Sunday, September 14, 2008

Scrollworks: Changing the Frame of Reference

From the Observer: Why are our orchestras so white? by Elizabeth Day
...the racial conformity of our orchestras points to a lack of non-white players coming up through the system.

...the ethnic composition of our orchestras is more a question of class and social deprivation.

'The problem is that the model of taking your instrument home and practising every day for an hour doesn't apply to inner city environments; it doesn't apply to a lot of communities, it's not just black communities. For my constituents, the idea they can take an instrument home to their council estate, to a house they share with many brothers and sisters, and practise on their own without the support of their parents, is just implausible.'

For parents to encourage the level of dedication required to reach the top echelons of orchestral performance, says Lammy, they must first be familiar with a classical music tradition that is rooted in a white, Christian historical context. Gladstone Reid was fortunate that his great-grandfather was an Anglican choirmaster and his father taught him how to play the guitar from the age of seven. Lammy, too, was exposed to classical music as a cathedral chorister. But for many young musicians there is no such frame of reference.

Outside Britain there are successful grassroots models for getting underprivileged youths into music, often with transformative results. At 13 Lennar Acosta was living on the streets in his native Venezuela with a crack habit and a .38 calibre gun. At 15 he was in a young offenders' institute in Caracas, surrounded by other delinquents who, just like him, had been abandoned by their families and mainstream society. Then, he was given a clarinet and his life started to change. 'I didn't know what it was,' he recalled, several years later. 'I was fascinated when I saw it.'

Acosta is an alumnus of El Sistema Youth Orchestras Project, a visionary project founded 33 years ago by the economist Jose Abreu. It provides free music tuition for disadvantaged children, and so far over 270,000 children have benefited. For Acosta, the results were indelible: 'Music saved my life. It helped me let out a lot of the anger inside.'

Britain, says Lammy, has much to learn from the Venezuelan model: 'It's about group practice, it's as much about childcare and community as it is about music. We need to be a lot more imaginative about what classical music can offer.' ...

...if a promising black musician decides against a career in classical music, it should, ideally, be a question of choice, not necessity.

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