Tag: leadership

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century

Photo credit: Steve Phillip

Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020, and the number will only rise. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.

Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.

In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.

Conductors as musical leaders

The traditional role of the conductor was sharply delineated. A conductor would join a well-established institution, choose repertoire, maintain a musical vision, and lead other musicians in performance. Secondary expectations included some direct interaction with donors and audience, and marginal involvement in certain fundraising and marketing campaigns. The traditional Maestro arrived to rehearsal or performance with all logistics in place, all administrative details carried out, and focused solely on the interpretation of the repertoire he was to perform. Most of his time outside of rehearsal was devoted to score study. In his youth, the Maestro was likely an instrumentalist or composer. He attended a graduate study program and eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a more established conductor, under whom he served as an assistant before moving to an ensemble of his own.


Many of my colleagues have thrived by following this focused route—studying standard repertory at a graduate program, attending a couple of prestigious festivals, serving as an assistant for a major professional orchestra, and then, following years of apprenticeship, winning a music directorship at an institution of their own. Some of these individuals now make great impact and bring creative programming to their newly found communities.

But while this path has become progressively more rare, other routes have emerged. In my early career, I embarked on a very different journey—one that has wholly shaped my music making today. Following college and graduate work, I was not apprenticed to a major musical institution. I never found an apprentice-based assistantship particularly attractive, but many traditional opportunities also simply did not exist for me. I was 23 years old, in Boston, surrounded by other young people, and wanting to create art. So that is what we did. I spent the first decade of my career running a new music ensemble and several small opera companies, in a cobbled-together career that involved conducting everything—from the largest standard works to tiny chamber music pieces of niche repertoire, from youth orchestras to professional choruses and community opera organizations. I performed with every small-budget musical collective around, while occasionally assisting at more established institutions. In my early years I never said “no” to a gig—if they wanted to see La serva padrona in a local ashram, I would conduct the opera barefoot to audiences who were sitting on the floor and sipping chai. If they asked me to put together a full-scale production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in a university dining hall, there I was, moving solid oak tables onto a Harvard lawn. I was fortunate to be in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists of the highest caliber, learning by doing.

For me, this entrepreneurial, gig-economy approach was the perfect way to hone my craft and launch a career. At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.

Most of my teachers and mentors scolded my failure to specialize and discouraged my involvement in running organizations, launching initiatives, and collaborating with people outside of my field. They saw this as a waste of time that deterred from the development of a niche skillset. But what those teachers failed to grasp was the intrinsic value of a multi-disciplinary approach to life. My chamber music experience now informs my approach to even the most large-scale symphonic and operatic works. My administrative and production experience has shaped both my leadership style and my artistic ideas, giving me a more holistic view of my work.

And I am hardly alone. At the time, I was unaware of the countless other conductors following the same multi-faceted, entrepreneurial path. This new norm is one we should embrace and encourage, as it contains potential solutions to some of the issues facing classical music today.

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit
IMAGE: Kathy Wittman

Development of the Catalyst-Conductor

The change in the conductor’s role has not been sudden—it has developed gradually over the last few decades. The first developments stemmed from conductors’ more traditional responsibility of seeking and promoting the work of the composers of their time. In the middle of the 20th century, as the contemporary music movement largely moved out of mainstream concert settings, this role became more vital than ever before and the catalyst-conductor emerged. In my mind, the definitive originator for this change was Pierre Boulez. As a composer-conductor, Boulez had a personal stake in recognizing and supporting contemporary work. As an exceptional musician and tireless advocate, he used his position to move the field forward, founding as many as five large-scale institutions of the highest level, four of which continue to thrive today. Those organizations—IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Lucerne Festival Academy—have served as central development and training grounds for European music. I find especially impressive Boulez’s founding of these organizations after he was well into an international conducting career. Even amid an incredibly full agenda as conductor and composer, Boulez took responsibility for opening doors to his contemporaries and creating opportunities for the most innovative music making of his time. His tireless dedication to music, above all else—both in terms of his contributions to the field and his own fastidious artistry—should serve as a model for all in our industry. If the music wasn’t being performed in a traditional institution, he created his own space.

