by Maggie Molloy and Maggie Stapleton
In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, we’re featuring a 24-hour marathon of all women composers on the Second Inversion stream. Tune in all day to hear works by women who have helped shape, inspire, and expand the world of classical music.
And to get you even more inspired, we are sharing 54 pieces of musical advice from women composers featured in the marathon.
We asked each woman the following question:
In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who are aspiring to creative leadership roles?
Here’s what they had to say:
1. Laura Kaminsky
Being a woman is just a piece of the whole. I am a composer. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a married lesbian. I’m a secular humanist Jew. I’m a progressive thinker. Oh, yes, and I am a woman. It’s shaped everything, as have all the other parts of who I am have, and sometimes it’s been a challenge, and sometimes a blessing, but it’s all I know. This isn’t the best answer, obviously, because it really doesn’t answer anything, but I do think that the day will come when the question doesn’t even have to be asked.
My advice is to write the best music you can. Go to concerts. Meet performers, presenters, and producers in the field. Be a part of the larger community. Be brave!
2. Hanna Benn
One hundred percent, it shapes me. It is important, as a woman, to never forget that beautiful part of you. I am very proud and in love with the vessel that I carry and I think one hundred percent it shapes my experience and my outlook and what I write.
Me being a woman and me being a woman of color is my music, because that is who I am. I would encourage other women to not let go of that, because it is very precious.
3. Samantha Boshnack
I think all women in leadership roles in all fields face these challenges. We have to fight harder to have our ideas heard. My work mostly falls in the jazz realm of music (although I would say this project veered away from that), and jazz is so male-dominated.
I think you go through many stages of dealing with sexism—when you are younger you face different challenges then when you’re a bit older. Or sometimes you have an encounter in music that is so discriminatory that it knocks you down and you feel very defeated. But ultimately you love what you do, and you get back up again. I work with a lot of great men who understand the struggle and are supportive, but unfortunately not all are like this. I would say I find a lot of strength in my relationships with other women. They do understand the struggle and we can support each other in the hard times.
4. Alice Ping Yee Ho
I am a Chinese Canadian woman composer living on Toronto. Being identified as a “visual minority” artist has motivated me to pursue my career in music creation in many aspiring ways. Though I believe in individualism, I cannot ignore the inspiration and strength in being a woman artist (often taking multiple tasks between family and career), as well as my rich cultural heritage. Both of these things have played an important role in my creative voice, in reaching out to my audience, and in my ongoing desire to take new initiatives in my compositions.
My advice to other minority women composers is to embrace who you are—our roots and unique cultures can be an important source for artistic inspiration and imagination.
5. Gretchen Yanover
In some ways, being female is one of the last things I have thought about regarding my identity as an artist. Growing up, my mom was fiercely against being categorized as anything other than Human. My Jewish dad said we weren’t “white.” I was never sure how to identify, being half black/African-American and half (“not white”) Jewish. There have always seemed to be plenty of “other” boxes getting checked in my life.
Having said all that, I did start to realize that there seemed to be a lot more men than women in the “band” scene (as opposed to my non-straight-classical life). I think I do not need to battle with letting my emotions out through my music as much as some men might. I think I do battle with the perceptions that I may be “successful” because of my looks rather than my musical merit. I think I have learned (and continue to learn) to assert myself and recognize my worth.
I would say to other female-identifying artists—you are probably more ready to fly on your own than you might think. Collaboration is a wonderful thing, but if you are working with others because you don’t feel confident to lead your own project, I would venture to say that it is worth taking a step out.
6. Renee Baker
Everyone, men and women, are so bent on getting their piece of whatever pie they think they deserve, that the energy needed for truly creating your vision and sharing that with the universe, gets pushed aside. I have certainly faced racism, discrimination, sexism, ageism, classicism, brown eye-ism, straight and nappy hair-isms—it just doesn’t end.
But it’s not new. When you’re smart, front, and present AND a woman, you have to be ready for your Weeble moments. Remember the Weeble commercials? Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down? There you have it.
The biggest elephants in the room are racism and sexism—okay, got it! So what do you do about? If you feel your voice MUST be added to the chorus of creativity and made tangible for the world to taste, then make it happen. I’ve started over 20 new music ensembles, each fitting a different music demographic, and have had a marvelous time doing it. If the wall keeps appearing, be sure that your work can stand up, and you climb on it and go over the wall. As a woman you will have some luck, but you have to provide your own working world sometimes. Be prepared, say yes, show up!!!
My advice to other women is to CREATE YOUR PLACE!! Puuuuush!!! Be confident that you deserve an opportunity and go after it. Be sure that you’re going after YOUR idea of success—we’re not all going to have Beyoncé-like careers, but diversify your talents and keep your practice fresh and relevant. Podiums are opening but there are still criteria that some of us will never fit—go ’round it!!
7. Eve Beglarian
Being female has shaped who I am as a person, and therefore of course who I am as an artist. Not having been other than female in this life, it’s really hard to tease out what aspects of my personhood or creativity are due specifically to my gender. That being said, I have huge respect and thanks for the artistry and inspiration of the women who came before me, for example Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk, Tania Leon and Suzanne Ciani, without whom my path would have been infinitely more lonely. I hope the female composers of my generation serve a similar role for the next generations coming up.
