#On being a woman and being an orchestral and choral conductor: a female conductor or a woman conductor? Both sound ridiculous. One would think that gender should have nothing to do with the musical outcome of an orchestra or choir’s performance. And yet…
When growing up, I studied violin and played in the San Jose Youth Symphony. I also played the flute during middle and high school. Several of my schoolmates also played in the youth orchestra. The conductor of the orchestra, Yair Samet, was at the time a rather intimidating figure for me that I both feared and was fascinated by. I had the most horrible audition possible because I was so incredibly nervous. (As a side note, playing the violin as a soloist or playing auditions has always been an issue of nerves. It got to the point that all of the thousands of hours of practice were simply thrown away with sweaty hands, a racing heart, and a total blackout in my brain. For some weird reason, I have never been nervous playing the flute, singing, or conducting. Bizarre.) And yet, I was admitted to the back of the orchestra, and the journey began. I also had a fantastic (female) wind ensemble conductor, Diane Wyant, who also happened to be an oboist for the San Jose Symphony, where Yair was assistant conductor. All in all, it was a small world. Diane was a real inspiration to all of the kids in the band department. Her enthusiasm, work ethic, and encouraging attitude was contagious. At a certain point, she allowed a few of us to conduct the ensemble (I think… long time ago) for a small portion of the rehearsal. On of my fellow band mates, James Johnson, a clarinetist who also played in the youth symphony, started expressing a desire to learn more about conducting, and informed me that he had started taking private conducting lessons with Yair. A firecracker went off in my brain. The challenge was on! I got up the courage to approach Yair, which was a mental challenge in itself, and started taking lessons. We started with Beethoven’s First Symphony, and in the years that I studied with him, we got through Brahms Symphony #1, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2, and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. We may have also done Mahler 5, but I’m not sure if my memory is correct on that one. I ended up studying and conducting the piece at a later point. Easy stuff, obviously. (sarcasm) The years with Yair were not wasted. Thanks to his instruction, I was accepted into the Masters of Music in Instrumental Conducting at Indiana University Bloomington, where the world of symphonic and opera operatic repertoire was opened to me fully. Years later, I can say that my dream job has come true. I’ve made it as a (female) conductor. I’m still not where I want to be, but the place I’m in is satisfying as it is. However, this post is about what being a woman and a conductor actually entails.
Contrary to belief, there are quite a number of female conductors at the moment. Marin Alsop, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Karina Canellakis, Anja Bihlmaier, Lina Gonzales-Granados, Xian Zhang, JoAnn Falletta, Barbara Hannigan, Daniela Candillari, Elim Chan, and I'm sure there are more, but these ladies come to mind. Some I know personally, others from observation. I met Mirga (with whom I share a birthday) in Bonn while we were active participants at the Beethoven masterclass with Maestro Kurt Masur. I was at terrible time, battling with self esteem issues, an eating disorder, and depression. I was not functioning well as a human and definitely not as a conductor. Mirga, however, was the star. The orchestra responded to her conducting as if it was magic. The men couldn’t compare. She had a boyish haircut at the time, and wore somewhat boyish clothes. There was no femininity exuding from her presence, which is curious if I compare her LA video’s from 2015. However, gender was a non-issue with her on the podium. The only thing that mattered was the music. Masur obviously saw the potential in her, and she has continued to great things (and deservedly!). If I observe all of the ladies on the list, the only one who stands out as flaunting her femininity to her advantage is Barbara Hannigan. This is very likely because of her background as a soprano. Her ability to combine her stage presence as a solist and as a conductor has been hugely successful because of her absolute dedication to the product and her ability to pull off the bizarre. (see her Mysteries of the Macabre from 2015 with Simon Rattle, one of the most amazing performances of the decade). Aside from Barbara Hannigan, gender is a non-issue on the podium for the ladies above. ** side-note Elim Chan blew me away when she came to conduct NedPho a few years back. Terrific conductor!