Boulez demonstrated that a conductor could use his position, broad musical expertise, and management experience to serve as an influencer and founder of necessary and critical initiatives. Countless conductors and composer-conductors have since launched exciting new music organizations of various bents (some American examples include Tania León/Composers Now, Brad Lubman/Ensemble Signal, Alan Pierson/Alarm Will Sound, Gil Rose/BMOP, and David Bloom/Contemporaneous). In Britain, a group of conductors used the same method to promote Early and Baroque repertoire, founding the influential Historically Informed Performance, or HIP, movement (John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, Christopher Hogwood, and others).

In more recent years, an increasing number of conductors have used a similar approach in mobilizing civic change. Large institutions play a critical role in preserving tradition and providing the building blocks necessary for high-level, large-scale performance. As the public faces of these institutions, conductors are well-positioned to serve as advocates, both within our field and for non-musical causes. However, the traditional organizations we represent rely on support from foundations and individuals representing a broad political and civic spectrum, so there is always a fear that, if a “political” or “social justice” position is taken, someone will feel alienated. Indeed, as an organizational leader, I recognize many limitations on what I can advocate within the confines of an existing institution without the risk of hurting our relationship with long-standing patrons and supporters. However, those same supporters, while wishing the institution to remain on neutral ground, generally have no issue with the conductor having separate projects that support a specific social agenda.

The most recognized example of a conductor-activist initiative is Daniel Barenboim’s long-standing work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999. The orchestra brings together Israeli musicians with Palestinian and other Arab musicians in an attempt to unite individuals torn by a deep political and ideological divide. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, has worked to address the lack of diversity within the orchestral world. There are also conductors like Kristo Kondakçi (whose work includes a chorus for homeless women) and Joseph Conyers (Philadelphia’s Project 440 and All City Youth Orchestra), who have dedicated the majority of their musical efforts to social causes. These individuals have used positions at big-name institutions to form outside projects that affect civic change. The institutions provide them with the necessary stamp of quality and legitimacy. But by working outside the institutions—and seeking music making in new venues, for new communities—these conductors are able to make a tremendous impact on society.

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

A major positive outcome of increased entrepreneurship among conductors has been the opportunity for those who may otherwise have been overlooked to gain recognition. While I eventually found musical opportunities in more established organizations, my early career was largely defined by my work in a never-ending array of smaller, dynamic organizations, which I was able to develop and grow. And again, I am hardly alone. For some conductors, when opportunities did not materialize, starting their own ensembles served as the ideal career launching pad. Sarah Caldwell raised money, directed, conducted, and produced countless performances with the Opera Company of Boston, at a time when women were almost entirely missing not only from the podium, but also from the orchestra and the administration. Marin Alsop credits much of her success to a decision early on to start her own ensemble, an experience that allowed her to gain the skills she needed to succeed. Nicole Paiement established her place in the opera field with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alondra de la Parra is another example, founding the Orchestra of the Americas, which served both to showcase overlooked Latin American repertoire and to hone and prove her abilities before she had other opportunities to do so.

Without an established authority’s stamp of approval, it is not possible to convince others to follow unless they truly believe in your work. A conductor who is unprepared, unmusical, uninspiring, rude, or unreliable will never be able to get away with these faults without a larger-looming prestige figure or institution behind them. Likewise, audiences will not tolerate anything short of a stellar product when the emblem of a major accrediting body is not on the performance. Early-career conductors who run their own organizations are forced to prove their excellence by making great art that earns respect of its own accord. They can then bring the enormous experience gained from this challenge to their positions at major institutions, further impacting the field in a positive direction.

By forming their own ensembles and bypassing the gatekeepers of the classical music world, conductors like Caldwell, Alsop, and Paiement put large cracks into some very thick glass ceilings. Other conductors have made strides in areas of equity and diversity by overseeing educational initiatives. Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony partners with the Sphinx Organization to train a diverse body of emerging professionals, Marin Alsop’s OrchKids gives high-level training opportunities to kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, and her Taki Concordia Fellowship supports emerging women conductors. In each of these situations, major conductors have used their position and expertise to create independent organizations with the purpose of filling a void.

The Future of Conductorial Entrepreneurship

Contemporary culture is built on entrepreneurship. Start-ups have defined and reshaped our social, business, and creative models. However, the structures inherent within the classical music industry have often left our field trailing behind, scrambling to keep up with the intense pace of modern cultural change. In order for classical music to thrive and move forward, we must find more ways to encourage and support individuals who are taking the difficult path of forming, running, organizing, and creating performance groups for a new era. If fully supported and embraced, conductorial entrepreneurship can be a solid pathway to increased diversity and stronger artistic leadership within classical music.