My advice for younger artists of any gender is both to be open to everything, AND to take from it only what works for you. Study yourself: trust your passions. Mistrust authority, but learn everything you can from the gatekeepers. Resist and persist. Be not afraid!
8. Carolina Eyck
I live in Leipzig/Germany, one of the world’s foremost (old) music cities, with Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann and many other inspiring composers in music history working and living here for long periods of their lives.
For me, the most inspiring person is Clara Schumann (born Wieck). The Schumann house
is just a five-minute walk from my home—a very inspiring place! Clara represents a way of living and working that I appreciate so much and that I feel is still the essence of being a professional musician: find your true self, work hard, and get the power you need from deep inside your heart.
Clara was successful and highly renowned in a time when woman were completely invisible in the public sphere, not to mention the music sphere. Nowadays woman are conquering more and more spheres that have once been closed for them, and music is one of them. In the last 15 years I have been working with many orchestras, composers, and conductors, and I feel that woman are gaining ground—at least as orchestra members and as composers. But I have only once worked with a female conductor—and I would love to work with more in future.
9. Joan Tower
I didn’t have many musical female role models around me when I was attending the university in the 60s and 70s, and most of the many historical books I studied at the time didn’t seem to include women composers in their historical thinking.
I needed the women’s movement at that time to make me realize how important it was for me to study the “other” yet-to-be identified history of women making music (which did start to happen at that time) and make me aware of where I was along that path and move it forward with more confidence and awareness. It is very important to know your history so that you don’t feel overlooked without a context of some kind.
I got involved in many Women in Music Festivals in the 70s and 80s and created some of my own with Nancy Reich (the biographer of Clara Schumann—one of the early important biographies of a woman composer and pianist). This experience played an important part in building my confidence as a composer and musician.
I am celebrating my 80th birthday year next year-with a long life in music that has given me so many wonderful friends and experiences. It is a gift to be able to make music and share that experience with lifelong friends.
10. Lisa Bielawa
Only in retrospect, with the benefit of emotional distance, do I realize that I was at a disadvantage for being a woman, especially in my college years and just thereafter. There was a subtle difference in expectations that I felt, and had also internalized. Happily, as I grew into my career, so also the field evolved and educated itself. Just as I was becoming more aware of it, I found I had a forum to express it and discuss it, with receptive colleagues of both sexes.
Music is an apprenticeship-model field, which means that mentoring is at the heart of it. Remember that true leadership is about inspiring all of those around you, men and women alike. In order for our field—or any field—to be guided by true leaders who are women, we must mentor both women and men, who will then have the experience of female leadership ingrained in their minds.
11. Madeleine Cocolas
Whilst being a women is core to my personal identity, I think of myself as a composer, rather than a female composer, although I am very thankful for the many forums that do support and encourage female composers. I do believe that female composers still have less visibility than males in general.
My advice to any other female-identifying artists would be to love what you do, be persistent and don’t give up. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s a winning formula.
12. Errollyn Wallen
When the going gets tough, I try to remember all those brave women—some of whom were my unknown ancestors—who sacrificed their lives in order so that I might thrive today.
They make me work harder. In my music and in my words I try to give a voice to those many voices which have gone unheard.
The advice I would give to any aspiring artist: whatever you are doing, try to give 10 percent more.
13. Lainie Fefferman
I would say to female-identifying composers as I’d say to male-identifying composers: go for opportunities you’re sure you don’t deserve. Write the group you want to commission you telling them how much you love what they’re doing; apply for the grant and tell them what it’d help you achieve; apply to the school and describe what their community would mean to you.
Impostor phenomenon is apparently especially prevalent among women, and knowing that and getting to a place where feelings of self-doubt aren’t in the steering wheel can mean the difference between a stagnant career and path dotted by new, cool experiences! Go for it, ladies! What’s the worst that can happen?
14. Jenni Brandon
I feel that being a woman has drawn me to seek out texts and inspiring works by other women composers, poets, and writers. I find that work by other women is a source of inspiration for me, especially when it comes to looking for texts to set to music.
The poetry of imagist poet Amy Lowell really resonates with me, and I have set her poetry several times. I have also set the translations of texts written by or inspired by Native American women; there is something profound in the spirit and perseverance of women that makes their words and art so inspiring. Women tell great stories because they aren’t afraid to look deep within themselves to find that inner light that illuminates from within.
To other female-identifying artists who are aspiring to creative leadership roles, I say look to the words of women and female-identifying musicians, artists, and writers for your inspiration. Those that have forged paths before us have been through the fire and have come out stronger and more resilient, and we can learn from their experiences.
15. Rasa Daukus
I’m a daughter (of immigrants), sister (to a brother), wife, mother (of a very young child whose natural and necessary inclination to interrupt is constant). Who I am absolutely shapes my experiences as an artist. Understanding and appreciating where I’m at in life—on a day-to-day basis—is vital to ensuring my creative process is authentic and the outcome is relatable. Using now as an example (with the inevitability of interruptions) I’ve stripped a lot of complexity from my writing, instead looking for beauty in simplicity, repetition, and stillness.
My advice: be positive, allow yourself to learn from every little thing, be open to challenges, and enjoy all the support offered to you.
16. Ingrid Arauco
While I don’t feel that being a woman has affected my music—that is, my specific artistic choices when writing—I certainly have been aware of being a woman as I have navigated the various phases of my career. Especially when I was younger, and there was even less general awareness of women composers than there is now, I was conscious of being somewhat of a rarity!
