Classical music ain’t just a dead white man thing

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A MUSICAL project dedicated to celebrating the history of black classical composers is taking place in schools across the North West.

Manchester Camarata, a charity aiming to make classical music accessible to diverse audiences, is behind the series of workshops for Year 10 students on the unknown diversity of classical music history.

the The Hidden Histories project is led by 22-year-old Lavender Rodriguez, who works one-on-one with students in their classrooms.

The talented musician helps children learn about musical composition, which until now she considered a “dead white man’s thing”.

“Manchester Camarata contacted me about this project which focuses on diversity and composition, they said ‘We would love to have you lead this project’ and I really like the activism.

“I really like working with children. I didn’t even know composition was a thing. I thought it was a dead white man thing,” they said The voice.

“There were a lot of hesitations at the start. I just thought I had to write a whole piece of music. What the hell was I thinking? You must have all the skills, you must have all the knowledge or the instruments for the orchestra.

“I think breaking that down into the most manageable steps and also tying it back to who they are [the children] are interested has made this much more achievable.

They added: “They [the children] have been great. After the first week, they were so ready to come up with ideas. They have such a big imagination and it was just about facilitating that and seeing how can we develop that further, how can we bring your voice to this room? They were just amazing.

Growing up in Hampshire, Lavender admits her parents never played instruments, but the sounds of 2000s, R&B and gospel shaped her early love of music as a child.

Following his ADHD diagnosis, it was a teacher at his school who talked to his parents about tapping into his budding musical gift.

They started playing the cello and later the violin, and says she “fell in love” with it when she started playing in orchestras and ensembles.

Despite Lavendar’s introduction to the world of classical music, Lavender admits she never saw a diversity of what it meant to be a composer beyond the black musicians made famous by jazz or ragtime.

“Growing up in my environment, they were very white and conservative. And so in schools there is hardly anyone I can identify with, but in music even less,” he says.

“I remember a specific moment just before a concert. One of the older kids came up to me and said, “Do you realize you’re the only black kids in the music department?

“I didn’t want to think about it, but now that it was being actively pointed out, I was really hyper aware of how people saw me.

“So I think it was quite difficult. It was quite difficult, like going for opportunities when I can afford it or getting to this place because my family was very busy and my mother was sacrificing a lot of anyway.

“So I think it hit a lot but I didn’t really feel like it. I didn’t feel it was necessary to focus on my running until I was a lot older because I couldn’t do much for my environment.

As a person of mixed origin – with a Spanish father and Nigerian mother – it made it even more important to get involved in the Hidden Histories project for Lavender.

The project comes a year after music education across the UK was thrown into question after Pearson EdExcel made the decision to drop the only black composer, Courtney Pine, from the A-Level music programme.

Lavendar Rodriguez teaches a workshop at the local school (Picture: Manchester Camarata)

The move was made after teachers complained about their growing workload but then saw the British jazz saxophonist and diversity advocates criticize the decision before he was later reinstated after mounting pressure.

The work of black classical composers like Julius Eastman, Scott Joplin and Undine Smith Moore is featured in lessons for children of all backgrounds to learn music composition and grasp their mark on the classical music genre.

The Hidden Histories project is Manchester Camarata’s second aim to bring attention to often unknown and underrepresented composers after previous workshops were led by James B. Wilson and focused on composers such as Samuel Coleridge- Taylor, Ignatius Sancho and Joseph Bologna.

Praise Uloho, 15, who attends Ellesmere Port Catholic Secondary School where only one of many workshops is held throughout the year, plays drums and says the workshops have changed his outlook on music.

“I never really saw myself as an orchestral composer, [and learning from black composers] but when you try something and it’s okay and you have to keep trying.

Eventually something you learn becomes a passion and it gets better over time,” he told The Voice.

Praise also says that a career in classical music has always been in the making.

I’ve been in music since I was three years old,” he says.

“Everyone in our family, at least everyone who wants to learn, knows how to play an instrument.

“My older brother is good at piano and guitar, I play drums. My little sister is also learning piano and guitar.

“Even my parents can play music, so it’s something I grew up with. So even if you don’t want it in your lifestyle, since you grew up with it, it’s going to stay with you. .

Lavender, who is already working on her own contemporary album, describes the impact on students like Praise throughout teaching the workshops as “rewarding”.

“I want kids to know that whoever you are and whatever you do, if you want to create music, that’s fine and your stories are totally valid and anything goes,” they said.

“I think there’s a lot of dictation about what are the subjects you have to do, and what are the grades you have to get to earn that amount of money.

“But the way of thinking is very closed, whereas with composition, as long as you have something that is enough for a launchpad to accomplish anything.

“It’s mostly about finding your own voice and obviously confidence too. “The kids have gained so much confidence from week one to week four, and I can only imagine what will happen if they’re more exposed, the confidence they’ll get with more music, training in schools and better access to sets, etc. So I think that’s been really rewarding.

Lizzie Hoskin, Community Manager at Manchester Camarata, said: “We have loved running our Hidden Histories project. This is the project’s second year, working first with composer James B Wilson and now with Lavender Rodriguez.

“Here at Manchester Camerata, we believe in creating music that enables change for the better: it could change perspectives and broaden horizons by coming to one of our live shows, taking part in our creating music in schools, seeing how music can be used to inspire the next generation of young people or even improve the quality of life for people with dementia.

Diversity is a huge hurdle to overcome in classical music, especially when it comes to the school curriculum. The fact that we can actually help influence what happens in schools (and students) in our area is amazing! By expanding the influences and knowledge base of the next generation of potential composers, we hope we are actively addressing the issue of diversity for the better.


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