Although traditional conductor-specialists have an important place and will continue to flourish, conductor-entrepreneurs can spearhead the next wave of classical music. As mobilizers and catalysts for change, conductors from diverse backgrounds—spanning cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries—can have an opportunity to make an impact on our field, even when initially halted by gate-keeping institutions. Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.

Ed Harsh to Embark on New Endeavor

New Music USA is announcing today my decision to step down as president and CEO this fall. Leading New Music USA has truly been one of the peak experiences of my life, and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the nearly eleven years I’ve been president (counting back to my taking over leadership of Meet The Composer in 2007, four years before its merger with the American Music Center). I’d like to take the opportunity here to add a little personal perspective on why I think this is a great moment of opportunity for New Music USA, and for me too.

New Music USA has reached a very high level of achievement and function. Its programs are serving its mission well and with innovation. There are a bunch of great indicators of its readiness for next steps. It’s financially stable, with an outstanding staff committed to the new music cause and a wise and supportive board. And it’s fortunate in having an extended collection of supporters and constituents who have proven time and again their belief in the organization’s work and who will continue to live that belief out.

So this is an excellent moment to transition to a new CEO to start the next chapter of the New Music USA story in a dynamic and fast-changing world. Yes, transitions to new leadership can feel uneasy and uncertain. Those feelings are familiar to anyone who deals in The New—artists, for instance! It’s in the nature of what we do that we trade the safety (illusory, by the way) of the status quo for the exciting possibility of the future. I’m eager to work with everyone in the New Music USA family to minimize the uneasiness and maximize the opportunity.

New Music USA is much more than any one individual. It has so much potential and so many ways in which it can move forward and grow in the world.

I think it’s worth making a general point here too, about the relationship of institutional to individual identity. That is, it’s important for the one not to get too closely mixed up with the other. New Music USA is much more than any one individual. As an institution, even as an idea, it has so much potential and so many ways in which it can move forward and grow in the world. I’d like to think the same is true of me, too.

So what’s next for New Music USA? Most importantly, during the transition we’ll continue delivering the same great assemblage of programs and services to our field as we have in the past. At the same time, we’re going to work positively and productively together toward the future, energized by the exciting potential of new leadership partnering with board and staff to carry the organization into the years ahead.

And what’s next for me? Well, after doing everything I can to support my board and staff colleagues throughout the transition, I’m going to embark on a couple of new adventures. For one, I’m going to write a book. Challenged by the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and its potential meaning for artists in our culture, I’m going to examine Kurt Weill as a model and test case for the way individual and artistic values play out in artists’ decisions at times of complexity and crisis. I’m grateful to Kim Kowalke, president of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, for offering me an opportunity, concurrent with my personal writing project, to work as a member of the foundation’s staff to help advance the performance and visibility of Weill’s music around the world.

In writing this post, I want to take the opportunity as well to express my very real gratitude to all those who have served on the boards of Meet The Composer and New Music USA during my tenure. They have given me unflinching support and allowed me to do all that I was able in order to make both organizations the best and most effective they could be. Above all, I can hardly find words enough to honor my staff colleagues over the years. A more dedicated, talented, brilliant group of new music partisans you will never find anywhere. Everything we’ve done we’ve done together. They deserve all the gratitude and support imaginable from those who care about the new music cause.

Five Lessons American Musicians Can Learn From Guildhall’s Music Leadership Program

The Messengers

The Messengers—ensemble of the Music Leadership course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

During my week at the Curious Festival, put on by the Guildhall School and the Barbican, I had the same conversation several times.

“I don’t know of any program like this in the States!” I kept exclaiming.
“I don’t know of anything like it, period,” people kept replying.

I had come to London to visit friends, but figuring out what exactly was happening at the Guildhall School was pretty high on my to-do list. Over the years, I’ve known several American musicians—some of whom are close friends—who’ve attended the Music Leadership course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Program alumni are doing fascinating and boundary-crossing things with their musical careers. My friend Preetha Narayanan toured with Oi va Voi and ended up co-founding a piano trio that writes and performs its own original music; my friend Liza Barley embarked on a major research project on Grief And The Artist (in which I participated) and founded a duo called ontoSonics; Jill Collier Warne, a Michigan-based cellist, now shares what she learned at Guildhall in creative workshops all over the country.

