Tag: gender equity

Standing Tall, Still To Be Seen

An empty music studio (photo by Catherine Joy)

The Oscar nominees were announced this last week and while the shortlist was full of promise, featuring both Chanda Dancy and Hildur Guðnadóttir for best score, the actual nominee list featured only men. Extremely talented male composers who write fantastic scores, without doubt, but it was frustrating to once again see no women represented when their work was obviously just as deserving. Hildur was nominated and won a number of critics’ awards and yet was not nominated by the Academy music branch. We saw a similar situation with the best director nominees. But why does this even matter? Why do we feel so frustrated and unseen?

I have often pondered this question. As a composer who happens to be a woman I long to “just be a composer” and simply focus on the music. I would infinitely prefer not to have to wrestle with these questions of equality, inclusivity, and diversity. I know many of my colleagues–be they women, non-binary individuals, or any composer who doesn’t fall into the category of “white cis-male”–also long for the same freedom; the freedom to just look away and not get involved. But there is a very important reason to continue to grapple with this issue: representation. We need to stand up so we can be seen by those coming after us.

When I was thirteen and growing up in Tasmania, Australia, I managed to win a scholarship that afforded me a place in an expensive high school that had a stellar music program. It was a girls’ school. Throughout the years we girls were challenged to be the very best and told that we could do anything. The world was open to us. At the time I was a violinist and singer. I was surrounded by many strong brilliant women in the music world. But something wasn’t right for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be a performing classical musician, and I longed to get “off the page”. When I look back now at my younger self, I see someone dying to compose. And yet it took me years to find composition. Why? Because I didn’t know it was a thing! The only composers we studied were men. The music being performed in the orchestras and played on the radio was all by men; repertoire hundreds of years old. I had no idea that being a composer was a gig available to me. Representation. It just wasn’t there. It took me decades to find out that composition was an avenue I could pursue, and when I finally found it in my 30s, I remember feeling complete relief. After decades in the music world, I had found my home. I haven’t looked back since.

One of my dear friends and mentors, Lolita Ritmanis, has a story with a similar theme. She was conducting one of her works at a concert and afterwards met up with a young girl and her mother. They expressed surprise that women could be conductors–they didn’t know. The little girl was overjoyed at the prospect. She had to see it to believe it.

I have been part of the leadership for the Alliance for Women Film Composers now since 2016. We have a directory of women composers that stands currently at around 600 individuals, which is fantastic. Yet it seems like every few months I see a social media post that says something along the lines of, “How do I find women film composers? Are there any?” I talk to filmmakers who tell me that I am the only woman composer they know. There is so much work to be done to make women composers in media, and all areas of the music world, visible. And even as we have a love-hate relationship with awards and competitions, the benefit of such things is that they draw attention to the existence of individuals. They are a vehicle to make some noise. No award competition will ever be perfect, fair, free from politics or drama. But they are avenues for young women and non-binary people, young people of all shades of melanin, to see someone up there that looks like them, and say to themselves, “I belong in this industry, too. I am represented. I’m not alone. I can do this.”

The question is how do we do this? Things are changing and this is worth celebrating. The shortlist of the Oscars is testament to that, as is the diversity we see at film festivals like Sundance and SXSW. In the world of TV, we are seeing a lot more inclusivity in the hiring of composers. This change is a result of organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, the Composers Diversity Collective, and programs like the Reel Change Film Fund (of which I am a grateful recipient) which give underrepresented composers the funds to elevate a project to a higher level, which opens doors for more and greater opportunities. We are seeing studio programs like the Universal Composers Initiative which chooses a group of diverse artists to amplify and uplift. All this is exciting, but I believe we are still at the beginning of a long journey. This year’s all-male Oscar nominations for best score and best director show how far we still must go. We need to simultaneously celebrate the progress and buckle down for a long road ahead. While the change must happen in all areas, I believe it begins with women supporting women. Women uplifting and amplifying their sister creatives, voting for them, celebrating their work. Women need to lead the way.

We cannot ignore ongoing deficits in equality, diversity, and inclusivity. It is time to find all the ways we can to get loud, stand tall and call out inequality, even when it’s uncomfortable. We need to ensure a richer creative landscape for the following generation to thrive.

Terri Lyne Carrington: A World of Sound Waiting for Us

Terri Lyne Carrington behind a drum set.

NEA Jazz master and three-time Grammy Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into music. Her father was a saxophonist and her mother played piano. Plus her grandfather, who died before she born, was a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry among others. In fact, his drum set was the first set Terri Lyne played on at age 7.  Being raised in such an environment gave her access to just about everyone in the scene and at the age of 10 she was already performing on stage with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, in the process become the youngest person ever to be issued a union card in Boston!

But that doesn’t mean that Terri Lyne Carrington is a hardcore jazz traditionalist. Growing up, she listened to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson, and that music ultimately also seeped into her own vocabulary.

“People can’t just tell you to choose,” Terri Lyne says during our conversation over Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in later October. “It’s all part of my experience.”

Not choosing, or rather choosing everything, makes Terri Lyne’s own musical language extremely expansive. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions (as well as occasionally interpreting more recent popular songs with the same level of creativity that characterizes the most exciting jazz renditions of classic standards), she is making music that is very much about the present moment and it is extremely vital. However, at its core, she still thinks of her music as an extension of musical practices that go back many generations.

“There’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well,” she explains.

Also, either through including singers and lyrics or pre-recorded samples of spoken texts, her music frequently contains pointed social messages. Some of the songs on Waiting Game, the most recent album she recorded with her band Social Science, such as “Trapped in the American Dream,” “Pray The Gay Away,” or “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” are a powerful soundtrack to our extremely complex and fractured zeitgeist. But none of them offer simple solutions.

“People are going to come to any of these issues differently,” she realizes. “They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook.”

One of the things that Terri Lyne hopes to change is the gender imbalance among jazz instrumentalists, why is why she founded the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and has now partnered with New Music USA to create the Next Jazz Legacy program.

“There’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support,” she says. “Young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. … There’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.”

Why Yes, I Do Want My Music Performed

A woman with her back facing the camera standing between a blue door and a red door

Sometimes, when I have the time and energy and don’t feel like it will put my career at stake, I open up a conversation about gender balance in concert programming with those who have a record of performing or programming only or primarily works by men. Some simply haven’t noticed (as our bias towards thinking of composers as male is still so strong), but are open to change. Some are aware and eager to discuss ways to redress the imbalance. But a few dig in to defend their choices. After some back and forth, those reluctant to program equitably inevitably arrive at some version of: “But surely you wouldn’t want your music played just because you’re a woman? Surely you would want it played because you’re good?” As if this is some kind of novel and amazing trump card. As if I’m not already aware that some people think music by women is inherently less likely to be good. As if my confidence in my own work (and that of other women) is so shaky that simply knowing that some people might question its worth because of my gender will cause me to crumble and doubt myself and stop trying to get my music out there (and presumably get back into the kitchen, and make us all some coffee, please…)

The thing is: surely I do want my music played… and I don’t really care why! I want everyone’s music to be played more often, so in writing this I don’t intend to place undue emphasis on me and my music. What I want for myself, I want for all of us! I know that some believe that for composers who are women, people of color, LGBT, and/or underrepresented for any other reason to have more opportunities, straight cis white men will have to cede some of theirs, but I don’t believe that new music is a zero sum game. Rather than reducing opportunities for some so that others can have a chance, let’s increase opportunities for all, and make sure the opportunities are fairly distributed.

