If you play music and live in the world, you’re probably aware of classical music’s alarming lack of gender diversity, particularly in leadership roles. Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra remains the only female music director of a major American orchestra, and major orchestras continue to exclude works by female composers in their season programs.
Data on the gender split among professional orchestra performers offers a more complex view of the situation. At first glance, the numbers are encouraging: In 2018, 48 percent of players in orchestras represented by the League of American Orchestras were women, a vast improvement from orchestras of the past. However, positions for brass, percussion and some wind instruments – not to mention principal positions – are disproportionately occupied by men.
But we can also look to those numbers for encouragement: They show us that gender parity can at least be improved. One reason for the increase of women in orchestras since the 1970s has been the implementation of blind auditions. Another? Increased social acceptance and visibility of women in roles from which they have been historically excluded.
Making classical music a more equitable place demands a cultural change – and cultural changes don’t happen without conversation and action. Just in the past five or so years, there has been an explosion in initiatives working to address the gender disparity in classical music. Here are some of our favorites.
Luna Composition LabSays co-founder Missy Mazzoli, “I have long felt that the key to improving the gender balance in classical music lies in not only increasing the visibility of female role models, but in encouraging girls and young women to enter the field at a young age.” In 2016, composers Mazzoli and Ellen Reid, along with a handful of others who would serve as mentors, partnered with Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music program to create a year-long lab in which self-identifying girls aspiring to become composers receive mentorship and coaching from established female composers. At the end of the year, fellows’ pieces are performed and professionally recorded in New York City – but, notably, fellows do not have to live in New York to participate, as lessons are conducted via web conferencing. “The fact that the fellows come from different communities across the country adds a richness to the whole experience that would be absent if they were all from New York,” says Reid.
Without female role models, it can be difficult for girls to imagine careers in composition. Mazzoli reports that she was 23 before she began to build a community of peers: “Before that point, when I was really desperate to envision a career for myself, I felt very lonely and almost crazy for wanting to be a composer. No young woman should have to feel that way.”
Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women ConductorsEntering its fifth season, The Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, founded in 2015, has already earned an impressive reputation as one of the premier conducting workshops in the country – and it’s exclusively for women. Participants gather for two weeks to work hands on with The Dallas Opera Orchestra and receive career advice from professionals, like how to work with artistic managers and symphony executives. They also come away with a high-resolution video of their conducting, which they can use in job applications.
David Lomelí, Dallas Opera’s director of artistic administration, says that the priority of the institute is “to help [participants] become more easily employable. Being a recognized brand of talent and opera, we [can] actually push forward their names.” And it’s already paid off: One notable alumna – from the first year of the institute, no less – is Lidiya Yankovskaya, now the music director of the Chicago Opera Theater and the only female music director of a major American opera company.
It’s not just American institutions that reap the rewards from this program: Lomelí says that, over five years of applications, roughly 70 percent of applicants are from outside the United States, making the Hart Institute a global effort for gender equity in classical music.
Iranian Female Composers AssociationThe Iranian Female Composers Association, or IFCA, grew out of the idea to present a concert at National Sawdust featuring only works by Iranian female composers. Founders Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Anahita Abbasi and Aida Shirazi have since grown their organization into one which provides mentorship and support to young Iranian female composers – both in Iran and around the globe – and encourages organizers around the world to commission them. None of the founding members had a female mentor when growing up in Iran, and it wasn’t until moving to the United States that they discovered each other and the possibility for a larger community of peers.
When it comes to pursuing composition in Iran, Shirazi believes that “the greatest hurdle for composers, regardless of their gender, is the scarcity of performance and collaboration opportunities. We hope that IFCA is able to create more opportunities for young composers in Iran [through] special mentorship programs and festivals.”
Operating as an American non-profit, however, presents its challenges. Because of U.S. sanctions, the organization is not permitted to spend any of their funds in Iran. However, says Abbasi, “We felt strongly that we have a responsibility as emerging and established composers to help others find their voices and provide possibilities for them to achieve their goals and dreams.”
tenThing Brass EnsembleWith its origins dating back all the way to 2007, this project is the oldest on our list. Founded by acclaimed Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, all-female brass ensemble tenThing began as a fun project among friends. By 2011, they gained a national audience when they opened the Norwegian Grammy Awards. Since then, their audience has only grown. tenThing wrapped a U.S. tour earlier this spring, and they’ve played at festivals all over Europe. With a brilliant, mellifluous sound and a repertoire that ranges from Mozart to Bernstein, tenThing is a testament to both the versatility of brass ensembles in general and to the importance of encouraging young female brass players to pursue their talent.
National Sawdust’s Hildegard CompetitionGender-exclusive composition contests are not new, but the prestige and thoroughness of the Hildegard Competition, which is also explicitly open to transgender and non-binary composers, sets it apart. Named for one of the earliest known female composers – 12th century Benedictine Abbess Saint Hildegard von Bingen – the competition is not one where applicants simply submit a work and receive a cash prize. Instead, they submit a project proposal and compete for the commission of a new work for the payment of $7,000 each. Additionally, they are mentored by the competition judges, and the commissioned pieces are eventually performed and professionally recorded at National Sawdust. The amount of the prize money – which is enough to actually support composers for the time it would take to write the piece – along with an entrance into “a community that will continue to open its doors to them for future opportunities and professional development,” according to National Sawdust co-founder Paola Prestini, combine to make the Hildegard Competition something that can help launch the careers of young composers.
Says 2019 winner inti figgis-vizueta, “When people acknowledge and engage with every part of complex identities, artists can create authentic work.” For figgis-vizueta, the competition win allowed them to “commit a large amount of time to the development and expansion of my practice of overlapping notional and structural schema. Beyond money, however, the most valuable part of this competition was mentorship from people [specifically, Gavin Rayna Russom and Du Yun] who shared more of my lived experiences than any other teachers I’d found in traditional spaces.”
Fun fact? Niloufar Nourbakhsh, co-founder of the Iranian Female Composers Association, was also a 2019 winner.
This overview is by no means exhaustive. Other initiatives that deserve a nod include the recently established Boulanger Initiative, the International Alliance for Women in Music, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Lebenbom Award and the Women Composers Festival of Hartford. Which ones did we miss? We invite you to continue the conversation in the comments.