Each year, the Guildhall Leadership course accepts a handful of students from all over the world. The course asks them to improvise, compose, teach, and collaborate with each other and with London artists from many other disciplines. They generate new work, embark on research projects, and actively facilitate creative music-making in London communities that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.

The course demands, and allows, a level of creativity, collaboration and freedom that few American music degree programs even consider. It encourages classically trained composers, instrumentalists, and electronic musicians to have a broad conception of what role they can play in their communities. It’s an experimental, challenging, almost fringe-feeling artistic community—with the backing of Guildhall and the Barbican, two of London’s biggest cultural institutions. Immersing myself a bit in the culture of the department was a rich opportunity to reflect on what’s happening in the Chicago contemporary music community. Here are the lessons that I, as an American musician, was excited to take home with me.

1. Experimental, challenging art and community music-making don’t need to dwell in separate universes.
On Tuesday night at the Curious Festival, I attended Neurath’s Boat, a presentation of new collaborative work by students from the Guildhall program and from Central St. Martin’s College of Art. The evening—whose performances drew inspiration from performance art, video media, and theater—could have easily been presented in any of Chicago’s most cutting-edge, experimental art spaces.
On Friday night, I was back in the same space, watching the same musicians perform in The Messengers. The band arranges and performs original songs written by Londoners who are formerly homeless, recovering addicts, or both.
These two wildly different performances—given in fulfillment of the same degree program—represented a refreshing juxtaposition of core values that are rarely combined. The Music Leadership course seems to be creating a space in which artists can create challenging, authentic work—while also making their musical gifts accessible to a wide variety of London communities

2. We don’t have to give someone a decade of instrument lessons before they can make music.
I was particularly overjoyed to observe rehearsals and performances by The Messengers—the ensemble in which Leadership students help perform the original songs of people recovering from homelessness and addiction. Madha, one member of the group, performed as lead singer over sweeping arrangements of his twenty-minute metal/goth-inspired suite. As he spoke-sung the brooding lyrics over the skilled accompaniment of a full rock band, piano, strings, winds, and backup vocals, the sense of joy and creative accomplishment was palpable. One extroverted participant remained in the front row throughout, beaming from ear to ear and thanking the audience rapturously after each number—including his own amazing Christian rock tune. A man who had been an introverted onstage presence was suddenly featured in a joyous rap solo; in another song, an African immigrant sang a touching original song about loneliness and homecoming.

The Messengers

The Messengers in action.

Under the deft leadership of Sigrun Saevarsdottir-Griffiths, The Messengers is a rare creative haven for individuals who are at high risk for isolation and social rejection. The ensemble equips them with the musical resources to bring their ideas to full-fledged fruition. For me, this is an exciting model, with major implications for how to embark on “adult beginner” participation in music performance.

3. There’s no limit to the way the special skills of musicians, or the special capacities of music itself, can be used.
When ontoSonics—musicians and creative partners Liza Barley and Evi Nakou—began conceiving their final project, they knew they wanted to continue the work of intimate conversations and connections that they had begun with their 2012 research project on grief and the artist. So they started a collaboration with Amie’s Group, a community support group for women victims of sexual trafficking, hailing from nations as far-flung as Ghana, Thailand, and Albania.

What do musicians creating a sound installation have to offer a group of trafficking victims as they heal and grow? As it turns out, plenty. These women, whose life stories are full of painful episodes, participated in gathering and creating audio, photography, and sculpture for the ontoSonics installation at the Curious Festival. During the audio-gathering phase, they became creative agents rather than subjects, choosing places to photograph and interviewing complete strangers about significant events that have shaped their lives. The installation room became a kind of “story-catching” space, where the women’s interviews were played on speakers and where visitors could feel free to add their own text, sound, and visual stories. For this group of women, it was an opportunity to be creative, to think outside their usual parameters, and to connect with each other and the artistic process in a new way.

ontosonic musicians working

Liza Barley and Evi Nakou (ontoSonics) working in their installation room.

ontosonics installation

The ontoSonics Life Cycles/story-catching installation

This Life Cycles story-catching project inspired me to think about what other ways we could involve and engage “uninitiated” neighbors in the creation of musical work.