Most music is never programmed solely because it is good.

Most music programmed is “good,” but music is never programmed solely because it is good. Considerations such as instrumentation, length, fit with the other pieces on the program, and availability of scores always play a role. Yet these considerations are never held out as being in inherent opposition to a piece being “good”. In my 28 years as a composer, I have yet to hear someone say: “But surely you wouldn’t want your piece played just because it’s a string quartet? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it’s nine minutes long? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it goes well with the other pieces on the program? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because your publisher’s website isn’t broken?”

In any case, my music is good, and should be heard more often. I don’t mean this arrogantly: I use “my music” here to stand in for all of our musics, and I think all composers’ music should be heard more often. Of course the best performances happen when the performers love the piece: but how will performers even find out if they love the piece or not if they don’t play it? And if the performers never come to love the piece, whether because of sexism or because they genuinely don’t like it? Well, that’s okay too. I don’t think there are any performers who love every piece they’ve ever performed. (I certainly don’t!) Any professionals worth their salt would still do their best to perform well. The audience may love it. Other performers may hear it, love it, and decide to play it. I’ll benefit from another performance (and perhaps will find ways to tweak the score to coax a good performance out of even a hostile performer). It’s another performance on my CV. It’s another score sold. It’s royalties. I don’t usually think about performances in such utilitarian ways, but I bring up these points here simply to illustrate that even if someone does program my piece “just because” I’m a woman, the consequences are really not that dire! (As composer Patricia Wallinga tweeted in response to my tweet-length version of this article, “Exactly! How would I feel [if someone commissioned me “just because” I’m a woman]? F**ing great paying my rent with the commission check, thanks!”)

Sometimes even wonderful champions of music by women take great pains to reassure me that they’ve programmed my piece because they love it, and not “just because” I’m a woman. While I’m always happy to know that someone loves my piece, I’ve never actually been worried that someone has programmed it “just because” of my gender. In fact, I’m always pleased to know that gender, racial, and other kinds of equity are important to a programmer! Just as “I don’t see colour” has not been an effective approach to fighting racism, “I don’t see gender” is not going to be an effective approach to undoing the sexism that has kept women composers in the shadows for so many centuries.

It’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often.

In my experience, it’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often. For many years, I and so many other women did everything we could to avoid drawing attention to gender imbalance at all, as if somehow mentioning it would make things worse (which in some circumstances it might have). Internalized sexism caused so many of us to believe women’s works were inherently inferior, and that gender imbalanced programs merely reflected a gender imbalanced distribution of “good” music. But as a Canadian-born composer, I do have long experience with another kind of programming that takes more than just whether a piece is “good” or not into account, the Canadian Content (“CanCon”) requirement, which stipulates that a certain percentage of radio and TV broadcasts consists of work by Canadian creators and/or performers. CanCon was introduced in the early 1970s to give Canadian artists, who had previously been overshadowed by artists from the USA and Europe, a chance to develop, thrive, and reach audiences in Canada and abroad. Similar initiatives from the Canada Council for the Arts and other Canadian funding bodies preferentially support ensembles that perform Canadian music, enable ensembles to commission pieces from Canadian composers, and fund tours of Canadian music and ensembles abroad.

Many initially grumbled about being required to include Canadian music, just as some now grumble about the idea of taking gender into account when making programming choices. Even those who benefited (and continue to benefit) from CanCon and similar requirements recognized that the system was not without flaws: Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s No Longer than Ten (10) Minutes, for example, gently pokes fun at a frequent stipulation of commissions from ensembles who are trying to do the bare minimum to meet Canadian content quotas. American friends, upon hearing about CanCon requirements are often skeptical. “But doesn’t this mean ensembles are just grudgingly playing works they hate? Shouldn’t they only play the pieces if they like them?” they ask. Well, sure, sometimes ensembles do end up playing pieces they don’t like. But just as often, ensembles come to love pieces they initially thought they wouldn’t like. Or they discover that while they don’t like the music of one Canadian composer, they do like the music of another. Over time, they come to find pieces they love, build up relationships with composers, and in so doing, help the composers develop relationships with the larger music community and with audiences beyond those typically found at new music concerts.

Canadian-born, UK-based organist Sarah MacDonald’s account is fairly typical. In “UK REPORT for Canada’s 150th – Canadian music in the UK,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Organ Canada (the journal of the Royal Canadian College of Organists), she writes of how as a teenager she was “particularly irked” that she had to play a piece by Oskar Morawetz instead of a piece by Brahms in an exam, but she has since come to recognize the importance of CanCon and similar requirements. “My personal grumblings aside (Canadian disContent?), one positive implication of the imposition of CanCon obligations was that Canada had come of age, and now had its own post-colonial cultural identity which needed to be nurtured and shared, as well as protected. We… could contribute on an equal footing with the rest of the world. So, has this actually happened? Have we contributed bona fide Canadians (whatever they are!) to the international cultural stage? Manifestly, the answer is yes.” While the specifics surrounding the introduction of CanCon requirements and the need for gender balance in programming are quite different, I do think these parallels are instructive.

Go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman.

So yes, go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman, “just because” I’m Canadian (or American or Scotland-based), “just because” it’s a string quartet, or for any other reason you please. If someone has already decided in advance that they don’t like pieces by women because of our gender: well, that is their problem, not mine!

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.”

#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. (http://mtdresearch.com/gender-analysis-of-music-teachers/) 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.

Having Conversations About Diversity

Lately I’ve been asking myself how I feel, as a woman of color, about working in classical music, an industry that struggles with a long history of dismissiveness towards diverse voices. Music has been a driving force in my life since early childhood; the music world was a complicated environment in which to develop a sense of identity while also grappling with stereotypes as a music student and later as a working professional at leading arts organizations.

And yet with minority voices now speaking out more frequently and more forcefully about their experiences, it’s an empowering time to be thinking about ways to build a more inclusive music world. People across organizations large and small are willing to support change in the field, but straightforward solutions are hard to come by since diversity issues affect virtually every corner of the industry.

It’s clear that the classical music industry needs to discuss solutions more often, with more people of different perspectives.

Since the path forward isn’t going to come from the direction of any one person, it’s becoming clear that the classical music industry needs to discuss solutions more often, with more people of different perspectives. Here are some thoughts on engaging in this discussion in the workplace, among peers and creative partners, and elsewhere.

  1. Engage a cross-section of people on race and diversity in programming.

When topics and questions of diversity in programming come up at work, make a point to solicit opinions from women and people of color throughout the office, even if their specific field of work isn’t artistic programming. (If there aren’t any minorities in your office, review your hiring processes.) Studies show that most minorities who work in the arts are not in curatorial positions, so while we work to address that imbalance, we can still seek out a range of views by stepping out of our silos.

