Classical music and inclusivity: what can we do better?

I recently attended the IETM (international network for contemporary performing arts) plenary meeting, on a theme of inclusivity; specifically: do we all intend to produce art that includes everybody; do we succeed in doing this; if not, why not?

I attended with some misgivings; any time away from my desk is a risk for me, as I have limited work time alongside childcare and other commitments, and I hadn’t got childcare for the first session, which meant that – after some consideration and a lot of worry – I had decided to bring my two year old with me to the session.

This turned out to be absolutely fine; not my most impressive parenting moment, as my son spent two hours watching CBeebies on my phone and eating gingerbread men, but I was made to feel genuinely welcome and at ease, learned a lot, and afterwards had the pleasure of hearing a couple of the participants say that they felt it was entirely their job to make me and my son feel comfortable with the situation.

This, along with the excellent keynote speeches by Sade Brown of Sour Lemons and Jess Thom of Tourettes Hero, really set the tone for me; all my concerns vanished and I felt I was in for an enlightening couple of days.

I was not wrong. Inspiration, understanding, and new vocabulary to deal with difficult subjects, flowed out of every thought-provoking session. However, at the end of the first day I was left feeling that classical music didn’t feel as emphatically represented as other art forms, especially dance, theatre and spectacle events.

As time went on, I found the other classical music specialists attending – I was right that there were fewer, but they were there – and I also developed an idea that perhaps this was the case for a reason. Listening to the talks about inclusive theatre and dance projects, I realised that, with the exception of some outstanding projects, classical music has some catching up to do when it comes to inclusive performance.

What are the barriers to inclusive performance in classical music?

Classical music, perhaps more than other art forms, is generally perceived to have a niche culture; that its audience is largely white, middle class, middle-aged to elderly, and educated. This perception is, I hope, far from the truth, but, as the Artistic Director of a chamber music society for whom all these things are true (despite our best efforts), I have been asking myself what the barriers are to inclusive performance in classical music.

The answers I can come up with are steeped in history; the idea that classical music must be enjoyed in silence is key, although this is an idea formed in the 19th century; 17th century audiences would famously have talked, eaten, drunk and gambled through performances.

This has led to a culture of ritual and, therefore, exclusion within classical music; woe betide any ill-informed person who accidentally claps between movements (again, so far removed from pop/rock/folk/jazz etc, where responding to the music as you hear it and are moved by it is the norm), or dares to open a cough sweet…

Something that has been enlightening for me as a result of considering these issues, is the fact that, despite being someone that considers themselves fully committed to inclusivity, my attempts to include new audiences from different backgrounds and abilities in my musical projects have been somewhat apologetic; I am always concerned about alienating existing audience members. Obviously, no-one wants to do that, but do I really think my existing audience would refuse to come to a concert if it was truly inclusive, and, say, a relaxed performance? And, if they would, why am I more concerned about upsetting the person who is not willing to embrace inclusivity, rather than the people that currently feel they are unwelcome at classical concerts?

How do we change the barriers to inclusivity in classical music?

Firstly, concert promoters/committees/boards etc need to get behind inclusivity, beyond just audiences. The boards of such organisations generally tend to represent the audiences I mentioned above. In order to have diverse audiences, we must have diverse leadership; we cannot expect audience trends to be changed if our decision makers, programmers and marketers do not understand the people they are trying to attract.

Secondly, we must talk to our audiences – both our existing audience, and the one we are trying to attract. Good, open lines of communication make all the difference in making people feel understood, catered for, and welcomed. I believe it is possible to take existing audiences with us on the journey to a more inclusive model.

On the other side, we must not assume that if we provide BSL interpretation we will suddenly attract the entire deaf community; we must connect with those potential audiences before we decide on what our changes will be, and make sure they are right, appealing, and carried out in a manner that makes people feel welcome.

Thirdly, we must not allow ourselves to be held back by the existing culture. We must be brave, well-informed, considerate, and in touch with our audiences and our sector. There is a great deal of press coverage on this issue at the moment, and I for one feel called to action!

What do you think? What enables or prevents you from going to concerts? What could concert venues, organisers and artists do to make you feel welcome?