In modern times, we often think of it as quite normal and natural to have female members of a classical music orchestra. We might even think of certain types of instruments – perhaps violins or flutes – as having female musicians associated with them.
It’s important to realize that, not too long ago, classical music orchestras were nearly 100% white men. In many orchestras, the only exception was a lone female harpist.
Most men of the time were absolutely convinced that women were simply not up to the task of playing serious music on stage. Women were too emotional. Too flighty. They could not work well in a group. A woman attempting to audition for a position was automatically rated lower.
Even in 1970, a time where women were thought of as able to work, study, and hold positions of power, only 6% of musicians in the top US orchestras were women. And those musicians were usually in the “stereotypical” woman areas.
Then came in the concept of blind auditions.
With a blind audition, nothing was known about the incoming musician. Not their age, not their race, not their gender. The musician was escorted onto the stage (or wherever the tryouts were being held) behind a curtain. They were never seen. The only thing which was heard was the way in which that person played. A musician was judged solely on the quality of their music.
By 1993, a full 21% of musicians in those orchestras were now female.
I realize it might not seem like a big change, but it’s important to realize that in an orchestra not everyone is “tested for retention” every single year, like might happen on some sports teams. In an orchestra, once you’re in, you’re pretty much in until you quit or something egregious happens and you’re thrown out.
Fast forward to 2014, the latest year for which I could find statistics. In current times, the average in a US orchestra is 37% women. The most balanced large orchestra in the US is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which is 47% male, 53% female. It’s the only one which actually has more women then men. Most of the others are in the 35-40% range.
And, again, there is an “Instrument Bias” being shown. 95% of harp players are women. 59% of violin players are women. But there are many other instruments which have hardly any women players at all. Only 17% of clarinet players are female. I find that intriguing, because I’m female and I played clarinet as a student.
So if most if not all orchestras are now testing blind, what still causes this imbalance? Surely most of the “older generation” male musicians are aging out of the symphony. So it can’t still be that the people hired during the pre-blind male-only bias are stuck in those seats.
Maybe it’s that women are dissuaded in their younger years from being musicians, unless of course they’re playing harp or violin. Maybe some instruments like tuba (only 5% women) are just so heavy that it’s harder for women to play them. But why are 97% of trumpeters male?
Are there few role models for women? Do school systems somehow dissuade women?
We are losing out on a lot of potential talent when we discourage potential star musicians from pursuing what might be perfect for them. It’s something to ponder.