  1. Ask questions when you disagree.

I recently had a complicated conversation about diversity with an industry contact that ground to an awkward halt when we disagreed. I’ve also been in similar situations in which the other person responded, “Wow, that’s interesting. Can you tell me more?” Complicating conversations on these topics is a fear of being perceived as insensitive or ignorant, despite best intentions. But I appreciate someone taking the time to respectfully ask questions about differences in viewpoints. It creates a space where both parties can learn and engage more deeply.

  1. Be eager to get advice from experts.

Let’s say you want to program a concert of music from another part of the world on your music series. Assuming you’re not from there, be committed to seeking advice from or collaborating with people who are and can bring valuable perspective, authenticity, and richness to the program. No amount of research can replace this. On a related note…

  1. Seek opportunities to add more diverse perspectives to projects.

In the new music industry, there’s no end to opportunities to bring creative partnerships and collaborations into a project. For example, take notice if your creative team for a production is looking fairly homogenous, and consider bringing in someone with a different background.

  1. Inform yourself with podcasts, classes, and lectures.

Even if you’re not in contact with many minorities in your personal or professional circles, there are simple ways to stay plugged into the national conversation about the minority experience, like attending classes or lectures, which are offered at many colleges.

Podcasts are another easy way to listen to really intelligent people talk at length on important topics of gender and cultural equity. Two podcasts that I’m listening to right now and highly recommend are Code Switch from NPR, which talks about race, ethnicity and culture, and Still Processing, a pop culture podcast hosted by New York Times writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, who give super sharp and thoughtful commentary on the music and entertainment industry.

This is a short list of ideas drawn from my scope of experience in the industry. I’d love to hear what else you all are witnessing in the industry, and what ideas we can pull from these experiences to move our society and culture forward.

Candy Floss and Merry-Go-Rounds: Female Composers, Gendered Language, and Emotion

When I was first starting out as a composer, a composition teacher offered me some bracing words of caution: “Sarah, you’ll have a difficult path. Your music is direct, lyrical, expressive. When a man writes like that, it’s brave and admirable; it’s going against type. But when a woman writes like that, it can be seen as sentimental and indulgent. Stay strong; don’t let it deter you.” At the time, I didn’t believe him. It was the late 1990s, after all—third-wave feminism, the riot grrrl movement, and queer theory were informing much of the broader arts and cultural conversation. Sure, classical music could be a bit slow to evolve, but times had long since changed there, too—right?

In 2017, as most people in our field are well aware, classical music’s “woman problem” lingers. This year’s wonderfully surprising Pulitzer Prize for Music coup notwithstanding (in which not only the winner but the two finalists were female), recent statistics confirm that gender bias continues to plague concert programming, conducting/performance, and academia. It’s a circular problem: classical music is a field strongly defined by role models and mentor relationships, and with few broadly visible women at the top, only so many young women feel compelled to enter and ascend the ranks. And due to concerns about optics and impropriety, the close mentoring of female students by male teachers can be fraught and complicated. But grim statistics and interpersonal dynamics aren’t the only factors that reinforce this imbalance: it’s also the subtle currents of problematic gender messaging—in academia, the media, and the culture at large—that can toxify the soil in which young female musicians hope to grow their careers.

The subtle currents of problematic gender messaging—in academia, the media, and the culture at large—can toxify the soil in which young female musicians hope to grow their careers.

I’ve noticed these currents time and again since my teacher first drew my attention to them. But now that I’m getting older and care not just about my own path but also that of the younger women coming up behind me, they trouble me more.

I receive a discouraging number of emails from young female composers thanking me for my “courage” and “bravery” in writing music that is emotionally direct. Courage! Bravery! They use these words because the implicit mistrust of emotion and affect in art is the aesthetic world we continue to live in, well beyond the turn of the 21st century. In a career where the deck is stacked against them before they write a single note, young female composers are eager to prove that they are every bit as serious and capable as men. Some feel pressure to compromise their natural artistic instincts to fit within a paradigm that can seem intractable and inhospitable. I know where these women are coming from.

For my graduate music studies, I attended the Yale School of Music, NYU, Aspen Music Festival, June in Buffalo, and various conferences and masterclasses. At the time, each one of these experiences featured male-only composition faculty, and very few—if any—female students. (My first year at Yale, I was the only woman in the department.) For the most part, my instructors in these institutions were fair, respectful, and treated me like one of the guys, in some cases becoming lifelong friends and mentors. A few did not. In addition to garden-variety sexist jokes and innuendo, there were comments my male peers didn’t receive, like: “I hope you don’t cry easily” and “you probably don’t want to mess with electronics.” There were inappropriate inquiries into my personal life and unsought counsel on marriage and children. There was the suggestion that I take harder courses than my male peers to “prove myself” and the explicit warning that potential future male composition students would not take me seriously because I was a woman; at one point I was denied the opportunity to teach a student who was known to be very religious. (“As a woman he will probably think you are the devil, so we’ll give him a guy, okay?”) There was the horrifying time a teacher—upon learning that I was engaged to a composer with whom I had never studied—sardonically told me that I should have “also dated” a former composition teacher of mine because “perhaps then you would have gotten more out of your lessons with him.” I never got past this and remained uncomfortable and largely silent in his presence—a problem as his role was pedagogically and socially central to the program and he wielded significant influence beyond the academy. There was a teacher’s semester-long dodging of orchestration lessons that was eventually explained with: “Oh Sarah, you’re going to get married and have kids. Do we really need to bother with this?” (Said with a benevolent smile and pat on the shoulder, as though all I really wanted was someone to release me from this ill-conceived charade in which I feigned interest in composing until I could find a husband.) And there was one teacher’s private confession—during our first lesson—that he’d only recently convinced himself that women were “physiologically capable” of writing music. I thought about this during every lesson with him thereafter, wondering whether he was “physiologically capable” of taking me seriously.

There was one teacher’s private confession—during our first lesson—that he’d only recently convinced himself that women were “physiologically capable” of writing music.

Having attended progressive Wesleyan University as an undergraduate and spent the years between college and grad school in New York, living with friends who were politically-minded artists, writers, and activists, the social culture of the composition scene was quite shocking to me. In many ways it felt like stepping back in time; in addition to a conspicuous paucity of women or people of color, social gatherings tended to feature anachronistic gender dynamics and body language. It was hard not to notice the way that so many senior men in the field—composers, conductors, presenters—would offer distracted, half-hearted handshakes upon introduction while looking over my shoulder for the more powerful men in the room or interrupting me to insert a quip into a neighboring conversation. In those moments I couldn’t help but think of my elementary school music room, where the walls were lined with laminated photographs of all the great classical composers—dozens of men, not a single woman among them. My male peers would experience some of these social slights, too, but could chalk them up to a temporary merit-and-station-based hurdle, rather than a gender-based one.

