Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is it a Woman's Brass World?

Women have been active in the brass instrument world since the time I first started playing (a long time ago). But the frequency that they appear today definitely shows an enormous increase. Two days ago it was my pleasure to listen to exactly 50 freshman brass students play their exams at the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo. Very early in the day it became apparent that a huge majority of these students were women; in fact, it was exactly 75% women and it was true of all the instruments; trumpet, horn, trombone, basstrombone, euphonium and tuba, plus in one of these instrument groups it was abundantly clear that nine women of the twelve players were hugely superior to the three men. (Perhaps that’s another discussion.)

Why this huge shift in the man woman ratio? Here in Japan many believe that because of the intense competitive circumstances of music performance as a profession, men are simply more attracted to venture into different fields where employment offers much greater chances for a secure income. Women, however, at least Japanese women, seem to show contentment moving into music related fields such as teaching. Many fine Japanese women brass players are happily living in their home towns teaching children; this is a good thing, it starts young players out at a very high level and therefore influences the rapidly growing level of brass playing throughout the whole country, which is strikingly impressive.

It’s interesting to point out that a similar situation existed in the middle of the last century in the United States. Many men considered a career in one of the military bands as a poor alternative to successfully playing professionally as a civilian, now a position in one of these bands is considered prestigious and secure.

In that same period of the last century women brass players correctly saw themselves as a minority group and as a minority group many organizations began to appear with the intension of correcting the prejudice that clearly existed toward women. Many, most, symphony orchestras throughout the world simply didn’t allow women as well as the military bands and throughout general musical work place. Most notable among these organizations was the International Woman’s Brass Congress, which met once every year and impressively demonstrated that women were by no means less good brass players than men.

Similarly, many extremely good women’s brass groups began to immerge into the musical world and many of them, taking advantage of their femininity, cleverly and successfully marketed themselves; this is not a bad thing, as well as creating a market, they proved again that women are at least equal to men. Although today the situation for woman brass players has largely corrected itself the International Woman’s Brass Congress is still visible and active and enjoys a high level of respect from the entire world brass community.

But there is another aspect to this discourse; there are differences between women and men. That beast that we homo sapiens once were certainly still exists in our DNA and in our basic characters. The males of the species were the hunters and warriors while the females were the domestics, the bearers of children and the nurturers of the communities; those differences still live within us. Personally speaking, as a young player I could definitely feel a difference in the atmosphere when a woman or women began to appear in the brass section and for the most part it was a clearly positive difference, and that same difference is still evident for me when even one woman is in a class.

This difference is more difficult to explain. Music encompasses many polarities, aggressive and passive, happy and sad, visceral and intellectual, and of course, masculine and feminine; it seems to me those polarities are more easily realized when the collective music making is made up of both genders.

I consider myself a clear thinking modern man with no gender prejudices, our musical community is a better place when it is made up of both men and women, but as a small codetta to this article, I have to admit to one flaw in my social evolution; I found it very difficult to feel at ease when my orchestra had a female conductor. It was a new thing then, and I left orchestra life before it became popular; I’m sure, will, I hope, I would have adjusted. I am completely sure that the modern symphony musician will have to be comfortable with women conductors.

September 18, 2009, Tokyo, Japan.