Thursday, March 31, 2016

GENDER & CLASSICAL MUSIC – some interesting questions from a university student

Once or twice every year, I get interviewed by high school or university students and I find that they ask very relevant questions.  I have decided to post the questions and my hasty answers as they cause me to reflect on areas that I have chosen to forget or ignore.

In the past, these are the kind of questions that we (women and musicians generally) would answer in neutral and veiled terms, and while I hope that I've honestly avoided that, it becomes second nature as we try to protect ourselves from being seen as troublesome.  It is time for classical musicians to be more candid, if only to make our stories more interesting.  And also to explain some of the weirdness and occasional inability of classical groups to thrive.  Even the effort to share our experiences candidly gives us experience in expressing our uniqueness.

And at my solo concerts, I always encourage audience members and students to ask me questions and these candid questions offer some examples of what might be really interesting to know about based on my long and varied career in classical music.

I have another interview to post, with more general questions about my life, from a high school student, which I will post in the coming days.
Meanwhile, here are some good questions that might give rise to others.

First, my preamble to the interviewer before I get to the questions:
 Dear University Bassoon Student-whose-identity-I-wish-to-protect-though-it-might-not-be-strictly-necessary,

Your questions are very good, yet somehow I cannot give you the answers that you are looking for and that, in fact, I would like to give.  When we talk about straight numbers (comparing numbers of men and women) and circumstance, these are elements that were part of the air I breathed during the early days of my orchestral career… it never occurred to me to assess and compare them at the time. It never occurred to me to dig deep and find out exactly how my pay related to the pay of the men around me. It never occurred to me to carefully and appraisingly read the terms of my contract and to understand that sometimes conditions are worth more than dollars. So, my answers reflect my strong, personal attitude of equal opportunity, given to me partly by my outdoor upbringing with amazing parents, but I think the reality was, and still is, stacked against women.  It is part of a deep cultural problem that we are barely beginning to acknowledge.

Thank you very much for making me think again about these things,
March 22, 2016

What time frame were you at Curtis Institute of Music?
September 1978 to May 1981

What would you say the numbers of women and men were at Curtis, in the bassoon studio, in faculty, in the general student body? Generally more men than women, or about equal?

It seemed equal to me, but of course it wasn’t.  In the teaching faculty, there was a female piano teacher for the hotshots and of course the brilliant harp teacher…. and another female smart piano teacher one for the super lame beginner piano students (i.e. me…we all had to take piano if we didn’t come with skills) and she suffered trying to teach kids who wanted to be elsewhere!  Otherwise, all teachers and conductors were men (seemed normal at the time, but of course, we know now that it indicates that few women had a shot in the generation before ours)… in the bassoon studio, there were 3 women and 4 men over the four year period (only one year where the two women were in class at the same time ---all of the students got orchestral jobs in orchestras of varying sizes).  The student body at large seemed to have many female string players and woodwind players, no brass except horn; of the administrative staff, the scheduling coordinator and head librarian were women; directors were always men as far as I know.

What was your experience like as a woman at Curtis? Positive,negative? Any specific moments come to mind?

Positive, though I confess that I had a headache for 4 years.  It was a huge jump, going from the forests of BC to the heart of Philadelphia.  My bassoon teachers were the souls of equality even though they were from another time in history… Bernard Garfield did encourage me to go with one of his sons to a baseball game but it was pleasant and only slightly awkward and I never saw him again after that (I don’t care for spectator sports and had little to say to the nerdy boy who went on to become a doctor!).  Sol Schoenbach became a lifelong friend and was a great source of wisdom and egalitarian exchanges.  I invited him to teach with me one summer at Domain Forget and it was wonderful.  One of the most lasting pieces of advice that Sol gave me was to not get caught up in the drama of relationships, instead, to devote myself to my work, and let the other stuff follow.  I still think this was superb advice to give an ambitious young woman and I wish I had completely followed it.  He also completely believed in me, which was powerfully motivating.  I still carry one of his letters in my bassoon case.

Did you experience any negative feedback as a musician and performer because you were a woman?

I felt that I was treated like an equal at Curtis, meaning that we all had our butts whipped all the time, particularly and memorably by the oboe teacher/director John deLancie; the general standard was very high and we all pushed for the best with sometimes elevated levels of tension, but I never marginalized for being a girl.
In the professional world, I am not sure what to say… when I was young, I had to spend a lot of time fielding amorous advances that seem like a great waste of time now when I look back, particularly when I would become so attached a boy that I would decline to take auditions for fear of leaving the town where the boyfriend was located… imagine so stupid!  As I got older, my outspokenness and propensity for solo work made me less popular… these things are also virtues and give me a body of work that is valuable and lasting.  It does seem that women still have to choose career or family and that is the subject for a longer discussion, particularly one that would include a discussion of children and division of household labour in connection with a performing career.

When you were applying for your first orchestral position, how many jobs did you apply to (approximately)? Did you feel at all intimidated to apply for jobs in more male dominated orchestras?

