Female Conductors: Embrace Your Differences!



“Is there really a difference between men and women conductors?”


This is an excellent question that comes up frequently when talking about the results of my dissertation, “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor.” It also immediately catapults me to a conversation I had with the deservedly revered Maestro, Gustav Meier years ago…


Before my scheduled conversation with Maestro Meier, I sent him a set of preview questions and potential topics we would chat about. His initial response to my phone call is ingrained in my memory and has caused me to inquisitively observe the way people interact and respond to each other every day.


I dial Mr. Meier’s number.. The phone rings... He picks up the phone and says a simple, “Hello.” At this moment, I am quite aware of my nervousness... “Hi, this is Anna Edwards.”


The next words out of his mouth came quickly and have resulted in countless hours of thought-provoking conversations internally as well as with others. “Anna, the main thing is that there is no difference between the men conductors and the women conductors. There is no difference.” Oh boy!


During the next hour and a half, we had a fantastic, animated conversation and a friendly debate. Although by the end of our conversation we were more or less on the same page, it was interesting how intense and emotional my initial response was to his statement. While I sincerely believed his heart was in the right place, I respectfully and emphatically disagreed. I believe women and men DO have differences. You can see these differences by the way we dress, the gestures we use, and the gender by which we choose to identify ourselves. You can hear the differences in the way we talk, the way we problem solve, and the way we connect with people.


This comment, to me, felt similar to a person stating that they are color blind concerning people of color. Though I believe the bulk of our society wants diversity and equity for people of different colors and for women and men to have equal opportunities, our challenges come from society’s preconceived ideas of what it means to be female and/or a person of color. As I reflect on this conversation, I question why I had such an intense response to Mr. Meier’s statement (as I had the utmost respect for him as a teacher) and have wondered since... where to go from here?


Before I discuss these questions, it is important for me to mention that I am a white female and can only have a personal perspective from that vantage point. Going forward, I will speak specifically from my personal experiences and about challenges that I have faced as a female conductor in a predominantly male industry.


My expertise comes from years of study concerning gender and leadership. Prior to my research on my dissertation, “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor,” I had a first-hand understanding of what it was like to be a female in a predominantly male industry. As a long-time educator, my goal was to provide tools and information to help with the disparity of gender with regards to conductors in the symphony hall.


In a nutshell, my research for this study began with one-on-one interviews which illuminated current perceptions in the conducting field. Next, I conducted ethnographic interviews addressing these current perceptions, and finally, I used an online questionnaire to survey professional musicians from across the United States. Interviews illuminated four emergent themes: 1. Physical presentation; 2. Gesture; 3. Leadership; and 4. The desire for more women in the field.


Today’s discussion revolves around physical presentation

From my years of experience, success and leadership comes from individuals that embrace their individuality, come to terms with who they are and what they choose to represent, and are comfortable in their own skin. To find your “comfort zone” and to be confident in your own skin can be a LONG and ARDUOUS personal journey.


For me, understanding what it meant to lead and to be confident started with my first serious conducting master class. I was the only female of sixteen conductors. The first time up on the podium, I conducted Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. After being a high school orchestra director that had conducted it with various ensembles, I thought I knew it well and felt comfortable conducting it. After I finished the symphony, I turned to the Maestro for feedback. As I looked at him, my heart sank. He crossed his arms, had a very frustrated look and said, “Anna, you look like a school-marm.” For those of you who are not familiar with this term, it means a strict, prim, and proper female school teacher. I can tell you that this was definitely not the look I was going for!