As for advice to other female-identifying artists, I’d say it’s important to love what you do very deeply, and to have strong convictions about your art and its value. This love and conviction will carry you through all sorts of difficulties, including the possible lack of understanding or acceptance of your work by others. That said, I’ve always been tremendously grateful for my unique perspective as both an artist and a woman!
17. Laura Schwendinger
As a women composer, I feel it’s important to
make clear that although there are differences in the ways that our art may be perceived by others (through preconceptions and biases), ultimately we make art as individuals, and are therefore each as individual in our experiences as our male colleagues and composers are.
I suggest to any artist to follow their muse, listen to their inner voice and be true to themselves. In that way, the art they create will be sincere and represent who they are in an honest way. It never works to try and only make other people happy with your art, as one never knows what will go over well and with what audience. I have often been surprised by who gets excited by my work, and thrilled that it has seemed to touch people in some meaningful way.
18. Clarice Assad
I started in music as a toddler and I guess I was not too concerned about gender. Maybe this was a good thing for my artistic development, because by the time I hit puberty in Brazil, things started to change. I was bombarded by dozens of societal rules on how to act, look, behave, and so forth— it seemed unfair that all men in my family did whatever they pleased while the women silently accepted rules that were completely against their own benefits. At that time, my way to cope with this was to ignore it as much as I could. I thought to myself: Music and what I am creating has no gender.
As time went by I occasionally heard comments that were both hurtful and just plain discouraging. After showing my first demo to a record company CEO, he said: “You’d be better off finding yourself rich guy to marry.” That comment could have taken me to many bad places—but deep down, I knew my value as an artist. I had worked on my craft for as long as I could remember, and I knew that even though my demo may have been raw, it had potential. Instead of giving up or getting massively angry at the world, I decided to work even harder.
What I have to say to my fellow female-identifying artists is this: Stay true to your voice. Focus on your reactions to the outside world, not the world’s reactions to you. React wisely. Trust your instinct to know the difference between constructive criticism and ill judgements; listen to the ones that will force you to grow as an artist. Remember that all people are entitled to their opinions, and that not everyone will like what you do. It’s impossible to please the whole world—but it is possible to do all we can to be better versions of ourselves. Work on your art from a place of love and truth, always with a feeling of awe, like a toddler discovering the world for the first time.
19. Jocelyn Morlock
Being a woman has shaped my experiences as an artist because being a woman has shaped my entire life. The conflict between societal expectations of females not to be too competitive or stick out too much, vs. my innate desire to be a leader and completely weird if necessary, has caused a few problems, though nothing insurmountable.
My advice is to nurture what you love, and don’t apologize to anyone for loving the art that you do. Easier said than done.
20. Rain Worthington
I feel that being a woman has in some circumstances presented obstacles, but yet, in other times has opened unique opportunities. There are many wonderful people—women and men, who are advocating to expand opportunities for women in music.
As a composer, it’s often important to remind myself that creating art is not a competition. Similarly, my advice to women pursuing careers in music is to consciously adopt a model of a non-competitive path of generosity, inclusion, mutual support, openness and appreciation of the work and variety of talents of your colleagues (of all genders) in the music field—composers, musicians, conductors, presenters, broadcasters, etc. Generosity cycles round to foster a richness of spirit, creativity, and expansive opportunities.
21. Felicia Sandler
There is no question that being a woman has shaped my experiences as an artist because being a woman has shaped my experiences as a person! There is the obvious truth that social conditioning around sexuality and gender affects the ways that others see me, whether that be tied to their positive ideas of women (and especially cis women), their negative ideas of women, or in some kind of genuine way that emanates from their encounter with who I really am. One must make their way through a world of projections, but of course this is true no matter who we are.
If you can seek to not take it personally, but keep moving forward with flow intact, locking arms with others of similar artistic vision, life will be rich.
22. Hafdis Bjarnadottir
I don’t really think so much about me being a woman if I’m really honest, so I can’t really say that it has shaped my experiences as an artist.
My advice, not only for females but for everyone, is to stop worrying about what other people think about you and just go for it!
23. Angelique Poteat
As a composer in the “minority,” I have felt extra pressure to create music that is significant not only within my gender, but compared to all contemporary classical music that is being written today.
I don’t want to be categorized as a good “female composer,” or programmed as the “token female composer,” but instead thought of as an “outstanding composer,” period. It is not so easy to cross that gender line, and maybe that means that my music has to be better than better. I think all women, to some extent, feel that they have to put forth more effort than they should in order to be taken seriously.
Music has a great potential to affect people differently in very strong ways; someone out there will love what you write, and someone out there will hate it. With that in mind, write what YOU love.
If you’re writing music for live musicians, remember that you’re writing for people, and put care into writing each part. Share your music with as many people as possible, and your excitement about it! In today’s world, you have to be the greatest advocate for your music, especially in the face of adversity. Your enthusiasm about your music will be contagious, and others who hear and like your music will also fight to have it heard again.
24. Emily Doolittle
I don’t think much about being a woman when I’m writing music, but certainly being a woman has shaped my development as a composer. Certain musical environments are much more open to women than others, and of course I’ve gravitated towards the environments where I’m welcome—and those environments in turn have shaped my music interests and aesthetic.
