Pale, male and stale: representation within music at Cambridge

An exploration of diversity within the classical music scene


“The 72nd concerto octave major movement in K minor was rather disappointing, no?!” I hear. Another classical music concert has just ended. The spewing of haughty voices rattle away, not noticing those of us who disappear into the background, feeling increasingly intellectually belittled. I sit there, staring at the grandiose setting of King’s Chapel. I look around, feeling oddly uncomfortable and conspicuous. Why is it all so formal?! I notice almost all the audience filtering through the gothic arch, which is white. And all the musicians are white.

It’s very jarring.

Music at Cambridge is one of the least diverse student environments, created and fuelled by an elitist and snobbish surrounding culture. Sadly, it is a domino effect that can’t be tackled or changed. Instruments are expensive; once bought, music lessons are required to excel – these are pricey. Furthermore, not every school offers music so the theory that goes hand in hand with performance is not available, which means there is likely only one type of muso at Cambridge: an upper-middle-class privately educated individual. This is not representative of the entire student body, so why do we keep enhancing this culture and containing this elitism?

Artwork by Abdullah Khan

It’s no secret that music is one of the worst culprits for a lack of diversity; this is a result of larger issues within society, a lack of funding for the arts and music in state schools, and a class culture surrounding classical music as a hobby or interest. Things are starting to change within the Faculty, with the introduction of The Athena Swan Award and more and more bursaries are becoming available. But that’s only at Cambridge; the root of the problem is music before Cambridge. Speaking to a first year Muso, Oscar, I’ve gleaned that the faculty “separates itself from musical cultures and practices from across the world; there is a problem in the course as its’ too classically orientated,” focusing on works by white musicians. This is also reflected in college music societies. Why is jazz or pop viewed as an inferior musical art form? We should perhaps focus more on this, which can result in a widening participation to college music society events.

This is not a targeted attack on musos, more of an appeal as such; an invitation and encouragement that events are for all to attend, not just the snobbish critics.

Most concerts and musical events attract a certain crowd; thousands are being shut out from it. Music and free recitals can be a fun, vital de-stresser for anyone to enjoy.

Photo: Abdullah Khan

There’s a stigma around having classical music as an interest; it is associated with a particular background and culture. Yes, music is an academic discipline but it’s also a leisurely pastime. We have all worked incredibly hard to get here, so why should these stereotypes and class disparities be further enforced by the nature of our interests?

When a POC enters a room, many (non-POC) students wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But that POC may feel uncomfortably overwhelmed simply by being the only person who’s not white. I’ve been in that scenario, where you feel like you’re an outsider because you’re not well-versed in music or you don’t feel comfortable because you are a minority, or you feel everyone else is part of some secret social club.

I’m hoping that a different scenario begins to emerge in the Cambridge music scene, in which “middle-class white people” do not feel guilty or awkward about addressing these issues; in which POC and people from various backgrounds start to attend more of these events without feeling like they’re shying away from their roots or heritage. In which people don’t feel inadequate and give these things a miss because their friends aren’t going, or for fear of being judged or called “posh” or “pretentious”.

Many dread the post-concert convos and thus don’t attend in the first place. I’ve been baffled many times by audience members’ desires to critique the performances; people may do this to sound intellectual, cultural and to exude an air of authority by tapping into their over-inflated sense of self-importance. This puts people off! To those who love to intellectually belittle others; firstly pipe down because you’re not a professional critic, and secondly, we’re all part of this institution – so support each other! These are your peers, who are doing their degrees and have put in hours of practice.

I encourage more people who don’t read music, people of colour, and people from a wide variety of backgrounds to attend concerts, audition for orchestras/shows, without fear that you’re not good enough or you won’t fit in. Everyone has a right to really make the most of the rich selection of talent available here.

A huge part of the student body is being shut out from the beautiful musical scene at Cambridge and its time we, collectively, create a welcoming environment, and talk about both music and the issues of representation. Maybe you and I and everyone can:

MAKE MUSIC MORE ACCESSIBLE.

Cover Photo Credit: Abdullah Khan