Author: Carrie Leigh Page

Opinions from the Dux Femina Facti: Women Leaders at the Grassroots of New Music

What opportunities do you see on the horizon for women in leadership roles in music?
“Anything that we create for ourselves. Nobody taught me to start a festival, to start a vocal quartet. I see some legacy roles going to women, but the biggest opportunity is for women to remake the industry from the ground up.”
— Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Omaha Under the Radar

Over the past month, NewMusicBox has hosted a series of articles from the International Alliance for Women talking about various issue facing women in music today: awards and fellowships, education, and reception.

Our post today focuses on the idea of women as leaders in music, especially in new music. Through interviews with women leaders from grassroots music organizations from all over the country, we explore topics related to managing ensembles and festivals, commissioning, curating, and creating collegial workspaces where women’s voices can be heard.

Each of the organizations chosen is a relatively young festival, conference, or ensemble working to bring new music to audiences. The oldest of those interviewed, Rhymes With Opera, just celebrated its 10th season with all performances of their May mainstage production playing to sold-out audiences in New York City. Oh My Ears held its first marathon concert in 2014 and celebrated its fifth iteration as a four-day new music festival in downtown Phoenix in January. New Music Gathering issued its first call for proposals in 2014 and held its fourth conference in May. Two festivals begin in the next few days: Omaha Under the Radar has its fifth summer festival July 25-28; The Uncommon Music Festival begins its third season July 28-August 5 in Sitka, Alaska.

When It’s Lonely at the Top

Sometimes the woman at the top of the organization is a solo director, such as Amanda DeBoer Bartlett of Omaha Under the Radar and Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer of Oh My Ears. Bayer and DeBoer both acknowledged a sense of loneliness as the head of a festival.

As Bayer said, “We live in such a weird world where we see other people’s successes constantly on social media. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t getting enough stuff done on my own.”

During the course of the conversation, Bayer added several points of epiphany and self-transformation:

“The doors that opened happened because I was poor enough and desperate enough to knock on them!”

“I had to give myself permission to lead…”

“I had to stop downplaying my role…”

“I had to figure out how to delegate…”

DeBoer expressed similar issues. “Asking people to help is hard,” she admits. “But also getting out of the way and letting them do it is hard. For the first three years of the festival, I wouldn’t delegate anything. My team had to sit me down and tell me that I had to delegate more. I’m still having to teach and train people so that I can delegate, because I wouldn’t let them do it before.” Though she is the director, she co-organizes with Aubrey Byerly (Development and Grant Manager) and Stacey Barelos (Education Director), and credits them with doing “a massive amount of work and decision-making all year long.”

The possibility of a gendered experience as a “quiet leader”…

DeBoer also talked about her own style of leadership, discussing the possibility of a gendered experience as a “quiet leader.”

“[It] works in some situations, but I definitely feel the need to push back, especially in saying ‘no,’” she acknowledges.

DeBoer and Bayer both described the role of leader as emotionally draining, but also seemed very pleased with the freedom it afforded them. Oddly, as solo leaders, they also both described the feeling of community as an important factor in their leadership and planning decisions. Organizing festivals, to them, was a way of both seeking and creating community.

When Control is Shared

In the case of Uncommon Music Festival, Ariadne Lih is an equal co-director with Nate Barnett. Ruby Fulton, Elisabeth Halliday, and Bonnie Lander of Rhymes With Opera work with George Lam and Robert Maril. Lainie Fefferman works with a mixed group of men and women founders including Mary Kouyoumdjian, Jascha Narveson, Daniel Felsenfeld, and the late Matt Marks at New Music Gathering.

One woman with whom I spoke stated, “It’s up to the women to say: Don’t forget we need to try to hire a woman. There’s a heightened awareness of equity.” She noted that sometimes support from male colleagues might feel “lukewarm.” However, in these organizations where control is shared with a partner of the opposite sex or a small mixed company of partners, women report that they generally feel supported and that their voices are heard.

Fefferman spoke of feeling lucky in her partners at New Music Gathering: “We’ve talked really deeply about biases we want to fight in our curation, and it made me feel like I didn’t have to self-censor. I have felt supported and appreciated by my colleagues, and that’s not always a given. There are maybe views I have or preferences that are informed by my gender, but I felt free to express that to the group, and they respected my opinion.”

Dealing with those outside the organization, though, can be a frustrating experience in sexism. DeBoer and Bayer both spoke of being ignored by people who failed to recognize the person in charge of the event was a woman. The women from Rhymes With Opera also shared some stories about being discounted as a leader.

Lander complained, “Last December, I organized a series, and there was some disbelief that I was the organizer.”

“People will assume that if there’s a man there, that’s the person in charge.”

Fulton chimed in, “One thing I definitely notice is that people will assume that if there’s a man there, that’s the person in charge. Because I’m a woman, and short, and look younger than I am, people don’t think I’m the person to talk to.”