Being a woman might also make me more suspicious of the idea of a canon (or a “great composer”), since I’m aware of how many people get excluded for non-musical reasons like gender or race. Of course the composers in the canon have written lots of fantastic music—but so have many people who are less known.
My advice is to send out scores and apply to everything you can. And don’t get discouraged by rejection, just keep sending things out (and of course ask for feedback when it is available). In 2012 I decided to apply for 100 things, ranging from calls to scores to large grant applications. I didn’t make it to 100—but having that as a goal was helpful. Of course there were lots of rejections, but also lots of acceptances, and the amazing thing is that good things are still coming from this 5 years later!
25. Charlotte Bray
Life shapes my experience as an artist—how I feel and how I choose to respond to the world around me through the means I have at my disposal. These experiences are wholly individual. I do not know how it would feel to be a man and experience these things. Can gender really play a part in shaping experiences that are so acutely individual?
Having an unwavering confidence in your ideas and your own creativity is very important. Also, focusing on what you want to achieve and paying attention to how you can reach these aspirations.
26. Amy Brandon
When I first took up the guitar in the mid-90s, it was unusual for a woman to play. Guitar magazines were comically sexist and music stores or jams were all-male spaces for the most part. At the time I was also interested in jazz and audio engineering, which were similar in gender distribution, and so it seemed wherever I went, it was only men I interacted with. I find it hard to categorize these experiences, because most were good and some were great.
I was occasionally the recipient of some outright sexism, but on reflection, I think the thing that disturbs me most is the fact that these all-male musical situations were considered normal by the men who inhabited them. The complete absence of women in these fields and spaces was not recognized as a problem, or the slightest bit unusual, or concerning. And if it was pointed out, it was assumed that women were ‘simply not interested.’ Being conscious of this has shaped me as an artist. I realized that sometimes it’s not possible to fight a problem that the majority does not believe exists. Instead, I simply chose to be self-sustaining and work mostly as a solo artist.
My advice is to exist and create. Take up space. Also, don’t rely on others. Whatever you need done, learn how to do it yourself.
27. Vivian Fung
I never considered that being a woman would really affect my work as a composer until most recently when I gave birth to my son. Of course, life is more complicated now with my extremely active toddler—now 20 months old—but I have to say that he has made me even more creative and has affirmed my passion and excitement for my work.
My son has put my life into a more complete perspective—my heart is filled with the desire to make the world a better place through my work as an artist and community member. I have become less self-absorbed since I have become responsible for someone else, and I have begun to see through my son’s eyes. This is such a wonderful gift for any artist to have, to be able to make a connection to your inner child and be reminded of it daily.
Trust your instincts, trust your instincts, trust your instincts. Looking back, I should have trusted more often that little whisper in my head telling me to do something or not do something. Female leadership is still relatively new in our profession, and what is right for one person may not be for another. There is no formula for being a successful artist.
28. Sandra Dedrick
So many things shape us as artists. Growing from a little girl to womanhood is filled with experiences that we internalize, and often our creative expression depends upon how we respond to the major influences in our lives as much as our innate talent.
Of course, you have to ‘show up on the page’ every day and put in the tremendous amount of time and effort it takes to develop your art. Love of what you are doing makes this investment easy, even though it is hard work. But also give time to your other interests—the ones in which you can ‘lose yourself.’ Whether it’s listening to great music, reading, writing, drawing—whatever you enjoy that inspires you will be a benefit to you and your music.
I have found it so important to have good friends who love me and support my endeavors—and to be my own ‘best’ friend. Be kind and encouraging of yourself. Take good care of yourself physically, too. If you have a sense of well-being, you’ll be eager to put pen to paper. Writing usually means sitting for long hours, so a balance with moving is a good thing. Walk, dance, do Pilates, swim—just move. Then when you sit down to write, the energy flows freely.
And last: do write from your heart. Be authentically ‘you’. It will be felt by your listeners in a deep way and it will inspire them—perhaps even lead them to find and express their own creativity.
29. Janice Giteck
Everything about being a woman, our culture and beyond, has shaped who I am as an artist!
My advice is to make your most honest and best work, don’t carry a chip on your shoulder about being a woman in a predominantly male profession, and accept that every composer is struggling to make a living!
30. Leah Kardos
In the sense of my own subjective experience as an artist, it’s difficult to say one way or the other if being a woman has affected me. My music is a language that expresses who I am, what I’m thinking and feeling, and how I see the world—all of which is wrapped up in my identity which has to include my gender, right?
Then again, I’m not sure if music itself is gendered (as in when you listen to it it can betray itself as male or female or other), so perhaps what I’m referring to is more about the individualism of creativity. I do get slightly annoyed at how the gender of a music creator can alter the language people use to talk about it: gentle music from male creators can be seen as a mark of ‘sensitivity’ or ‘emotional depth,’ but for females it’s ‘soft’ and/or ‘sensual’; for more exciting and risky music it might be bold/strident/confident vs angry/emotional/furious. Argh.
My advice is to never shrink yourself to fit anyone else’s expectations. Always show up on time, be excellent, and roll up your own cables.
31. Nina Kotova
My education as a musician came not as a result of my family’s background in music, but in spite of it. I came from the family of my father, the well-known double bass player Ivan Kotov. My parents appreciated the hardship of a career in music and didn’t naturally have any plans for my upbringing in music. I had to ask for it.
