Too Few Women Conductors - Wrong Problem, Right Solution

06/04/2014 15:30 | Updated 04 June 2014

'He who expects to change the world will be disappointed, he must change his view. When this is done, then tolerance will come, forgiveness will come and there will be nothing he cannot bear.' Haznat Inayuk Khan.

Perhaps with the exception of how many glasses of wine I consume daily, I am no expert in the statistics of any matter, let alone those of how many women are accepted to train as conductors in music academies, or go on to have opportunities to assist conductors, or have enough concerts to grow and develop their talent with the vital experience these concerts engender, or even how many actually go on to hold a position of music director somewhere. Even a somewhat cursory look at this sub group in our musical community, however, may lead concert goers to all agree the relative number of female conductors in proportion to men is less than half. Way less.

This fact, interesting to all sentient music lovers as it is, is not the prime purpose of this blog post. While appearing superficially a little disconcerting in these days of equality for all, the observation that there are so few women conductors may not sum up where the real problem lies. Rather the paucity of women conductors may be a symptom of a much larger problem.

My point is a simple one. Rather than effectively excluding gifted individuals - whatever gender - from taking the first and then subsequent slippery steps up the rungs of the conducting ladder because of conscious or sub-conscious prejudice or bias about gender and economic or cultural backgrounds, would it not be more creative, exciting and enlivening to find a way to make it possible for all of these talented individuals, with the real potential to make inspiring, gifted music directors and conductors of our orchestras, to have the opportunity to develop these rich gifts and so surprise, delight and enthrall us all with their artistic and passionate music making?

In a world where we may desire our music directors and conductors to be enriching the quality of our lives by performing great music, striving to employ their insightful creativity, fertile imaginations and musical intuition to their full capacity so that we may be entertained, educated and enriched, in such a world, why would we wish to limit this possibility by placing arbitrary parameters on the select few who actually have the opportunities to prove themselves in this arena?

And an arena it is, full gladiatorial combat but without the overt weapons, chariots and wild animals-well maybe a few of those - but still a veritable coliseum replete with roaring crowds, in- fighting, politics galore, nepotism, intrigue, gossip, half truths, rumor, counter rumor and denial, all worthy of the glory day's of the Empire itself. So much so it's quite surprising any music of any real quality or artistic insight gets made. Endangered -like some rare species- slowly becoming extinct with no clear and invigorating air to breath after the glossy photos, PR campaigns and hype have sucked the atmosphere dry leaving a wasteland of suffocating aridness in its wake.

Time and money, these are two ingredients essential to a conducting career, these plus opportunity and plenty of it.

Any young conductor will tell you it takes money to pursue this profession. Money to pay for training and attend master classes, application fees for competitions, travel, accommodation, food, etc and it's more than obvious that without opportunity to train, and then to work hard conducting regularly, there is very little hope they could grow and develop in all the myriad ways needed, and to become accomplished in this performing art. Many great conductors have stated this quite plainly, in the beginning simply getting opportunities to conduct, to practice on their "instrument", was one of the most challenging obstacles.

With real opportunity - substantial and ongoing opportunity leading to a solid foundation to work with - relatively rare, it becomes a question of who do these prizes of privilege go to? Who gets to put their ambitious foot on the next rung of the conducting ladder, the rung that will lead to further broadening and deepening development?

Conducting is also a profession that needs time - a lifetime with rare exception- to understand what it really means to be a conductor let alone a Maestro or Maestra. And even a lifetime could, very possibly, not be enough. I have been lucky enough to speak with several very successful, highly esteemed and gifted conductors now in their 60s and 70s who said they really only began to understand what conducting was about in their 60s and this was after- what would be a lifetime in most other careers paths,- 40 years or so on the concert stage or in the opera pit.

There is always the fast track lottery that is competitions - winning one can lead to engagements and invitations overnight - but that is a whole other blog and as mentioned above funds to cover the myriad costs, an essential commodity.

If you have money though and a little ambition, the sky is the limit. Many a career and potential career has been and are being made with funds from wealthy and/or well connected families. Bargaining and deal-making for personal gain is as old as the hills - c'est la vie - but it does bring me back around to my opening comment.

In a world where there are seemingly more opportunities than ever - fellowships, conservatory programs, academy courses, a dizzying selection of -with few exceptions - exorbitantly priced master classes offering that all-precious time in front of an orchestra and living, breathing musicians, in spite of all these, are we really ending up with the conductors and artists this great repertoire, these great works of art, and we concert-going, music loving audiences deserve?

The world is not perfect, anyone who accepts that gravity exists would most probably agree with this, but this reality can be a marvelous 'get out clause' and an excuse for not addressing prejudice and inequality around us.

Musical insight, intuition, talent and the personality to communicate it all: these qualities are rare enough. So why would a dynamic and thriving musical community wish to consciously limit the pool from which talent is identified and given the vital opportunity to develop? Why would they wish to limit it with a sub-conscious bias away from whole sub-communities apparently belonging to it? Communities defined by gender and also economic class, race and geography.

So by all means let us have more women conductors, as well as conductors from working class backgrounds and conductors from non-musical or non traditionally influential families and from less obvious areas of the world - but above all let us have talented, professional, artistic, insightfully passionate and inspired conductors.

If we can have a development system based on these principles then surely, given they make up just over half the world's population, more women conductors would emerge. And perhaps in 20 or so years time, we my even get a truly great woman conductor to stand alongside the likes of Bernstein, Karajan, Kleiber...