Soapbox: Excellence, Inclusion and Repertoire

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soapboxIn my posts earlier this year responding to my correspondent interested in “Music for All” I was very restrained in not getting side-tracked onto a question about repertoire and choral ideology that he didn’t ask about directly, but chimed with various questions that used to float about when I was working at Birmingham Conservatoire. This is about how the vexed question of ‘elitism’ versus ‘inclusion’ relates to repertoire.

The stereotypical critique of so-called high-art traditions is that they are elitist, and in a number of different ways. The music was produced for the ruling classes to enjoy; to a significant extent, participation is still limited to those with the means for private education (private music lessons if not a fee-paying school); its beauty and meaning is not necessarily accessible to people who haven’t been introduced to it while young; its culturally privileged position has unreasonably maligned other (popular, commercial, participative, ethnically diverse) forms of music and treated them as less valid.

There is something to each of these charges, but things get muddly when they are conflated into a single dimension of ‘elitism’, as each critique implies a different remedy. The historical dimension is just as it is: there’s not a lot we can do about the origins of the music now, except maybe to point out that much of it was the work of a servant/artisan class, and maybe we shouldn’t tar Bach and Haydn with the same brush of reverse snobbery we apply to their employers.

Lack of access to classical training is and has been tackled over the past four decades or more by local music services, with various degrees of success. You can tell that story as either a triumph of egalitarianism or a dystopic failure of culture depending on which particular case studies you pick. I don’t think anyone involved in classical music wouldn’t want more access to good musical training to be available, but equally there are a lot of good people doing good work, and we shouldn’t knock that just because more would be welcome.

Vernacular musics are also finding a more valued place both in general cultural life and in the curriculum. I have assessed composition portfolios for masters degrees that included gospel, jazz, several types of world music fusion and miscellaneous flavours of rock and pop. The academy, at least in the UK, is generally ready to recognise that expertise is developed in dialogue with a genre’s conventions, and that it is the degree of fluency and creativity rather than the genre label that signals artistic value.

So, taken separately, each of these critiques is being addressed. The problem comes when they get squished together. Like when an education authority decides it is going to stop funding violin lessons in state schools because violin-playing is ‘elitist’. Well, if the only people who get violin lessons are the ones whose parents can afford it, then it will be elitist! Or when a black student is pushed towards gospel rather than classical music. It’s great to have gospel music in formal educational institutions, but – well, it’s obvious isn’t it?

And in the choral world, you sometimes get excellence-classical-auditioned-elitist set against fun-vernacular musics-open entrance-egalitarian. Hence an ideological position that dislikes elitism can get elided with both non-classical repertoire and an anything-goes attitude to performance standards. But that’s just not helpful. By lumping all the dimensions together, you ghettoise vernacular musics into the ‘inexpert’ camp, and you exclude people who lack formal training from singing the big classical repertoire. Both of these results perpetuate the patterns of exclusion and cultural hierarchy.

If you want to achieve excellence by auditioning trained singers for classical repertoire – great! If you want to build camaraderie singing world music with all-comers – great! Likewise, if you want to invite all-comers to aspire to perform long and complex serious works – great! And if you want to audition to build an expert world music ensemble – great!

I don’t think there are many people who would argue very hard against the principle of “Music for All”. Let’s just make sure we don’t allow simplistic analysis to paint us into corners that we don’t want to get into. We want a world that includes both Messiah from Scratch and Black Voices.

Hear, hear!!

From the Front of the Choir

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