But, how is it for the orchestra? How is it for the audience? As a violinist and mezzo who has played/sung under many conductors, it is beyond a doubt that the conductor’s physique, tone of voice, and emotional approach do have quite an influence on the sound. Our own biases also play en enormous role as to whether we accept the conductor on the podium or not. Only trust and mutual respect between ensemble and conductor will produce musical magic, the rest is noise.
Now, I’ll have to admit a shameful fact. I have been known to inwardly groan if I have to play/sing under a female conductor (which has truthfully occurred rarely), for the reason that most of them dragged their femininity onto the podium with them, and I (at a certain time in my life) had an allergy for such behavior. For some stupid unconscious reason, yes, even I, am biased. It’s a rotten truth, a woman has to prove herself more than a man. I finally also became aware that women are much more conscious and perhaps constantly ashamed of their appearance (yep, battled that for a long time), which inadvertently has an influence on how others react to them. Men seem to be able to shirk this handicap, although I’m completely aware that nowadays, everyone has issues. So yes, we consciously or unconsciously react more critically to a female in a leadership position (Hillary Clinton, prime example). The strange thing that I’ve noticed in my own experiences is that an ensemble of only men (men’s chorus, for example) is much more easy to work with (as a conductor) than a mixed ensemble. Could it be that all of the critique that women feel actually comes from women themselves?
More to follow later.
Let’s get to the difficult issue. Uteruses, their uses, and biological clocks ticking. There is an unfortunate window of time in which highly educated (which is necessary to be as a conductor) women can have children, namely directly after they finish their studies and are embarking upon a career. It is an uncomfortable given that the most successful women are childless, especially in the arts. Opera singers and ballet dancers have an especially tricky situation. I have witnessed first-hand what sorrow that can create when an artists’s career starts to fade and they are left with an unanswered wish to become a mother. Too late. They chose their career, but it’s an unforgiving field.
The fact is that not only pregnancy is demanding for the woman, but the first four years (at least) of the child’s life as well. A woman’s brain is wired to be highly alert and mentally active to tend to all of the demands of the child. A huge amount of mental capacity is directed to the business of motherhood. This natural instinct is how we have evolved and survived for thousands of years, and it is folly to think that we can just trick nature because we think that we are “emancipated.” Hence, if you are doing your job as a mother WELL, you are losing mental energy needed for your career. Out of the list of women above, I would dare to say that perhaps only Marin Alsop has children.
Making a choice to have children as a female artist is making a risky choice of postponing your career options just when it needs to build momentum.
Speaking from a personal level, I do have two children, and I do not regret becoming a mother. In fact, it is the greatest thing that has happened in my life. All of the stupid rummaging around trying to become useful and important, self-esteem issues, and eating disorders disappeared like they never had been part of my life the moment that my daughter took her first breath. Motherhood made me complete and gave me purpose. I gave myself completely to the job. I was there for them. I took care of them in the daytime and rehearsed or gave concerts every evening. I have never been so sleep deprived in my life as when they were small. But, I was a hands-on mom, and it gave me so much more meaning than any score or performance or position could offer. While some women luck out with great partners, mine struggled with the demands of fatherhood. Our relationship did not last. There is no way that that I would ever trade motherhood for a “better” career. However, there is no denying that a huge amount of my mental space and energy was diverted away from my previously entrepreneurial activities as an artist. I had always been the one that would make the craziest things happen, mainly because I was highly devoted to and good at organizing huge projects. My ExArt days (Maria de Buenos Aires) were behind me. The day after my last big project, the Tormis Festival, was the day I conceived.
So yes, it is different being a female conductor versus a male conductor, but I guess that is relevant for any leadership position. It is difficult. Not only are you fighting against general bias, but you’re in a battle with your biological clock at the same time.
The good news is, children grow up. If you once had an entrepreneurial spirit, it is bound to return. As it has for me.