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Soapbox: A Short Post About Women and the Musical Canon

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soapboxAs you know, one of my projects for 2017 is making sure I’m listening to a lot more music by women by compiling a youtube playlist. One of the obvious points that keeps coming out in my commentaries on the pieces is how splendid so much of them are, and how boggling it is that I didn’t previously know it.

A possibly less obvious, and certainly less polite, point is that it makes me wonder how some of the repertoire by men that I do know seems to be taken seriously. I’m not saying that, say, Schumann wasn’t a ‘genius’ (though I am putting in scare quotes to distance myself from that rather loaded label), but I am saying that the label unhelpfully keeps some of his more irritating efforts in the repertoire (Symphony No 4, I am looking at you) when there are clearly better examples of the genre that get ignored because they are by people to whom the ‘genius’ label has been withheld – i.e. women.

Anyway, that is just a bit of introductory padding and context for what is basically a very simple thought, but one that is important enough to warrant a stand-alone blog post. It is this:

The argument for including the music of female composers in the curriculum is often articulated in terms of offering female students role models. And that’s a point with some merit – it helps mitigate impostor syndrome to know that you are neither a pioneer nor a mutant, and that creative activity is a perfectly normal female pursuit.

But it’s not the most important reason. One can, as I and many other competent and confident female musicians can attest, go through your musical education bereft of female role models and still emerge with a robust set of skills and deep identification as a musician.

The primary value in including the music of female composers in the curriculum is to train male musicians to treat their female peers with respect.

If you have never been required to put the effort into a piece of music by a woman that it takes to, say, perform it fluently, or analyse it in detail, you have been taught to ignore what women do and say. You will never have experienced what it is like to pay close attention to the shape of a woman’s thought, to consider what she was intending to convey, to admire her technical resources, or be moved by her vision.

Whether or not a woman’s insight would be ‘different’ from a man’s isn’t the point. (On that, I am happy to agree with the ‘I’m gender blind I just care about good music’ brigade.) What matters is that advanced training in music currently accustoms you to pay this kind of systematic reverence to the output of only one gender.

So when you meet real women during your career, you have no experience of offering them the attention and respect you routinely offer male musicians. Whatever your consciously-held beliefs and values, whatever your own gender indeed, this issue of basic habits leads you to see your male colleagues more vividly than your female ones.

Hmm, not so very short after all. But the key point is para 6. I’ll repeat it here so you don’t miss it amidst all the other discussion:

The primary value in including the music of female composers in the curriculum is to train male musicians to treat their female peers with respect.

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