Early on, I discovered that there were aspects of the mentoring process with our male teachers that female students couldn’t fully access or participate in—one-on-one beers after a lesson, weekend gardening/composition lessons, tennis/composition lessons, invitations to visit at a teacher’s summer home—due, presumably, to fraught gender dynamics or fear of misperceived intent. I’d hear about a young male composer who’d been taken under wing by a famous older male composer, brought along to a festival in Japan or high-profile performance in Europe where he was “introduced” to the composerly clique. (Certainly this kind of thing happened with an inappropriate agenda at times, too.) Even if a senior male composer wanted to champion a young female composer in this way, it was hard to imagine how he would pull it off. One elder statesman composer reached out to me after hearing my work at a festival; he praised my counterpoint and invited me to dinner with him and his wife. He was a model of professionalism, nowhere near inappropriate, but some male peers felt the need to caution me nonetheless: “I heard he helps female composers. Who knows what’s going on there.” While there was no shortage of mixed-group socializing with our teachers, it was the avuncular one-on-one bonding that my male peers tended to credit for significant advances in their careers. (“You should get _____ to take you mushroom-picking like he did with me last week; he sent my music to _____ yesterday!” they would say excitedly, in the way young composers share trade secrets with one another. “Oh wait…I guess that would be weird.”)

girl and composer

This young girl inched closer and closer to composer Sarah Kirkland Snider until finally she was sitting with her and examining the score. Maybe a future composer?
Photo by Shara Nova

I thought that if I worked harder to emulate my male peers in certain ways (comportment, humor), and rival or exceed them in others (knowledge, craft, seriousness), I could somehow defuse and shift the imbalance of this reality. Sometimes it felt like my strategy was working and I’d think maybe, for a moment, my gender had disappeared—which made it all the more frustrating when certain teachers felt the continual need to bring it up, not solely in conversations about career strategy but in the music lessons themselves. Several teachers called my music “feminine,” a word whose meaning varied by context and instructor. One of these teachers raised this point as a matter of genuine, solemn care and concern, sharing with me his belief that the handful of 20th-century female composers who had found success had done so because they wrote “masculine” music. The way I set a Gertrude Stein text, he said, was overly brooding, emotional—in short, too feminized. “Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, Tania León, Augusta Read Thomas…it’s pretty masculine music,” he told me. I asked what he meant by “masculine,” and what he thought I should take from his observation. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I’m not saying it’s fair or right. I just think you might want to think about it. The women who’ve busted down the doors aren’t necessarily the ones who would have been successful at any other point in history. They’re the ones whose vision and skill best matched the fashion of their time, and the 20th century has been a very macho-intellectual time.”

Like all of my peers—and as with any fledgling composer, writer, or artist—my work received unsparing critique in group seminars. The aesthetic values varied by institution, but in general, systems, complexity, and obfuscation ruled the day. My music, by contrast, tended to be clear and discernible: my interests were melody and narrative. I greatly appreciated the criticisms and challenges posed to me by my teachers and peers; they resulted in lively aesthetic debates, pushed and broadened me as an artist, and in many ways strengthened my resolve. What troubled me were the times when the critique turned from the technical to a vague indictment of the emotional, with problematically deployed language (“emotional, feminine, wounded, victimized, vulnerable, precious”) or effeminate gesticulations. One teacher, critiquing an orchestra piece of mine, leaped from side to side in front of the (all male but me) class, assuming mock-Victorian pearl-clutching-and-fainting poses to pantomime his perception of the music’s interior monologue as it moved from phrase to phrase: “Oh! I’m so sad! But, but now…now I’m…happy! But wait, now—now—I’m… sad again. Oh boohoohoohoo!”

I cannot argue that the 20th-century dichotomous thinking about contemporary music—serious/cerebral/systems-based/complex/masculine vs. less serious/emotional/intuitive/simple/feminine—was necessarily fed to me disproportionately on account of my gender. My male peers struggled with these issues, too. But in recognizing the extent to which my sex preceded me as a composer, I envied the few female composers I knew whose interests naturally lay in writing gestural, modernist music, where expressivity was more about wind multiphonics and string bow pressure than traditional notions of line and syntax. I believed these women were more likely to be taken seriously by the male composers evaluating our work, even if those men didn’t necessarily write that way themselves. I struggled to make my music less clear and more complex, instantly mistrusting any idea I heard rather than derived from a system. I would catch myself excited about a melodic idea and then get depressed that I was excited. There were long, painful stretches in which I barely wrote—until, finally, I accepted that it wasn’t simply that I wasn’t very good at writing that way, it was that I didn’t want to.

I left graduate school pretty deeply ill at ease with the degree to which new music seemed to be an old white boys’ club, built in part on values and practices I couldn’t embrace or endorse. There was a period of time after graduation in which I found it painful even to listen to classical music—of any era. Hundreds of years of composers I grew up loving—music that had always been my home, a sanctuary—suddenly now just seemed like a club of men that never would have let me in, never would have seen my personhood as equivalent to theirs, even if they’d been alive today. It was a strange feeling of betrayal. But I am, by nature, a tenacious and quietly rebellious person. When someone tells me I can’t do something, my inclination is to push on, and that much harder than before. Ultimately, rather than flee the castle, I decided I wanted to raze the ramparts, bridge the moats, and make new music a more inclusive and broad-minded institution. I found some like-minded comrades, and we still work together towards these goals at New Amsterdam Records. But a lot of people don’t have that perverse inclination to swim upstream. I know too many female composers who’ve dropped out at various stages of their career because they were repulsed or alienated by the culture of our field. While I respect that choice, I mourn it, too.

I know too many female composers who’ve dropped out at various stages of their career because they were repulsed or alienated by the culture of our field.

I recently found myself thinking about all of this again, brought vividly back to my days as a young female composer struggling to feel I was being taken seriously. In a recent New York Times review of the Kennedy Center’s SHIFT Festival in Washington, D.C., regarding a performance by the North Carolina Symphony, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote the following about my music: “But the 13-song cycle Unremembered by Ms. Snider with Mr. Stith joined by the vocalists Shara Nova and Padma Newsome, was an overlong exercise in candy-floss-Gothic angst. Its setting of dark poems by Nathaniel Bellows — among them, visions of an abandoned slaughterhouse, a martyred swan and a copse of trees haunted by the memory of a suicide — proceed to the accompaniment of spare orchestral gestures, repeated as in a trance. Listening to Unremembered alongside the (lamentably much shorter) songs by Ms. Shaw highlighted the difference between sincerity and being overearnest.”

Ouch. One never likes to get a bad review, but when you put your music out there enough, it happens, and you learn to live with it. You tell yourself that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to write music that’s a little bit polarizing—maybe it’s even a good thing?—and you remind yourself to feel grateful that your work is being acknowledged at all. You shake it off and move on. In this case, however, the critique really got under my skin, and I wasn’t sure why. So I sat down to write these words and try to puzzle it out.

