Chief Executive Sarah Derbyshire, gives her reflections on chairing the panel of 2020 Vision: The Inclusive Orchestra at the recent Association of British Orchestras (ABO) conference.
The complex and immersive soundworld of Oliver Vibrans’ compelling new piece, More Up, premiered the previous night by the Able Orchestra, was still very much in my mind as I introduced the session on Inclusive Ensembles at the ABO conference. Along with Oliver himself, the panel included Korean taegum flute player Hyelim Kim, Kate Lowes from Brighter Sound and Dougie Scarfe representing the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. What a great line-up of people speaking either of their lived experience or their direct involvement in driving change towards inclusive practice in the music profession.
I was confident that we were set for a session that would ask everyone in the room to re-examine their assumptions about inclusion, creativity and the orchestral sector, just as Able Orchestra’s performance had done. I wasn’t wrong.
Each panellist focused on a different aspect of inclusion – the barriers preventing disabled musicians finding a label-free space for themselves in the profession; culturally diverse ensembles rethinking orchestral hierarchy and artistic control; research-led intervention to tackle the ‘leaky’ and narrowing pipeline that stops girls and women from entering the profession; how applying inclusive practice across the whole organisation has been shown to bring artistic and business benefits.
In spite of their different starting points, common themes became clear during the session. As the conference progressed I found myself reflecting on these and refining my own thoughts in response to other speakers.
First of all, from an individual musician’s point of view, a refusal to be restricted by convention or assumptions of appropriateness or ability, to be bound by the unwritten rules that there is only one right way to approach musicianship.
I was struck by examples of how negative and narrowminded the sector can be and the determination and resilience required to push against that. Every player in BSO Resound has been told in the past that their disability would prevent them from ever making a living as a musician. When Oliver Vibrans was learning to play percussion he realised that the ‘right’ technique was physically impossible for him and developed his own practice. Claire Mera-Nelson revealed that, although she was a long way from reading music fluently when she began her conservatoire studies, she was playing in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment before the end of her third year.
Each is an undeniable example that it’s possible to excel as a musician, and in the orchestral sector, without taking the established route. When I saw the ambition displayed by all the young musicians performing in Able Orchestra I wanted to match that with an ambition in the sector to rethink the model, in order to embrace their talent rather than impose false parameters.
Secondly – frustration! In our session, panel and delegates alike bemoaned the fact that we have been meeting and talking about the imperative to develop inclusive practice within the orchestral sector for far too many years, without seeing corresponding, scaled up change.
Orchestras Live’s own Needs Analysis has revealed a stark reality where many individuals and organisations still feel that developing practice to improve diversity in the workforce – whether managerial or artistic – is not relevant to them or requires more of them than they are able to give. And yet we can’t escape the fact that we are accountable and responsible, as a profession.
At Orchestras Live we’ve been saying for some time – since our first Diversity Symposium in 2016 – that ‘small steps are radical’. So to get our delegates thinking, I asked them to pair up and write a 'Postcard from the Future', describing how inclusive practice could have changed orchestras in 10 years time, and most importantly, what THEY did to get us there.
Here’s a representation of the key themes and individual ideas that came out from that exercise:
These are actions that we can start putting in place now. Some are big picture ideas: Reflecting society, Equal representation and so on. Others are very practical: Bursaries and traineeships, Role models, Putting people at the centre, Commissioning, Focused investment. And behind all these, there’s a recognition that our organisational cultures need to change, to be more open, aware, less defensive and prepared to collaborate.
To that end, I welcome Arts Council England’s research into Diversity in Classical Music. I hope that as many people as possible in the sector – musicians as well as managers – will engage with the survey that has just been launched so that we can start to plan initiatives and interventions from an informed position.
Let’s learn from our current shared experience, challenge the assumptions that there is a ‘right’ way to do things – how to play, how to listen, even how to dress – and commit to driving change so that in ten years time our postcards will send excited messages about inclusive ensembles that are a vibrant artistic reflection of the 21st century.