As a woman who works in classical music, both in trumpet performance and journalism, I’m often reminded of the divide between men and women in the field. Music is a universal language that has the power to unite diverse societies and bring people together, so why is it that women have remained so under-represented in the concert hall? In the wake of International Women’s Day, now is the time for the industry to reflect on what it’s really like to be a woman making a living in classical music. 

2013 saw Marin Alsop become the first woman to conduct the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms. A good thing, right? Yes, until you realise that it’s taken 118 years to get to this point. Progress has been painfully slow. This can be put down to many reasons, including preconceived judgements which are so ingrained in our society that we are not even sure how to change them. A prime example is the role of working mothers, particularly in touring orchestras.

The question here is less about why women are under-represented, because we can all hazard a guess as to the reasons. The important thing is how we can make change, and the first step is to keep the discussion open and moving. This is not a problem just for women to tackle. It’s for everyone who loves this music. There are only a handful of women working at the top of the profession, like conductor Marin Alsop, trumpeter Alison Balsom and composer Judith Weir. What young girls need is more role models, and fast.

Although some steps forward have been made, there are still some worrying statistics being published by orchestras and other classical music organisations. The 2017 Bachtrack report shows that only five out of the 100 ‘busiest conductors’ are women, and their list of the top 100 composers performed includes no women at all. In 2012, The Independent reported that out of all the UK’s top orchestras, only 29% of the musicians were women. More promisingly, the gender split in youth orchestras is around 50:50, which could mean that the top orchestras will begin to even out over time. 

The idea that in 2018 we are still finding ‘firsts’ for women in music is alarming, but not surprising. What young people need is the confidence that they’ll be able to achieve in classical music according to their ability, whatever their gender. The women with the talent are there. They just need the opportunity to join the top orchestras, conduct the best musicians, and have their music programmed into concert seasons. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018-19 season features no women composers and no women conductors – a real disappointment. The change needs to start at the top, as well as at the start of a young person’s musical education, so that the two spheres can balance each other out. 

Change won’t come if we stop talking about this. As a society, we must remain open to moving forward and making the change happen in the first place. Let’s make sure we continue to support, nurture and inspire young women to enter classical music with the best chances possible.

SOUNDWAVES

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Alex Burns