In her critique of Unremembered, da Fonseca-Wollheim uses the phrase “candy floss,” a British-ism for cotton candy—pink, fluffy, spun sugar. If you Google Image Search the words “candy floss,” you find pictures of pink fluff, girls eating pink fluff, and girls with pink wigs eating pink fluff. The imagery is not just female, but young: pink cartoon animals, unicorns, butterflies, lipstick/makeup, lace underwear/lingerie, and frilly/girly fonts. Perhaps in choosing this phrase, da Fonseca-Wollheim did not mean for any “girly” connotation to factor as strongly as the “fluffy/insubstantial” aspect, but it’s hard for me to imagine her using “candy floss” to criticize work by a male composer, given the added tax of emasculation it would potentially levy. Regardless, what’s troubling here isn’t just the use of a gendered dig to criticize work by a female composer. Equally if not more problematic is the use of a gendered dig to criticize emotion, a concept laden with more gender baggage than perhaps any other in the art form. If “candy floss” had been used to criticize something technical like orchestration or harmony, it would have been problematic in the ways that any gendered word usage is problematic. But in using a female-coded image to deride “overearnestness,” da Fonseca-Wollheim takes the damage a step further by conflating two modes of shaming: the emotional and the feminine. With this metaphor, she invites readers to infer that an excess of earnest emotional expression is a female crime.

eat candyfloss

So this was why I felt so awful. Here I was again, back on The Merry-Go-Round. You know the one—it’s fallen a bit into disrepair, but a lot of female composers have ridden on it. It’s painted Pepto-Bismol pink with melon-green polka dots, yellow diamonds, and lavender stars. Each horse has a lace-doily-ed, heart-shaped message above it, hand-painted with curlicues; the text on these messages is customized per rider. In my case, they say: Too Much Emotion—Girl; Pearl-Clutching-and-Fainting Pantomime—Girl; Overly-Feminized Text Settings—Girl; Brooding Like a Wounded Animal—Girl; Cotton Candy—Girl; Too Earnest—Girl. The central axis is adorned with a large frilly banner that remains the same for every rider: Girl—Weak, Unserious, Shameful. The janky carousel organ is accompanied by a warbly recording of Florence Foster Jenkins pertly sing-chanting: “Emotion is female, and females are emotional!” over and over and over… Ugh. Hadn’t they shut down this ride years ago for safety violations? Being on it again made me seasick.

Realizing that this merry-go-round is still open made me think we should talk about it.

The thing is, even though The Merry-Go-Round is out back behind the parking lot of Classical Music, you can still see and hear it clearly from the parlor room. So its messages impact all composers, regardless of gender. The implications for masculinity are every bit as toxic as those for women; the feminization of emotion, as a concept, is toxic to all human beings. (One of my strongest memories of the pearl-clutching-and-fainting-pantomime episode was the look of horror on my male peers’ faces as their brains registered the memo.) But The Merry-Go-Round’s messages are, of course, most burdensome to young female composers, who, in addition to institutional gender-based career hurdles, already have plenty of stubborn, misogynist cultural stereotypes about the nature of female emotion—and tacit proscriptions regarding its place in their work—to contend with.

Pink carousel

Whenever I hear the carousel tune waft in from afar, I think of the young women I mentioned earlier, the ones who write to tell me my work is “brave” or “courageous.” These women, usually in their late teens or early twenties, often come to composition through pop/rock/folk songwriting—music of direct emotional expression—because that’s where broadly visible female role models are. They write to me because their teachers recommended my song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, with their mix of stylistic influences, as a kind of new music gateway, a responsibility I greet by recommending wildly different styles of music by other female composers to them. These young women are usually aware of some of the challenges facing them but haven’t yet become hardened new music cynics.

I really don’t want these women to have to ride this rusty, old, broken-down merry-go-round. It’s painful and exhausting, and once you’re on, it’s hard to get off.

Be it in criticism, scholarship, or informal conversation, modes of classical music discourse that use gendered language, that conflate the emotional and the feminine, or that shame emotion in the place of analytic critique—bit by bit, they do real damage. Not just to these young women, but to the art form in general. Dismissing emotional immediacy as effeminate, lightweight, insubstantial—girlifying it—not only perpetuates tired, sexist clichés and messily condemns a long-embattled-and-recently-advanced aesthetic freedom in new music, it also has a chilling effect on new music’s ability to attract and retain young female composers. Language matters, words matter. It’s not about an occasional piece of rocky flotsam; it’s about a river of pernicious messaging that, over time, takes a toll.

Language matters, words matter. It’s not about an occasional piece of rocky flotsam; it’s about a river of pernicious messaging that, over time, takes a toll.

There are plenty of respectful ways to criticize music you find problematically emotive, if that is your grouse. All of them boil down to: be specific. Identify what’s actually bothering you. Does the music use too many bold emotional signifiers, e.g. sharp dynamic or harmonic contrasts? Do climactic moments seem unearned, or points of repose feel insufficient? Are melodic lines suffocatingly goal-directed or meandering? Is the phrasing long-winded, the textures too densely contrapuntal or unremittingly homophonic? Are motivic elements over-employed, or is there a dearth of memorable material? Is the concern one of aesthetics—are the influences not satisfyingly integrated? Should different styles/genres of music have different standards of emotional expressivity? And so on. A single concise, thought-provoking sentence will usually do. But to shame the emotion of a piece without substantive critique falsely implies that the work of “emotion” is not intellectual or intellectually interrogable. This kind of facile dismissal is not just lazy and old-fashioned, it’s insidiously repressive.

The making of any art requires courage, bravery, and risk—especially when it comes to putting it out into the world. But it’s ironic that in 21st-century classical music—a music that arguably invites excursive interior rumination, that aspires to probe deeply into the human condition—the pursuit of emotional honesty seems to require greater reserves of courage, bravery, and risk than the path of deliberately dispassionate restraint. For the health, longevity, and diversity of the art form, the way we think and talk about emotion and affect in 21st-century classical music must go deeper.

Essential to this is a proactive, vigilant rejection of the false dichotomy between the emotional/feminine and the intellectual/masculine in art, which is rarely articulated but nevertheless tends to linger just under the surface of many aesthetic arguments. A culture that colloquially refers to emotional awareness as “being in touch with one’s feminine side” will not be easily shifted in this regard. For this reason, public forums such as academia, journalism, and the media have a responsibility to take a conscious lead in flushing out the problematic currents of pre-supposition that travel subterraneously.

And in light of classical music’s glaring gender bias, care really should be taken to avoid gendered language. Non-gendered language is essential if your critical intent is to denounce or disparage, as sexist insults negatively impact not just the intended target, but all women (and differently but equally, men, non-binary, etc.) It’s true that what seems gendered to one person may not necessarily appear so to another, but all the situation requires is to ask oneself: Might this language be perceived as gendered? Would I feel equally confident using it with cis and trans women, men, and non-binary people? Should I conduct an informal poll to get a sense of how other people might see it? If there is room for debate, use different language. As we work to make the field of classical music more equitable and better reflect the diversity of the actual world we live in, demographically and aesthetically, we need to choose our words with care and consideration.

Most importantly, to young female composers: Do not be cowed by any shaming of the “emotional” or the “feminine” in your work—be it by critics, teachers, peers, men, women, whoever. Demand better. Tell your stories—loud, proud, bold, vulnerable, with the full gamut of your humanity. We’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, and infinite facets of the female human experience to render.