Lih shared that it was actually her male co-director Barnett who suggested that they flip the names on their email signature from “Nate and Ariadne” to “Ariadne and Nate,” so that her name was first. Barnett underlined that “explaining that we are co-directors has been a challenge. We’ve had to undo the assumptions about who is ‘really in charge.’”

Barnett also pointed out the value of sharing leadership with a woman. “It’s a very charged time… I can actually take a step back and say, ‘That’s a question best answered by… Ariadne.’”

Canon, Inclusivity, and Relevance in Curation

Even though all of these groups are oriented in some measure towards new music, I asked everyone specifically if they ever felt pressure to program works from a canon, or if they felt free to choose. The response was overwhelmingly one-sided.

“What’s a canon?” Fulton chuckled.

“No! Boy, do I have the freedom to choose!” exclaimed Fefferman.

The Uncommon Music Festival, which showcases a combination of new music and early music, delights in presenting works by underrepresented composers, even in their selections from early music, though Lih does tend to include more canonical works for educational programming.

The pressure to program certain works usually whittles down to the occasional suggestion “to program more accessible pieces.”

When Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was programmed for the Omaha Under the Radar festival, it was, and remains to this day, their most-attended event, but Bartlett hasn’t tried to repeat that attendance level through programming piece from the growing new music “canon” – those pieces that have attained a certain recognition in textbooks and anthologies. She said that the pressure to program certain works usually whittles down to the occasional suggestion “to program more accessible pieces. Like, my mom would always wish that I would sing more contemporary Christian music. That advice to be more accessible, I usually outright ignore it.”

As Bayer quipped, a shoestring budget often isn’t compatible with playing works from the new music canon, anyway. “Money is definitely a factor in not playing canonical works – we can’t afford the rental fees!”

In every case, the programmers were looking to showcase works outside a canon, and sometimes were looking for ways to showcase their own compositions or a particular set of talents. DeBoer concurred, “If there is an ensemble with a non-diverse program, it’s not an interesting application.”

All of the organizations felt a responsibility to program female artists and composers, as well as other underrepresented groups.

For Rhymes With Opera, the unusual setup has built-in safeguards for gender parity. Founding members George Lam and Ruby Fulton share composition responsibilities for many of the ensemble’s pieces. Bonnie Lander is also a composer. Fulton added, “A few years ago, we did a set of one-minute pieces—“signatures”—and we got an equal split of men and women. It’s a little more challenging when we’re picking one person for a commission, but we keep it about 50/50.”

However, most organizers felt that inclusivity required planning and deliberate action. Omaha Under the Radar said that it’s not a challenge to find female composers, but occasionally things hit a snag. “I realized last year that we had not programmed a large ensemble piece by a woman,” DeBoer confessed. “My jaw hit the floor. How could we have missed that? We have to be super vigilant. It’s a conversation we’re constantly having. It’s a constant reminder that things like that don’t happen naturally.” She uses spreadsheets to track demographics of participating ensembles and their programs.

“If we’re interested in an ensemble, and they don’t have a diverse program, we will contact them and ask if they would be willing to change. They always are.”

Bayer also said that she keeps a careful eye on her metrics to help her plan for and meet programming goals at OME. “Since Year One to now, we’ve gone from 20% female composers to 40-50% female composers. If we’re interested in an ensemble, and they don’t have a diverse program, we will contact them and ask if they would be willing to change. They always are.” She went on to add, “It’s about telling people’s stories, and we’re always seeking to improve our range of storytelling. When we present art from a more diverse group of people, I feel like we’re making the world a better place.”

The Uncommon Music Festival states specific goals on its website of “presenting inclusive, exciting music that is unlikely to have been heard by our audiences” and “to perform the work of underrepresented composers, especially women and composers of color.” Though this was a stated mission, directors Lih and Barnett realized that they needed measurable goals and quotas going into their third season. They decided that at least one-third of the works played needed to be by people of color, and the programs needed to show true 50/50 gender parity. It was a satisfying moment when they locked down their program for this year and realized they had met their goals.

“It seemed cold and calculating,” Barnett admitted, “but we realized it was the only way we could ensure that we would achieve what we set out to do.”

Lih clarified, “I feel that I really want to be an advocate for women and for racial diversity, but it’s also really joyful to discover these things I didn’t know. It feels less like a responsibility and more like an exciting artistic endeavor.”

“Gender parity is a lot easier than race or class.”

For New Music Gathering, Fefferman took a slightly different view, saying she felt that the responsibility for many curation concerns—styles, tools, gender, race, geographic location, and ethnic backgrounds—all figured into the decision-making process. “In my circle now, gender parity is a lot easier than race or class. I am still worried about bringing opportunities to different gender-identifying people, but more so these days about bringing voices from different races and socioeconomic classes.”

