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Gender and Gesture

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The posture of the conductor will set the example for the choir. Usually stay erect, with the body expanded. Women directors should stand with their feet only as far apart as is necessary to maintain good balance.

Paul Roe, Choral Music Education

ChoralReef has a fascinating post about gender and conducting, ranging from generic questions of gestural clarity, to different types of leadership style, to the question of ‘girly gestures’. Here it homes right in on the key issue that women face when they become conductors: if we do it the same as guys do, then we’re branded as inappropriately unfeminine, if we do it differently, we’re girly and not to be taken seriously. One of the commenters on the post replies with the opinion that female conductors should ‘leave their gender at the door’. This is just such one of those ‘well, yes, but….’ type suggestions that I wanted to spend a bit of time contemplating it.

(He also said that ChoralGirl conducts like a man – meaning it as a compliment – which is always a slightly baffling type of compliment to receive. It’s nice to be taken seriously as a musician, but you can’t help noticing that it implies that conducting like a woman is implicitly an insult.)

So, the idea of leaving our gender at the door is a classic statement of liberal feminism. Yes, girls can and should do anything that boys do – just stop putting obstacles in our way and we’ll get on with it. It also plugs in to the aesthetic of absolute music that holds that music itself is an abstract, even transcendent art, that it is above such worldly issues as gender or race or politics, or anything that is concretely mired in everyday life. By leaving our gender at the door, we divest ourselves of the mucky specificities of human life, and engage directly with this spiritual dimension. It’s not about us, it’s about the music.

Now, in all sorts of ways, I like this set of idealist values. It gets your head in a good place to engage with music, and does indeed provide a useful discourse to tell anyone who has issues with female conductors to get over themselves.

But it neatly ignores the fact that it’s only women who are required to leave their gender behind. Guys are not required to abandon their masculinity when they take to the podium. There is no perceived dissonance between ‘traditional’ styles of conducting gesture and a masculine identity. Probably most male conductors think they *do* leave their gender at the door, indeed – they are probably mostly unaware of how much they carry their gender with them, simply because the masculine has been so conflated with the human in general both in musical culture and culture at large. Nobody is worried about male conductors keeping their knees together.

Moreover, as ChoralGirl points out, you may decide to leave your own gender at the door, but that doesn’t stop your ensemble watching you through the filter of their own gender expectations. And that is why I get uncomfortable with that kind of liberal feminist position framed as an instruction from men to women. It’s a way of saying (a) that women are welcome to participate, so long as they do it exactly as men have always done and (b) that any resistance that they may meet is their own problem and don’t expect anyone else to change.

So, what do we do? Well, just as we always have – we just get on with it. Helping people make good music is our best revenge against these critiques. And it is in the practical experience of working with our ensembles that we find a way to negotiate that seam between our social identities as gendered beings and musical identities as carriers of a gestural tradition.

Oh, and I had written this post and scheduled it when I found that Allegra Martin had posted a response to the self-same comment a couple of weeks back. If you haven't already checked out her views on the matter, do so now. I'm not saying her post is better than mine, but you need to read it nonetheless.

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