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Leveling the Conducting Field

Dec 12, 2017 | DEI, News

Along with the United States presidency, one of the hardest glass ceilings for women to break is in the field of music conducting. So it’s especially noteworthy that SMTD employs seven female faculty conductors-fully 50 percent of the professors who conduct SMTD ensembles. They include Andrea Brown* and Courtney Snyder (band); Julie Skadsem (choir); Kathleen Kelly* (opera); Cynthia Kortman Westphal and Catherine A. Walker (musical theatre); and Ellen Rowe (jazz).

To celebrate this remarkable array of talented women, we assembled a photo shoot in the style of Annie Leibowitz’s Vanity Fair spreads, meticulously shot by Dr. Kirk Donaldson, an alumnus of U-M School of Dentistry and a frequent photo contributor to Michigan Muse.

In the hours that it took to obtain the final image, the women-who had never all been in the same room at the same time-inevitably discussed the fact that female conductors remain something of a novelty.

SMTD’s own graduate conducting program actually has a good representation of women: this year, 33 percent of students are female (representing the three concentrations of band, choir, and orchestra); over the last 10 years, women made up 21 percent of all conducting students. Perhaps more importantly, graduates of the program enjoy very successful careers in the field, both with orchestras and in academia.

But compare those numbers to the professional world: a 2014 survey by Bachtrack, a classical music website, found that of the 150 top conductors in the orchestra world, only five were women (.033 percent). According to industry records, the Baltimore Symphony’s Marin Alsop remains the sole woman music director of the 24 largest orchestras (by budget) in the United States. Of the nine largest American opera companies, none has a female music director and principal conductor. And of the top 20 musicals currently on Broadway, only three have women conductors.

While music direction for opera, musical theatre, and jazz are not concentrations in SMTD’s graduate conducting program, select undergraduates can pursue studies in these areas through the Artists and Scholars Honors Program, which allows them to design their own course of study in close collaboration with faculty advisors. Cynthia Kortman Westphal has had a number of Honors Program students during her 14 years at SMTD, studying music direction for theatre, but only one was female.

Choral and band conductors are predominantly academic positions, with choir being the most common area to find women conductors, as it alone became a generally acceptable role for women in the 20th century.

“There are, indeed, more female choral conductors in the public schools and professional world, but it is still not balanced,” said Catherine Walker. “When Margaret Hillis was studying conducting at Juilliard, she was told that if she planned to have a professional career, she would need to switch her concentration from orchestral to choral conducting. She did just that, and in 1957 she founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus where she remained the director until 1994.”

Band, however, remains a male-dominated field.

“I’m not fully certain of why women still only comprise 10 percent of college band directors,” said Courtney Snyder, who directs U-M’s Concert Band. “But women in our field are actually working to organize themselves to talk about it and actively do something about it.”

“Doing something about it” is now a rallying cry for our Michigan maestras. They all agree that many words have been written about the dearth of female conductors, as well as the challenges women conductors face in the professional world. But what they are most interested in is the question of how to interest more female students in the profession. Some of their thoughts are below. Given their passion for the subject, you can expect the conversation to continue and solutions to be found.


Catherine A. Walker, Associate Professor of Musical Theatre

The lack of women in the field of conducting is reflective of both an unconscious and conscious gender bias, which is present in both our culture and our educational system. When I was in high school, I was told that I could not be considered as the drum major or assistant drum major for my marching band because I was female. Music directing in musical theatre still remains a mostly male-dominated field. In order for women to consider it a viable option, they need to be able to see female role models actively working in the field. In addition, young female artists need to be encouraged by their mentors to pursue this field. State music education organizations can and should impact this trend by actively encouraging talented young women to explore this field through summer programs and internships, as well as within their high school programs.


