Thinking About Gender in Classical Music: Part 1
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role that gender plays in classical music, as performers, conductors, composers, as staff, in management, and more. With the current political events, there’s a lot to unpack and think about.
Much has been written lately about sexual assault in classical music (resources at the end of the blog), although there is still widespread change needed. Although I’m relatively young, I knew about unprofessional and untoward teacher behavior from a young age- I never experienced it first hand, but I heard stories of famous performers, renowned instructors, and conductors making passes at students. What always surprised me is that there were certain teachers and performers who were well known for their transgressions, and yet they seemed to be infallible. Perhaps, it was to keep the peace for an educational institution, perhaps for the victims themselves who were afraid to come forward. I never experienced assault at the hands of a faculty member or colleague, but I did have some interesting experiences over the years.
I initially went to college in Boston, where there were fairly diverse faculty and administration: women were in some places of administrative and professional power, openly queer faculty and administration, and I never felt like my gender was particularly relevant in determining whether I could play my instrument. This is not to say that my school life was free of gender and racial inequality, I just had the privilege to not see it. It wasn’t until I moved to a different school when I saw that there was one full time female string faculty on staff, and that a fellow grad student was told “she played trombone well for a girl” by a faculty member. I worked with a female instructor that treated me horribly in front of my all male classmates, publicly humiliating me repeatedly, telling me “You’ll never win a job playing like that.” Ironically, I was the one that was won the concerto competition, and did eventually win multiple orchestral auditions. It was the first time I’d experienced a woman in power trying to break me down because and promote the men as superior, all of the time. Most, if not all, of the faculty were male and heterosexual, and I saw that the female faculty were treated differently than at my previous schools. I experienced a different gender dynamic in classical music than I had ever seen before, perhaps because I had been sheltered before.
Even as an adult, I have seen and experienced subtle (and not so subtle) sexism in classical music, in both professional orchestras, regional orchestras, and gigs. I see how few orchestras program music by women or racial minorities, and I see how our young person’s concerts often bypass that music as well. I made a formal suggestion to a conductor in an ensemble I played in that we should play works by female composers, and was told “I only pick music that’s great- I don’t see gender.” That response sent the message “Female composers aren’t good enough to be on my radar.” I’ve also had conductors say similarly unprofessional things in rehearsals like “Ladies, you can do better” when there’s an all female section, or my personal favorite, where a conductor told the female principal to sonically emulate a young girl about to be raped when the story of the music did not necessarily indicate that. I’ve subbed in orchestras where most of the principals and concertmasters are male and white, and the conductors are as well. I’ve seen principal players “mansplain” criticisms to their female section members in a way that makes my skin crawl.
Even in sometimes blind auditions, I’ve received some interesting comments from committees over the last 10 or so years. Too refined, too beautiful, and yup, too feminine. (What the *&$# does that mean?) What does gender mean in sound? Women can shred on musical instruments as well as anyone else, in my experience, and men are capable of creating a wide range of sounds on musical instruments. Denoting an absolute binary gendering to sound is ridiculous in the 21st century.
Is the classical music landscape changing? In a lot of ways, yes, I think it is. We have more courageous performers than ever: performers who challenge gender and racial stereotypes, female composers winning awards and receiving recognition, more female conductors, and more women in positions of power in management. Conversely “Of 103 high-budget orchestras in the United States, just 12 have female conductors at the helm. And when the Baltimore Symphony surveyed the 2016–17 programming of American orchestras, it found that just 1.3 percent of the selected music had been written by women. Classical music still hasn’t placed enough women in positions of true power, and that means all of its workplaces are at risk.”
We also have more women coming forward with their stories about assault, sexism, and violence in professional and college environments.* What it comes down to for me is how we manage power in classical music- in the old days, the (male) conductor was an absolute authority, and the mostly male instructor was the absolute authority. The student or orchestral player did exactly as instructed, and did not question. As we move forward, it’s time to question that notion- have we always given certain individuals too much power and agency?
*According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been rede ned and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases.*