Plans for upcoming seasons show that all of the organizers interviewed are not just responding or reacting to political and social foci such as the #MeToo movement; by keeping their focus on new music and inclusiveness, they are already programming works and commissioning composers with pieces that are speaking to a wide range of issues confronting the contemporary audience.

Glimpsing into the commissioning process of Rhymes With Opera, Halliday explained, “Our process is quite extended, but we’re interested in composers that are working topically, relevantly. Next year we’ve got a piece about Eleanor Roosevelt. That was planned two years out, but it feels really relevant right now. Our Rumpelstiltskin piece on its face is a fairy tale, but Ruby and George imagined it as a piece about gender and loneliness.”

Challenges and Mentorship

I asked everyone with whom I spoke to specifically describe their challenges and successes, as well as to muse a bit on whether they felt those challenges and definitions of success differed from those of men. Together, we questioned the idea of stereotypical gender roles and how that might play into ideas of success and perceived differences.

The women I interviewed felt, for the most part, that their challenges and successes were the same as anyone’s in their position, regardless of gender. The universal answer to the question, “What is your biggest challenge?” was “Fundraising!” (The eye rolls were audible over Skype and phone.) “We have no budget” was a theme repeated as often as death knocking in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with stories of self-financing through credit cards, Kickstarter, grant writing, donor-chasing, and family support all thrown into the mix.

“Even in entrepreneurship courses I took, we talked about budget, but not about gathering capital,” said Bayer. She learned how to ask for money and barter for spaces, occasionally receiving the polite “no” or non-response. “But what I remember most are the ‘yeses’ I received,” she added.

Interviewees also discussed challenges of time management and the overwhelming breadth of decision-making, though it was always in regards to balancing their roles as organizers and leaders with various other jobs, leadership roles, and projects. While some women felt that their challenges were not inherently gendered, the ways they had to learn to handle it might have been different from men in the same position.

“I often felt I was undeserving and felt hesitant about asking for support,” one woman recalled. “I feel like my upbringing as a ‘Southern woman’ pushed me into a subservient role.”

“Sometimes I question, ‘Is this a gendered experience, or is it a common experience for organizers?’”

“Learning to ask for money was really, really hard. I think that’s a gendered feeling,” another opined, but added, “Sometimes I question, ‘Is this a gendered experience, or is it a common experience for organizers?’”

After discussing some specific challenges from her life, Fefferman added, “Plus the usual skeezy challenges from a handful of awkward situations that I imagine males haven’t gotten.” The remark was heartbreaking because it was given so matter-of-factly and off-the-cuff, as an expected part of a woman’s experience.

When asked about mentorship, many said that it was challenging to find mentors. Lih noted, “I’ve been in situations where there are no visible women in leadership. That, I think, can be … not as easy a task … to imagine yourself in a leadership position.”

One woman interviewed said, “I 100% feel the need for role models. I have distant role models, but I don’t have an arts mentor. I feel that absence pretty keenly. Just in the past few months, I’ve decided that it’s something I can recognize that I need, but I also can’t dwell on its absence. I have to move forward on my own.”

Fefferman spoke highly of her experiences with Pauline Oliveros, and Fulton mentioned her wonderful time with Elinor Armer. Fefferman and Fulton both cited Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe as an influential role model. Fulton explained, “I also had a number of really cool male mentors, but it’s different and important to have female mentors, and I hope that I can be that for other females coming up, composing. I think it’s important to see how they work and present themselves and their work in the world.”

The Lens of Success

The views on success, interestingly, often came back to ideas of community.

“Success could be communal.”

Fefferman responded, “I saw early on, especially with Julia Wolfe and Pauline Oliveros, that success could be communal. I enjoy developing lasting relationships and collaborations with performers. Maybe that’s associated with a stereotypical gender role, but – it’s more fun!”

Bayer found that her experience as an intern at the Ojai Music Festival was a great influence on her feelings about what music festivals should be: “The entire town showed up for the festival.” For her, creating a festival was about seeking community in new music. She described the transition of Oh My Ears from marathon concert to a multi-day festival as a “leap of faith.” Expense and accessibility concerns made it necessary to go into downtown Phoenix where she had very few connections and form new bonds. The response, she said, was “amazing,” and the community she found in the move will aid in the longevity and growth of the event.

DeBoer described her role of festival organizer as a journey, explaining that her earlier efforts to create festivals in Omaha and Madison as an out-of-town organizer were disappointing. Living in and understanding her community was the key to the success of Omaha Under the Radar. “It’s about relationships,” she said. “For me, there is such a focus on creating an atmosphere of community, of communal effort. I want to nurture artists, and nurture Omaha. I like to hear about when artists meet in Omaha and then go on to collaborate outside this space. The most heartwarming success, and the number one goal of the whole event, is seeing people in the community, who otherwise wouldn’t seek out experimental music, getting to experience it here in Omaha.”

