With “Women In History” month, it’s a great time to highlight the inspiring role of women throughout music history. Part of that is highlighting how the role of women in music changed, the female composers who made an impact well beyond their music & how to teach that to your students.
A little education history
Growing up, I learnt very little (if anything) about female composers. And this had nothing to do with a lack in education. It honestly just didn’t occur to the traditional system to focus on this area of music history. However, there are compelling reasons to include female composers that go beyond, “Because we should.”
We have made great strides as a society to find those gaps in learning. Not just with women. But, with so many groups of individuals. My hope is we continue to find those gaps. Because the truth is … we still have them.
As an educator, this can be overwhelming. My hope is that, like me, you enter into this with a spirit of learning … understanding that it’s always an unfinished lesson (hence the name of this site).
I’ve learnt over the years, with both my students & my own kids that their worldview is so much different than mine was at that age. Explaining how the role of women in music changed isn’t as easy as filling out the 5W’s (who, what, where, when, why).
Finding out student questions makes music history come alive for them. Figuring out how to share these facts can be the tricky part.
First female composers
Who was the first woman in music history? Yes, this is an actual question in Google. And, it’s a tough one to answer because history hasn’t always highlighted women.
However, we can go back to Pre-Medieval & Medieval records. Kassia is one of the earliest know female composers who lived from 810 – 867. What is incredible is that some of the Pre-Medieval hymns she wrote are still sung today during liturgies! Saint Hildegard is probably one of the best known composers from Medieval times because she has the most surviving chants from any other composer of the time.
Women have made a lasting impact on history. Not just in stuffy old books, but in ways that are still used today. When women during Pre-Medieval & Medieval times became involved in music, it was often in a religious context. This isn’t surprising since one of the few accepted roles of women in society was becoming part of the church as an abbess or nun.
A few of the questions I’ve asked my students are:
- When you are writing or playing a song, what do you want others to feel or imagine?
- What did you like about this cover or recording of [song title]? How can you add it into your own playing?
- What interested you about this composer or song?
In this day & age where students have a digital record of their lives, helping them see they can impact how others see them is important. The recordings they do for recitals. The inspiration they take from songs they listen to. The things they share about what they are learning. There may be a public record of much of it.
I highly doubt Kassia or Saint Hildegard were thinking about religious services nearly a millennia in the future. They were creating music that would best serve their community in that moment. Because of that, those songs have lasted in ways they never could have imagined.
Changing accepted roles
Heading into the Baroque & Romantic eras, women started to have more professional opportunities to create music outside of the church.
Both Barbara Strozzi & Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre had professional careers during the Baroque era. They both had supportive families. Strozzi’s father actively helped her get publicity. This meant she could support herself by publishing her music & she was one of the most prolific composers at the time (man or woman). De La Guerre both taught & performed in Paris which became the source of her fame. She was able to use her influence as a teacher & performer to inspire those around her.
Women’s role in music in the 19th century continued to change.
For students who are interested in learning about gender inequality, Louse Farrenc is the one to look to. The history of sexism in the music industry isn’t new. During the Romantic era, Farrenc was paid less than her male coworkers at the Piano Conservatoire … until she pushed to bridge that pay gap.
Of course, Fanny Mendelssohn & Clara Schumann have to make the list. Both women overcame personal struggles to become the powerhouse women we admire today. Clara Schumann, in particular, had a lasting impact on the music her male counterparts composed.
Like Clara, Chiquinha Gonzaga was a massive influence on composers of her time (both men & women). She founded The Brazilian Society of Theatrical Authors which focused on copyright protection for artists. And much of the money she made selling her music went towards efforts to abolish slavery.
Who is the most influential woman in music? It’s hard to say. Each of the women I’ve discovered brought something unique.
We all wonder at times about our place in this world. Life is every changing & the roles we play change along with it.
Some questions to ask your students are:
- How can you set aside time outside of your personal responsibilities to play & listen to music?
- What type of music will fit your goals right now?
- If you have a cause you are passionate about, how can playing music help support that?
- If you have children, how can you share what you are playing & learning with them?
When my kids come home from school, I ask them about their day. Thankfully, they still share a lot. Even if it usually has nothing to do with school subjects.
There’s another side of that. They ask me how my day was & I share interesting things I learnt, projects I’m excited about or challenges I overcame. As a mom, I want my sons to have a good female role model that inspires them into adulthood.
Even though we are interested in vastly different things, it’s the sharing that bonds us. And, it gives them insight into how they can make something they are passionate a career. Or, if not a career, a stress relief from those pesky chores.
With your students, talk about those things they hold dear. Even if they have nothing to do with music. Playing music by a composer that shares the same causes can be incredibly powerful. Plus, practice time goes so much faster when you feel a connection with what you’re playing.
An era of firsts
The 20th century continued to show how the role of women in music changed & what challenges still stayed the same. I found it inspiring to see what influenced & drove the female composers of this era.
