by Author Matt Griffiths

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The Big Question: How do we achieve inclusive excellence?

I had the privilege of attending the Inclusive Excellence Conference at Colston Hall on Friday 3 July, which was part of the Fast Forward Music Festival organised by Bristol Plays Music.

The publicity for the conference said:

“The Inclusive Excellence Conference has been devised to take an honest and much-needed account of the inequity of the music industry and address the many barriers that exist, particularly for young people with disabilities who want to participate in and listen to the best music available.”

Credit is due to the Bristol Music Trust, firstly for putting on a conference like this, and, secondly for placing inclusive music practice right at the heart of their planning and all that they do. As a significant venue, Music Education Hub lead, an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and one of our strategic partners, they are in a position to drive real change in terms of addressing the all-too-real inequalities that continue to exist. Youth Music were therefore delighted to be supporting the event, particularly as it contributes to our ambitious goal of creating a musically inclusive England.

Big questions

The information to delegates included the following ‘provocation’ for the day and two main questions to address:

Provocation: The musical world discriminates against disabled people. If we don’t change this, we endorse it.

  1. What must the music industry do to create a fair ecology?
  2. How can music education change to prepare young disabled musicians for this new ecology?

A powerful provocation and big questions, requiring big thinking and big answers. Ninety-five delegates were in the room to discuss, debate and (the hard bit), make progress. The delegates were mostly representing organisations delivering music-making activities specifically with children, young people and adults with disabilities and in challenging circumstances. This was an important, valuable discussion and we really wanted to make the most of the opportunity the event presented.

So how did we do?

Did the event achieve its goal, and were the provocation and two questions addressed by the delegates? Well yes, partly but I wouldn’t say significantly: a game of two halves I think. We definitely discussed and debated, but I’m not entirely sure that we made big progress (the hard bit). Hopefully, my thoughts as to why that was the case will be useful to challenge us all, especially when thinking about the next steps.  

“This work must become the norm”

This was rightly one of the opening remarks from the Bristol Plays Music team. Indeed it must and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. My repeated response in the short presentation I gave was ‘how?’ This is fundamentally what needs to be defined to ensure we continue to make progress and build on the good practice that already exists (albeit a little patchy and not yet ‘universal’). There is a tendency at conferences for speakers and contributors to say “We must do this, we must do that” and I’m left thinking “indeed we must but who is the ‘we’?” It’s taking individual actions with a collective shared purpose that will make the difference. Continuing to use the royal ‘we’ almost absolves us of individually doing anything about it, so nothing happens and the inertia remains. You can sense my slight frustration I think!  

Leadership beyond authority

I touched on this in my presentation on the day. My main point was that achieving change requires strong, confident and collaborative leadership, but this isn’t about being the heroic leader (the old model). It’s much more about being the collaborative leader who is able to articulate a clear purpose and engage others who might sometimes fundamentally disagree with your proposition. This important attribute is vital in any leader and in any sector, including music education. Rather than ticking off organisations who we don’t think are being musically inclusive, (which can lead to them backing off and hunkering down), our job is to present a compelling evidence based narrative which they can’t afford not to get involved in.  

Not a special interest group

This was my other point: music-making for children with special educational needs and disabilities (we’re using the Twitter hashtag #SENDMusic) must not and should not become a special interest group which is only discussed by those already working in that area. It’s about musically inclusive practice: a way of working which should be core business for all music organisations. It’s not an extra or an add-on: as I said in my presentation, inclusion doesn’t happen just on a Tuesday afternoon! Yes of course there are many organisations who ‘specialise’ in this area of work, but the trick is imparting that specialism in a practical way to others so that good practice grows, spreads and becomes the norm. Inclusive and diverse practice is good for business; the exchange of ideas amongst diverse teams with differing experiences is good for innovation.  

Our musical identities

There was a moment in the afternoon session which (in all honesty) was slightly disappointing and revealed yet again how individual organisational and musical identities can create and reinforce difference. An assumption was made by one organisation that the presenting organisation was only interested in western classical music and then made the further assumption that this would therefore be of no interest to the young people involved in their organisation. A better way of looking at it would be to acknowledge that ‘Organisation A has a core business which is different to my Organisation B so I’m going to find out more about it and see what the potential areas of collaboration could be’. This feels like a much more productive way to behave rather than create a “my music is better than your music” scenario or even worse, a “my young people won’t like your music, they only like mine". Progress has been made on this but there is clearly still more to do.

The conference felt like a significant occasion, a milestone event in terms of acknowledging this work, raising its status, demonstrating the progress we’ve collectively made and the good practice that exists. Congratulations to all involved for making it happen. But of course there’s still much more to do. Back to the ‘how?’ again…  

Related links

Jonathan Westrup from Drake Music has also blogged about the event and David Ashworth’s Youth Music Network blog on inclusion and technology has sparked a major discussion.

I enjoyed reading this lovely blog from a parent whose child performed in the OpenUp Music performance as part of the Fast Forward Festival.