Lih and Barnett were excited about being able to serve as a resource for other organizations interested in achieving gender parity: “I think we’re at a moment where more organizations and people want to do this work, but there’s not a lot of precedent. We’re now in a position to help other organizations and be a resource for others. People are starting to be interested in change, and we’re excited to help them.”

On a personal note…

Over several days, I collected some 30 pages of notes from interviews. This article is only a brief summation of some of the common themes I discovered among this group of leaders. Some of the stories were entirely unique. Some of the experiences were commonplace. All were utterly personal. I want to say how deeply grateful I am for the time each person took in these interviews and the trust they placed in me.

“Find your community.”

The idea of mentorship was one that resonated deep within me, and I realized that I was being mentored through the process of writing this article. Each 45- to 90-minute window of time in the interview was a frank, honest, and yet overall positive outlook on the direction of new music and the growing acceptance of women’s roles in it. In a time when it is easy to be frustrated by numbers and disheartened by the recurring anecdotes, we can still find a community of people forging paths and blazing trails to positive change.

I asked interviewees, “What would be your advice for women pursuing leadership roles in music?” The women of Rhymes With Opera dovetailed their responses deftly in a chorus of encouragement.

“Do it!” Lander exclaimed.

Adding to Lander’s response, Fulton pointed out, “Just do it with fearless confidence. If there are enough people doing this, it will feel commonplace.”

Halliday added, “Find your community. Because you can do this, but it’s more fun with friends.”

Playing Like a Girl: The Problems with Reception of Women in Music

The year was 1942. In the USA, all-girl orchestras toured extensively, rather like a jazz version of A League of Their Own. Audiences were surprised to find that these girls played “just like men!” As in A League of Their Own, though, when the men returned, women were expected to go back to homemaking or other acceptably female professions. Those women who were leaders found themselves in the background once more. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington play large in the bylines of the Swing Era, but women’s bands such as the Sweethearts, the Melodears, and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “All-Girl Orchestra” disappeared. According to Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s, the story lived on in a small way, not in music schools, but in oral histories from women’s jazz festivals and in women’s studies programs, as a sociological phenomenon. One such group that crossed both gender and racial boundaries was the integrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm from Piney Woods, Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the precursors to the Freedom Riders.

How do such important contributors to 20th-century music get lost so easily? This is a question of reception.

Leaving out receptions related to touchdowns and weddings, Merriam-Webster associates the word reception with three synonyms: receipt, response, and admission. Working from that definition, we can perhaps refine the distinct meanings of reception into three musical steps:

Receipt – Getting the music to an audience, which involves access.

Response – Having an audience react to the music and form judgments about its worth.

Admission – Allowing the work to be part of a collective group, canon, or curriculum.

Any new music or new message has problems with reception.

Any new music or new message has problems with reception. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all had problems with reception. Even Jesus had problems with reception in his own hometown. Women in particular, though, have problems with reception in music. Lucy Green, music education philosopher and author of Music, Gender, Education, posits that there is a spectrum for acceptance of women in music. A woman singer is accepted because using her body to make music is an extension of her femininity. Put an instrument in her hands or in front of her face, and it interrupts the impression of a woman as either “sexually available or maternally occupied.” The role of composer (and, I would add, producer), the dux femina facti, is the greatest challenge of all according to Green, because it places the woman in control and invites the audience to gaze upon the inner workings of her mind, disembodying the woman entirely.

The struggle to actually get our performances and compositions to an audience is particularly cumbersome and well-documented. Critical reviews of works by women can be a mixed bag that is not always based on the work itself. Actually acknowledging the worth of work by women seems painful for some in the establishment. This is true for women across all genres of contemporary music making.

Receipt: Accessing the Audience

The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) exists because women found difficulties with reception, and the problem begins with access. In our last IAWM article, we raised a gruesome specter in the “Editor’s Choice” list of concert and contest band works on the J.W. Pepper website. Just 16 works by women out of more than 1600 made the cut. (For those of you who asked, yes, I counted.) Even when works by women are available, many performing organizations seem to be sticking with men. A Baltimore Symphony Orchestra report by Ricky O’Bannon showed the representation of women composers in major concert halls around the USA to be around 1.3% during the 2016-2017 season, and only 10% of the works by living composers were by women. According to Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, only about 4% of the time scheduled for this year’s BBC Proms includes music by women composers.

Instrumental performance interrupts the expected roles of women: mother or sex object.