4. You don’t need special permission or multiple academic degrees before you’re allowed to compose.
Most of the students in the Leadership program don’t identify as composers when they enter the program, but they’re immediately expected to begin creating their own music. For me—an American performer who wants to make creativity a part of my practice—this was a refreshing change from the strict division of labor between performers and composers. At the Neurath’s Boat performance I attended, this encouragement towards creativity yielded an amazing diversity of compositional voices. Guitarist and electronic musician Gil Teixeira collaborated with video artist May Yan Man on a sensual, immersive, sonic and visual exploration of a simple floor fan. Singer/composer Teresa Campos created an arresting and sometimes terrifying “breathscape” to accompany video (by Aya Arden-Clarke) of herself emerging and re-submerging into water; oboist Marlies van Gangelen lay on her back and batted a swinging, glowing orb back and forth with the bell of her oboe as she played. Together, the evening was a diverse and fascinating look at the compositional and creative voices that can emerge from a pool of performer-identified artists.

5. It is absolutely possible to create an environment where women thrive as electronic composers, musical visionaries, and creative leaders.

The Neurath’s Boat performance, and the Leadership program itself, was comprised of a majority of women artists—something Chicagoans can’t say about our edgiest centers for electronic and improvised work. Clearly, a fantastic creative environment has been created for women artists on the Leadership course. How has this dynamic been achieved? It’s a kind of chicken-or-egg situation, where women’s participation begets more participation—and, of course, exclusion begets exclusion. Perhaps Guildhall’s success in fostering female creativity has something to do with what I named in Item 4. If we stopped strictly defining the criteria for what a “real composer” is, and simply compelled all musicians to create, would more women start doing “real composing”?

Pull Up A Chair

Pull Up A Chair
First of all, if you haven’t yet read Ellen McSweeney’s excellent article from yesterday, take the opportunity now. Thanks to Ellen and composer Reena Esmail, I decided pick up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and even though I’m just part way through chapter three, I see quite a bit in those pages not only of myself, but of so many other women around me. The information is not necessarily new, but it is presented in a clear, succinct manner that paints a remarkably accurate picture of the working world from a female perspective.

Conveniently, over the past couple of months I have also been connecting with a greater number of female composers than usual, partly by chance. Time and time again I feel both overwhelmed with pride for the amazingly talented women making music in our world today, and fantastically frustrated by the lack of recognition many of them receive. Some of that frustration, as Sandberg’s book neatly outlines, is due not only to external social structures, but also to the internal challenges that many women face on a daily basis. These matters are all so complex, and there are so many wide-ranging issues in play, that it is going to take a long time and a lot of people of both genders to continue improving the landscape for female composers and musicians.

The thought that keeps popping into my head as a crucial element in this tangled web is that women are not culturally encouraged to ask for things. In a professional setting, men, in general, tend to have little problem asking for whatever they want and/or need, while not only do women tend not to ask for things, they sometimes are not aware of all the things they could ask for, and as a result, don’t. To pile onto that, the very act of a woman asking for something is often perceived differently than the same request made by a man. This falls in line with Sandberg’s “likeability factor,” which points out that success for a woman causes her to be perceived as less likeable (the opposite is true for men). It’s perfectly natural for a man to ask for a thing, while if a woman asks for the same thing in the same way, she is more likely to be seen as self-serving, which counts as points against her. This seeps into myriad nooks and crannies of life, from negotiating salaries and composition commissions to navigating daily schedules, work habits, and personal relationships. A colleague recently told a story of a man who offered a position in his company to a woman. The man said, “I would have happily given her $X more if she had just asked for it.” It is notable that the woman did not negotiate, even when negotiation for job salaries is a cultural norm in the business world. However, had she negotiated her salary, it might have affected her employer’s opinion of her in a possibly negative way. It’s a messy, vicious cycle that needs to be broken somehow.

In the music world, I see and experience other women not asking for stuff all the time. And believe me, I get it—asking for things can be truly difficult. Often more than one try is necessary—that is true for anyone of either gender—when submitting grant applications or making proposals for creative opportunities. I have experienced situations in which asking for something for myself was almost physically painful! But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Recently I challenged myself to do some asking of a sort that I normally would not, and while it was by no means easy to do, the answers turned out to be yes! In fact there were responses like, “Oh! Sure, we can do that. Thank you for asking!” And really, even if the answers had been no, would that have been so bad? I don’t think so. Wonders can be wrought through the power of asking nicely.