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s works have been commissioned and performed by the San Francisco, Detroit, Indianapolis, and North Carolina Symphonies; the Residentie Orkest Den Haag, American Composers Orchestra, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; percussionist Colin Currie, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, and vocalist Shara Nova; and The Knights, Ensemble Signal, yMusic, and Roomful of Teeth, among many others. Her music has been heard at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center, and at festivals including BAM Next Wave, Big Ears, Cross-linx, Aspen, Ecstatic, and Sundance. Her two orchestral song cycle records, Penelope (2010) and Unremembered (2015), graced Top Five lists on NPR, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Time Out New York. Upcoming projects include a mass for Trinity Wall Street Choir/NOVUS NY, a collaborative song cycle for A Far Cry, and an opera co-commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects and Opera Cabal. The winner of Detroit Symphony’s 2014 Elaine Lebenbom Award, Sarah’s music has also been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Opera America, the Sorel Organization, and the Jerome Composers Commissioning Fund. A co-founder and co-artistic director of Brooklyn-based non-profit New Amsterdam Records, Sarah has an M.A. and A.D. from the Yale School of Music and a B.A. from Wesleyan University. Her music is published by G. Schirmer.

Jazz Audience Development: The Gender Factor

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

The saxophone section of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, one of the most successful all-women jazz big bands from the 1940s, from the website for the documentary film, The Girls in the Band.

Growing the audience for jazz has long been the most critical issue facing the music.  Writing about jazz for nearly forty years has provided me with certain perspectives from a purely music standpoint.  Presenting jazz performances, including curating concerts and festivals for over 30 years, has brought an interesting balance to those perspectives.  Critics often discount audience and staging factors in their calculus.  I’ve often wished more of my writing colleagues had a broader sense of what it takes to bring the music to the stage and, even more importantly, a healthier respect for the critical issue of jazz audience development, audience being such an essential part of the entire equation.

With jazz as with other forms of music that require a deeper listening immersion from its consumers, there is often plenty of conversation wondering aloud why there isn’t a healthier listenership—lack of exposure being the go-to causal factor.  Much of the “Oh jazz, po’ jazz, woe is jazz…” conversation that always hovers around the music may focus on some perceived lack of advancement on the part of the current generation of musicians, a certain sense of stylistic stasis.  Still another part of that diagnoses may focus on suspicions related to the fact that today’s jazz musician has arrived largely from the academy, as if to suggest that the perceived absence of the old oral tradition of jazz mores passed down via the relative informality of “the street” is problematic.  The issue for still others breaks down to the loss of the traditional record industry structure, or the scarcity of jazz on the terrestrial airways.

It’s certainly not for lack of arriving musicians.  Somehow the music continues to attract future generations of players.  We continue to encourage and produce more than enough capable, even stimulating new jazz artists.  The biggest issue remains the need to develop the jazz audience, to produce new generations of listener/consumers to meet the supply of the musicians who continue to grow the ranks of jazz players.

As an educator I’ve often been fascinated by the responses of students to this music, the great majority for whom this is a new phenomenon.  Teaching jazz history and related courses mainly to non-music students, I stopped counting how many students for whom the course represented their first exposure to jazz.  “This course opened up a new world of music for me…” is a common response to their first exposure.  So perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle missing in jazz education is educating new audiences, providing jazz insights and exposure to the people who will comprise future audiences.  While so many young aspiring musicians are learning to play the music in jazz education classrooms, only a small percentage will eventually play the music professionally.  So perhaps they’ll be the future audience core.  But frankly, not even that desired nucleus is enough to grow the jazz audience to levels that will better sustain the music’s artistry.

Casual observation of the audience for jazz reveals that it is predominantly male, which also reflects the average jazz band personnel, though there is an emergent corps of women on the bandstand.  The most hopeful element of that shift is in the increased ranks of female instrumentalists.  The vocal ranks of jazz have pretty much always been female-dominated, dating back to the old days of the “girl singer” and the all-male big band; meanwhile the ranks of jazz instrumentalists has always been overwhelmingly male.  Shifting hats for a moment from the journalist-observer to the curator-producer concerned with audience development to justify the presenting work, one wonders aloud whether consumers witnessing more women on the bandstand might ever translate to an increase in women in the jazz audience.

Given the more welcoming portals of the music academy–versus the almost completely male-centric academy of the streets where so many of the greats cut their teeth–women are arriving at a fair pace.  No longer is the scene like that described by trombonist Frank Lacy at a recent Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival during an onstage interview, where the specter of Melba Liston playing her trombone in an audacious manner in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was such an unusual inspiration.

Leading pianist-composer Geri Allen told Jazzwise magazine (Nov. 2013) in a group interview with her ACS trio mates, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding, “I remember hearing Terry Pollard – the great pianist from Detroit – when I was a teenager, and that moment changed my life.  She was totally focused and brilliant.”  In the same piece, Spalding remarked, “Women have made a profound contribution to jazz, one that can sometimes be overlooked.  Seeing an all-female trio playing at the highest level and headlining major festivals will offer huge inspiration and encouragement to younger female players.”

Clearly the rising gender parity of instrumentalists on the bandstand is an inspiration to other women to perform the music, but the question remains open as to whether their presence can equally translate to women in the audience for the music. Attend any jazz performance and, unless there is a celebrated vocal element onstage, the audience will likely be predominantly male.  This leaves one wondering if more women would turn out in numbers parallel to the female turnout for vocalists in exchange for the promise of women instrumentalists onstage, particularly in leading roles.  I recall positively thrilled women in the audience for performances by saxophonist Tia Fuller’s uplifting and fashion-forward all-women quartets.  Just recently a performance by the very special Spring Quartet, which included three prominent jazz bandleaders—Jack DeJohnette on drums, Joe Lovano on saxophones, Esperanza Spalding on bass—plus Leo Genovesse on piano and keyboards raised similar questions.

From the standpoint of a keen audience and performance observer, that Saturday evening at the Warner Theatre in downtown D.C. was remarkable on several fronts.  The audience was robust for what I suspected would be an evening of original, uncompromisingly creative music given DeJohnette and Lovano’s well-established proclivities.  That expectation may have been different from that of many audience members, particularly since the audience demographic reflected what one would more likely experience at one of Spalding’s concerts than, say, a DeJohnette or Lovano gig.

The Spring Quartet performed several knotty originals, like Spalding’s “Hystaspes Shrugged,” Lovano’s “Le Petit Oppurtune,” and DeJohnette’s “Priestess of the Mist, ” including lots of edgy, near freely improvised passages.  Questions were raised as I gazed around the audience and spotted an unusually high number of women and African Americans (that audience equation a topic unto itself).  My sense was that both audience factors were owed primarily to the presence of Spalding in the band.  Likely a certain percentage of the audience came anticipating Spalding’s winning mix of instrumental virtuosity and precocious vocal exploits related to her own recordings.  I’d hazard an educated guess that some entered the theatre not realizing that in this instance the bassist was part of a cooperative ensemble.  The evening featured only one sung performance, a wordless ingredient in Spalding’s original composition that was decidedly different from the flavors of her Grammy-winning recording.
Despite what for some may have been a disconnect between ticket-buying expectations and onstage evidence, there was no mass exodus between tunes, nor was there any sense of audience disappointment in the air.  Audience response was enthusiastic throughout the evening.  Contacted later Lovano remarked, “That was a great audience in D.C., we really felt inspired.”  I was motivated to wonder aloud whether the presence of exceptional female instrumentalists like Spalding on the bandstand, regardless of the creative content of the performance, might conceivably beckon additional women to a given jazz gig.  Following the Spring Quartet concert the buzz in the lobby was palpable, including overhearing a multi-cultural klatch of women marveling at Spalding’s bass facility, with not a discouraging or disappointed word related to pre-concert expectations.

