March is “Women in History” month & as I was researching women in music history it was absolutely fascinating. There is a lot of fantastic music out there by both men & women (plus those that don’t identify with either gender). So, why should we specifically include women composers in our repertoire rather than just looking for great music? The quick answer is that it’s too easy to fall into routines, mindset patterns or even ignore our blindspots (which since we are “blind” to them is understandable).
Students need role models
Developmentally children go through stages when they tend to gravitate more towards a particular parent or mentor. When our twins were younger, they went through a stage where they were highly protective & would glare at any male that dared enter the house. From the safety of behind my legs, of course. Thankfully, the delivery people & others handled it well. This was followed by a stage where ‘Mommy’ was to blame for everything. Daddy could do no wrong & Mommy … well, Mommy was just a ‘girl’. Even with my husband doing his best to point out why this wasn’t the case, I was so relieved when this stage ended.
Fast-forward to now & while adolescence has the boys looking towards their dad (same gender), they also see me as a strong female role model of what is possible for women to achieve. Not only can women play video games, but we can run our own businesses, present at conferences, & write music. Plus, I had to smile when one of my sons excitedly informed me he had found my (promo) picture online when working on a school project.
Our students need musical role models that they can relate to. And, that changes over the course of their development.
When we make a point to include women composers, we make a point of increasing the diversity within our studios. And, we let our students know we care enough to give them role models they can aspire to.
An under-represented musical canon
I have a feeling this statement will resonate with a lot of teachers. Growing up, I rarely (if ever) played music by female composers. Having said that, we weren’t having a widespread conversation about diversity & what that looks like in music either. My piano teachers taught me amazing music & built a love of piano playing that continues decades later. That’s nothing to scoff at. It’s something to celebrate!
But, when I look at the women composers my students have easy access to in method books or online, it’s hard not to feel a little jealous.
While great strides have been made to close the gender gap in the repertoire, there is still an overwhelming number that does not include music history’s female composers.
Have you noticed that the majority of women composers shown in method books are from the mid-to-late 20th century to now? As an industry, we are working towards closing this gap. But, unless we make a point to include women composers from each musical era this gap will persist.
Lack of diversity in public performances
There is something about going to the theatre. Dressing up (though it’s not always required), hearing the symphony or orchestra warming up, & listening to live music with incredible acoustics makes for a wonderful way to spend a few hours. At least in my humble opinion.
But when I think about the composers that I’ve heard, it’s been all male. That isn’t to say that there might not have been works by female composers. Sadly, I hadn’t thought about specifically seeking out those performances & so I wasn’t aware of them if they were even there.
The statistics support this unfortunate story. The number of pieces performed by major orchestras in the U.S. ranges from 0% – 13%, depending on the year. (Read NPR’s interview with Jennifer Higdon to find out why this is.) The years that orchestras have only men composers featured can be due to many reasons, but there is one likely reason. They didn’t make a conscious point of including women composers on the roster. Or, composers of colour or composers that are just starting out or … the list goes on. See how easy it is to forget?
There is a reason why students look to modern music for role models. It’s not just the sound of the music. It’s the ease in which they can find performances (both live & online) to people that look & sound like the people they want to become.
When I stream music, it’s great to hear the sheer number of not only female musicians, but female composers! While I may not like everything I hear, gender equality is much closer than when I listen to classical music. Unless I make a point of searching out classical women composers. The same holds for our students.
An easy way to include women composers
Part of encouraging diversity in our studios is giving students access to the musical role models that best represent the person they aspire to become. And, that means including a wide variety of music & music history beyond the original classical canon.
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