymaking has led to a stagnation in governmental efforts to improve the UK’s classical music diversity.

Nwanoku argues that “current policies around music education are a major factor in why we see so few professional BME classical musicians.” In other words, the government can make a real impact if it focuses on a ‘ground up’ policy. As Nwanoku states, “until the government starts to value music education more, starts to prioritise its inclusion in the national curriculum, and starts to recognise the wider benefits it has on pupil performance and behaviour, then we are going to be stuck in the situation where classical music education remains a luxury rather than a right, and that would be a very sad thing indeed.”

The classical music industry has reached a crossroads. Its diversity issue is still as prevalent as it has always been, yet the fantastic work of Chineke! and other organisations, alongside the rise of prominent BME classical musicians such as Sheku Kanneh-Mason, has created an opportunity for change. It is crucial, now more than ever, that the government reverses its devastating cuts on the culture industry, considering that these funding reductions fall disproportionately on ethnic minorities. Music education does not have to be “a luxury.” With positive action and open discussion, we can turn the tide and make classical music inclusive and open to all

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