“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Madeleine K. Albright
March is Women’s History Month, so forgive me if I rant a bit this week. This is a month when we in the arts feature women composers on concerts, ballet companies feature women choreographers (there is a ballet company out there who thought male choreographers creating dances honoring women—danced by male dancers—would be an okay observance—NOT!) and women visual artists and women conductors are highlighted. We do this so we are able to not program women composers regularly or have a woman conductor for our ensemble for the other eleven months, right? Because women artists and musicians are not part of the standard canon and we have to do something to show we know about them, right?
It is so great. It is so wonderful. It is all so very nice, dear, that you nice men have decided to feature women this month. Yeah, but watch out! From now on, one month a year to pay some sort of lip service to women and their contributions to the arts (and every field) may not be enough. The younger women coming up will no longer tolerate it and I say brava, my dear girls!
Things are a bit better than when I was a music student and certainly better than when my late mother was a music student. Mom was a coloratura soprano—easier than being a woman conductor, she told me—but once she had more than one child, it was difficult to be respected, no matter how lovely her voice was. We haven’t made much progress, really, when you realize we STILL do not have the choices our male counterparts have always had.
Did you ever think about what women have to go through to be able create their art? Think about support from family, friends and colleagues of the women who came before us. Or, more likely, DIDN’T have. The hopes of a family of your own dashed because there was NO WAY to be a wife and mother if you composed music and if you did anyway, your music career never took off. You can’t be a serious musician if you are married, you can’t be a serious musician if you have children, and you can’t be serious if you have the audacity to attempt to budge in to an all-male profession. Think about the numbers of composers and conductors told to do something else because girls don’t compose or conduct and STILL DID IT ANYWAY. Training aside; it’s tough being a woman in classical music.
When I was in school, if there was a rehearsal or performance or something a teacher thought I should attend, I broke my neck to get there. I conducted with a pen or a pencil while commuting back and forth on a CTA bus or an El train so my beat patterns were effortless (I’m sure people thought I was crazy!). I did research about composers I was conducting before my first conducting teacher asked me to. I thrived in Form and Analysis because it made so much sense to know the form of a piece to rehearse it more effectively. If one of the conductors I sang or studied with needed help collating music, or setting up chairs or taking attendance or anything menial, I did it so I could understand all aspects of the job. My teachers respected and even considered me a good conductor, but I was still just a girl.
I always feel I have to explain myself, be better than my male counterparts and not just musically. If there is a deadline for something, I am early. I follow through, am prepared and often do much more than expected. I am clear, bordering on neurotic, with instructions so my choirs always understand what is going on with the mechanics of concerts and rehearsal schedules. I think, in some ways, I am afraid if I am not efficient or prepared or on time or don’t follow through, it will be blamed on my gender. I probably over compensate because of that fear, but it’s gotten me the reputation of being a good music director.
I am told when I am wearing my civilian clothes, I don’t look like a conductor. I look like many middle-aged women and when I have a chance to NOT wear black, I don’t. And even when I am wearing my concert black, some person will tell me I don’t look like a conductor. Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking them what a conductor should look like. Most people are taken aback when I say that! And when they don’t have an answer for me, I respond, “I can tell you what a conductor looks like. She looks like me!”