Women in Brass
If you look around the brass sections of the top five American orchestras, there are exactly 6 women in permanent positions. Compared to just five years ago, this is a lot, and the further you look back in time, the fewer women you will find in orchestra rosters. But despite cries for increased diversity and equality, brass playing remains a male dominated industry. Why is this, and how can we rectify the situation to ensure that the most qualified candidates are winning brass jobs regardless of gender?
Many characteristics of brass instruments, especially in orchestral settings, are seen as traditionally masculine- loud, powerful, and kind of gross, what with the constant emptying of spit. Due to this disposition, many music educators, especially those of older generations, are more inclined to assign preteen boys to trumpet and trombone and girls to flute and clarinet. And even in situations where the student does have a choice, many young girls are intimidated by the thought of being the only girl in their section. “Growing up playing the trumpet, I tended to play the bottom parts because I didn’t have the confidence to ask for more,” says trumpeter Scarlet Rowe. “I thought myself incapable of playing higher parts, despite being just as qualified as everyone else. I can’t help but wonder if this would have been the same if the sections had had a more even gender balance.”
A 2009 study by Hal Abeles of Columbia University indicated that over the course of 30 years, instrument distribution by gender in band settings stayed the same, supporting the notion that the lack of diversity in the industry starts at the source. So, what are some steps that band directors can take to ensure that just as many women enter brass as men?
First, it is important to allow students to choose their own instrument rather than assign them based on the needs of the band. Although this may contribute to an imbalanced ensemble in the future, what is important is that all students get to pursue what speaks to them.
Second, it is important to provide students with role models of all genders, races, backgrounds, etc. If a middle school band teacher is showing a clip of a male trombone player to encourage students to pick that instrument, they should then show a clip of a female trumpet player, and other such combinations. Allowing students to see themselves mirrored in their role models will encourage many of them to forget about demographic barriers and just focus on choosing what they want to do, and enjoying it.
Hopefully, these fixes will contribute to a more equal brass industry in the near future. In the meantime, steps can be taken to ensure that women in the professional sphere of brass playing are accounted for. Blind auditions can help weed out any sort of inherent bias in the early rounds of competition, but in the later stages, they become impractical. It is increasingly more important to call out gender bias when it is spotted, and to never let gender be a determining factor of a woman's employment in music or otherwise.