Giving Voice to Female Conductors and Composers

This past fall, I attended a conductors and composers forum at a nearby college. When it was time for the students to pose questions, one student remarked, “I am an aspiring composer. I cannot help but notice that of this entire panel, everyone save one composer is male. What message is this sending to me as a young woman?” I was able to speak to this student after the forum, and came away thinking seriously about this issue. What can we do as educators to ensure that our students are exposed to a diverse and varied choral repertoire, even on such a basic level as considering the gender of those we are choosing to program? How can we encourage our own students, male or female, to see themselves in the conductors and composers they aspire to be?

I do not have any definitive answers, but I do have some suggestions from my own experience:

Commission works by female composers
During my time at Mount Holyoke I have commissioned works by both male and female composers, but I have found that my students gain the most insight from performing new works by female composers. Part of this is surely because my students and I feel like we are doing our part to serve an underrepresented musical voice. In 2012, Phyllis Chen wrote a piece for the Mount Holyoke Chorale entitled “Song for Syrinx,” based upon the myth of the same name. The choir was accompanied by a music box, water glasses, and a cello played unconventionally. In 2014, Reena Esmail wrote a piece for the Mount Holyoke Glee Club called “Tuttarana,” a work that combined the composer’s interest in Northern Hindustani improvisational music (tarana) with the lush harmonies of the 21st century (tutti). On both of these occasions, I invited the composers to the college to workshop with the choirs. These workshops allowed the students to see a piece of music as a living thing; it also made these composers and their creative processes truly accessible to my students.

Program works by female composers
Although much of the repertoire we learn about in our choral literature classes is written by men, it is vital that we include the female voice in the narrative of choral music. This coming spring, the Mount Holyoke choral ensembles will perform a concert entitled “Women of Note,” which will feature works by female composers. Besides the 20th-21st century female composers that we all know and love, there is a wide breadth of earlier music to explore— Hildegard, Margarita Cozzolani, Amy Beach, and Lili Boulanger have all written works for women’s choir. If you have an SATB ensemble, the possibilities are even greater! In your concerts throughout the year, make it a priority for each event to feature at least one work by a female composer.

Invite an established female conductor to work with your choir
This past November, I invited Dr. Amanda Quist to Mount Holyoke to conduct a clinic with my three ensembles. Not only was this clinic musically beneficial, it also gave my students the chance to meet a woman who is in a top-level position in the field of education and choral music. Dr. Quist also happened to be one of my teachers in graduate school. I told my choirs, “You are about to meet your choral grandmother!” I cannot begin to express what it meant to me as a young aspiring conductor to have female role models. Promoting a lineage that is not solely based on male teachers and conductors is eye-opening and empowering, and will make a larger impact on your students than you will ever know.

Collaborate with a professional women’s ensemble
You don’t have to conduct a women’s choir to expose your students to the magic of the female voice. This coming April, the Boston-based Lorelei Ensemble (directed by Beth Willer) will perform alongside the Mount Holyoke Chamber Singers during a two-day residency at Mount Holyoke College. In preparation for this event, some of my Chamber Singers took a field trip to Boston to attend the Lorelei Ensemble’s most recent concert. My students were not only impressed by the complexity of the music and the artistry of the ensemble, but I could tell that they found power in seeing women they could relate to performing music at such a high level, with new repertoire that pushed the boundaries of what women’s voices “can do.”

None of these suggestions are revolutionary, but when put into practice, I believe their impact can be. When we ask our students to close their eyes and imagine the world’s greatest conductor or composer, we want at least half of those students to be imagining women. All it takes to make these changes is a little bit of forethought and a lot of awareness. These efforts are not only invaluable for female students who aspire to be composers or conductors and are desperately seeking role models, but perhaps more important for all students—nay, people—to become comfortable seeing women in positions of power.