Why are we not used to seeing them that way?


It’s everywhere. Classical music for instance.

Marin Alsop, who will on Saturday night  be the first female conductor to tackle the Last Night of the Proms in its 118-year history, has suggested society is still uncomfortable seeing women in authority roles such as hers.

In interview with the Guardian, she said: “There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn’t heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts. As a society we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles. Still none of the ‘big five’ orchestras has had a female music director.”

And the lack of comfort is created by the very situation it creates. Why do we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles? Because we’re not used to seeing them that way. Why are we not used to seeing them that way? Because we don’t get the chance to see them that way, because they’re not in these ultimate authority roles. Why are they not in these ultimate authority roles? Because we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles. Why do we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles? Because we’re not used to seeing them that way. Why are we not used to seeing them that way? Because we don’t get the chance to see them that way, because they’re not in these ultimate authority roles. Why are they not in these ultimate authority roles? Because we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles.

That’s why affirmative action is not such a stupid idea as most people think. (I’ve said this before. Apologies. It bears repeating.) It’s not just punching a ticket, or checking a box. There are good reasons to do some quota-filling, even if the quota-fillers aren’t ten times better than all other candidates. We really do need to work on creating new and better stereotypes.

Her remarks come in the wake of the outcry sparked by Russian Vasily Petrenko, the principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, who claimed orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them”, adding “a sweet girl on the poduim can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else”.

Better than that, for example.

Comments

  1. maudell says

    I find this particularly funny, as when I was in a musician, many male conductors were pretty distracting to me (because they could be quite attractive). Somehow, I managed to not let it interfere with my work! I even resisted the urge to sleep with them! Willpower!

    Oh, right, here’s the loophole; all musicians should be men too (preferably white and good-looking — but not in a ‘gay’ way!). In other words, it’s not about the quality of the music anymore.

  2. Al Dente says

    orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them”

    I wonder if Petrenko is concerned about his future employment.

  3. says

    There are good reasons to do some quota-filling, even if the quota-fillers aren’t ten times better than all other candidates.

    It’s not like there is actually a way to ever find out who’s the best person for a job anyway until we have holodecks and can let them all run 4 weeks of simulation. And it’s also not the case that only the objectively best candidate is actually able to do the job. For many jobs there are dozens to hundreds applicants and out of them many are qualified to do the job 150%.

  4. Martha says

    It’s so nice to see a good argument for affirmative action in our supposedly post-racial, post-feminist society. It’s particularly interesting that it comes from music in this case, where blind auditions have led to the inclusion of far more women in orchestras than every before. Alas, there’s no such thing as a blind audition for a conductor.

  5. cubist says

    sez martha: “Alas, there’s no such thing as a blind audition for a conductor.”
    Not yet, no. But blind auditions for conductors are technically possible. Have each candidate get into a motion-capture suit, such as is used for computer-assisted rotoscoping animation, and let the candidate’s motion-captured data drive a 3D avatar. The orchestra only sees the avatar; the candidate sees the orchestra thru closed-circuit TV.

    It’s not clear to me that motion-capture technology is currently good enough to capture all the relevant subtleties of orchestral conducting, so that could be a problem with the above proposal. Nevertheless, it’s an option for blind auditions which is doable.

  6. thesandiseattle says

    There are good reasons to do some quota-filling, even if the quota-fillers aren’t ten times better than all other candidates.

    I would agree, with this proviso, “in many, but not all cases.” There are times when you want the best and must reject the idea of quota-filling.

  7. poxyhowzes says

    [justSayin]

    IMHO, Maestra Alsop has been SO MUCH better for the Baltimore Symphony, and the Baltimore Symphony has been SO MUCH better with her ‘in front,” than it ever was with her RUSSIAN predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov.

    [/justSayin]

    The last night at the proms is a popular/political/social/national/crowd-y event largely featuring musical pieces so trite as to un-earn even the sobriquet “war horse.” It will disclose Ms. Alsop’s ability to direct “pops,” and, inter alia, to ‘direct’ a half-tipsy, quarter-attentive audience in old-fashioned British patriotic songfest featuring ex-music-hall songs that simultaneously neither rhyme nor scan.

    Watch for the red cuffs on her shirt.

    –pH

  8. Maureen Brian says

    I tell you what, though! She did a splendid job of it, was clearly adored by that demob-happy but very knowledgeable audience and in her little speech at the end – one of the perks of conducting the Last Night – skewered Mr Petrenko with all the precision you would expect of a great conductor.