Growing up, my neighbor wrote multiple complaints to my school and to my father’s orchestra stating that I practiced 8 hours a day. When the school office reacted by being proud of their student’s dedication, the frustrated, wall-knocking neighbor threw a brick into our apartment’s window. The apartment building’s rules committee then required me at 7 years old to practice in the filthy and unsanitary basement of the building.
At an early age, perseverance and systematical hard work became my second nature. My teachers and my own dedication to music sculpted me as a professional artist, and it also gave me everything I needed in order to perform, teach, and compose works for stage and cinema.
Being a musician chisels one’s personality. There are examples of great women-soloists, mothers and wives, who I admire and whose examples have been guiding lights for me. People turn to these women for advice and emotional support. They are beacons of kindness and human dignity.
32. Marilyn Shrude
Interestingly enough being a “woman” composer was never in the forefront of my thoughts as I was developing. I just wanted to be a “good” composer—woman or not. I was also active as a performer (duo with my husband, saxophonist John Sampen) and a teacher (faculty of Bowling Green State University since 1977). Integral to this was being the mother of two fabulous children—Maria and David—both outstanding musicians.
My leadership roles have been an outgrowth of these experiences and have given me insights beyond what might be more routine. I have worked to help establish a culture of contemporary music on our campus and, in fact, wherever I may be. In the past few years, however, and on the heels of an election that was not only personally disappointing but compromised forward momentum for women’s rights on a larger scale, we should continue to strive for excellence and to promote the cause of women in every way possible. Our journey will never be easy, but we must move ahead with positive resolve.
33. Ella Milch-Sheriff
I was never interested in being included in “women’s concerts” and events similar to that. I thought that my music has to have its substance and quality with no connection to my gender. But on the other hand, I found it much more attractive for me to deal with other women creators, poets, authors, librettists, etc.
The themes I choose in my works (many of them are based on texts) are often connected to women. Still, I would not like generally to be put in a framework of “women composers” and I do hope that my works are being performed with no connection to my gender.
An artist is an artist and if he or she has something to say which is authentic, no matter in which style. Still, in our world, flooded with so much information and creation, one must be assertive and resourceful. We should not be put in drawers, we should take every opportunity to express our opinion and present our music. It is not easy sometimes. Every artist has hesitations and reservations (I do…) but we must go on and put the natural fear aside.
34. Joan Jeanrenaud
I am a woman and so it is part of my identity as an artist. It is who I am and therefore cannot be separated out from how I play or write music. Having said that, I’ve always considered myself ‘one of the guys’…meaning I am no different from anyone else either.
My advice is to believe in yourself and be committed to your vision.
35. Cindy McTee
My gender expression exists somewhere along a continuum between the two stereotypical extremes of masculine and feminine. At times, my ways of being and making music are more traditionally “masculine” than “feminine” while at other times they are the reverse. I recognize and accept this diversity within myself and my art, and I aspire, not to neutralize or homogenize it, but to integrate it fully and celebrate it.
36. Christine Donkin
I don’t think that when engaging in an artistic process we are necessarily rooted to the same gender as the one with which we identify as human beings. From the point of view of inspiration and creativity, no, I don’t think that my experiences as an artist have been shaped by my gender.
However, I do think that to a certain extent other people’s perceptions of me as a composer are influenced by my gender (just as I probably have certain subconscious expectations of other composers based on their gender). It’s a very complicated issue and one that I sense rather than understand, but I think it’s sometimes possible to take advantage of people’s expectations of what music by female composers is like, either by fulfilling those expectations or by not fulfilling them and creating something that takes listeners down a new path.
As for advice for other female-identifying composers: I think it’s important to explore both of the options listed above, i.e. music that aligns with what you think is expected of you, and music that shatters those expectations. Both are valuable in my view—it’s just a case of knowing which option is appropriate for which creative situation.
37. Gina Gillie
I have been very fortunate to have had the education, encouragement and success that I have had so far as a performer and now a composer. However, one need not look far to find evidence of a massive gender gap both in performance and composition. As an example, after 89 years of Academy Awards, we have had fewer than 10 female composers receive a nomination for “Best Score.” Clearly, there are institutional barriers and social messages that have not allowed for women to have equal representation as composers.
Growing up listening to “classical” music and performing it, I didn’t even think about the fact that almost none of the music I was playing or listening to was written by women. As with anything, education leads to discovery. During my undergraduate and graduate years, I became aware of the massive gender gap both in the worlds of performance and composition. Being aware of this lack of representation inspired me to want to help fill the gap.
My advice would be to find advocates who actively help you achieve your goals, and make your product as visible as possible. Perform your own works as often as you can or ask friends to perform them. The best way to get recognition for your work is for it to be heard as widely and as often as possible.
38. Judith Lang Zaimont
Women who compose have to get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to entertain large ambition—the capacity to aspire to major accomplishment. While all artists are by definition exceptional people, composers must be exceptional even amongst all musicians. For these leaders, merely to contribute is not enough. Leaders believe it’s essential to place their personal stamp on their art form, and this should occur on a continuing basis. Thus large ambition: the expression of the ego.
I refuse to revisit or bring forward old stereotypes, nor will I recount tales of past patterns of discrimination. What turns out to be the factor of cardinal significance is the sheer number of active participants: Women composers as a group need to be perceived as a presence, doing great work, and in places well above the horizon line!