We’ve established the problems for women composers. What about the performers and conductors? Green’s work shows that instrumental performance interrupts the expected roles of women: mother or sex object. Case in point: Most Miss Americas win while competing as dancers or singers. A few exceptions to that include piano, flute, harp, or violin. A notable outlier is Debbye Turner, who won in 1990 with a marimba medley. There is not a winning trumpeter or saxophonist in sight. What about the wildly successful Pietà ensembles of Vivaldi’s time? According to Rosie Dilnot, “They generally performed in the galleries, or cantorie, of the church, by candle light and stationed behind gauze curtains and a metal grille.” That “mystique” of femininity was preserved.

This is why blind auditions are so important to the rise of women in our orchestras. The story of Abbie Conant and her struggle to keep the orchestra job she had already won in Munich was a flashpoint issue in orchestras of the 1990s, and a 2000 Harvard study determined that the screen between jurors and the musicians they are evaluating increased the number of women hired by 30%. A 2014 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlights that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra now enjoys a higher proportion of women than men in its ranks, and even the Vienna Philharmonic, which did not admit women until 1997, is likely to equalize its gender imbalance by the next generation. (Pay differences between men and women are a concurrent question to be addressed in these institutions.)

A blind audition is probably impossible for conductors.

However, a blind audition is probably impossible for conductors, and we still see an enormously thick glass ceiling, or as some sources term it, the “glass podium.” There are a few women making headway, but the number of women conductors remains embarrassingly small. The same BSO report mentioned earlier shows female orchestra musicianship to be around 47% percent in the 85 American Symphony orchestras surveyed, but they are overwhelmingly led by men, with only 8.8% of concerts being conducted by women (5.2% for major orchestras). Linda Hartley shows that the same problem exists in the band world, with similar numbers observed at that Mecca of “brass ceilings”: Midwest Clinic.

Though most of the discussion above centers on classical genres, jazz and experimental music programming is similarly restrictive. Biddy Healey commented on the gendering of instruments and the exclusion of women in the “social art” of jazz culture in her essay, “Be a Good Girl or Play Like a Man.” Even the title emphasizes the uncomfortable binary of expectations placed on women.

Women are most often hired as part of someone else’s group rather than as a leader of a large group.

IAWM board member and musicologist Dana Reason has conducted extensive research in this field. Reason’s 2002 dissertation on experimental women improvisers and jazz programming examined five major jazz festivals and concluded that the festival planners at times seemed locked into gender stereotypes: women pianists and singers were hired for “emotionality or sensuality”; women were most often hired as part of someone else’s group rather than as a leader of a large group, and the same small pool of women was rehired each year, seeming to fulfill an implicit “quota” of gender diversity without more extensive research into or appreciation for the breadth and depth of music making in the larger pool of women jazz artists. Such programming creates “silos within silos”—a small experimental jazz pool, and an even smaller pool of women practicing in that genre, and an infinitely smaller pool of the same female artists getting hired year after year.

In pop music as well, grave differences need redress. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published a study this year that notes that women make up only 22.4% of artists, 12.3% of songwriters, and 2% of producers. A recent article in Billboard (“Where Are All the Female Music Producers?”) , the response from Ebonie Smith (“Why Are Female Producers Everywhere, Yet So Invisible?), and countless other sources highlight the invisible role of the woman producer. Smith seems to agree with Tricia Rose’s position that the primary factor that hinders growth is the cold reception of female apprentices in the tech-heavy, male-dominated studio culture.

In short, many audiences do not get access to works created by women, whether notated, improvised, or produced.

Response: Recognition and Value

Over 90% of Grammy nominations for popular songs go to men.

In the Annenberg report, we see that just over 90% of Grammy nominations for popular songs go to men. This lack of critical recognition in the pop industry, combined with the paucity of women awarded prizes and fellowships, emphasizes the invisibility of women across multiple genres.

As Reason points out, we feel the absence of women twofold: they are inadequately programmed and inadequately covered by media:

When coverage of women does occur in magazines or online, the tendency to foreground physical descriptions, make overtly gendered remarks, or advance theories as to the exceptionality of the woman in question. . . can distract readers from the quality of the work and the artistic achievements of experimental women.

In 1903, musicologist Arthur Elson (1873-1940) published a book entitled Woman’s Work in Music, a surprisingly comprehensive and relatively sympathetic tome for its time, detailing the historical roles of women in Western music as performers, patronesses, teachers, researchers, and composers, with a special focus on contemporary women composers at the end of the book. However, despite his own evidence to the contrary (literally over a thousand years of evidence on women making music), Elson still asked if women were “handicapped by the constitution of their sex” and believed that “woman’s work in music will always show more of delicate grace and refinement that man’s, and will be to some extent lacking in the broader effects of strong feeling.”