The following fall, I started the first year of my DMA program in orchestral conducting. During that year, I tried to get as much help as I possibly could. I videotaped myself regularly, worked with teachers and other conductors in the Seattle area, and watched as many symphony rehearsals as I could attend. During this time, all of the conductors I saw, spoke to, or worked with were men. (As a side note, up to this time, the only female conductor I had ever worked with or watched was Maria Tunicka, my Texas All-State Symphony Orchestra conductor in high school)


The following summer, I returned to the same summer conducting workshop. This time, I was one of TWO female conductors out of twenty. For one of the concert programs, I conducted Prokofiev’s “Love of Three Oranges.” During my lessons, the Maestro kept telling me my gestures were not strong enough for the end of the infernal scene. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong and was desperately working on my movements to appropriately convey strength. I asked my conducting colleagues and orchestra members for critical input. It was an incredibly frustrating week as I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Out of frustration and just two days before the concert, I asked the assistant conductor to demonstrate his interpretation of how he would conduct the final movements. Since I was not confident enough to show my strength, I videotaped his movements so I could mimic his gestures the best I could. Although these movements did not feel comfortable to me, I went with it anyway because I wanted to be strong.


At the dress rehearsal,I gave all I could give. We came to the end of the infernal section and I suddenly heard this loud yell – “STOP!!” I hesitantly turned around to the Maestro. He crossed his arms with much annoyance and said, “Anna, you look like a man!”


Man! Marm! Whatever it was I was trying to do, it was DEFINITELY NOT WORKING!


Let’s talk about perception

Research tells us that the way we view leadership has a LOT to do with gender. A group of young people invited me to speak about my dissertation at their club meeting. The first agenda item in the meeting was to introduce yourself and the pronoun you identify yourself with – he/she, him/her, or they. Although this was a legitimate request, at the time I found it intriguing. When my turn came, I said, “Hello, my name is Anna Edwards and I identify with she/her.” Wow! That felt odd. During the lecture, I continued to feel a little peculiar about this request. Why does it matter how I identify? Can’t you tell? I couldn’t figure out why this statement felt so heavy and somehow so frustrating. However, the following week (while preparing for another lecture on Female Leadership), I had an overwhelming AHA! moment. It was at that time I realized that in my quest to become a serious conductor, I had been trying really hard NOT to be associated with ANY pronoun. I didn’t want to be a MAN, or a MARM... I just wanted to be a conductor!!


Gender

A good friend of mine, who is the concertmaster of a major orchestra in the US, explained gender perception of conductors best: “The biggest difference between a male and a female conductor is how they are going to be perceived. Not necessarily that female conductors tend to do this or male conductors tend to do that. It’s that when they do what they do, it will be perceived differently.”


Why is this? Men and women can both be expressive and charismatic conductors, yet research shows us that our perceptions are different for men and women. In her book entitled “Lean-In,” Sheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer for Facebook) states that “success and like-ability are positively correlated for men, but success and like-ability are negatively correlated for women.” To rephrase it: The more successful a man is, the more people like him and the more successful a woman is, the more people dislike her. This is a really important and profound statement!


Gender Inequity Study

Frank Flynn (Columbia University) tested the idea of gender inequity in 2002. He provided all of his students the portfolio of an executive, Heidi Roizen. Roizen used her business contacting skills to become a successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.


Flynn had his students take an online survey, to rate their impressions of “Roizen.” Half of the class received Heidi’s portfolio and the other half of the class received the same exact portfolio, with only one small, but incredibly important change. This half of the class received Howard Roizen’s portfolio. The same exact portfolio with only the name and the pronouns changed in the document.


The good thing was that the students felt Heidi & Howard were equally competent & effective, however, the students didn’t like Heidi. They wouldn’t hire her. They wouldn’t want to work with her. They disliked her aggressive personality and the more assertive they felt she was, the more harshly they judged her. However, this was NOT true for Howard. Students wanted to work for Howard. They liked Howard because he was a strong leader and they felt he knew how to get things done. The pronoun was significant.


As I began to put my research information together for my dissertation. I began having my first conversations with professional female symphony conductors. These women brought about a different point of view from the all-male perspective that I had been experiencing. These discussions had a huge impact on how I view leadership and how I have since approached conducting and teaching. While I have had amazing male teachers and mentors, it was equally clear to me that I lacked a female perspective and someone who “looked like me.” When I had discussions with regard to what it was like to be a female in a very male dominated field, these conversations formulated my understanding of comfortable strength and leadership for the first time.