We have in fact already achieved critical mass: presence in numbers sufficient so that the progress of a group of practitioners begins to have statistical significance. Through the message of numbers comes public recognition. For composers to know they have predecessors is an essential tool, and a weapon against the debilitating effects of isolation. Click here to read more.
39. Stella Sung
I am not absolutely certain that my role as an artist either has or has not been particularly shaped by being a woman. I have been fortunate enough to have be able to work as a composer, writing music and doing projects that I believe have not been influenced because of my gender. None of my compositions have been held to any gender-specific theme or concept.
Being female, I think one is generally aware of the gender question, but I’ve tried to write music that has no gender so that audiences do not feel tempted to find the “female” in the music.
That being said, I do believe that women still generally have a more difficult time in entering the symphonic, opera, and particularly the film music worlds. Opera America is to be commended for their work in promoting women opera composers, but the opportunities for programming works by female composers by major orchestras, opera houses, feature and full length films, etc. seem to still be limited.
As the work of modern women composers becomes more and more recognized through thoughtful and impactful programming, I do believe that female composers will be able to take our rightful places amongst our male counterparts so that eventually, there will be an equal amount of programming by both male and female composers. Thanks to radio stations such as KING FM, exposure to the wealth of music by women composers is coming into its own.
40. Laurie Spiegel
I’ve always felt I was an individual much more than a member of any category of personhood, and my music has tended to come from just plain love of the art and the process of doing it rather than connecting with any concept or image of self.
The idea of “role models” never seemed important to me. The primary relationship in composing has always been between me and the sounds and the tools I use to make them. The ideas of “being a composer” or “woman composer” or any external view of self is an afterthought, byproduct or artifact of that primary relationship with the music itself.
If I have any advice to offer, it might be not to look at yourself from outside or try to anticipate how others will see, categorize, or judge you. Just focus and immerse yourself in what you are passionate about and love, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not worth it or that you can’t do what you want. Only actually trying to will answer the question of whether or not you can.
41. Alex Shapiro
Being in the minority of one’s peers offers the advantage of sticking out from the crowd, so to speak. In my experiences in both the concert and the commercial music fields, I’ve never been aware of being discriminated against, and instead have noticed that a lot of wonderful opportunities have come to me by dint of being a woman composer. This is in no way to claim that discrimination and harassment don’t exist—they most certainly do.
My advice is at once musically, socially, and professionally, reflect the definition of what it is to be a 21st century composer. Musically, I always suggest that a composer needs to spend as much time as possible composing, and that she should pay attention to where her true musical voice lies, because that will most likely be the area in which she discovers the greatest happiness and success. It’s crucial to be honest with oneself and create the projects that are the most personally compelling.
Socially, one must show up in person, and online, regularly. Go to events, meetings, conferences, online sites, blogs, social media, etc. where other composers and musicians are found—because the community and tribal aspect of our lives plays a very significant role in how we get our music out into the world. Composers may think that they’re in the music-making business, but more broadly, they’re in the relationship-making business.
For any composer who is interested in earning money from her work: learn as much as you possibly can about publishing and the worth of your copyright, so that you will be able to benefit wisely from the uses of the art you create!
Very importantly: don’t let other people’s definition of what success is affect your own, very personal definition. Each of us has our own path, and there are many, many roads and individual choices that lead us to joy, and to an artistically rewarding life. Always listen to your heart.
42. Lois V Vierk
The best advice I know of for a young composer is to find the very best teachers and mentors, who can show you what you want and need to know. Don’t settle for second best. Both teacher and student need to be able to communicate deeply with each other about musical matters. Gender, race, etc. is irrelevant.
As a woman composer, I’m so grateful for the women who went before me, who fought battles that I never needed to. That meant that often I could concentrate solely on my music. Here’s an important example from my early days in the field: my first real composition teacher was Leonard Stein in the 1970s. Leonard was a great musician and a protégée of Arnold Schoenberg. He played all sorts of contemporary music on the piano, though he was not a composer himself. Leonard could analyze any piece of music. When I came to study with him, he led me through a myriad of new music scores—Schoenberg, Berio, Stockhausen, LaMonte Young, Takemitsu, etc. He encouraged me to find my own voice. He did not care a bit that I was female. I was a young composer to him. That’s exactly what I needed—the best instruction, with nothing extraneous getting in the way.
My wish is for all young composers to have this. Women composers, I hope you will insist on finding it!
43. Angélica Negrón
I’ve honestly never consciously thought about how being a woman has shaped my experience as an artist, as this is just one of many things that make me who I am. I’m sure it’s informed my experience as an artist and I’m also very aware that there’s obviously an unequal field of opportunities for men compared to women in many areas, music being one of them, but I’ve always just done my own thing without thinking much about these external considerations.
If anything I think the experience of being a women has made me more resilient to strive for what I want and more passionate about being highly committed to empowering through creative education other young girls who might see or experience things differently.
I would advise other female-identifying artists who are aspiring to creative leadership roles to believe in themselves no matter what others say, to create the opportunities that do not exist, to always think outside the box, and to never be afraid to speak out, because there’s always someone that will listen.
44. Hilary Tann
In the 70s there were not many known women composers. This gave me the freedom to choose my own path. The bar was low for women, so I enjoyed the freedom to explore musical languages different from the studied complexity of total serialism.
