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Looking Beyond Gender

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When I first meet someone and they find out that I’m studying music, their next question is usually, “What instrument do you play?” To this I respond, “I’m a conductor.” From there the conversation often takes a predictable turn. Many people feel that it’s necessary to comment on the fact that I’m a woman in a male-dominated field. And yes, I am in the minority as a female conductor, but I certainly don’t think about that while I’m on the podium. If someone wants to talk to me about conducting, I would gladly talk to him or her about how I study my scores or why I want to be a conductor, but I’m not that interested in talking about what it’s like to be a woman. Therefore, when I was asked to write this Voice Box article for Women’s History Month, I was slightly annoyed but also glad to have the opportunity to honestly address the issue.

Conducting student Sarah Kidd led the Juilliard Conductors’ Orchestra on November 18, 2009.

(Photo by Photo by Peter Schaaf)

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Never having been a male conductor, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to address the issues of being a male or female conductor, but the differences between conductors certainly do affect their presence on the podium, which in turn affects the orchestra’s sound. What I mean is that a tall, skinny person and a short, fat person could not use identical gestures to get an identical response from an ensemble. I view my gender as just another variable: because I’m female, my gestures will have a slightly different effect.  Every conductor has to figure out what works for him or her, and in this regard, I don’t feel like my gender gives me any real disadvantage. 

When it comes to speaking in front of the orchestra, I am more concerned about how I come off as a woman, specifically as a young woman. I’ve watched too many videos of myself conducting that make me cringe because I sound too much like a teenage girl.  I’m also concerned about my leadership style: I want to convey a sense of authority without appearing shrill or catty, which is not something my male colleagues are likely to be called. But at the same time, every conductor has to learn the most effective way to communicate.

For the most part, I can’t say that I have had many struggles to overcome as a result of being a female conductor. Maybe that’s because as a student, I’m still living in a sheltered environment. Perhaps once I get out into the real world and start applying for jobs I’ll run into discrimination, but that simply has not been my experience so far.  Orchestras I’ve worked with, my conducting teachers, and my colleagues have never treated me badly in any way because of my gender. 

A big part of the reason that being a woman conductor hasn’t been a problem is that there already are successful female conductors who have paved the way for my generation.   With conductors like Marin Alsop (B.M. ’77, M.M. ’78, violin), music director of the Baltimore Symphony, and JoAnn Falletta (M.M. ’83, D.M.A. ’89, orchestral conducting), music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, proving that women conductors can indeed have good careers, I don’t feel much reason to worry that my gender will prevent me from having a career as a conductor. 

I would like to see more women conductors because we are still a minority, and a small minority at that, but I don’t feel like discrimination is the reason there are fewer women than men in this field. Because this is a male-dominated field, perhaps many young women are less likely to choose it, but thanks to the women who have come before me, I was able to pursue my passion and imagine making music with great orchestras someday.  And I hope the female conductors of my generation will be able to inspire more young women to enter into this field—enough young women so that someday no one will feel the need to comment on the fact that someone is a “female conductor.”

 

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