Hermione Blakiston

Updated: Feb 19

Hermione is doing her Masters in Physics at the University of Exeter. She has been a member of Exeter Symphony Orchestra, Exeter Chamber Orchestra, Exeter Jazz Orchestra and now is using her creativity as publicity secretary for Muay Thai Society! In this post, read about her background in music, the lack of BIPOC players within the classical music sphere, and her experience as a BIPOC in and out of University.

'Taking up the piano was my parent’s last-ditch effort to find me a childhood hobby. The chore of lessons, practice, and exams only became a routine I would look forward to once I had entered secondary school and taken up the violin/viola. Looking back, I am thankful for being given the opportunity to explore my creativity and defy society's vision of a classical musician.

I definitely feel there is a perpetual cycle of exclusion, where aspiring BIPOC musicians must overcome more barriers than their peers - such as implicit bias during auditions/exams. It is discouraging that many musicians of colour attending their first classical performance will look up at the stage and be unable to spot a single player who looks the way they do. Someone who has and continues to inspire me is Sheku Kanneh-Mason (MBE), a British cellist who won the 2016 BBC Young Musician award. He was the first Black musician to win the competition since its launch in 1978 and currently plays with the London Symphony Orchestra. I recommend checking him out on youtube; his success has inspired me to continue changing the face of classical music after University.

For classical music societies at Exeter, although there is a lack of diversity, this is likely due to discouragement much earlier on. I believe that for classical music to stay relevant, it must be reflective of modern communities. I would like to see more outreach, such as introducing more children into classical music or raising money to fund first lessons could help break down the barrier for BIPOC or disadvantaged children and shape the future of the creative industry.'

'My time at Exeter has been filled with creative endeavours, having joined @eusoconnected , @euchamber and @eujojazz in my first and second years. I’ve always known and experienced the diversity issue in classical music, but what surprised me is the lack of BIPOC, even women entirely, participating in Jazz at Exeter. I’ve noticed that this has been reflected in the modern western media - with films like La La Land and Whiplash presenting an almost entirely white, male perspective. Again, I feel that is an issue caused by early disparagement, although more can be done.

It took joining other societies in my third year to realise that this lack of representation wasn’t unanimous. Yes, Exeter University is recognised for its particular scarcity of BIPOC students, but certain societies who face this issue head-on and make an active effort to celebrate inclusivity break this mold. I do like being unexpected; people don’t expect a black girl to be called Hermione, study Physics, or play the violin - but at the end of the day, I still seek that feeling of belonging.

This year I haven’t joined any music societies but instead am focusing my creative energy as publicity secretary for the @eu_muaythai , which I joined due to their emphasis on strength from diversity. Having a high ratio of international/BIPOC students, I’ve been able to work closely with the wellbeing secretary on how to approach the issue of racism. We’re looking to include our demographic statistics in future outreach so that this trend can continue. I think it would be beneficial for creative societies to take a closer look at their demographic compared to University-wide and try to understand why they look the way they do.'

'Indirect racism, colourism, and the media have shaped how I perceive myself, causing me to attempt to minimise the Nigerian half of my ethnicity. Staying out of the sun, using coloured eye contacts and religiously straightening my hair are all part of this. Being creative and using music as a muse has always felt like an escape, although even this is not always a safe-space.

When I was younger, what primarily ran through my head during auditions/exams wasn’t “will I do well ” but “what will they think of me”, “do I look like a failure before I even begin?”. I’m glad to not have experienced this in Exeter societies, but I have felt the inability to confide or talk about these issues. I distinctly remember having watched “The Book of Mormon” with my family and being disgusted by the aids-stricken, incestual, racist trope of an African village. A mormon missionary saves the day and falls in love with a tribe woman who they continually cannot pronounce the name of. Upon speaking up about this with my peers I have felt dismissed, being told that it’s their favourite musical, just dark humour or that Mormons would be offended too...

I think the first step to making creative societies a safe space for BIPOC is recognising the struggles that we experience and hence what causes offense. I wouldn’t say actions from societies have discentivised BIPOC creatives from engaging, but to truly reap the benefits of diversity they must put in the work to educate, celebrate and welcome it.

Giving BIPOC the opportunity to share our experiences, such as the brilliant ‘Share the Mic’ initiative by @exeter_femsoc makes us feel welcome. Having participated in this initiative for @theatrewteeth , I have grown incredible respect for them and can see the effort they put in. They are now teaming up with @leila_lockley to turn her play “Hair” into their term 1 production. There is a distinct lack of storytelling from a Black perspective and it’s so exciting to see this challenged here in Exeter.'

Photography by Hanife H Photos. @hanifehphotos

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