There was also the thrill of finding, in America, fledgling organizations such as the International League of Women Composers, American Women Composers, and the International Congress of Women in Music (all of which eventually united to form the International Alliance of Women in Music). I have loved getting to know my sister-musicians. I have loved hearing their works. I have loved seeing/hearing women receive more and more of the respect they so richly deserve.
My advice is to network, network, network! Never assume that the woman you are talking to is not a woman who might change the musical world as we know it. Honor your performers! Contemporary music requires skill and dedication—we composers need our performers. Nurture them, compliment them, encourage them—and, above all, learn from them.
45. Pamela Z
I suppose being a woman has affected my work in much the same way that any substantial attribute of one’s life does—but I tend not to be consciously focused on gender when thinking about my work. As far as the effect it has had on my career, I think that things are much improved in that regard since when I first began working in this field. More women are getting the notice and respect they deserve in music, although gender continues to be a barrier for many women even today. Women are still being passed over for conducting posts, orchestra positions, and audio engineering jobs, for example.
I guess I’ve been lucky in that regard. Perhaps the “hard to categorize” nature of my work has positioned me such that more doors are open to me than closed. I get included in festivals and events around art and technology, electronic music, new opera, women in the arts, sound art, et cetera—in addition to just plain garden variety contemporary music festivals. And, there seem to be a number of presenters programming festivals of women composers specifically.
It used to bother me to be programmed based on my gender, but I eventually had to understand that the organizers were aiming to equalize things in a world where opportunities are still stacked very unevenly. But I really long for the day when this kind of curatorial segregation will be unnecessary, and music programming will be inclusive across the board.
As artists, I would advise women to make the work they really want to make, and don’t allow themselves to be held back by stereotypes or expectations around what kind of work they are “supposed to be” making. I’d also advise them to go out and see other artists’ work. Regard that work with very open eyes and ears, and allow yourself to take inspiration from the qualities it has that move you or shake you to your core.
But above all: make work! Don’t just endlessly plan “someday I’d like to make this that or the other.” Just get to work and make things.
46. Christine Ott
Artistic experiences are very closely linked to your own sensitivity and delicacy, which influence and shape your playing aptitude and also the way you listen to each other. My sensitivity gives me a unique perspective on piano and ondes Martenot, and a distinctive way of interpreting and analyzing musical works—though I think that sensitivity is more closely linked to character than to gender.
Being a woman has a much greater influence on your experience when you are leading a collective, since sometimes musicians and men have difficulties being directed by a woman (and especially a woman with such a strong sense of character, who knows where she wants to go with her music). That “rapport de force,” and finding that balance has helped to build my character, and to be confident in myself and my compositions—to take initiative and fight my shyness.
I have found some musicians have a harder time accepting my advice or remarks about their musical interpretation or way of playing because I’m a woman—or sometimes men in the production room don’t respect my vision or arrangements. I had this a little by on my first album, Solitude Nomade. I think the main difference is when you compose as a woman, you need to prove yourself certainly more and more.
My advice to women is to just to follow your sensibility, listen to your heart, and keep confidence in yourself, keep trusting your natural intuitions and spontaneous feelings.
47. Ewa Trębacz
Being a professional composer is more like a calling than a career. It almost always requires making difficult personal choices, and some of those may seem irrational to the rest of the world. Those choices will be often different for women than for men.
My advice is to persevere! Be ready to re-think, re-group, and start over. And over again. Be flexible, adapt quickly to changing circumstances and don’t waste your time on things out of your control, but stand your ground when it matters. When it comes to things that are most important to you—artistically, and professionally—don’t give an inch.
Avoid being labeled as a “woman composer” in the context of aesthetics or styles. Music written by women composers is as stylistically varied as music composed by man. Music doesn’t fit in ready-made boxes.
Develop an ability to wait for good things to happen. Sometimes it takes a long time, and may mean giving up on smaller but more frequent opportunities. Save your time and energy for important things. When a big professional opportunity arrives: jump and take big risks.
To finish, I have a positive example from Poland. About 15 years ago, Tadeusz Wielecki, while director of a major international music festival “Warsaw Autumn”, made a bold statement by programming more music by women composers and commissioning new works from women. This jump-started several careers of emerging women artists, myself included. More importantly, it propagated through concert halls and venues around Poland, and it took less than a decade to achieve a balanced situation. Sometimes it just takes one leader with a vision and courage to initiate a change, and I believe this can happen in the US too.
48. Roxanna Panufnik
I sometimes wonder whether my current level of success might have been achieved sooner had I not taken three mini “sabbaticals” each time I had a baby—but I have certainly made up for lost time in between, so probably not! That aside, I’m not sure that my gender has affected my career path—only in that in the early days, when there were less women composers around (say 20 years ago), it made me more visible which was a fantastic advantage!
Male and female artists—I implore you all to be your wonderful selves and NEVER give up as a result of any kind of rejection, however big or small!
49. Jessie Montgomery
One of the main problems with being a female composer up until this point in time is that there haven’t been many prominent or celebrated examples of excellent contributors to our field until very recently. Being both female and African-American and composing classical-influenced music in the United States, I have been very aware of how important role-modeling is when it comes to music education and building one’s sense of what is possible for a life in the arts (or any other profession for that matter).
When I think about the kind of determination our predecessors must have felt, pursuing their passion with even fewer role models, it makes me realize how important it is to think of yourself not as a “female composer” but as a person, with a mind and a drive and a talent who is digging in deep within herself to find her voice.
