I've never been told that I cannot achieve something as a musician because of my gender. I grew up surrounded by female musicians. They were my piano teachers, choir directors, people who taught privately and in churches and schools. They were successful musicians, so I had no problem thinking I could be one too. I was shocked, then, when my mother—a piano teacher—told me that her conducting professor in college said he didn't believe women should be conductors.
That kind of talk would not fly so freely today, but the ideas behind it are so internalized in our culture that the same damage is still being done. We know Bernstein, Dudamel, and Abbado (by a single name!) but don't pay the same attention to JoAnn Falletta, Barbara Hannigan, and Marin Alsop. The world knows Schumann, Mahler, and Mendelssohn, but not the compositions of their wives, Clara and Alma, and sister, Fanny. Most independent music teachers are women, but most college music faculties are made up of men.
What if after hearing a recital, you commented on the female performer's musical ability, rather than her dress? What if more girls played tuba and percussion in band and more boys played flute? What if there were more women majoring in music theory and composition? What if we were viewed less as a statistical oddity and more like professionals?
Women have always made music, so why don't we celebrate it at the same level as we do with the work of male musicians? We need to teach others that the works of Clara Schumann, Nadia Boulanger, Meredith Monk, and Jennifer Higdon are worth listening to—and not just because they are women in a male-dominated field. You don't have to like their music (just like you don't have to like Mozart or Philip Glass), but you have to acknowledge its role in the history of Western music.
Don't despair. People are starting to recognize this need for equality. (Welcome to the party, newcomers!) As more people discover that women have accomplished—and continue to accomplish—great things in music, I believe the institutionalized obstacles we face will indeed fall away. Women in music from the past and present have much to teach us. All we need to do is open our ears and listen.
Emily Feld is a recent graduate of Concordia College, where she studied piano performance. She is an active chamber musician, singer, and composer of choral music, and is excited to see where those three passions take her in life.