How are ‘diverse cultures’ integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? - Introduction

“[I]f diversity and equality work is less valued by organizations, then to become responsible for this work can mean to inhabit institutional spaces that are also less valued.”

(Ahmed 2012, p. 4)

Diversity and inclusivity: in context

The conservatory environment in Europe has changed significantly in the past 40 years. In addition to opening their doors to different musics of the world, Jazz, Popular Music as well as local traditional musics, the studentship has changed. Not only has the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the expansion of the European Union as well as the Erasmus-program dissolved intra-European borders but European conservatories also attract more highly talented students and faculty from beyond the geographical borders of Europe, creating a more diverse student and faculty body.

However, cuts in government funding and implementation of neo-liberal policies have changed how conservatories are funded and how they function and acquire students. In order to remain competitive some institutions thus rely on recruiting and keeping international students. At the same time, calls for conservatories to open up to those segments of the population not previously catered for like working class or minority backgrounds are becoming louder. This, however, is counteracted on a pre-conservatory level by government cuts to general music education in primary and secondary schools, thus turning music education more and more to an endeavor limited to middle- and upper class children (Alberge 2019, Jeffreys 2018, Savage, Barnard 2019).

Conservatories are thus also required to justify their existence to the outside world and define their ethos and strategies in order to communicate what they stand for in current societies. This has led to new policies and practices that affect the everyday life of conservatories. The institutions can no longer rely on taken-for-granted understandings of institutional aims and criteria, but instead need to re-define the very purpose of the system and identify what can be commonly shared in music education and music profession stemming from the students’ and faculty’s different backgrounds.

This has opened up for new challenges: how does an institution accommodate a heterogenous student and faculty body while at the same time retaining their high artistic standards? Heterogeneity means not only opening up to underrepresented groups of society (be it socially, ethnically, gender, based on disabilities etc.) but also to those musics currently not represented in Higher Music Education.

Plurality of artistic standards?

While access is one keyword in this discourse, another one often mentioned when talking about diversity and higher music education is ‘maintaining high artistic standards’. What do these ‘high artistic standards’ constitute?  While seemingly universal, we all have different, individual notions of these standards. Standards are context-sensitive and discursive. They can be based on an agreed set of skills or they can be based around a perceived set of skills. Artistic standards often include a combination of craftswomanship / craftsmanship (technical/motoric skills) and artistic expression (interpretation, artistic vision). But what exactly are these parameters and who judges what is considered high or low? While artistic expression and vision often weigh more in discussions than technical and motoric skills, artistic expression is often dependent on mastering the instrument technically in order to recreate the musical vision an artist has.

Furthermore, are these the only relevant components that will guarantee the (prospective) students an artistic career within the music business? What about non-artistic skills like the ability to reflect on music’s role in society – in other words, a cognitive / intellectual skill set? These notions not only differ between the genres (e.g. the pop vs. rock discourse within Anglo-American popular music – e.g. Keightley 2001), but also within the genre. Different national or regional education traditions have different ideas on what constitutes artistic standards. In addition, each conservatory also has different visions when planning the admission exams meant to examine the applicants’ skill set. What repertoire does the applicant have to prepare for their main instrument? Is a secondary instrument exam also required? Is there also a theory test? What skills does the music theory exam evaluate? Is there an essay requirement examining the cognitive skills? These questions are also linked to what role the development of individual artistic vision and creative music making in the education of future musicians plays within the institution’s degree programs. Ideally, the admission exam clearly links to the degree programs visions. Finally, the discourse on what artistic standards constitutes has changed over time.

Moving further, culturally diverse institutions bring together a variety of worldviews, understandings, and working cultures. This is manifested in the everyday life of the conservatory: from daily communication practices including a common spoken language, to practice habits, teaching methods and questions of hierarchy and power. At the same time opening up the conservatories for new forms of music also means questioning previous admissions standards. Does a DJane or DJ have to pass a music theory admissions exam if their primary instrument is a Digital-Audio-Workstation? Does a Bulgarian folk singer applying for a traditional music program have to master Western Art Music theory? Should the admissions exam in the latter case not focus on different, more relevant musical aspects? Related to this is how such a student body is integrated within the conservatory. What is the ‘common language’ that a conservatory can draw on and what has to be established within the degree programs?

