Pomp and circumstance is no respecter of race

29th November 1996 at 00:00
I always watch the Last Night of the Proms on television. Most years, I attend the Schools' Prom, when each night the audience sings "Land of Hope and Glory". It's exciting to listen to "Rule Britannia" and share a sense of belonging. Just for once, it's possible to feel that one knows who one is.

But though I enjoy the music and am awestruck by the young people's talent, I can't go on enjoying the flagwaving. It doesn't tell me who I am any more. Why? Because I don't belong - and don't want to belong - to a community which is almost exclusively white. When I attended the Schools' Prom this year, the only Afro-Caribbean pupils were in a steel band conducted by a white teacher. Only a handful of recognisably ethnic minority faces appeared in the other items, and I couldn't see a single black or brown face in the audience. Even the Last Night of the Grownup Proms, with its extended audience in Hyde Park, seemed entirely white.

So I can't enjoy singing of a land of hope and glory from which half my students are, or feel they are, excluded. Even if they just don't want to belong, that worries me a lot. Events which should bring us all together only emphasise divisions beyond music. Because casual stereotyping is less often remarked on than overt discrimination, it can be more damaging. Musical talent is no respecter of race: the Vietnamese boat-boy from my college who became a music teacher, and the Afro-Caribbean girl reading music at Oxford, are not exceptions that prove the rule, merely exceptional students.

So what is it all about? If we believe that everyone should be represented in an activity and it's not part of everyone's culture, we need a culture change. We don't just go on with things as they are. Many people believed the working class didn't like bathing until council houses were provided with bathrooms. Concerted efforts to lure girls into science and engineering have had some, if not enough, success. Anyway, they show a commitment to change.

Of course, class shows less than colour. It's likely that the ability to purchase instruments, pay for music lessons, and provide living conditions that allow for music practice without antagonising neighbours, mean that white performers in school, college and county orchestras come from relatively privileged backgrounds. But it doesn't cost as muchto learn to sing. Has the national curriculum driven out whole-class singing? Can't schools and colleges afford music teachers?

If not, it seems short-sighted to me. Music has virtues which I don't propose to explore here, including powers to "soothe the savage breast" which could be useful since there seem to be a lot of savage pupils about. But taking part and performing in musical activities also develop qualities in young people that influence their broader development. They learn discipline; they learn to work together; they learn that no choir or orchestra made up of individualists, however talented, is successful. They learn how to work and concentrate for sustained periods. They develop their memories. And they learn, too, the pleasure and excitement of having their work appreciated and praised.

Job advertisements invite applications from under-represented groups. Often they need to: if you don't think people will want you, it won't occur to you to apply. Couldn't Music for Youth do the same to attract groups with mixed-race membership? Positive action is needed, and there are too few ethnic minority teachers for it to be left to them. First, perhaps, Music for Youth needs to readdress its objectives. What does it want to achieve? Good music, certainly; varieties of musical performance, from students of different ages. Could it now add that it wants performers representing all those who live and learn in this country, so that it may become one of hope and glory for all and not just for some?

We couldn't really manage two minutes' silence on Armistice Day this year. Eleven o'clock falls in the middle of break, and we haven't got a Tannoy system. But I wasn't too disappointed. I was uneasy about the relevance of the period of silence for some of our students. Not because they are too young to remember, not because I feel that it celebrates militarism; but because of an implied unity which I'm not sure everyone can sign up to.

How many refugees, how many young homeless people who haven't a job because they haven't a home, will feel that those who made the supreme sacrifice in defence of freedom were more deceived than brave? How many Second World War films, so often repeated on television, feature black soldiers from the Empire? Until I feel that rituals intended to unify are relevant to all my students, I shall not feel comfortable sharing either singing or silence.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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