Women like Dame Ethel Smyth & Undine Smith Moore continued the fight for equality. Smyth focused on the suffrage movement while Smith Moore focused on race equality.
There were many firsts in this era. It wasn’t common at the time for women to get large-scale works published, however Amy Beach was a first in this category. Florence Price was the first African-American female composer to have a song performed by a major American orchestra. And, Lili Boulanger was the first female winner of the “Prix de Rome”.
Germaine Tailleferre was the only female member of Les Six. Can you imagine the influence she may have had on the other male composers in the group? And while Myriam Marbé had the chance to become a professor, she chose to stick to her beliefs & turned down the teaching position since it required joining a political party she didn’t agree with.
As students look at composers closer to their own era, it can be easier to see those connections. But, I’ve also had students call music from the 90’s & early 2000’s “oldies music”. Since it will be one day in the not too distant future, I guess I can’t complain.
Some questions or thoughts for your students are:
- What are the ideals or beliefs you have? How does the music you listen to or play relate to that?
- What limiting beliefs can you break?
- What audacious goal do you want to accomplish? How can we work on that during lessons?
- What groups can you join that will support & build you up? How can you support & build them up?
While you may be tempted to stick with just teaching your instrument, I would encourage you to support your students in overcoming limiting beliefs regardless of what they are. Oftentimes these beliefs don’t just affect one area of life. They affect them all.
Do obstacles still exist?
Looking at female composers now it might be easy to think the obstacles previous generations went through don’t exist. However, there will always be obstacles. It’s one of the big things I’ve learn through entrepreneurship … & parenthood. But, I do believe that 21st century women are building on the progress made by those who came before us. Regardless of the industry.
There are women who push the boundaries of instruments. Keiko Abe was instrumental in the development of the 5-octave concert marimba; which has become the standard for orchestras. She pushed the boundaries of what ‘could’ be played on the instrument which made this possible. Back in the 1980’s, Kaija Saariaho developed techniques for composing with computers. The range of genres she has composed shows she is a lifelong learner & explorer.
Some women continue to challenge the ideas & status quo of what women or artists can do. While Lizzo has focused on self-love as her message, she has also proven that a classically trained musician who doesn’t fit the pop-starlet image can have huge success in a notoriously mercurial industry. Taylor Swift, while very different from Lizzo, has also challenged the industry. Her push for composers retaining more music rights when working with record labels has helped paved the way for countless other artists. And, more recently (as of writing this article), her fans helped push for a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to look into antitrust practices with ticket sales. Who would have thought pop fans would have that much power?
Many of the questions in the previous sections still work very well for more recent female composers. Perhaps the biggest change in this era isn’t so much whether women can be successful artists in their own right, but the impact they are having on the industry as a whole. The role of women in music changed from gender to an impact on politics, might not always play as much of a role … at least from society’s perspective.
Some teaching questions or ideas are:
- How can you bring your personality/interests into the music you choose & how you play it?
- What artists inspire you (both musically & in life)? How can you use that inspiration to become the person you want to be?
- What “norms” do you think need to change? How can you challenge them in a positive way through music?
This can be as simple as looking at song lyrics for inspiration. What do those lyrics sound like when you play them? Are you matching up with the mood & message within the song? And, it can be as complex as looking into the career of an artist & seeing what your student can do in their own musical career.
I’ve been so inspired by the dedication several of my students have in making the world a better place. It can be through volunteer work, the social media posts they choose to share, the extra-curricular activities or course work they do. When given the option to play music that supports those causes or by artists they admire, they get a deeper connection with piano.
The role of women in music changed
I hope you have been inspired as you read through this brief look through music history. The teaching ideas & questions are meant to go beyond the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why). I’ve long believed that we forget a lot of the memorization, but we never forget the life lessons learnt.
Students should apply & integrate what they are learning in piano (or other instrument) lessons to their general life. Otherwise, it just becomes yet another extra-curricular activity that can be easily dropped.
Which is your favourite teaching idea about how the role of women in music changed?
- The change from societal roles to female composers pushing for industry change.
- Music can be used in many ways to support causes that can leave a lasting impact.
- Strategies for overcoming life’s obstacles through the music listened to or played.
- Helping students overcome limiting beliefs that impact every aspect of life.
- Using your lesson time to go beyond the instrument into the topics that are unique to each student.
Let me know in the comments below!
Activity to easily add music history
One of my favourite ways to introduce new music & styles to my students is through digital escape rooms. They’re short, cover basic musical terms & concepts. And, most importantly are a low-commitment way for students to explore a new artist or genre. Students that might baulk at learning to play a new song over a few weeks will be happy spending 5 – 10 minutes with that same genre or artist.
If you would like to have a do-for-you, no marking option, get “Travel Through Time: Women In Music“. Whether you choose one of the FOUR musical eras or the whole bundle, your students will explore 5 – 7 female composers.