Last week I attended a concert that included a work by a female composer whom I know personally, and whose music I think is exceptional. The ensemble had issued the invitation. When the composer and I spoke in person at the concert, this is how our conversation started:

Composer: “I’m so glad to see you! I was hoping you would come.”
Me: “Oh! You know you could have contacted me directly, right?”
Composer: “It’s just that I hate to impose….”

This sort of thing happens a lot. But I cannot think of even one instance in which a male composer has considered contacting me directly to attend a performance to be “imposing.” The guys are, frankly, all up in my face 24/7.

Similarly, the lack of asking here at NewMusicBox is very pronounced. Despite the fact that we are crystal clear about wanting to hear music by composers of both genders, are we flooded with CDs and emails from female composers? Quite the opposite. I would guess that over 90% of the recordings we receive contain music by male composers. In the almost three years that I have worked here, I can count with the fingers of one hand the number of female composers who have contacted me specifically asking for, well, anything that pertains to the music they are creating. And we are not the only organization for which this is the case. Several record labels have mentioned that they wish they received more CD proposals from women.

I honestly think that if every female artist—or every female of any profession—asked for one specific thing that they really wanted or needed, this could begin to shift our culture in a pronounced way. Sandberg writes in her book about the need for women to “sit at the table,” and the act of asking for something is an important way to pull up a chair and be part of the conversation.

What will you ask for?
Who will you ask?
When will you ask for it?
What are you waiting for?

The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals In New Music Leadership and Innovation

female and male figures
I once had a conversation with my violin teacher that I will never forget. I was at a crucial stage in my development as a musician. The path to a career as a professional violinist was becoming clearer to me, and my passion and talent were becoming more evident. I was in my lesson; I had a stack of music on the stand and several important auditions coming up. Turning to my teacher and mentor, I wondered aloud how viable this path was really going to be.

“I would advise you to think very, very carefully about all of this,” she said grimly. “Being a musician and having a family is extremely difficult.”

I was fourteen.

My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment.

In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.
In graduate school, I worked on the Glazunov concerto. In front of my entire studio, my teacher said: “Please forgive me for saying this, but you are playing it like a woman.” When I played the passage better, she made it clear I had achieved the goal. Although I remained a woman, I had played it like a man.


Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, explores the question of why more women have not risen to the top echelons of management and leadership in any industry. Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and has begun to use her enormous platform to sound the alarm about women’s roles in the workplace. In Lean In, she cites the dismal number of female heads of state, members of parliament, and chief executives worldwide, and launches into an in-depth discussion of women’s internal barriers to success. Sandberg acknowledges the height of society’s external barriers—such as lack of paid parental leave, inflexible work hours, and a career clock that collides headfirst with the biological clock—but her focus is on the more personal, internal blocks to success. What self-limiting attitudes has our sexist society created in women, and how are these attitudes holding them back from the kind of career success and freedom that men enjoy?

At first glance, you might think that the field of contemporary classical music doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the high-powered corporate tech world. And you might also think that, in the arts, women have an easier time rising to the top. Never mind that hardly any women conduct, and leadership imbalances persist in both artistic and administrative roles. In just a couple of generations, it does seem like the gender balance of American symphony orchestras has shifted dramatically—a shift we can confirm simply counting the number of women in orchestral chairs all over the country.

