Pianist Nick van Bloss on why disabled performers are being badly let down by the classical music world
S omething about the sentence just didn’t look right. So I read it again.
‘For the record we have presented disabled artists on many occasions and will continue to do so where we feel they are a good fit for our programme.’
Then it clicked. I replaced the word ‘disabled’ with ‘black’ and suddenly I was reading something racist. Then I replaced ‘black’ with ‘gay’, and ‘gay’ with ‘foreign’, and ‘foreign’ with ‘old’, and ‘old’ with ‘female’, and watched as the sentence morphed from racist to homophobic to xenophobic to ageist and finally to misogynistic.
Could a diversity-aware person have written that statement regarding the disabled? The author was the chief executive of one of this country’s major symphony orchestras, and it was written in response to my manager’s query about perceived discrimination towards me. Britain is surely one of the most invigoratingly diverse places in the world. But classical music has a diversity problem, and many of those who run the industry are not only in denial of the fact, but could also be said to be contributing to it.
Arts Council England (ACE) funds classical music in England and Wales to the tune of several hundred million pounds annually, with ACE insisting its beneficiaries ‘celebrate diversity’. Diversity was front and centre of its announcements last year, with organisations required to ‘look like their communities’ in terms of gender, ethnic minority make-up and disability. ‘Diversity is absolutely central to what we do,’ said Darren ★enley, ACE’S chief executive, in January. ACE’S own annual diversity report highlighted the underrepresentation of minority and protected groups within its funded organisations. Speaking about the report, ACE’S chairman Nicholas Serota said: ‘I want the arts to be an inclusive world; a building open to all. Not an exclusive club. Our mission to deliver on diversity is doubly vital.’
Despite Serota’s words, it could be that some of the biggest beneficiaries of public money, the top orchestras, don’t grasp the ‘celebrating’ or ‘inclusive’ parts in the context of diversity. Under scrutiny, do they really live up to ‘looking like their communities’? Attend any regular concert by publicly funded orchestras and you won’t see much that makes you believe so. Ethnic minority players in orchestras? Rarely. Women conductors? Not often. People of colour invited by orchestras as soloists or conductors? ★ardly ever. Soloists or orchestra members with a disability? Practically never. The list goes on.
I’m a concert pianist and I have a disability
– I have severe Tourette’s syndrome (the nonswearing variety). My body twitches and contorts some 30,000 times a day. It’s shattering. But as soon as my fingers make contact with piano keys my symptoms vanish. Imagine trying to forge a career as a concert pianist with a body that violently contorts every waking moment. As my friend, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks once said to me, ‘If you suddenly gave someone severe Tourette’s, they’d probably die of exhaustion
in the first 24 hours’. But I don’t trumpet the negatives of my condition; I celebrate the miracle of brain chemistry that allows my symptoms to disappear when I perform. After a 15-year absence from public performance, I made a ‘comeback’ in 2008 and have recorded and performed internationally since. But not once in nearly a decade has a British orchestra seriously engaged in discussion about the possibility of my performing as a soloist with them.
At face value, my plight seems the same as so many musicians – all vying for work and most not getting it. But last year, via an orchestra management insider, I heard that I wasn’t being invited to perform because orchestra bosses didn’t ‘like or appreciate’ my backstory – my Tourette’s, my disability. So, setting out to find out if there was any truth to it, my manager wrote to the CEOS of six publiclyfunded orchestras whom he’d been in contact
‘‘Imagine trying to forge a career as a concert pianist with a body that violently contorts every waking moment
with many times, posing our concerns given their diversity responsibilities.
Far from generating a dialogue, the replies received were designed to intimidate or shut us down, and none engaged with my specific concern. Apart from their multiple demands for apologies and retractions, it was disheartening that every senior executive missed the point: ‘We don’t discriminate’ didn’t open doors for discussion; ‘We’re dealing with hundreds of requests from managers’ is irrelevant to diversity;‘we had no idea he had Tourette’s’ is unlikely given my profile. But it was what was going on behind the scenes that perhaps more vividly illuminates the mindsets of the CEOS.
In several hundred pages of communications about me, which I’ve now seen, with most being emails between the chief executives themselves, a culture of acute disregard for my concerns and to that of diversity in general could
very easily be perceived – in fact, diversity is barely mentioned in the emails. An interesting internal email at one London orchestra proved telling, though: a senior staff member admits to not having replied to a past message from my manager because doing so might have opened up a discrimination debate. But this was from long before I’d even thought about complaining, and way before I’d even heard that there may be some kind of discrimination going on.
The collective indignation that initially fuelled the CEOS’ emails to each other rapidly evolved into meltdown and damage limitation after an article about my plight appeared in The Times in February. Still giving no credence to my valid concerns, damage limitation was the sole focus of the CEOS, with two PR companies tasked with shutting down the many follow-up stories requested of me by the media. I’ve yet to be provided with everything the PR companies claimed about me, but their strategy worked. I was silenced. Given, however, that the CEOS believe my complaint holds no merit, and since they consider me professionally inadequate, why were they so fixated on shutting me up?
In 2016, addressing the Association of
British Orchestras, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport stated that Arts Council England should be working with orchestras to drastically improve diversity.
If those who are running the music industry cannot embrace the diverse spirit of 2018 Britain, they should step aside
Another comment by the minister inspired the creation of Chineke!, the phenomenal black and minority-ethnic orchestra. Similarly, Bournemouth Symphony recently announced its six-member disability-led ensemble, the first such scheme by any orchestra. But I can only feel that, as fantastic as they are, they don’t always tackle diversity. They create division. Imagine the outcry if minority groups in society were solely required to work with, and only progress within, their own group – if they were only allowed to cross the mainstream threshold when deemed to be a ‘good fit’. It would be cultural apartheid. There should be no need for ‘special’ musical ensembles in 21st-century Britain.
Since my concerns became public, I’ve had many emails from world-class disabled and minority-ethnic musicians who feel they have been the subject of discrimination by UK orchestras. ★ave any of them raised their concerns? No. Without exception, they all fear the establishment will ‘block them out’ if they complain. That is sad and very telling. I suggest it is now time for all musicians to demand diversity in the music profession. But let’s be clear, ‘celebrating diversity’ and insisting on presenting diverse soloists or orchestra members does not equate to a lowering of standards. A quota of women or diverse employees is mandatory in certain industries and political parties – and no one would say these professionals are less talented than others. Classical music bosses must now uphold similar standards, or else risk a reduction in funding. If those who are running the industry are not able to embrace the diverse spirit of 2018 Britain, then maybe it is time for them to step aside. Corporate fossils, by definition, will never truly evolve, irrespective of how many boxes they tick to procure funding. A shake-up is desperately needed.
In his April column (see box, p50) Richard Morrison says that my complaint going public has ‘pricked consciences’. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, it has done nothing of the kind. In fact, it would be hard to find another example of a musician having been subject to such vilification by some of those who run the music industry – and all because I posed questions about diversity. That is fact, not self-pity. And, it is only by acknowledging facts – injustice, inequality and lack of diversity – that those who run the profession will ever be compelled to act upon them and remedy the situation.
Nick van Bloss:‘As soon as my fingers make contact with piano keys, my symptoms vanish’
Baroque concert:Van Bloss performsBach’s Goldberg Variations at The Institut Français, London in 2013