During any musical performance, the conductor is an essential element. Every musical ensemble, no matter how professional, needs a conductor in order to be kept on track. Essentially, every musical group needs a leader, a single individual entrusted with the duty of telling them when to start and ﬁnish, when to play loud and soft, and when to speed up or slow down (not to mention communicating many other intricate cues along the way).
There are many requirements in order to be an eﬀective conductor: musical expertise, a sense of tempo, leadership skills — — — but gender has certainly never been one of them. There are currently fewer female than male conductors. Each gender is critiqued differently by the attending audience. Why is this the case, and what needs to be done? Katherine Bartol, a female conductor, professional singer, pianist, and vocal coach, would like to shed some light on the subject to inspire woman who desire to take on the role of conductor.
The Music Industry
In terms of the music industry as a whole, we can begin on a more positive note: the musical world has come a long way since the beginning of the 20th century in terms of gender equality and representation. Thankfully, there are no longer such things as restricted access to music classes for women or male-only orchestras, and according to Katherine Bartol, the previously male-dominated roster of well-known composers is slowly but surely receiving female additions, such as Unsuk Chin and Judith Weir. All of this is an accomplishment to be sure, but what about conductors speciﬁcally?
Sadly, conducting in the music industry is not as inclusive as it needs to be in terms of gender equality. There are still far more male than female conductors and Katherine Bartol states digging deeper into the matter only unearths more of the ugly truth: there is a persistent cultural stigma that men are simply better at leading than women and are thus better suited to the role of conductor. This negative and shallow ideology stymies us from giving female conductors a fair chance as they are unjustly written oﬀ without a second thought. It goes without saying that any woman has just as much potential for strong leadership skills as that of a man, and that we should be evaluating people as individuals instead of letting their gender make the decision for us. Unfortunately, the tremendous stress in our society on a woman’s outward appearance compared to that of a man’s, has caused an on-going distraction from fairly evaluating a woman’s conducting skills. So often you hear comments from audience members and other professional musicians about the woman’s choice of attire and, even worse, about her particular body parts. A male conductor hardly ever has to endure such shallow and inappropriate observations. A woman conductor must enter the field with these things in mind and strive to overcome the biases. A woman must be extra persistent in making her innovative ideas known in the professional; conducting realm. Katherine Bartol strongly urges women conductors to choose attire that focuses all attention on nothing but the conductor’s hands and baton. Floor-length, full ball gowns and the long pants of a man’s style suit or tuxedo bring more respect than a regular dress or skirt, no matter what type of concert venue is housing the performance. This is an unfortunate reality.
What Needs to Be Done?
Simply put, women have a voice, women have the right to be leaders if they so choose, and most importantly, women should be able to follow their dreams. Katherine Bartol wants every woman who has aspirations of conducting to be proud of her dream and to actively pursue it. Katherine further states: “While equality may not be where it should be right now, we can be a voice to represent women as a whole, while showing the world that we are just as capable as men when it comes to conducting.” As always, the change process starts internally: choose not to give in to cultural bigotry, no matter how widespread it is. Choose to ignore inappropriate comments and be true to your own talent and abilities. Never give in or give up and genuinely offer support to the women conductors who are already out there.