But in the art music world outside of the American orchestral scene, it’s harder to quantify how far women have or haven’t come. This is a more informal economy; we can’t count female full-time hires because there are hardly any full-time jobs. Women “rising to the top” in the contemporary music scene means coming into a position of social, cultural, and aesthetic influence. That’s a kind of success that’s harder to identify. Are women equally represented among prominent art-shapers and cultural decision makers? Are they curating the most cutting-edge concert series in town? Are women the people whose concert reviews you eagerly anticipate? These questions are harder to answer with any certainty, but in what follows, I’ll argue that—at least in Chicago—the answer is no.
Every year, the Chicago Tribune chooses “Chicagoans of the Year” in music, often praising these artists for work that is visionary and groundbreaking. Since 2008—as far back as the online archive goes—all nine of the honorees (George LePauw, Lupe Fiasco, Mark George, Bruce Iglauer, Paulinho Garcia, Syl Johnson, Riccardo Mutti, Mike Orlove, and Local H) have been men. The writers selecting these visionaries have also been exclusively men: Howard Reich, John von Rhein, and Greg Kot.
Chicago magazine has a similar honor; since 2006, all three of its honorees (Ken Vandermark, Ramsey Lewis, and Kimo Williams) have been men.
A recent Chicago magazine new music “power list”, written by a man, included seven men and one woman. The men on the list are men I admire and know well: artistically adventurous, socially connected, innovative, and ambitious. The only woman on the list, Mei-Ann Chen, is a conductor pursuing a fairly traditional career anchored by a major Chicago orchestral institution. The type of “power” articulated in Chen’s career has very little overlap with the kind of self-made creative power shared by honorees Marcos Balter, George LePauw, and the Spektral Quartet. Chen’s inclusion seemed out of place—but sadly, it was the first time since at least 2006 that Chicago magazine has bestowed this kind of honor on any woman musician.

Most of the new and influential creative organizations in our scene—the organizations whose creativity and dynamism will form the heart of our cultural and professional lives—are run by men. To give a small sampling: the Spektral Quartet is all men; ChicagoMusic.org is run by Paul Giallorenzo; all six of the staff at Elastic Arts are men; exciting new venue Constellation is run by Mike Reed. Beethoven Festival, which has been honored as one of the most exciting new cultural initiatives in Chicago, has six musicians on its executive committee. Only one is a woman, and she is in charge of educational outreach. At the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which is changing the face of our city with its investment in contemporary music, all four of the wonderful people in charge of cultural programming are men. I say this not to shame anyone for being a man, working with men, or for being successful. I simply say this to point out that among the most exciting, successful, and innovative new projects happening in Chicago, women’s participation is not equal.

Among Chicago’s contemporary music ensembles, 63% of the performers are men.[1] Among music writers with a regular byline in a major publication or radio outlet, 82% are men.[2] At Pitchfork Media, a Chicago-based publication which is increasingly paying attention to “indie-classical” artists, only 6 of the 40 staff writers are women. (Though two-thirds of the interns are female.)

Lest it seem that I am pointing the finger at other organizations, let’s look at one of my own. During a recent meeting of Parlour Tapes—a new Chicago record label I’m part of—we were assembling the list of contributors to our October compilation release. As we surveyed the list, we realized that more than 75 percent of the invited artists were men. We didn’t intend our first release to have such a gender imbalance—it had just happened.  How could our team—which includes two women and two men—have missed that?

As I reflect on the problems mentioned above, I think of those women in our community who are highly visible leaders. Melissa Snoza of Fifth House Ensemble was a huge role model for me when I founded my own ensemble. Composer and aperiodic director Nomi Epstein consistently innovates. And of course, Chicago continues to feel the profound influence of MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase, years after she moved to New York. However, we should view these women not as proof that “there’s no problem here,” but as having achieved success in spite of the challenges they face. As Limor Tomer put it at the Chamber Music America conference in New York this year, “In the phrase ‘old boys network,’ the operative word is network.” In contemporary music, as in most fields, networking is power. Despite admirable achievements from outstanding musical women in Chicago, the fact remains that women often aren’t making it onto “power lists”—whether informal or in print. The men in our community have been far more successful in amassing social capital and using it to advance their musical careers.
Why is this the case? Why aren’t more women being recognized for visionary artistic leadership in Chicago’s contemporary music scene—and why aren’t more women providing that visionary leadership in the first place?

As it turns out, the research Sandberg discusses in Lean In can help us answer these questions.

1. Women musicians, like all women, pay a “likability tax” when they are self-promoting, assertive, and successful.

One of the most important sociological facts Sandberg emphasizes is that success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. A strong body of research demonstrates that if a man has an ambitious, thriving, and successful career, his peers will find him more likable; if a woman has the same kind of career, her peers will find her less likable. Two studies in the Journal of Applied Psychology called this the “penalty for success.” Women artists pay a social tax for their professional achievements that men do not. Women musicians cannot promote themselves in the same way that men do without facing negative consequences in the way they are perceived personally. This is particularly problematic for performing artists, who must cultivate personal connections and an enthusiastic fan base (read: people who like you) in order to survive. Women find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. We shouldn’t be surprised that they might shy away from career developments that would make them, say, Chicagoan of the Year in Music—or that when it comes time to choose, journalists don’t find those women leaders quite as appealing.

