Gender imbalances in the performing arts (part 2 of 2)

Home S&S Features Gender imbalances in the performing arts (part 2 of 2)

(This article discusses the gender imbalances in orchestra and band. Part 1 focused on the imbalance in theater, dance, and choir.)

Trombonist Abbie Conant was hired through blind auditions (in which the musician plays behind a screen to avoid discrimination) by the Munich Philharmonic in 1980. She was appointed the principal solo position. However, once the conductor discovered that she was a woman, he attempted to revoke his decision. Although there were no complaints to her playing, she was later demoted to second trombone and the conductor only said, “You know the problem: we need a man for solo trombone.”

This discrimination is still prevalent in professional orchestras across the world. Orchestras were traditionally all male. “Up until very recently (middle of the 1900s), orchestras were made up entirely of men. Women were not allowed to even audition and once they were, they rarely got the position,” said Mr. Corey Heddon (Visual and Performing Arts Dept.), University High School (UHS)’s band director.

The previous article explained that women became more involved with the arts during the 19th century, eventually leading to the association of femininity and dance as well as choir. Women began learning orchestral instruments during this time. Previously, musical education was essential to upper and middle class women, but they were never expected to perform in public, let alone become professional musicians.

When American symphonies were formed in the late 19th century, they hired only men. Women were forced to create a separate institution, “Ladies’ Orchestras”, in order to pursue musical careers. Although women showed their skill and ability in playing major repertoire through these women’s orchestras, major orchestras were still segregated.

When orchestras began hiring women in the 1920s, they mostly hired female string players. Smaller orchestras with smaller budgets hired more women for their affordability; this trend is still present today. Orchestras with budgets under $1.3 million tend to be at least 50% female while larger orchestras have only 30%.

It was only after World War II that major orchestras hired more women due to the absence of men and the implementation of blind auditions. Studies have shown that the likelihood of a woman progressing beyond the preliminary round of auditions increases by 50% in a blind audition. However, as shown in the case of Abbie Conant, auditioning blind does not remove all discrimination. In other orchestras around the world, especially in Europe, discrimination against women is more prevalent: the Vienna Philharmonic did not begin hiring women until 1997.

Iona Batchelder (So.), a cellist in the American Youth Symphony, said, “The world of classical music has, up until very recently, been widely dominated by men–performers, conductors, and teachers. There were doubts as to how women could fare in the world of classical music similar to doubts of the early 20th century how women could fit into any previously male-inundated profession. It took several individuals such as Midori and Jacqueline du Pre (just to name two well known ones) to change people’s minds.”

However, the balance in high school orchestras and UHS’s orchestra in particular is much more even than that in professional orchestras.

The orchestras tend to have almost perfectly even balances (24 girls to 20 boys in String Orchestra, 26 girls to 25 boys in Concert and an even 38 to 38 in Symphony). The bands are the only performing arts at UHS to have more male members (16 girls to 27 boys in Concert Band, 18 girls to 26 boys in Symphonic Band, 23 girls to 28 boys in Wind Ensemble and 52 girls to 75 boys in Marching Band).

While more boys are enrolled in band, leadership positions are quite even. Heddon said, “Each of the last three years, there has been a male and a female drum major – which is voted on by the students (two years ago it was two females and one male). In the last 5 years, more than 50% of the Band Executive Council positions have been held by females. In the last 3 years, more than 50% of the section leaders have also been female. In terms of talent that I see in my classroom, the numbers are very similar. Girls are just as talented as the boys. When you look at our program, there is no real bias with how students are treated. Young ladies have the same opportunity and success rate as the gentlemen.”

The amount of balance at UHS may be a special case. Other high schools across the nation have largely male orchestras though California’s All-State Orchestra (with both string and wind players) had almost a 50-50 balance. Many bands are more male-dominant than UHS’, including this year’s All-State Band with 88 girls to 175 boys.

“When I go to music camps, All-States and other orchestras, there’s a pretty even spread of girls and guys,” said Sarah Sukardi (Sr.)

Furthermore, trends concerning instrumentation and gender include more girls playing smaller, higher instruments (e.g. flute and violin) and more boys playing larger, lower instruments (low brass, string bass).

“There’s a stereotype that flutes are girls,” said Kevin Ho (So.) “It might’ve begun with the idea that because flutes are light, girls are better off playing that than something hefty, which brings up the stereotype of women being weak.”

However, this societal misconception is erroneous. There is no physiological evidence to show that females are less able to play larger instruments or that males are less able to play smaller instruments.

Heddon said, “I’ve heard that parents will tell their children, who are of a slighter build, ‘You’re not strong enough to play that big instrument.’ Ridiculous. We, as human beings, all have similar breathing capacities, and thus can play any instrument.”

Then why is this trend present?

“I’ve noticed that as the size of the instrument increases so does the male-ness of the section, probably a case of equating size and lower tone with ‘male-ness’”, said Sukardi.

It does seem that the lower instruments are thought of as more masculine than the higher instruments. Sarah Lee (Sr.), the only female trombonist in Wind Ensemble, said, “The trombone and tuba are significantly larger than the flute, a popular choice among girls, and significantly lower in pitch as well. They make really loud noises that sometimes don’t sound pretty while flutes mostly sound really pretty. I think that from a young age girls and boys are directed towards two ‘roads’ of entertainment. Mostly girls turn to the pink, sparkly, glittery world of Disney princesses or Barbies and such while boys turn to the total opposite road. So it’s difficult to undo that process that we’ve been thinking of in our heads.”

“I think the current gender imbalances definitely reflect older, sexist views, in that the larger instruments are reserved for boys because they’re supposedly manlier and tougher; this standard usually goes against them if they want to play smaller, and therefore ‘girlier’ instruments,” said Megha Torpunuri (So.), a bassist.

However, though these stereotypes and trends are present at the high school level, the overall balance is significantly better than that in professional orchestras and bands. Because classical music is entrenched in centuries of tradition, it may take more time to achieve gender equality. However, with more balanced high school level orchestras and bands, perhaps the professional world will slowly begin to shift towards equality.

Written by ELYSIA OUYANG
Staff Writer

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