I understood then that gender certainly CAN matter.


Our Physicality

My game-changer moment happened with Kate Tamarkin from the University of Virginia. Dr. Tamarkin talked to me about the differences concerning the center of gravity for men and women in relation to a TRIANGLE. She explained that the center of gravity is higher for men and that their strength lies towards the flat top of the triangle - in their shoulders. While women’s center of gravity is lower towards the flat bottom of the triangle with the strength in their hips and in the “breadbox.” Well, that was HUGE. I definitely have strong hips! Before, when my teachers would tell me I was not giving enough strength, the harder I tried, the more uncomfortable I became. I tried to mimic their movements, which I saw coming from the upper arms and shoulders. This did not work for me. After my conversations with Kate Tamarkin, JoAnn Falletta, and Diane Wittry, I began to discover and utilize my body where my strength naturally lies. Once I understood this, I began to feel more comfortable, confident, and powerful as a conductor.


This idea about weight and strength is not revolutionary, and it makes absolute sense for all conductors. For me, it was the first time that the source of my body’s core strength was revealed and I could translate this strength to body movements and conducting gestures that were comfortable to me.


As a woman in the conducting field, I was getting SO many mixed signals as to how to gesture and present myself in front of an orchestra that frankly, it was confusing. Various teachers and colleagues advised me to:

  • Be in charge and show more strength, but relax

  • Talk louder with a deeper voice, but don’t be aggressive

  • Wear your hair up and wear a jacket, but don’t look too masculine

  • Don’t wear heels, but make sure you get a higher podium

  • It’s ok to wear jewelry and put on make-up, but not where it is distracting


And for God’s sake, don’t wear a dress….A conductor wears pants!


With so much conflicting information, I couldn’t find comfort in my own body. Yet, we all want to follow a comfortable, confident leader!


*******


In the past couple of months, we have observed with painful clarity, the horrible deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. Many of us are digging deep to understand where WE have our own biases and what WE can do to be proactive in the conscientious systemic fight against disparity that continues to pervade our country.


Being a woman is an experience that I understand. It is also clear that as a white female, I still come from a place of privilege. Though my research sought to explore the conducting profession with regards to gender, my goal going forward is to explore ways that those of us who are in a place of privilege can be great mentors, advocates, and allies to those who may come to music from underrepresented groups. My fundamental question is: How can we work together to embrace and appreciate our differences so we can succeed in diversifying our community?


Statements such as: ”People are people; I don’t see your color,” “I only see one race, the human race,” or “I don’t think of you as a woman, I see you as a person” are harmful and they negate the cultural values and experiences that we ALL bring from our different diverse backgrounds. Dr. JoEtta Gonzales, former director of the Equity Alliance at Arizona State University, finds that the best way for her to respond to others claiming they “don’t see race” is to reframe. Gonzales introduces the term “race-consciousness,” and encourages others to celebrate aspects that make individuals unique. If we consider ourselves to be gender/race/ability conscious, we can acknowledge and address inequality and injustice based on this consciousness, thereby facilitating change.


Wrapping back to the original question “Is there really a difference between men and women conductors?” My answer is a definitive “YES!” Let us celebrate the differences in the various ways we bring who we are to the music whether it is our gender, skin color, or racial background.


We are living in an exciting era. Though we all have faced serious challenges this year, I am optimistic with regards to diversity in the music field. It is my belief that change will happen when we pay attention. We need to be aware and honest about what is going on around us and especially honest about who we are and what we represent. We ALL need to celebrate the interesting and expansive palettes of personal and historical experiences we bring to the table. It is my hope that this article encourages each of you to embrace your differences, as I have learned to embrace mine. Show the world all that you have to offer!


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