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#MusicMark10: Decolonising the Music Curriculum

13th December 2023

Roger Wilson looking at the camera

Roger Wilson from Black Lives in Music reflects on the ‘Decolonising the Music Curriculum: Concepts in Practice’ session from the Music Mark Annual Conference 2023, sharing his thoughts on the progress that has been made towards decolonising the music education curriculum, but also highlighting the areas which still need change.

I had the pleasure of attending this year’s Music Mark conference, it was my first time and a thoroughly enjoyable experience it was too! I was a guest of the amazing Sooree Pillay, Sooree is a regional producer for Orchestras Live, and was moderating a panel discussion on decolonisation of the music curriculum. It was great to be joined by Ishani O’ Connor and my namesake Bradley Wilson (no relation!). It was lovely to share this discussion with a very knowledgeable panel, but equally to share the discussion with a completely full room of delegates, it was standing room only! I guess that says everything about the acknowledgement and appetite the sector has for driving change in this respect. There was a genuine warmth in the room for the subject and a clear enthusiasm for open and honest conversation. It was great to see a number of Black Lives in Music’s partners including James Welburn, Head of Partnerships at the ABRSM. Black Lives in Music (BLiM) has an ecosystem approach to making change in the sector, so to see key stakeholders come together in the one space such as at the Music Mark conference is so important. 

Fear continues to be a factor in the speed of change. Language and descriptors continue to be a challenge for teachers and practitioners. On the positive side, repertoire and relevance are increasingly becoming bedfellows. It was beyond heartening to attend the recent schools prom at the Royal Albert Hall to see a rich cornucopia of styles performed by a wide range of musicians on an equally diverse range of instruments. Through our partnerships with the ABRSM, RSL, LCME and TCL we’ve been able to support on bold initiatives to decolonise the instrumental exam syllabus offer. At Higher Education Institution level, we’ve seen determined efforts by Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance to decolonise their curriculum offer. Their Kaleidoscope initiative is an equally bold project, championing Black and global majority composers as well as composers from traditionally underrepresented communities. I’ve been inspired by the work of Professor Nate Holder whose lectures and presentations have fizzed up thinking around the idea of decolonising the syllabus.   

I mentioned in the panel session that I was still concerned about the training of instrumental teachers. Currently, this aspect of the teaching sector is, to my mind, the only one where teachers do not receive a full and comprehensive training and learning experience based on an established and robust structure. Consequently, teachers that improvise may not teach music which requires reading and vice versa. The one-to-one model of conservatoire learning brings so many benefits but at the same time, it has so many flaws. Graduates take into the profession the positives bestowed on them by their teachers, but equally some of the negatives. The perpetuation of traditional ideas on the canon and what should not be included stymie the process of decolonising. And whilst UK orchestras take their time to develop their own conviction in this respect, there is without doubt a knock-on effect in terms of conservatoire education and the resulting self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict in thinking between the old guard and the new thought leaders.   

Since co-founding BLiM with Charisse Beaumont, I’ve had to manage expectations and prepare for a long game. Meaningful change takes time, good things are worth being patient for. Structures both real and metaphorical can’t be razed to the ground and rebuilt in a heartbeat. The stones of tradition need to be replaced with the bricks of change and secured with the cement of relevance. Workforce development will see our industry become increasingly representative, but not without more honesty, hard work and integrity. What I saw in those attending Sooree’s session were the very people we need to drive the process of decolonising. The speed of travel is as important as the direction of travel. Music hubs are now undergoing the latest challenges as presented in the form of the NPME and hub restructuring plans. We will need those attending Sooree’s session and many more stakeholders both far and wide to bring their energy, honesty and hard work to stand alongside organisations with lived experience and expertise like BLiM to maintain a steady course. For those who believe in the decolonising agenda, please be assured, and for those that don’t, beware – there can, and will be no turning back! 

 By Roger Wilson, Director of Operations at Black Lives in Music