It starts with an inclusive understanding

The way forward starts with finding a common understanding and exploring terms and questions which can help us address the new challenges and at the same time make students from a variety of backgrounds feel welcome. It remains important to regularly reflect on and review the language we use in our professional life – regarding how we address our students and colleagues as well as what language and terms we use in our teaching. Going beyond the language level, this also applies to our teaching and day-to-day routines. 

One such seemingly mundane example is the concept of ‘classical music’. While prominently used within a European context other musical cultures also have ‘classical’ music. Hence we choose to use ‘Western Art Music’ to delineate that we are talking about an art form which (primarily) comes from a Western (in other words, European) tradition. At the same time this example also highlights the problem of who is included and excluded from the teaching canon: In addition to female composers and artists often being excluded in Western Art Music history this includes people of color as well as people outside the Western Art Music centers of Central and Western Europe. While a shift has emerged since the 1990s (see e.g. McClary 2002; Brett, Wood, Thomas 1994; Whiteley 1997; Whiteley, Rycenga 2006; Grotjahn, Vogt 2010; Beer 2016; Hess 2017) the dominant narratives have been predominantly written by European and North-American white men.

Queering the canon, in other words, (re)questioning why certain composers, artists and prevalent (heteronormative) cohabitation forms are included and others not, is an important task for musicologists as well as concert programmers and curriculum designers. This remains an ongoing discourse both within academia as well as outside: in 2016 a 17 year old female student successfully launched a petition to change the Edexcel program used by exam boards for A-levels in the UK since they did not include any female composers (Gallagher 2015, Khomami 2015).

Another, equally complex issue, is the exploration of concepts such as ‘disability’ or ‘impairment’ and the correct use (or not) of person-first language when needing to refer to this specific characteristic of an individual or individuals. In our discussions as a working group, we have arrived at the understanding that it will ultimately depend on the preference of the source/s of such a discussion, the cultural context in which these discussions are being held as well as the national discourses surrounding inclusive language in each country. Here we also have to take into consideration the rapid pace in which language, perceptions and social customs evolve (and will continue to evolve) in today’s world, hence also the need for a regular review of our language to reflect such progress.

Future posts

The aim of the posts to follow is to explore these issues by providing case studies from across Europe (and, at times, beyond). Please keep in mind that these are also context sensitive. Each HMEI works within a national and international web of laws, customs and institutional networks. What might work within a Norwegian context will not necessarily work within a Croatian one. The cases presented in the posts that follow are meant to stimulate discussion and provide new ideas and possible pathways for institutions.

These case studies offer current reflections and questioning of different aspects of conservatory life and are meant to be used for inspiration and debate. These will be prefaced by posts offering a brief introduction to our Working Group’s key terms: ‘identity, diversity, inclusiveness and accessibility. Proceeding case studies represent only a small selection of what is happening at European HMEIs. In order to share more ideas, this network of posts is meant as a living document with new cases being added: if you would like to contribute, please feel free to contact us!

This article is a part of the publication titled How are ‘diverse cultures’ integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other chapters can be found here.

Works cited

Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included – Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Alberge, D. 2019. Postcode Lottery Denies Poor a-Level Students a Musical Career. The Guardian, (accessed 25.06.2019).

Beer, AR. 2016. Sounds and sweet airs : the forgotten women of classical music. London, England: Oneworld Publications.

Brett, P, E Wood, and G C Thomas, eds. 1994. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York, London: Routledge.

Gallagher, P. 2015. Exam board forced to include female composers on A-level music syllabus by teenager’s campaign. The Independent, 09.09., (accessed 24.05.2019).

Grotjahn, R, and S Vogt, eds. 2010. Musik Und Gender: Grundlagen – Methoden – Perspektiven. Laaber: Laaber-Verlag.

Hess, J. 2017. Equity and Music Education: Euphemisms, Terminal Naivety, and Whiteness. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 16 (3): 15-47,

Jeffreys, B. 2018. Creative Subjects Being Squeezed, Schools Tell Bbc. BBC News Family & Education, (accessed 25.06.2019).

Khomami, N. 2015. A-level music to include female composers after student’s campaign. The Guardian, 16.12., (accessed 24.05.2019).

Keightley, K. 2001. Reconsidering rock. In The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, edited by Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, 109-42. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

McClary, S. 2002 (1991). Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Savage, J, and D Barnard. 2019. The State of Play a Review of Music Education in England 2019. (accessed 25.06.2019).

Whiteley, S, and J Rycenga, eds. 2006. Queering the Popular Pitch. New York, London: Routledge.

Whiteley, S, ed. 1997. Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. London: Routledge.

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