Written by Davina Vencatasamy
Free music for all! This is the cry that comes across at meetings looking at the issues of diversity within music education. It sounds like a great idea, right? Kids who would never normally access one-to-one musical tuition due to the cost or availability, would be able to receive the tools they need to grow a new language, create new opportunities, make new alliances with their community. I think this is part of the solution; music shouldn’t be exclusive given it’s one of the most inclusive mediums available.
However, what happens to poor Anika once she has learnt to play this instrument? She wanted to learn music because the instruments looked so exciting. She loved the sound and feel of them and loves listening to all types of music. When she was given a choice she chose the violin because she has seen so many beautiful white women play so inspiringly on the TV and wanted to be like them. Because her school did not fund the lessons and were given the free music lesson hand out, they didn’t build an infrastructure around this. No one in the school was able to support Anika when she got to a good enough level to play in a group such as an orchestra. There was no one in school who knew the pathway to going further in the musical world; no one to tell her what her options were. Only one aspect of the story was given and a thought about the cultural implications were not taken in consideration. The fact that her parents couldn’t support her either as they had no knowledge of the musical world either and no support system to find out. And even if they did, culturally, music is not something you learn and study, its something you do for fun or as part of religion. Depending on the culture, sometimes even the fun part is dodgy ground. “You can’t actually get a job from it, can you? It’s a waste of time” comes the comment from family members or members of her immediate community. “You need to study hard, be whiter than white and twice as good as the rest and become a doctor or a lawyer. That is the only way you will get respect in this world. Forget the music”.
Poor Anika indeed. Having found something that she loves and is good at, at every step of the way, the process is disrupted. And even if she fights against all odds and gets to a place where she’s gone through the colonised musical grade exam system with her free lessons (she had to save and / or get funding for the exam fees) she then has to enter the highly competitive world of music performance where everywhere she turns, there is no one that looks like her. If she was brought up in a white environment (predominantly white school and lived in a more affluent area in the suburbs where she became accustomed to the everyday microaggressions) she may have the cultural know how to survive. If not, then very quickly, her inability to integrate becomes a reason for others to exclude her, to shine a spotlight on her difference. Even if she was brought up in an anglicised environment and has learnt by herself the “proper” ways of surviving in this sytem, when she goes to that orchestra or music school, everyone there is white. There are no teachers of difference and when the system she is in starts to grate against her cultural needs, she is the one in the wrong as the system doesn’t allow for difference.
I speak here of classical music with its airs and graces, competitive nature, unspoken rituals and coded proper etiquette behaviours – don’t clap after the first movement! (or if you do, be prepared for the filthiest looks known to mankind and expect to be shunned from the theatre in shame). I remember sitting next to a man in his early thirties in a theatre and I noticed him because, apart from myself, he was one of the only people of colour there. Having always loved classical music, I am very used to seeing a sea of older white faces around me in theatres and concert halls, so this gentleman stood out. He struck up a conversation, probably because I was brown too and told me he was taking his elderly grandfather to a concert before he had to fly back home. He wanted to know when he was allowed to clap. I told him when he could and reassured him that he could follow what I did, but what an odd conversation to have! Its something, that if you are brought up in that world, seems innate or certainly understood, but must have been bewildering for this gentleman. It is also culminates in an arena which is exclusive and again promotes a shutting down of the experience for those who could otherwise engage. And then we sit around with our flutes of champagne at the end of the night and exclaim how its such a shame that younger people aren’t coming to these events blah blah blah.
There is a lot to be said for free music lessons, but maybe a good look as to how this can be properly implemented and funded needs to be looked at too. I can offer my time as a volunteer and provide music lessons to someone who wants it, but unless they have the infrastructure around them to do something with that, it feels unhelpful and maybe even harmful to do. Which is ridiculous isn’t it? More needs to be done to provide our diverse communities with music making opportunities because it has been proven time and time again that music makes a difference. It affects our state of mind, our mood, our ability to communicate, our enjoyment and happiness. It not only is beneficial to our wellbeing but has the power to build relationships, to learn from others, to increase social interactions, even in those people who, according to their diagnosis, may not have that ability. As a music therapist, I see this all the time. Placing music as a central part to how we interact with the world can make a difference to a whole community but that’s not the bit that’s really important (even though it still is). The bit that matters, is that it can make up the entire world of an individual, the individual who “gets it”. The individual who grows to love and use music to help others. To Anika, who despite everything, sees the beauty in her music making and uses it to help others. Anika’s musical career may not survive all the obstacles that are in her way if we don’t wake up and do something about the accessibility to this world.