I absolutely didn’t feel any intimidation about male-dominated orchestras… it simply didn’t enter my mind.  I had the usual young-person insecurities about my potential as a player but that didn’t stop me from auditioning… I have always been ambitious and brave despite any fears or anxieties, and completely confident that I could grow into any job.
When I was in my last year of school, I auditioned for co-principal in Mexico (got it but didn’t go); principal somewhere-in-Ohio (went to second round); principal in Jerusalem (went to second round); second in Philadelphia (went to second round); second in Montreal (got it).  I was definitely uncomfortable during the audition for Mexico as the conductor walked around me while I was playing.  Those were the old days!  Overall in my career, I have taken only about 20 orchestral auditions and have advanced in 11 and won 3 (principal of Canadian Opera Company 1990, second in Montreal Symphony 1981 and associate principal in Mexico State Orchestra 1981) and I am the appointed principal of group of 27.

Did you hear back from all of these orchestras you applied to? If not, how many, approximately? If you didn't hear back from all, did you feel like this was simply because you were a woman?

I went to the auditions, either placed, won or didn’t and left.  It was only later in my career that I sometimes had a hard time to get an audition, which meant that sometimes an application for an audition went unanswered.  There was a period when Canadian musicians had a harder time getting auditions in the States, or when second players (which I was in Montreal) were not invited to audition for principal positions (ridiculous).
Once I advanced in Atlanta, and was told that the personnel manager would call, and he never did… that was in the late ‘80’s so who knows; I cared at the time but I don’t now.

In one of my resources, I read that Judith Leclair was able to audition for the New York Philharmonic because she had been recommended by her male teacher, David Van Hoesen, at Eastman. Did you ever have any type of similar experiences?

You should ask Judy directly.  That was common practice in the last century for both men and women until about the time of Judy’s audition and I remember my old teacher, Sol Schoenbach, being very proud to have also been part of the team of supporters who managed to get her an audition.   In the generations before mine, that was how most people got auditions.  While I never had a similar experience (that I know of!), I must point out that it still exists today; the recent Toronto Symphony associate principal auditions were by invitation only… the fabulous young woman and great bassoonist who won the job must have been recommended by her teachers since she is 23 and this is her first job; you should ask her!
Were blind auditions common when you were auditioning for orchestras?
Yes.  The exceptions were the finals in Philadelphia, Mexico, Jerusalem (first rounds were always screened).

What was the male/female ratio like when you joined Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal?

I dunno, maybe one third women, or  more.  They would have that statistic in the archives.  There were lots of women because all levels of the auditions were screened.

Did you ever feel uncomfortable working in the orchestra because you were a woman?

Nope. Not at all.  Not even when I was wearing full, custom-tailored tails. But I may have been held back from advancing because of it.  This is all stuff that is hidden in plain view… as a hardworking young woman, it didn’t occur to me then, but it would now.  There are patronizing assumptions made about women when they want to advance in the profession (will they stay, will they have kids etc).  Just before I left Montreal, I auditioned repeatedly for the principal position, and amusingly was granted the “acting principal” (or was it associate principal?) chair right at the time I got injured and took disability leave.

I read that early concert halls didn't have separate dressing rooms for men and women since most orchestras were made of men. Did you ever face an awkward situation because of this?

The women’s dressing room in the Montreal Symphony of my decade was smaller and quite crowded… we laughed about it and many of us came dressed to the hall, choosing to change at home because of lack of space… that was probably fixed in the years since I left! And usually, when touring, if we had any awkward situations with a lack of space, the men would always defer to the women, but I cannot think of an example at the moment. 

The male to female ratio in orchestras have improved over time. Do you feel like there is still room to grow?

It’s not about numbers but it is very much about opportunity.  Women need opportunities… I was not invited to audition for the recent Toronto Symphony associate principal, and while I LOVE the woman that they hired and completely support her, I would have appreciated the opportunity to audition… this is how we grow! 

If a man had a position in an orchestra that a woman later took over (or vice versa), do you think there would be any change in pay or any sort of wage gap? Was there a time where this was normal?

No idea!  This information is rarely shared.  I certainly was the lowest paid member of the bassoon section when I was in the Montreal Symphony AND I was the only wind player who did not have an associate (i.e. fourth player) to spell me off on occasion.  The management had the power to impose conditions on me that I could have fought if I had realized soon enough (always read your contracts!)
Again, I had my head down, was practicing and making reeds and not really thinking about how to get a fair deal since I felt that I had the strength of 10 and could handle anything!

Do you think Canada/US is ahead of Europe in the equality of women and men musicians? What was it like during your time in Montreal? Or earlier?

Don’t really know since I never think about orchestras these days, except as collaborators!  I think that North America is definitely ahead of orchestras like Vienna and other bands that didn’t hire women until recently. There are many good books  these days on the subject… one that comes to mind is Women Performing Music by Beth Abelson Macleod … she has some of the player statistics you are looking for!

I’ve answered your questions in a way that will make you think that I believe men and women are treated equally in the symphonic world; but in fact, I don’t think they were when I was young. I have blocked that out of my mind these days, and have moved onto the bigger question of how to keep our music alive and available to audiences. I will keep thinking about your questions and I encourage you to send more questions if you think of other things to ask about!


Photo of NMJ as a young orchestral bassoonist (1986, Montreal)
This was my second pro photo shoot and what a docile gentle creature I appear to be!  dressed in the clothes of a stylist (shudder).
This is a place holder until I can dig out the photo of Nigel Kennedy, pointing at me with my full set of custom-tailored tails.

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