Elson seemed to claim the ability to distinguish a woman’s compositional product from a man’s, but Ethel Smyth, a contemporary composer about which he writes, was often accused of writing music that was overly masculine, according to researcher Elizabeth Kertesz. In her analysis of critical reception of Smyth’s works, Kertesz explains:

In Smyth’s case, she was accused of being too masculine for demonstrating excessive ambition in her attempts to compose using major forms which employed substantial resources and advanced techniques. Even loud, bold writing, hardly a rarity in Smyth’s style, was seen as masculine, as was technical and formal mastery. The charge of insufficient femininity was levelled at her because some critics considered her expressive range to be too limited at the tender, feminine end of the spectrum. Femininity itself was less clearly defined, including vaguer attributes such as charm, simplicity and grace. (p. 168)

Kertesz organizes the gendered critical reception of Ethel Smyth into three main categories (p. 136):

1. It’s good – for a woman.

2. Comparisons of “feminine” music and “masculine” music.

3. Reflections on the composer herself or the issues of the women’s movement.

Unfortunately, these categories are still applicable to some critical responses to women’s music today, from Vasily Petrenko’s comments about Marin Alsop to that totally weird, “there’s a good reason why there are no great female composers” article from The Spectator . (Don’t miss Emily Hogstad’s snort-laughingly funny response to it!)

Admission: The Musical Canon(s)

[The canon] can imply ideals of unity, consensus, and order. To adherents such ideals serve moral ends as they forge a common vision for the future. To opponents, however, they paper over the realities of social diversity and political dissent.—Martha Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon
It is a question of perspective, a question of emphasis. Just as we can and must cite a black text within the larger American tradition, we can and must cite it within its own tradition, a tradition not defined by a pseudoscience of racial biology or a mystically shared essence called blackness but by the repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi and tropes, the call and response of voice, their music and cacophony.—Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Whose Canon is it Anyhow?”

Martha Citron’s work, quoted above, is one of several winners of the IAWM’s Pauline Alderman Award. This award specifically honors researchers in the field of women in music with prizes for books, articles, and reference works. The Alderman awards are one of the ways the IAWM is working to encourage the study of women’s music and to help women music makers find responsive and sympathetic critics.

Change is intimidating to some, and glacially slow to others.

As we can glean from Henry Gates’s quote, whether discussing the musical canon or the literary canon, the idea of change is intimidating to some, and glacially slow to others. The furor over Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning DAMN. demonstrates that our musical world is still woefully reluctant to admit newcomers.

The fact is, women have been working in these musical canons alongside men all along. Studying Suor Leonora D’Este’s madrigals and Francesca Caccini’s Ruggiero does not detract from the accomplishments of the Gesualdo or Monteverdi; it enriches our understanding of early Baroque. Playing records of the multitalented Clora Bryant and Ginger Smock does not take anything from Dizzy or Bird. Julia Amanda Perry’s Stabat Mater more than holds up to those by Vivaldi, Poulenc, and Szymanowski and deserves a place in sacred concerts.

In one indicative pop culture canon, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we find very few female songwriters honored. The first class of more than 118 stylistically divergent inductees included Irving Berlin and Cole Porter alongside John Philip Sousa and William Billings, but only four women: Katherine Lee Bates, Anne Caldwell, Julia Ward Howe, and Carrie Jacobs-Bond. Since then, only 20 women have been added, and, as Lashonda Katrice Bennet points out, only two black female songwriters.

Reason offers the following comments about the process of changing the canon:

Discovering the many voices of contemporary music making by women and allocating space for them is an important step to bridging the discursive gaps in emergent practices involving women. A research and arts presentation model that from the outset, encourages different authenticities, aesthetic practices, and musical languages to co-exist without hierarchical agendas, could emphasize the importance of individual and collective identities and voices of innovative and creative women working with music and sound.

Women do not exist in a vacuum unto themselves, and neither do the men.

Publishers, concert curators, record labels, and textbook authors—in short, those who in our time define the “canon”—need to take note that women do not exist in a vacuum unto themselves, and neither do the men. We can acknowledge the plurality of experiences of women musicians, AND we can place them within the larger framework of the musical canon.

To lift another quote from Dr. Gates’s article—perhaps a bit out of context, but apropos to the moment—it’s time for the gatekeepers of the canon to “say ‘yes’ to the female within.”

Receiving Women in Music: How receptive are you, really?

How receptive are you to women in music? Answer these 10 questions.

If you’ve gotten to the end of this article, thank you and congratulations. The International Alliance for Women in Music serves as a platform for many types of music-making women from all over the world and encourages active performance and study of women in music. It is our job to bring up questions that allow all musicians to examine their day-to-day work closely and critically to see if they are truly aligning with ideals of inclusion. Are you giving women access to audiences? Are you giving women adequate coverage and thoughtful criticism? Are you creating space for women in your canon? This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a starting place for individuals and organizations to evaluate how receptive they are being to women in music.

1. Take up the #5x5Challenge: Can I name at least five women composers in at least five different eras of music history? Can I name at least five living women composers on five different continents? Can I name five women music producers, or music editors, in five different genres? Once you start working on this, it will be a challenge to stop.

