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On the ABRSM and the legacy of Colonialism

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

"The board [ABRSM] is one of the significant legacies of Victorian Britain, generated as part of that society's concern to expand the technological and professional workforce needed to run the Empire" (Wright, 2013)

Many of you will be aware of the recent online petition (which I encourage you to sign) calling for an increase in pieces written by black people to appear across the Associated Board of the Royal Schools Of Music (ABRSM) examinations. Conversations around the lack of representation and diversity in the ABRSM have been happening for years, yet acting on these conversations seems to be slow and arduous. This is not to say that there hasn't been an active effort to increase diversity - an excellent analysis by David Barton reveals that there has been an increase in female composers represented in the new syllabus. Andrew Eales' detailed review also mentions this. However, understanding the intersectionality of diversifying a syllabus or curriculum reveals other issues. The new 2021/2022 piano syllabus which was just announced, reveals 0% of the 255 composers whose music appears, were black. 0.4% of music across all instruments were composed by a black or brown musician. It appears as though previous calls for the inclusion of black composers such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor or Florence Price have fallen on deaf ears. As PhD student Scott Caizley says, “Having a lack of BAME representation, especially black composers, shows ignorance, something which we must all do better with if we are to committed to equalising the playing field of classical music and ensuring the music is representative of the society in which it serves.”

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's omission is particularly 'interesting'. Consider this. Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875. He was well known and respected in the UK and the U.S.A., having garnered praise from other notable composers such as Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn-Williams. In 1912, (a few months before his death) his music formed a part of the coronation celebrations for King George V. Only he and Richard Wagner had more than one work performed as part of the program (Ebua, 2001). He was also invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 - a time when having a black man in one of the most recognisable houses in the world, was severely frowned upon. Coleridge-Taylor, for want of a better phrase, was a superstar.

The ABRSM was founded (in London) in 1889, and it first introduced the 1-8 grading structure in 1933. Given the Board's geographical and historical proximity to Coleridge-Taylor, why would his music therefore be excluded? Is his music too old to warrant even tokenistic inclusion? Highly unlikely - music by Handel and Bach remain (and quite rightly so). Is his music too simplistic or complex? Is there a bias against composers held in high esteem in the early 20th century? Is there a bias against British composers? Bias against composers born in London?

"The ABRSM was conscious of having a musical obligation to Empire" (Wright, 2013)

Given that the generally accepted height of the British Empire was between 1815-1914, the ABRSM being formed in 1889 places it not only geographically at the very centre of Empire (London), but links it inextricably to British colonialist and imperialistic thought. Without this blog post turning into a short book chapter, it suffices to say that the ABRSM was founded on the ideas of promoting a singular idea of what a good music education should look and sound like; what should be not only studied in the UK, but also disseminated amongst the colonies. The aims of the ABRSM are evidenced by this quote given by one time Royal Northern College Director (and composer of the song Jerusalem) Sir Hubert Parry:

" give people all over the Empire opportunities to be intimately acquainted with the finest kinds of musical art, and to maintain standards of interpretation and an attitude of thoroughness in connection with music which will enable it to be most fruitful of good." (Wright, 2013)

It's the idea of the 'finest kinds of musical art' and the maintenance of particular standards, which form the backbone of the ABRSM. The level to which these British values are upheld, can be seen, for example, in how many international practical exams are conducted in English. Interpreters are allowed when the candidate is not comfortable enough to take the whole exam in English. How many children worldwide does this potentially exclude every year? All of this without taking into consideration that international exams accounted for 57% of the ABRSM's income in the 2017/18 financial year (Zhang, 2019).

I've gone off on a bit of a tangent now, but I'll conclude with this. Given the longstanding history and reluctance to change, perhaps it's time to think of alternatives. While myself and other black and brown people have benefitted from taking ABRSM exams and teaching others to pass them, perhaps it's time to see where improvements can be made to existing models of music examinations. Perhaps in 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fear of another global economic crash, it's time to move forward with alternatives, instead of waiting for systemic changes which may never happen.

Stay tuned...

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