Queering the Conservatoire: 'Valid, necessary, and instructive'

Michael White
Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Underneath the academic jargon, writes Michael White, there was much of value in Guildhall School of Music & Drama's two-part series into transforming the attitudes of conservatoires

Photo: Morley Von Sternberg

As titles go, there was a sit-up-and-take-notice quality to ‘Queering the Conservatoire’ – largely to do with turning the adjectival ‘Queer’ into a verb – although it turned out that the various  doctoral candidates responsible for setting up this Guildhall School of Music & Drama webinar to showcase their research activities had disparate ideas about what it meant.

One of them, fast-talking Nick Bonadies, covered over the cracks by assuring us that lack of coherence was itself a queer stance. But together with the fast talk, in the kind of language only academics find instructive, it still left me at a loss. I’d thought this webinar – the first of two, delivered under the auspices of what was billed as an ‘unofficial queer performance department’ of the Guildhall School – had something to do with the experience of LGBTQ+ minorities at music colleges. Which seemed interesting enough to want to tune in (though whether LGBTQ+ people have a true minority status in the music world is perhaps debatable. I’ve never counted, but I’d guess that at least half of the musicians I admire and care about are not exactly straight).

That said, there were clearly matters of substance to be discussed here. And I only wish they’d been discussed in a clearer, more substantial way.

We heard, for example, that Bonadies was a pianist/composer whose research focused on the ‘queering’ of keyboard practice and the way it was taught – challenging the tendency to dismiss certain approaches to performance as ‘deviant’ (their word not mine) and the assumption that ‘normative’ approaches should be favoured over others. It turned out that their playing of Brahms had been called ‘unmanly’, their Bach ‘irresponsible’. Evidently music teachers have to be more careful these days about how they verbalise their attitudes to playing.

Imogen Flower then gave us details of her doctoral research into a new opera about (and involving the participation of) sex workers, leading to a discussion of the misrepresentation of sex workers on the opera stage (it seems that Alban Berg, Puccini, Verdi got it badly wrong) and a quite angry censure of the Guildhall School for its misjudgement in choosing as one of its past student shows Mascagni’s Zanetto: a piece about a courtesan who considers herself unworthy of true love. Flower considered this a ‘damaging’ perpetuation of ‘cultural violence’ that no conservatoire should be allowed to foist on students. Too bad for Mascagni but perhaps no great loss.

Finally another colleague, Sarah McCabe, took us through her doctoral research into open-mic performance as a safe space for the marginalised, free from any divide between preferred and un-preferred groups: a platform for ‘those left out of the narrative’. And that much, at least, I could comprehend. We all need a space where we can be listened to; and were conservatoires to listen more to their increasingly diverse intake of students, it could only be for everybody’s good. If this was ‘queering’, I decided, it would get my vote. But it was clearly just the start. And for the rest, we had to wait a week...

" We all need a space where we can be listened to; and were conservatoires to listen more to their increasingly diverse intake of students, it could only be for everybody’s good "

Queering the conservatoire: part 2

The basic content of Part 2 was a survey in which LGBTQ+ students worldwide had responded to questions about the degree to which their colleges acknowledged, supported and accommodated their identity. Ah, I thought, we’re getting into something real here. But if there was anything substantial (and I’d be interested to know how many people completed the survey: we weren’t told) it was largely drowned in the pretentious academic jargon that was the problem with Part 1.

We were told that the responses broadly fitted into two groups: those who complained of othering (meaning they were made to feel they weren’t the rightful occupants of the space the college had allotted them), and those who complained of tokenism (meaning their difference was all too obviously the reason why they’d been allotted this space).

I can’t unpack that with precision, but I sort of get the point; and cleansed of obfuscation, it’s actually quite a simple one that can be addressed in relatively simple terms. To be in a minority group is to face potential disadvantages that generate vulnerability and need to be understood with humanity. And who wouldn’t sign up to that? It’s pretty self-evident.

The problem comes when, as happened in this webinar, self-evident truths get obscured by the language that alienates potentially receptive audiences. We heard repeatedly about ‘colonial attitudes’ and ‘patrimony’ and ‘inherited tradition’. And it wasn’t exactly helpful. Especially when the discourse wandered into territories familiar (and notorious) in contemporary musicology: that there’s nothing special about Bach and Beethoven, they merely sit on pedestals created by white, western males. Speaking entirely personally, I happen to think there’s something very special about Bach and Beethoven. I don’t buy the notion that my belief in their greatness is prejudicial to anyone. And comments in the webinar suggesting otherwise I happily reject as tosh.

But that said, there were observations that struck me as valid, necessary, and instructive. There’s a clue in the nomenclature: conservatoires are by their nature in the business of conserving, which can be counterproductive. Any arts establishment should value deviance, questioning, and risk. As one webinar contributor put it, music colleges do a great job of teaching craft but not artistry – turning out good players but not necessarily interesting ones. To get that right, professors need to free themselves from their ideas of legacy, tradition, canon, and become more open to alternatives. A queer agenda. And as someone else put it, in a nice image, ‘queering’ is not about filling colleges with LGBT students: it’s about opening the doors to a diversity of people, and giving thought to how to build the room around them rather than expect them to squeeze through the gaps.

One thing we can all agree on is that the goal of a conservatoire is for its students to thrive – in their studies and in their future careers, so they develop into the best musicians they can possibly be. Nothing should get in the way of that. And a more proactive approach to making it happen would be no bad thing.