  9. machintelligence says

    cubist @ 6
    Sadly it isn’t all stage presence and communicating with the orchestra by waving your arms. A lot has to do with the rehearsals and communicating with the musicians your concept of how the work should sound. I can’t think of a way to do that anonymously.
    Marin does a great job as I can attest, having heard her conduct many concerts while she was in Denver as conductor and music director.

  10. Alex alt says

    Yes exactly
    Go watch (on youtube eg) rehearsals with one of the great orchestras and a good conductor. Waving the baton at the performance is only the finishing touch…

  11. Jessie says

    I’ve just made a mental note to boycott any performance conducted by Vasily Petrenko. If that is his attitude, how does he treat the women and girls in the orchestras he conducts?

  12. quixote says

    Why are they not in these ultimate authority roles? Because we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles. Why do we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles? Because we’re not used to seeing them that way. Why are we not used to seeing them that way? Because we don’t get the chance to see them that way, because they’re not in these ultimate authority roles. Why are they not in these ultimate authority roles? Because we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles.

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes. That. Exactly.

    It works for any roles. In the 1950s in New York (I think that’s when and where) Macy’s wanted to make vague motions toward racial integration and hire black women as sales clerks. But they were worried that the customers would refuse to shop there in that case, so they did a questionnaire. Racism being fairly acceptable in the day, also in NY, the customers said straight out, in effect, “God, no. Eww. Don’t even think of it.”

    Due to who-knows-what attack of corporate courage, Macy’s decided to do it anyway. There wasn’t even a downward blip in sales. After some months they did another questionnaire to find out how the customers felt, and there were no issues with the blackness of some sales clerks. None.

    It’s highly doubtful the customers became de-bigoted in a few months. When higher-ups, in this case Macy’s, presented them with black sales clerks they simply found out they could deal with it. That’s all.

    The tender concern for the fragile equanimity of the upper class has always been a smokescreen to maintain the privilege.

  13. steve oberski says

    a sweet girl on the poduim can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else

    Question

    Why is it that women pray behind men?

    Answer

    Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds; and blessings and peace be upon our Prophet Muhammad and upon all his Family and Companions.

    As for women praying behind men, there is no doubt it is more appropriate to screen them and protect them from any embarrassment. Can you imagine the distraction to men being in rows behind women and following their Ruku and Sujud ?. Any person who looks attentively at the Shari’a finds that it is best and wise in dealing with all issues and particularly this noble ritual of Islam which requires the person to be humble, patient and concentrating to avoid any distraction during this great form of Ibadah (worship).

    from http://www.islamweb.net/emainpage/index.php?page=showfatwa&Option=FatwaId&Id=81904

  14. karmacat says

    The musicians of the Baltimore symphony orchestra at first did not want Alsop, but, as far as I know, there have been no complaints about her since she started conducting. If Petrenko is so worried about musicians being distracted then he should get better musicians. Of course, he is not really worried about musicians being distracted by a woman. As others have said, it is just a smoke screen

  15. Dave Ricks says

    I get Ophelia’s point, I was only going to add what other commenters have already added, that being a conductor is more about coaching the orchestra than the gestures in performance (at that point it’s too late to make a difference).

    My favorite example is Herbert von Karajan guest conducted Beethoven’s 5th (probably with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and my Dad would have relayed this story to me from Don McComas in the trumpet section). The only rehearsal was he stood in front of the orchestra and said, “The last chord. Maximum volume.” They played that one chord with a full, sustained sound, and that was it.

    I see that as totally legit; all the players knew the piece, and his job was to elevate their game, by whatever means. I bet they played great, in part because they didn’t overtrain, in part because of who he was (like anybody playing for Miles Davis would play their best); and if he knew how to work that, it was real.

    [Herbert von Karajan drove a Mercedes 300SL coupe with the classic gullwing doors (only 1400 built), and so did Alan Rubin (the trumpet player from the first seasons of Saturday Night Live). When a record producer told Rubin, “You own that car? But you’re only a trumpet player!” Rubin replied, “Yeah, but I play flügelhorn too.”]

  16. consciousness razor says

    cubist, #6:

    Have each candidate get into a motion-capture suit, such as is used for computer-assisted rotoscoping animation, and let the candidate’s motion-captured data drive a 3D avatar. The orchestra only sees the avatar; the candidate sees the orchestra thru closed-circuit TV.