2. Do I program works written by women every year? What is the percentage of time that I actually devote to women composers? Do I segregate these works into a “works by women” concert, or do I give my audience opportunities to hear works by women throughout the year?

3. When I choose teaching materials, do I seek works written or performed by women, including women NOT singing or playing piano?

4. Do I seek out a diverse pool of women of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds practicing in different fields, genres, and subgenres, or do I choose the same performers, lecturers, and composers that are typically on my circuit?

5. When I program women, do I ensure that they are getting adequate and equitable media coverage in our printed and online materials and in press releases?

6. When I talk or write about music created by women, am I gendering my language or focusing on issues tangential or unrelated to the work itself?

7. Do I invite women to join chamber ensembles or to collaborate on projects? Do I only think to invite a woman because I collaborate with her (male) significant other? Do I require a woman to modulate, deny, or sexualize her femininity to be part of a creative space, whether blatantly or subtly?

8. Do I consult with female colleagues regularly about the mission, trajectory, and management of musical organizations with which I am involved? If so, do I enact any of their suggestions?

9. Do I actively create and support opportunities for women to assume leadership roles?

10. Do I work to ensure that women’s compensation is equal to men’s compensation, and distribute opportunities equally among my colleagues and people I may supervise?

#ToTheGirls from The Most Powerful People in New Music

It is much more important who the singing master at Kisvarda (small village) is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail.  (Often even a good one.)  But a bad teacher may kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils—Zoltan Kodaly, 1929

What are you doing with your power as a teacher?

Before some of you click away from this article, dismissing the notion of yourself as a teacher, consider this: Do you teach lessons in your home, or through a studio collective? Do you teach music theory and music history or composition seminars? Maybe you do the odd masterclass as a guest artist. Perhaps you get commissions to write for children’s choirs or you sing Carmenella in a traveling production. DO you slog through research and test data in the district where you teach or live to prove that it’s important that kids get reading intervention AND music? Maybe you don’t consider yourself to be a music professional at all, but because you are curious and excited, you listen and you tell others, “Hey, you should listen to this cool new thing!”

If you nodded your head to any or all of these, you are teaching. You are more powerful than any hiring committee. You are more powerful than the symphony board or arts commission or endowment. You have the power to enact far-reaching positive change on multitudes. You are a teacher.

Let me return to my original question: What are you doing with your power as a teacher?

The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.

The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.

I have been a music educator in various capacities for more than 15 years. I have done all of the jobs I listed above. In addition to being a music educator, I am a composer. I am also the president of the International Alliance for Women in Music. The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music. Originally founded as a collective of composers, our membership is far wider, encompassing researchers, performers, conductors, critics, and—of course—educators.

Hooray to the women’s choirs! Bravi to the ten-member trombone section with nine girls! Now I ask the directors: What are you playing this season? I ask the theory teachers: What scores are you studying this week? I ask the general music teachers: What are you listening to today? I ask the aficionados: What’s coming through the earbuds today? I hear the same names. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised to hear about a living composer. I am ecstatic and slightly shocked if I hear any of these teachers mention a female composer.

The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music.

In this battle of assuring lawmakers and policy enforcers and testmongers that the arts are a truly essential part of every student’s experience, we still must find ways and opportunities to teach our students and the public at large that music is not old, white, dead, and male. To ensure that music is and remains relevant to our students and our general education, we must be inclusive of gender in our classrooms, studios, and conversations about music. This issue, this problem of relevancy, should be every bit as important as the fattest prize, the latest commission, or the most admired new gadget.

Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime.  This experience cannot be left to chance; it is the duty of the school to provide it—Kodaly, 1957

In Song in The Heads: Music and Its Meaning in Children’s Lives (2nd edition, 2010), author Patricia Shehan Campbell recounts numerous interviews with children about their musical experience. The interviews reflect students receiving a broad range of music education: traditional Orff/Kodaly/Dalcroze-based methods at school, Suzuki or other private training, and wonderful family influences, which include traditional musics from multiple continents, popular genres, Western classical music, and their own compositions. One common thread these histories all share, though, is a lack of dialogue about female composers. There are female performing artists from popular genres mentioned, notably Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, and Fergie. These women are mentioned as performers, but never as writers or composers. In the classical field, we only hear children mention Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.

During those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women.

What’s funny/disturbing/confusing/disheartening in the mix of this is that during those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women. A 2015 analysis of music teachers in the U.S.A. ( shows that around 74% of K-8 general music teachers are women (the number climbs to 78% when looking at only elementary grades). Why are these teachers, who are mostly women, not promoting the works of women alongside the typical canon?