Thus encouraged, for a purely anecdotal, small sample perspective I posed the following question to an informal group of women who are ardent observers of jazz and frequent audience members, including musicians, music educators, and professional women in other walks of life: Would an increased number of women on jazz bandstands be one means of growing the number of women who attend jazz performances?

Twin Cities-based editor and music writer Pamela Espeland feels the most important element in encouraging more women to attend jazz performances lies in the audience composition and the basic environment in which the music is performed. “It matters if you walk into a club and the crowd is all or mostly men.  So maybe it’s partly about making a venue more attractive to women,” Espeland submits.  Bassist-vocalist Mimi Jones, who frequently attends her husband, pianist Luis Perdomo’s performances, believes the manner in which women on the bandstand comport themselves has much to do with their impression on women audience members and a subsequent desire to attend performances.  “There tends to be a different type of energy added to the mix making it really fun to experience if she is throwing down as hard as the guys in the band,” Jones asserts.  “Women also like to study other women by nature.”

Sarah Wilson, a musician and administrator at the Levine School of Music in the D.C. area (formerly at the Thelonious Monk Institute), spoke from an education perspective on the prospects of not only increasing women in the audience but on the bandstand as well. “I think having young female students see female jazz musicians on stage definitely makes them more interested in participating, not just attending,” she suggests. “They see someone like themselves onstage, which makes them think it’s something they could do.”

Pianist/composer/bandleader Michele Rosewoman recalled her experiences interacting with parents of impressionable youngsters.  “I have had many mothers and fathers tell me that they brought their daughters out to see me perform, or that they wanted to do so, because they felt it would inspire their daughters and offer them an example of how they can and should be all of and whatever they wanted to be.  Often, these parents are concerned with showing their daughters alternatives to traditional female roles in society and countering the images that mass media pounds into their heads,” Rosewoman asserts.  “I am always struck by the way women in the audience so often express that they are moved to see me on stage holding my own with all male musicians and even more expressive of a personal pride they feel to see me at the helm,” she says, mirroring Mimi Jones’s assertion that not only seeing women on the bandstand is inspiring to women audience members, but witnessing women holding their own among their male counterparts is potentially the biggest thrill for women audience members, inviting their return as ticket consumers.

Meanwhile some women in the music business expressed healthy skepticism about whether an increase of women on the bandstand would attract increasing numbers of women in the seats.  “Any woman I have ever turned on to jazz has been floored by the beauty, sexiness, and confidence that exudes from the men truly playing this music,” says music publicist Kim Smith.  “They are turned on by that.  The only exception was Alice Coltrane, who raised the bar higher than any woman ever has and makes women cry just as hard as a man.  I can only speak about the women I have personally turned on and it is still the case.”
Robin Bell Stevens, executive director of the Jazzmobile organization, sees no correlation between women on the bandstand and increased numbers of females in her audiences.  “My audiences come for the music.  Personally I have never observed any indicators to imply that gender makes a difference; it doesn’t for me, a lifelong jazz enthusiast,” offers Robin.  When this writer suggested that perhaps Ms. Bell Stevens comes from a somewhat altered perspective on this question since jazz is in her blood–her dad was the late Ellington bassist Aaron Bell–she admitted that might be a factor in her thinking.

From the newest generation of women jazz instrumentalists is the saxophonist Melissa Aldana from Chile.  Aldana, who won the Thelonious Monk Competition prize (the first woman instrumentalist to do so), is blessed with a rich tenor saxophone tone and a deeply communicative sensibility with her male band mates. She deferred a bit from the other respondents, offering a more general and philosophical perspective on the question.  “I think that one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other.  Music transcends genders, age, and cultures, and people that love jazz are ones that are going to be the supporters.”
But musician-composer-educator Monika Herzig, who is a Jazz Education Network (JEN) board member as well as a contributor to NewMusicBox this month, was enthusiastic in her affirmation that more women instrumentalists on the bandstand would translate into more women in the audience: “An absolute yes; for social reasons it’s easier to identify with the performers, for musical reasons the musical product will be transformed, for psychological reasons it feels more like a community–and the performers will become role models for the audiences.”  Fellow music educator and JEN founding member Mary Jo Papich suggests a more basic sensibility, that audience members may tend to gravitate towards artists “like them” on the bandstand. “The band should look like the audience they want to attract,” she says.

Cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott, with whom this writer collaborated on a Brooklyn Bed-Stuy jazz oral history project, spoke of her level of anticipation for who is on the bandstand as a potential additional attraction.  “If I know in advance that there will be a woman vocalist or instrumentalist in the band, it’s an added draw, and the same for most of the women I know.  Self-identification goes a long way.”  But she’s uncertain about those audience members not similarly immersed in jazz.  “As for those [women] who don’t typically go out to hear jazz, I’m not so sure that would be the case, because I’m not sure why they don’t go hear jazz in the first place.”
Last May during their annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, an event originated by the late jazz renaissance man Dr. Billy Taylor out of his profound desire to uplift women’s profile on jazz bandstands, the Kennedy Center announced that henceforth the festival would no longer be completely woman-centric.  Festival MC and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater was outspoken from the podium regarding her dismay over this decision (a sentiment shared by some in the audience as catcalls indicated).  On the other hand there are those who feel such an event is in essence a sort of ghetto-ization of women on the bandstand.

In her reflections on our basic question, longtime jazz and arts administrator and presenter Sara Donnelley eruditely included such events in her consideration.  “Women are undoubtedly appreciating the increased inclusion of women both in bands and leading them.   I also agree that women need not be singled out in “women in jazz” fests.  The organic increase of women populating [jazz] bands just makes the music broader, more realistic, and adds staging that is more visually interesting,” she said, mindful of aesthetic factors that might appeal to potential women audience members.

So what’s your take: Would an increased number of women on jazz bandstands be one means of growing the number of women in attendance at jazz performances?

1, 2, 3… Action

Spring is here – finally – as earth prepares to put on a colorful new coat, we experience the energy of new life.  Some of us get an urge to do spring cleaning—getting rid of the dirt and dust of winter and unwanted clutter—and clear the path ahead.  As Women’s History Month winds down, this will be the perfect opportunity to sweep out the clutter from the past and move forward into a future that brings together the music of black, white, brown, male, and female individuals all over the world.
In my earlier articles this month, I traced the history of Women in Jazz (including my own) and looked at research results that document psychological and social differences between the genders, as well as barriers to entry for women.  In this last article I would like to reflect on a series of concerts that I completed with an eight-piece all female group in celebration of Women’s History Month and to conclude with action steps towards an inclusive future.


