Black History Month: Errollyn Wallen

There is a genuine desire across the industry to increase the representation of BME communities in classical music. There are so many wonderful composers out there from every type of background and so many organisations wanting to change things.

When I was a child living in Tottenham and clearly besotted with classical music, one of my teachers came up to me and said: “No, little girl, this isn’t the music for you.” I didn’t know what she meant, thank goodness. And thank goodness I had a wonderful uncle — Uncle Arthur, who, when I was aged nine, listened to me talking about how I could hear strange sounds of unwritten music in my head, and put the idea to me that I might actually be a composer.

I think that, at last, there is a widespread recognition and a yearning for an acknowledgement that every sort of music is for everybody. Yet, still so many children are still put off by the fact that they do not see themselves represented in classical music.

I had no role model when growing up and my determination to excel in music, because of my sheer love of it, outweighed any other consideration. However, I have seen how young people can be discouraged, especially if they are doing something different to their peers or families.

Taking an active part in classical music can be a little scary to people, whichever community they’re from, until they’re actually in a concert hall —just listening. I want every community to experience what I’ve been lucky enough to have. And I’d like to see orchestras truly representing the world we live in – that is my dream. My own Orchestra X represents musicians from many nationalities (we most recently performed in Hull and the Southbank as part of PRSF’s New Music Biennial. I wildly applaud the work of Chineke! founded by my inspirational friend, double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku. The way Chineke! performs has set a new standard — certainly, the way they perform my Concerto Grosso is spine-tinglingly exciting.

An orchestra looks so beautiful when it is looks like all of us.

The whole business of music education in schools and the cutting back of specialised tuition, means we’ve lost swathes of potentially exceptional musicians. This is heartbreaking and we have all lost out.

To be a musician is an elite training. You can’t just pick up, say, a violin at seventeen years old and expect to be astonishing. You have to start young. There should be no apology for elitism. We love the Olympics, we loved Usain Bolt, but he had elite training and that is as it should be. To be a world-class classical musician you have to be 100% dedicated and taught by the best teachers. It won’t happen through a few workshops in schools or occasional outreach projects, which are great but which can never be a substitute for consistent, continual and specialised training.

Errollyn Wallen MBE