Saturday, 10 November 2012

Why no female conductors?

I play the violin in an amateur orchestra, and we’re currently on the hunt for a new conductor. We’re going through an interesting process of having lots of different guest conductors take our rehearsals and concerts. Suggestions of conductors come from the orchestra. But all of the candidates on the list so far are men. Why aren’t there any women? Where are they all?

Like many amateur orchestras, we employ professional conductors and soloists for our concerts. In the past ten years, playing with three amateur orchestras and many conductors, I have encountered one lone female, Katherine Dienes, then Musical Director at St Mary’s Church in Warwick, who has since gone on to bigger things becoming, her biog says, 'the first woman to hold the most senior musical post in a Church of England cathedral'. Go Katherine.

Does my bum look big?

The conductor will have his/her back to the audience, so if you are sensitive about large numbers of people scrutinising you from this view, it might not be the career for you. That said, black is quite a flattering colour. And the aerobic arm movements could do wonders for your bingo wings.

Antisocial hours

On a more sensible note, the classical music industry (like the wider music industry) is not exactly family friendly, with performances almost exclusively taking place in the evenings. Professional soloists or conductors working with amateur orchestras have the added grind that all rehearsals must also take place outside normal working hours, once us players have finished our day jobs. But most of our concerts involve at least one professional soloist, and these are a good mix of men and women. If there are female soloists, why are there so few conductors?

Power and pressure

I wondered if it was something to do with the way women and conductors are perceived. The conductor is in a position of power. He or she sets the pace, brings his or her interpretation to the piece and keeps the orchestra together. The conductor runs orchestra rehearsals in the same way that a director runs theatre rehearsals. They tell us to shut up if we’re talking or playing too loudly, and they make us go back and do it all again if, in their view, we haven’t done it well enough (quite like a teacher).

It's the conductor's responsibility to keep everything together during the concert. There is a lot of pressure on them, particularly shortly before the concert when it invariably looks like it's going to go wrong. So it's a pretty stressful job, but lots of women do stressful jobs. And there are plenty of female music teachers conducting school orchestras. So if women regularly do this from the classroom, what is keeping them off the professional podium?

Marin Alsop conductingA touch of Googling reveals a scattering of female heavyweight conductors, including Marin Alsop (USA, pictured) and Julia Jones (UK), but they are a rarity. Jones points to this being a peculiarly British problem, saying: “There are far fewer women conductors in Britain than in the rest of Europe: I know at least 20 young female conductors, but not one of them is British" (Guardian, 2010).

Increasing numbers of female directors are breaking through in the theatre world, the traditionally male-dominated arena of comedy has been well and truly infiltrated. But it looks like the world of conducting might be one of the last all-male bastions of the arts. I'm hoping we will see a few women on the podium soon.

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