One cause may be found in the K-12 classrooms themselves. Most teachers must rely on what is offered by a limited number of education supply sources when decorating their teaching space, selecting music for a festival, or choosing listening examples. This bottleneck allows very little new and fresh material into the classroom, resulting in practically no ready-to-use resources featuring women in music.

Would you like to hang portraits of great composers of the Western tradition? Here are 40 of them. They’re all dead/white/male, by the way. Or, here’s a nice timeline that’s a bit more diverse. Glad to see Bessie and Ella made the cut. I’m not knocking them by any means, but I do think there should be room for more than two female names.

In addition to participating in great oral traditions of folk songs and dances, students may begin to listen to great works. Here is a package deal geared toward the classroom teacher, offering the “greatest hits.”

It’s a little, well… sad. Correction: It’s maddening. There’s no new music, not a single female composer, not a single composer of color.

It takes some digging to find this supplement. It’s a fine product, but it’s the only one. As a female composer, it is frustrating to find many of my role models set aside in an “other” category. Ruth Crawford Seeger should be listed alongside Berg and Messiaen; Fanny and Clara should be alongside Felix and Robert; Barbara Strozzi should be a recognized heir of Claudio Monteverdi. None of these should be shuffled off into an “also rans,” because the message it communicates to students is that women aren’t equipped to be great composers.

What about those concert selections? Looking for a unison or two-part choral piece yields 55 selections noted as “Editor’s Choice” in the J.W. Pepper catalog, of which 20 are arrangements or original compositions by women. 14/50 for SAB concert selections, 13/85 for SATB. If you are looking for band works, the website recommends a “basic library” list of 363 works, which includes five works by two women. Looking for a concert opener? The Editor’s Choice list of 96 suggestions doesn’t include a single piece written by a woman. In fact, the entire Editor’s Choice list of 1680 works for concert and contest band music only includes 16 works by women composers or arrangers.

The second probable cause lies in the curricula of the music education major itself. In the USA, changes in tests such as the Praxis series reflect the expectations that music teachers possess knowledge of music technology and world music. These are appropriate and needed changes. However, diversity in education is not limited to making sure students have exposure to non-Western music. It is equally important that students have the chance to absorb the concepts of gender inclusivity in music classes.

Our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers.

Unfortunately, our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers. Though there are recent gains in some music history textbooks, most music theory textbooks remain behind the curve in gender inclusivity. Researchers and educators such as Roberta Lamb, Rosemary Killam, and others have been questioning the paucity of women composers in our music curricula for decades. The presence of women composers is noted in music histories more frequently now, but the absence of their works in music theory topics undermines the thought that music written by women is worth studying. Many outside resources have been published in anthologies, on dedicated websites, and in blogs, but few have actually made it into the standard textbooks and curriculum packages.

And I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too.  It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time.—Kodaly, 1957

At the beginning of 2018, the IAWM welcomed six newly elected members onto our board of directors. As with any great change, people brought ideas for new areas of advocacy and new projects emerged. One new focus of our organization is to aid educators through more explicit efforts to supplement curricula. A new grant initiative was proposed and a pilot grant will be announced later this year. This grant is specifically to help teachers who bring women in music into the classroom, whether by purchasing new classroom materials that include women composers, helping to commission a new work by a woman, or bringing in a guest artist.

As president of IAWM, I envision a second, more extensive set of projects that includes advocating not just for women already in music, but for all students of music who desperately need to see, hear, and experience music written and performed by women, not just taught by women. These will include resolutions and recommendations to NASM and NAfME on gender diversity in music curricula, more extensive resource listings on our own website, and documents such as lesson plans, long-range planning guides, and syllabi to bridge the gap between current textbook offerings and the research available on women in music. The last piece will be lobbying publishers for greater exposure of works by women.

You’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change.

So, you’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change. You want all of your students to feel that.  What do you do?

1. Actively seek out music by women composers. There is plenty of it out there, trust me. The 20th and 21st centuries have produced much wonderfully juicy low-hanging fruit by female composers. Pluck some.

2. Bring a score, pull up a recording, assign research. Actively studying the music acknowledges the worth of someone’s work. Simply mentioning a female musician’s name as “someone in the same school as X” is not creating gender diversity in your curriculum.

3. When teaching or reading, don’t assume that women composers were or are lagging behind the men. Just as often, we’re ahead of them, but don’t receive the credit.

4. Commission works by female composers. If you think you don’t have the budget to do this, form a consortium.

5. Have masterclasses with female musicians, or Skype interviews with researchers, performers, and other music professionals who are women.

6. Create and model more equitable opportunities for networking among your students.

7. Write to your local curriculum coordinator and/or standards writers and explain that they need to include gender diversity as a required component of K-12 music curricula, so that teachers have explicit guidance on the issue.

8. Think about the music teachers of your past. Just out of curiosity, how many of them were women? Find them, and write them a note to thank them.