Huddersfield PhD Researcher
...and piano teacher petitions for equality for black composers on the ABRSM syllabus
MANY black composers have helped to shape the western classical tradition. But none of their works feature in the piano syllabus of one of the world’s most prestigious exams for musicians.
Therefore, a University of Huddersfield researcher – who is also an experienced piano teacher – has launched an online petition that calls for an end to the “whitewashing” of the syllabus of ABRSM, which is the examination board of the Royal Schools of Music.
It delivers over 650,000 music exams and assessments every year in 93 countries. But piano students have no opportunity to study pieces by Florence Price, Scott Joplin, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, George Bridgetower, William Grant Still, Julia Perry, George Walker, Hale Smith, Nora Holt, Ulysses Kay, Margaret Bonds or any other from a host of black composers.
This became a matter of concern to Grace Healy, a piano teacher who has BA and Master’s degrees from the University of Huddersfield, where she is now studying for a PhD.
“I have been teaching the ABRSM syllabus for a while,” said Grace. “But over the past year or so I have been more and more concerned about the absence of black composers on the piano syllabus.
“As a white person I wasn’t sure if it was my place to raise this issue. But with everything that’s happening at the moment, with the Black Lives Matter movement, I have been seeing a lot of things on social media about white people using their privilege and their power to speak up and make a change. This motivated me to do something about it.”
So Grace launched an online petition on change.org that urges “ABRSM to take seriously their responsibility to create a more equal musical world through their educational material”. She rapidly had over 2,000 signatories – and counting.
When she came to analyse exam syllabuses, not only did Grace discover an absence of black composers on the classical piano syllabus, she also came up the surprising finding that even in the ABRSM jazz piano syllabus, only around 34-35 per cent of the set works are written by black composers.
“Considering jazz originated in African-American communities, it seems to me that this statistic should be the other way round!” she said.
Grace attributes the absence of black composers on the syllabus to “an unconscious bias that we all have”.
“I don’t think the board intentionally set out to exclude these composers. I just think they need to think about their power and their responsibility and we need to start looking at how the western musical canon has been whitewashed.”
Grace said that the ABRSM was aware of her petition and she will eventually open up a consultation process.
“I am trying to put forward to the ABSRM that there needs to be people from a wide range of backgrounds involved in the process of selecting composers to be put on the syllabus. It’s not about what I want to see, it’s what people from those communities would like to see.”
Although brought up in the Midlands and now London-based, Grace is glad she chose the music department at the University of Huddersfield for her succession of degrees. “I just find the whole atmosphere highly supportive, and the tutors are fantastic.”
Her PhD project, supervised by Dr Catherine Haworth, examines influence of philosophy and 20th century art movements on punk and post-punk. In addition to her practice as a piano teacher and her musicology research at the University of Huddersfield, Grace also plays keyboards for a “disco-punk” band named Bugeye.