It's Proms season, and a new style of concert has got Youth Music CEO Matt Griffiths thinking. If inclusion is a one-off, isn't it just a token gesture?
The summer months are an interesting time in the music and music education worlds. A mixture of quiet and busy. Quiet because schools are off, and teachers are on their well-earned holidays. And busy because there are lots of summer activities going on for young people run by the projects we support, there's a proliferation of music festivals young people are attending, and there's the Proms.
I had the privilege of attending Prom 30 recently, performed by Bournemouth Symphony and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in a programme of Beethoven, Strauss, Prokofiev and ending with Walton's Belshazzar's Feast - one of my favourite works. It was musically stunning, and unlike other performances I've heard of this work in the past. The sounds from the choir and orchestra were rich, punchy and pretty jazzy at times. I loved it.
A few weeks ago the Proms presented what they billed as their first ever 'Relaxed Prom'. On the one hand this tickled me, prompting me to tweet 'so are all the other Proms tense then?' More seriously, it did get me thinking so I delved a bit deeper (although I should say here that I didn't actually attend the Relaxed Prom as I was away on holiday myself).
I had lots of questions about the Relaxed Prom: what makes it relaxed, what's going to happen at the concert, who's it for, why is it proudly being promoted as a first of its kind? So I went online to find out more.
"This document is supplied to provide as much information as possible for your Relaxed Prom experience. This concert has been designed to have a relaxed attitude to noise during the music and the BBC Relaxed Prom will offer a shared cultural experience for everyone. Therefore, there has been a consideration of lighting, sound and content when creating this concert to make the event as accessible as possible whilst maintaining the authenticity of the full concert-going experience."
I started to feel a little cross after reading this. Surely all the Proms should be as accessible as possible and offer a shared cultural experience for everyone! And what on earth is 'the authenticity of the full concert-going experience'? The very idea of a Relaxed Prom reinforces the idea of a two-tier concert system: a relaxed event (just one) for the hoi polloi, with all the others remaining just as they are for 'those in the know'.
The publicity went on to say:
"The BBC's first ever Relaxed Prom is suitable for children and adults with autism, sensory and communication impairments and learning disabilities as well as individuals who are hard of hearing, blind and partially sighted."
It's great that people who identify with these labels would be able to feel confident that their needs would be catered for at this particular concert. (Although of course, everyone has a wide range of abilities, tastes and requirements.) But I can't help feeling that this implies the other Proms aren't accessible at all. The main criteria for making it a Relaxed Prom seemed to be a warm welcome, lights and visuals, being able to pop in and out at any time, joining in with the music, and conversation from the musicians on stage to the audience. Great but why limit that to just this one event? This should really be the norm.
I did notice that young musicians from special schools were performing at the event alongside the orchestra. Again, that's great but these opportunities shouldn't be limited to just within a Relaxed Prom, which can feel really tokenistic. The projects we support at Youth Music are genuinely inclusive, and help young people - who might face barriers to traditional music-making - to explore and share their incredible creative talent. Take a look at these stories from Jonny and Ashley for just a couple of examples.
Back to Prom 30 and as I said the music was excellent. But all the conventions - sometimes quite off-putting - evident in a classical music event were plain to see. I noticed that one audience member who had special needs and used a wheelchair was regularly taken in and out of the concert by his carer and an usher. Now, I don't know the specific situation but it appeared to be because he was making some verbal noises (pretty quietly). It didn't seem like he was taken out due to distress (I can't be sure though) - it seemed more that the sounds he made were judged to be a disturbance to everyone else when in fact they really weren't. If that had happened at the Relaxed Prom then no doubt the audience member could have stayed throughout the concert. There obviously wasn't a 'relaxed attitude to noise' at Prom 30. It reminded me of an interview I heard with the comedian Jess Thom where she described her humilation and frustration at being asked to leave a gig due to noises she made because of her Tourette's syndrome (here's the link - she talks about the incident around 13 minutes in).
I know the Relaxed Prom was well-intentioned - and of course making steps towards inclusion is positive - but for me, its execution reinforced a continuing gulf between what's considered accessible 'outreach' (a dreadful word that should be banned!) and the rarified atmosphere of a so-called 'authentic concert-going experience'. If all the Proms were 'relaxed' as a matter of course (including keeping ticket prices low) I'm convinced that the make-up of the audience could change really pretty quickly, which would be good for business, properly inclusive and a positive step forward for all.
I'd be really interested in other people's views on this - let me know what you think on Twitter @mattgriff1968.