Esther Jones

Issue: March 2016

Jobs for the girls? Women in choral leadership

10:45, 8th March 2016

The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain are tackling tradition in their next concert, including the predominance of men in choral leadership. Deputy music director Esther Jones led a conversation between four of the women involved in the concert to ask what progress is being made – and what remains to be done

In its next concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 10 April, the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain are seeking to celebrate the British choral tradition – and also to expand public perceptions of what that tradition includes and entails. One of the notions that the concert hopes to challenge is that the creation and artistic leadership of choral music are predominantly male vocations.

To this end the NYCGB has commissioned new works from composer Kerry Andrew and comedian and songwriter Vikki Stone, and the programme will also feature music by Roxanna Panufnik and arrangements by myself and Rachel Staunton, who will also be conducting. Earlier this year, Kerry, Vikki, Rachel and I came together for a discussion about women in music. The two main questions were: what are the issues; and what can be done about them? As a starting point, I reviewed some statistics compiled by Women in Music based on analysis of last year’s BBC Proms programme (available at tinyurl.com/MTNYCGB).

Women in music
Esther Jones: Only two out of 50 of last year’s Proms conductors were women, and ten percent of composers featured were women. Things were better in the case of living composers – 36% – but no piece by a woman was longer than 12 minutes, whereas 24 living male composers had featured works of over 15 minutes in duration. The Proms is the largest classical music festival in the world and one of the most visible, yet women are distinctly underrepresented.
Vikki Stone: It’s the same story in my part of the musical industry. I’m on the verge of having a musical commissioned and if it goes ahead I’ll be one of the only women in this country with a show in town.

Esther Jones
Esther Jones

Esther: In my field, it’s not that women aren’t working as choral leaders. The Association of British Choral Directors reports that 47% of its membership is female. However, most of these are working with school and community choirs, with very few working with top professional singers. I think the only high-profile choral concert I have ever seen conducted by a woman was Jane Glover directing the BBC Singers in the Proms when I was a teenager. This isn’t to deny the presence or achievements of women like conductor Marin Alsop on the international stage, or Katherine Dienes Williams, the first female director of music in an English cathedral, or choral directors like Suzi Digby and Sarah Tenant-Flowers who have founded their own professional ensembles; and just this year, the Wigmore Hall has appointed Helen Grime as its composer and residence, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has appointed Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla as its next music director. But they constitute a significant minority

Roles and responsibilities
Rachel Staunton: As to why there are so many female choral directors working at school and community level, I think that women often have a nurturing and compassionate side – which isn’t to say that men don’t – but it is something that perhaps draws women to work in that area. Personally I feel that when it comes to, say, an opera project involving a children’s chorus, some of my male colleagues would consider it beneath them just to work with the children rather than direct the whole show; whereas I would take pride in looking after the children if that was my role.

Vikki Stone
Vikki Stone

Esther: I wonder whether part of the issue is the juggle between work and family life as many women, like myself, who have children still choose to act as the lead parent – even if their partner shares responsibility for childcare and the home. So perhaps some of it’s choice, women saying: ‘I want to work locally to be closer to my family’; but there are definitely others who want to be the breadwinner and who want to be performing at a really high level.
Vikki: Women in classical music are still so much in the minority that they are typically introduced as ‘female conductors’ or ‘female composers’ rather than just by their job title. You assume a composer is a man, a comedian is a man, and you assume a nurse is a woman, you assume a stripper is a woman! So composer and conductor are both jobs that you have to add to add ‘female’ in front of in order to assert your place.
Rachel: I had a PhD student phoning me the other day wanting to know what it’s like to be a female conductor. Well, I don’t have any comparison! I’m making music as a person.
Esther: Job titles are perhaps an inevitable issue in choral music because of tradition. Gareth Malone is always referred to as a ‘choirmaster’, and I’m regularly asked to act as ‘chorus master’. It implies it’s a man’s job. Surely it’s time to use the gender-neutral choir or chorus ‘director’?
Vikki: People ask me: ‘Are you a feminist?’, but I’ve never been particularly conscious of it. However, even if you try to just get on with your job there comes a point at which you start to hit barriers. For example I was shortlisted for a presenting job on a TV show that wanted a comic to work alongside a female presenter. I didn’t get it because they didn’t want two women in the team and that was it. Again, Mel and Sue and Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman are exceptions.
Rachel: Yes, there are still moments. I had a job interview once with a choral society where I was asked how I would recruit more tenors and basses. The chairman said: ‘I expect you’ll wear a low-cut top and a short skirt’.

Women at the top
Esther: I think that there is still a gender bias at conservatoires, with students by and large being taught by men. It only occurred to me as I was preparing for our discussion today that in the entire two years of my MA course at the Royal Academy of Music I never had any conducting tuition from a woman. I didn’t even think to question it as it’s just the status quo. As a result, when I started conducting I think I deliberately dressed in quite a masculine way – wearing a trouser suit – in order to ape my male colleagues so I felt sufficiently authoritative.

Kerry Andrew
Kerry Andrew

Kerry Andrew: Historically, that’s how women have got ahead – look at the novelist George Eliot, who took a man’s name to get by. Once there were enough women around, writing, it was okay. With female conductors, perhaps they feel that they have to carry on presenting themselves in a ‘masculine’ way until there are enough women conducting for it to be acceptable.
Vikki: Moving forward, I think that positive discrimination works in our favour. I think that there is a bit of a sea change in the whole media sector as a result, with organisations like the BBC trying to use more female talent.
Kerry: Positive prejudice can get results. Morley College is in its second year of running a female-only short conducting course for 16-to-25-year olds, and it does include addressing issues that they might come up against if conducting professionally. The Performing Rights Society has a fund called Women Make Music to encourage people to commission more music by female composers, which they created because women are outnumbered six to one among registered music creators and songwriters. There are people like Anna Meredith emerging from things like that who are becoming household names.

Getting on with it
Vikki: To a certain extent women just need to get on with it. I think a lot of women shy away from taking risks, thinking ‘I don’t want to humiliate myself’, whereas men get out of their depth a lot and make it work. But that’s what makes you get better, the fear that ‘I’m not quite ready for it’. You’re never going to get to a higher level unless you put yourself in a situation that makes you get better at things that you find scary.
Esther: Thinking about the young female performers I work with at the Royal Academy of Music, the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, London Youth Choir and the schools where I do workshops – I think that it’s perhaps time to be more proactive about seeking female role models. At NYCGB we’re certainly planning to programme more music by women and are hoping to work with both Kerry’s female trio Juice and the female members of the Swingle Singers, who are currently directed by a woman, Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson, in due course.
Kerry: The ‘getting on with it’ ethos is exactly right. It’s been said more than once that the DIY approach that many emerging composers are adopting – making their own ensembles and nights to perform their music – suits a female composer very well, because you don’t have to try and penetrate the larger, and sometimes more unwieldy, institutions. That said, the situation certainly needs wider attention and action. People don’t always think about it but it does need to be consistently on the agenda if there is to be change.

Kerry Andrew and Vikki Stone’s new works will receive their premieres at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 10 April 2016 as part of NYCGB’s gala celebration of British choral creativity ‘imagiNATIONS’.


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