2. Women musicians are less likely to embark on high visibility projects, take professional risks, and conceive of themselves as leaders—which leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in developing entrepreneurial careers.

Research in “gender differences in task choice” has demonstrated that, when given the opportunity to choose a more challenging or risky task at work, women were far less likely than men to choose that path. Other research has demonstrated that millennial women are less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as leaders and visionaries. This does not mean, of course, that women cannot take risks and establish visionary careers; it means that, due to gender socialization, they are statistically less likely to even conceive of that as a possibility.


3. Women consistently underestimate their own talents and abilities, leaving them at a disadvantage in the essential realm of self-promotion.

Research in Lean In indicates that even when women and men perform equally well as surgeons, the women are likely to believe that they have performed worse. When it comes time for women artists to announce a new commission, upload a new performance video, or send a press release, how might this chronic devaluation of their abilities affect them?

4. When choosing who to hire, men are significantly more likely to choose a man.

The consulting firm Innovisor found this to be true in more than twenty countries. So in a field where most composers, conductors, curators, music writers, and “visionaries” are men, the situation of a mostly male circle of influencers is likely to perpetuate itself.

5. Similarly, senior men are more likely to mentor young men than young women.

Sandberg, drawing on research from the Journal of Vocational Behavior, notes that “mentoring relationships often form when the younger person reminds the more senior person of themselves. This means that men will often gravitate towards sponsoring younger men, with whom they connect more naturally. Since there are so many more men at the top of every industry, the proverbial old-boy network continues to flourish.” This means that fewer women musicians are being sponsored and mentored by influential, senior men in their field.

Having a mentor relationship misperceived as a romantic or sexual relationship is also a problem. Research in The Sponsor Effect shows that 64% of high-ranking executive men are hesitant to have a meeting with a more junior woman, and half of junior women avoided close contact with senior men. This means that in crucial social settings, like post-concert beers or a brainstorming coffee date, young women are less comfortable seeking out mentorship that could yield enormous professional dividends in the early stages of their careers.

6. Women are taught from an early age to worry about whether they can have children and a career.

Five years before I had my first real boyfriend, my violin teacher was talking to me about balancing work and family life. Let’s face it: this seed of anxiety was never planted in the minds of my male colleagues. Sandberg cites research which shows that in two Princeton University studies—one conducted in 1974, one in 2006—there was a dramatic disparity between male and female students’ perceptions of whether work and family would be a conflict for them. In both studies, twice as many women foresaw this as a problem. This inner worry, Sandberg claims, means that women who want families “lean back” from their careers rather than leaning in.


I bring these findings, and my own experiences and observations, forward for three very important reasons:

1. I believe that women rarely get the opportunity to discuss the psychological and emotional limitations that gender socialization has created within them. While I know some of Sandberg’s research is deeply discouraging, my hope is that it can also serve as a point of inspiration. I hope that some of my female peers will recognize themselves in these words, and be encouraged to push through inevitable feelings of self-doubt and fear. My hope is that every woman can become the composer, performer, writer, curator, and art-shaper that she dreams of becoming.

2. I believe that many men are not aware of these issues, because their life experience has not required them to be. Men may feel helpless when learning about this research; they may find themselves feeling defensive or skeptical. But I also believe that my male colleagues care deeply about equality and want a thriving musical ecosystem where all voices can be heard. By examining their personal lives, their beliefs, and the practices of their ensembles and organizations, I believe men can become essential allies in acknowledging women’s unique challenges and encouraging them to live up to their full potential.

3. As a woman writer and musician who has benefited from the encouragement and mentorship of countless men and women in the Chicago scene, I am in a position of relative privilege. As I read Lean In and realized how powerful its findings are, I came to feel that I had a responsibility to share what I had learned. My hope is that this article will generate a discussion that acknowledges that we have a problem—and that we all share the responsibility to make it better.

1.Ensembles counted: Palomar, Anubis Quartet, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Chicago Q, Dal Niente, eighth blackbird, Fifth House, Fulcrum Point, Gaudete Brass, ICE, Maverick, Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, and Fonema Consort.

2.Media outlets included: Tribune, Sun-Times, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago magazine, and the Chicago Reader.