The gift of creativity is something we all share as human beings and no matter who came before, we all have to be willing to do the hard work that continues to give voice to our music and our humanity. We are lucky to be where we are, to have so many exceptional role models currently, and to gain inspiration from their lives and music—but the work of being an artist does not get easier. You have a chance and a challenge ahead of you and no matter what, you are going to have to work hard.
50. Liona Boyd
Being a woman whose career took off in the mid-70s, I found myself in a man’s world as the classical guitar scene was dominated by men. In my first autobiography In My Own Key: My Life in Love and Music I wrote a lot about the chauvinism I encountered in the record labels, promoters, agents, etc., and the “casting couch” mentality that I constantly had to deal with.
On the other hand as women classical guitarists were practically non-existent after Ida Presti died in 1967, I was probably given more promotional opportunities since I was a woman. People would tell me that I brought an extra feminine sensitivity to the music, but I think that was more because I had always been, and still am a romantic, having lived in Mexico and France.
I think women still need to be persistent, hard-working, original, and creative if they are to make a career as a performer. What has always kept me going is that I have been in love with my instrument ever since I was 13 and started to play. Choose the instrument and the music you most love, don’t listen to your detractors, and if you can turn your passion into your career, your life will be greatly enriched.
51. Sandrine Erdely-Sayo
It’s important to be open to new ideas, to be capable of exploring reality and being flexible in our own thoughts. Inspiration is a favor granted by nature to someone who possesses creative faculty.
I would tell other women composers to protect themselves from anything destructive and ugly; I would tell them that a true artistic conscience does not stop at one style and is not satisfied with only one form of expression. The more we learn, the more we enhance our potential for creativity. And I would add: let your heart speak, keep a cool head and a transparency in the work, as we are at the service of music and beauty.
52. Alicia Grant
To be honest, I don’t identify as a “female composer,” but simply as a “composer.” Creativity can flow into any vessel that is receptive, male or female.
That said, inequality still exists in the profession (something I’m perplexed about), so my advice to other female artists is to 1) not let the setbacks get you down (no creative journey is a straightforward line!), 2) keep writing what feels authentic to you (even if this attracts the criticism of others), and 3) be prepared to stand back and let the music speak for itself.
53. Thea Musgrave
As you can imagine, I have frequently been asked over the years about being a woman composer. I like to respond by saying yes I am a woman and yes I am a composer, but rarely simultaneously!
Growing up when I did in Great Britain there were some notable role models—Dame Ethel Smythe, Elizabeth Maconchy, Elizabeth Lutyens, and Priaulx Rainier, for example—so it really wasn’t so unusual for me as a young woman at the time to visualize myself as a composer.
One of the most fulfilling and emotionally satisfying aspects of being a composer of dramatic works is the absolute necessity of throwing yourself fully in each character, male or female, in order to bring them to life with emotional as well as musical truth.
I also explore this dramatic principle which rises beyond gender in a lot of my orchestral and chamber music works, where individual instruments take on a dramatic persona and personality. I think the instruments themselves take on characteristics that, whereas they can seem at times either masculine or feminine, really transcend generally accepted gender definitions and reach for an even more universal human value and experience.
54. Nancy Van de Vate
Being a woman has shaped my experiences as an artist in many ways. First, as a woman, I knew that opportunities in my field would be much more limited, and to continue would demand unshakable resolution, whether it led to any success or not. Second, as a woman I understood the value of collaboration and networking, something women and mothers of young children do every day of their lives. Third, I was aware that the feelings and ideas of women also need to be expressed in music, not only those of men.
My advice to other female-identifying artists is first, never forget that it is your right to be a composer (or other artist). You do not have to justify your wish to be creative and allowed to practice your profession. Too often we are asked why we want to be composers! Also, don’t be ashamed to insist on your rights, even if it involves controversy. After all, we were not even allowed to vote until relatively recently, and without much protest from women themselves, we would not have gained that right at all.
Secondly, remember that there is strength in numbers, and above all, work together with other women to achieve your collective rights. Also, make that work as visible as possible—women demonstrating together in public is a powerful tool, whereas the champion who tries to go it alone, is often labelled an eccentric, however unfair that may be.
Thirdly, your right to compose does not mean you must be a second Beethoven. You cannot develop as a composer without encouragement and especially the opportunity to hear your own music. Mozart began to compose at six because he had the opportunity and the means to do so. Someone once asked Leonard Bernstein’s father why he had delayed letting his son take piano lessons until long after he showed his desire to do so and his outstanding talent. His father’s answer: “I didn’t know he was Leonard Bernstein.”
And last but not least, encourage women performers and music teachers to always include a piece by a woman (no matter how short) on any program. It needs to become “the new normal.”
Large music publishers rarely take women composers—each has at most one or two token women. Since they are also the promoters of their composers, in the past it has been a great handicap for women in getting their music performed or making anyone aware that the music even exists. Now with YouTube and online resources like Musica Neo, anyone can access our music, anywhere and at any time. Internet Radio is also a great help. Most Internet broadcasters are simply music lovers, not influenced by commercial publicity or advertising.
Suddenly women composers can reach the whole world!
Listen to works by all of the above composers and many more on March 8 during our 24-hour Women in (New) Music Marathon on Second Inversion! Click here to tune in.
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