The 2014 Women In Jazz Concert.

For 20 years now, I have hosted Women in Jazz features during March in the Indianapolis area.  Our first event was in March 1994 for the Jazz Fables Series in Bloomington, and it included vocalists Janiece Jaffe, Cherilee Wadsworth (now Dean of Arts at the Kansas City Community College), and Rachel Caswell, myself on piano, saxophonist Kristy Norter (who went on to play with DIVA), and a male rhythm section.  Some of the events over the years were on elaborate stages, such as the Indianapolis History Center and the Walker Theatre, some in clubs such as the Jazz Kitchen and Bloomington’s Bears Place, and everything in between.  We usually had great audience response and many fun shows. Reflecting over those 20 years, here are some of the changes I’ve witnessed as well as lessons learned.

1. Up until 2008, it was very difficult to find a rhythm section and we needed ‘ringers’.  Now I’m faced with tough choices between several excellent female drummers and bassists in the area.

2. Similarly, our groups usually featured a handful of vocalists and the repertoire was mainly vocal standards.  Now we have a repertoire of originals as well as music written by a wide variety of female composers from Berniece Petkere to Marian McPartland, Carla Bley, Joanne Brackeen, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and many more.  Our front line is at least three horn players; this year we had trumpet, saxophone, and violin.

3. Due to the success of our events, other leaders and promoters organized similar tributes.  Unfortunately, they usually were led by several vocalists and backed by an all-male group, thus reinforcing the original stereotypes even further rather than creating new role models.

4. Some fellow musicians did not want to participate in our tribute series, since they wanted to be acknowledged for their musical skills rather than for their gender.  Of course, that’s the goal for all of us and a much respected choice.  But as discussed in the earlier articles, there are some barriers to be broken down and action is still needed; we’ll continue to blaze trails for all of us.
5. Every so often the pushback would also come from the male community, pointing out that nobody is organizing a tribute concert for them and that the series is reverse discrimination using our gender as a gimmick.  Well, looking at the percentage figures of male participation in jazz groups and employment figures (more than 90% each), there are plenty of opportunities and tributes available for them year-round.  And according to the feedback from my fellow musicians from this year’s series, many of these opportunities are still closed to them.  Wouldn’t that be similar to making Dad breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day?

Natalie Boeyink on bass

Natalie Boeyink

This year’s featured artists spanned three generations of jazz women with great careers in progress and ready to take off.
Natalie Boeyink (bass) has backed up luminaries such as Jovino Santos Neto, Joe Piscopo, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Jon Hendricks, David Liebman and Lorraine Feather.  She is currently completing a Doctorate in Music Education at Indiana University and serves as the director of the Attica String Project.

Anna Butterss on bass

Anna Butterss

Anna Butterss (bass) hails from Adelaide, Australia and is taking the U.S.A. by storm.  L.A., watch out when she moves there in two months after finishing her Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies at Indiana University.

Carolyn Dutton on violin

Carolyn Dutton

Carolyn Dutton (violin) is originally from Indiana and returned recently after a successful  30-year career in the New York music scene, performing everything from Broadway to jazz to punk, and touring the world.

Arianna Fanning with drumsticks

Arianna Fanning

Arianna Fanning (drums) recently relocated to Nashville, TN after completing a degree in jazz studies at Indiana University.  She was a finalist in the inaugural Hit Like a Girl Drum Contest and has backed up the likes of Randy Brecker, Jeff Coffin, Sean Jones, Shawn Purcell, Michael Weiss, and Chuck Redd.

Amanda Gardier

Amanda Gardier with her saxophone

Amanda Gardier (saxophone) has performed alongside notable musicians like Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Curtis Fuller, John Clayton, Brian Culbertson, Wycliffe Gordon, and Dana Hall.  She is a student band director at North Central High School in Indianapolis this spring.

Heather Ramsey Clark

Heather Ramsey Clark

Heather Ramsey Clark (vocals) is versatile in many styles and leads the Midwest School of Voice. She has wowed audiences in Italy and Germany and is my collaborator for the Girls Create Music summer songwriting camps for girls ages 9-16.

Janiece Jaffe at the microphone

Janiece Jaffe

Janiece Jaffe (vocals) is a master of improvisation and vocalese.  She has produced multiple albums and has toured internationally.  In addition she leads healing and meditation workshops with her voice and crystal bowls.

Jordan West at the drumset

Jordan West

Jordan West (drums),  a senior at Ball State University, is not only sought-after as a drummer, but is also known for her unique vocal styles with her group Trackless.

Lexie Signor with her trumpet

Lexie Signor

Lexie Signor (trumpet) hails from Michigan and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Trumpet Performance at Indiana University. She specializes in lead trumpet playing and wows audiences with her beautiful sound.
I asked all of the participants to reflect on our concerts and to provide feedback on their favorite aspects of the series, the importance of raising awareness of female participation in jazz, and support strategies that would have helped them in shaping their own careers.  They all agreed that one of their favorite aspects of performing together was the non-pressured environment of not having to prove anything to their band mates.  “We compliment and complement each other” (Carolyn).  They also felt inspired by their peers’ high level of musicality. I would love to see a group like this go around to schools and play at jazz festivals; wouldn’t that make a statement!” (Natalie).

The issue of raising awareness for female participation in jazz was also crucial for them.  Everyone admitted how difficult it was to push the boundaries without any role models.  Similar efforts might prevent the large dropout rate of instrumentalists in middle and high schools.  Furthermore, leadership and creative roles of women in the general workforce are still limited and leadership in jazz as an extremely creative art form can set powerful examples.  “Promoting female improvisers and band leaders in jazz highlights the fact that women are equally as bold, creative, powerful, and intellectual as men” (Amanda).
As we’re still working on establishing equal rights in the workplace and at home, having mothers on the bandstand is important inspiration for the younger generations“Just sharing the stage with such strong and musically expressive moms last night has really helped me debunk this lie for myself and renewed my faith that yes, we can have our cake and eat it too!” (Lexie).  Janiece raised an important additional point: “Equality does not mean ‘sameness’ though.”  Including more female voices into the improvisational process will add variety and distinct perspectives, making the music richer and appealing to wider audiences.  And finally, more support in career development strategies and mentoring outside of school is needed.  Moving to a new town and trying (as a female) to get people to let me sit in was really discouraging” (Natalie).
Monika Herzig at the piano
Overall, while we have made big strides forward, we still don’t have a woman in the White House (as Carolyn pointed out).  The good news is that we might only be a few years away from achieving this goal.  Until then, taking action will be the only way to facilitate change, and anyone can contribute.  Such action can be on a larger scale by organizing concerts, lobbying for equal rights and pay scales, or employing women whenever possible. But what about one small step that any of us could do right now, such as encouraging a 10-year old girl to take up drum lessons, or taking some youngsters to a jazz concert, or just taking a risk without being afraid of public image.  So my charge to all readers at the end of this series and at the end of this year’s Women’s History Month is to commit to one action item in support of female involvement in creating music for the rest of the year – and do write it down, as it might get lost in the daily shuffle.  And please don’t ask me if I’m the singer with the band when you see me perform next time.