    Like machintelligence said, it’s not just waving your hands around. Just on that level, facial expressions and such get used quite a bit too. Also, the sound quality for the conductor would not be good enough through an audio/video feed. Besides that, most of the work of being a conductor isn’t the night of the performance. It’s running rehearsals, talking the people through the interpretation you want, and otherwise organizing/administrating for the group. So you really need to be there, not in a different room somewhere. The human interaction aspect of it is really, extremely critical.

    That said, they could still have a blind review process of some sort, in addition to the way they actually run auditions.

  17. says

    Hey Sandy
    Did you read my #4 and do you have any good arguments to counter it or did you not read anything anybody else said and just repeated the boring old “but we want the beeeeeeeeest” trope as if you had any reliable method to find that out.

  18. jefrir says

    Sandiseattle

    I would agree, with this proviso, “in many, but not all cases.” There are times when you want the best and must reject the idea of quota-filling.

    Really? Any examples?

  19. opposablethumbs says

    Sandiseattle

    I would agree, with this proviso, “in many, but not all cases.” There are times when you want the best and must reject the idea of quota-filling.

    Really? Any examples?

    Any activity/role that involves direct contact with sandiseattle.
    (Kronar/Sauron voice) Because his essence is as LIQUID GOOOOOOLD!!!!! /Kronar-Sauron

  20. skmc says

    Before Alsop was hired by Baltimore, Pittsburgh was this close to getting her as our symphony (the PSO)’s Music Director. She has many die-hard fans here and we were disappointed when she ended up at Baltimore. She comes to Pittsburgh pretty regularly and her shows are a big draw. She is a wonderful music director, a great conductor, and a fascinating speaker as well (conductors and musicians often give talks after the concerts at the PSO).

    Alsop is very straightforward about how she has to communicate differently from a man to get the desired result due to gendered expectations around leadership and communication styles. I appreciate that she does not dismiss the role of sexism but just states it as a matter of fact. I think this lack of denialism contributes to her great success; you can’t work with a problem if you won’t admit it exists.

    The PSO is first-rate, but they have so many violins that it’s hard to keep them perfectly together. I’m a violinist myself, so one of my measures of a great conductor is that they can keep the PSO’s violins playing as one. Alsop is one of the relatively few guest conductors who truly does this, so yeah, the orchestra responds to her leadership (and it likely helps that she’s a violinist). Seriously, do not miss a chance to see Alsop at work if at all possible.

  21. johnthedrunkard says

    In my experience, certain ‘hot shot’ conductors seemed to have been hired for largely non-musical reasons:
    They tossed their hair convincingly.
    The cranked up the volume beyond the endurance of players or listeners.
    They engaged in ‘quaint’ behavior, like showing up late for a performance while keeping the only full score in their hotel room so that no one else could start the performance on time.

    The best conductors I’ve ever worked with were unglamorous professionals who did their most important work IN REHEARSAL and did not distract attention from the music onto themselves. Several were women, surprise surprise.

  22. rq says

    I was quite pleased to see, at this years’ All-Latvian XXV Song and Xv Dance Festival, a higher proportion of women conductors in the final (15000+ member) choir concert marathon – I think it was about 6, out of 20. In previous years I can concretely remember two, one of which was a venerable veteran of choir conducting (and something of a guidelight), and the other of which was the only female powerhouse in choir conducting for many years.

    They were no less impressive, no less authoritative, with interpretations no less beautiful or ‘correct’ than those of their male counterparts. And they commanded the respect of the choir as well as anyone. A pleasure to sing with any of them.

    (As for the best conductors, I’m inclined to agree – more of the unglamourous kind, more inclined towards hard work and finding a connection with the choir/musicians than making a big fancy show in front of an audience.)

  23. Funny Diva says

    Johnthedrunkard @22

    For Music Directors (as opposed to guest or assistant/associate conductors), you left out the biggest non-musical reason of ‘em all:
    Fundraising Ability. aka Schmoozing Best with those who can Give Most (financially).

    And I completely agree with all the musicians above who have expressed a preference for working with the conductors who are NOT “all about ME”. Talent and hard work, coupled with genuine passion for the music and a generosity of spirit in dealing with the orchestra or chorus…if the person leading the rehearsal has those, I’m a very happy musician. Also very likely to have a bit of a crush on them…no matter what their physical appearance or gender presentation!

    It’s just really hard to get that PLUS the glad-handing, schmoozing skillz that boards require from a Music Director or Artistic Director.

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