Courtney Snyder, Associate Director of Bands and Assistant Professor of Conducting

I conduct at various events throughout the country and still hear the words: “You’re the first female band director I’ve ever had.” Though this was the case when I was in public school, it still shocks me that it continues today, a full generation later. So many girls have never seen a woman do this job. For many years, women were honestly afraid to stand out. It was such a male-dominated field that the women who did make it into the field didn’t want to draw attention to their gender. Additionally, there are people out there who still perpetuate the idea that women have limits to what they can do on the podium. Women today hear statements like, “You can’t conduct with that gesture because it looks too aggressive” or “You can’t wear a dress and be taken seriously as a leader.” We need to call these things out, now. But we also need to reach female students before they get into college. I’m trying to help through Women Band Directors International, working to make it more relevant to address these issues. We’re actively seeking opportunities to bring women college band directors together so we can brainstorm solutions and foster growth, not only for those who are already committed to this field, but for future generations.


Ellen Rowe, Professor of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation

Female jazz conductors are rare because there simply aren’t that many young women playing jazz in college, where they would start to think about a possible career in jazz pedagogy. There are wonderful professional female jazz ensemble conductors leading their own groups, including Maria Schneider, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sherri Maricle, and Anne Patterson, among others. But at the collegiate level, you don’t see that many women leading big bands. Young women jazz players need mentoring from junior high on up, as there is often a big participation dropoff from junior high to high school, and then an even bigger drop when it comes to pursuing jazz in college. I’ve found that young women are more loath to call attention to themselves by standing up to take an improvised solo in high school, as opposed to the young men, who are much more comfortable with it. There are many fewer female professional jazz musicians for these young women to model themselves after, though the numbers are improving. The Jazz Education Network is working to promote more female participation, and three years ago the late Geri Allen, a former SMTD professor, started an all-female jazz camp for young women ages 15-25, which has provided an incredibly supportive learning environment for young women. More initiatives like this are going to be needed to level the playing field and promote more female jazz conductors and jazz musicians overall.


Cynthia Kortman Westphal, Associate Professor of Musical Theatre

I moved to New York City after graduate school to be an opera coach. On my first night in the city, I went to see my first Broadway show-and my first female conductor. I had never seen a woman orchestral conductor before, and so it wasn’t even on my radar that jobs like that were possible. I decided then and there that I wanted to do that, and within three years, I was conducting on Broadway. I think of the famous quote: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I worked extremely hard, and I was lucky to find a handful of people who advocated for more women in the field. My journey as a conductor was often met with resistance and sometimes flat-out disgust by some male players. I am forever grateful to those who supported me during those times. Broadway pits never used to hold auditions-it was always “who you knew” and because of that, it was easy for it to stay a man’s world. At U-M, I’ve consciously tried to pay it forward and hire women in our orchestra pits, but even so, for a variety of reasons, the majority of players have been male. There is one studio teacher at U-M who holds behind-the-screen auditions for us each year, and the winners have often been female. Blind auditions might be one way to work toward more diverse orchestra pits. In addition, we need to educate girls much earlier about the possibilities, and spark interest in them long before they get to college.


Julie Skadsem, Associate Professor of Choral Music Education and Conducting

When I applied for my first teaching job, I interviewed for a high school choral conducting position, and was offered an elementary music teaching position in the same district. I hadn’t applied for that position nor was I asked any interview questions regarding working with children. It seemed the only qualification that mattered was that I was a woman. Since then the field has shifted to acknowledge the value of male role models at the elementary level and the contributions women can make at the collegiate level. I am fortunate to have had wonderful male and female mentors who have helped shaped my career. I hope to do the same for future generations of choral conductors.


*Former SMTD Faculty

Andrea Brown, Assistant Director of Marching and Athletic Bands and Lecturer of Conducting

I am now involved with Music for All, an organization that strives to give equal opportunities for music participation for all American children. I have come to think that reaching students in college is just too late. Many have already cut themselves out at that point, or do not meet program entrance requirements. Perhaps a summer camp or academic year weekend experience might be a way to foster interest, engagement, and support? Invite middle- or high-school girls with an interest in any of our respective fields. Activities like this would allow them to see what is possible and would also allow them to participate in roles that they may not have imagined before. Additionally, while I believe role models and seeing individuals that look like you in these roles is extremely important, I also believe that looking at the obstacles in the academic pipeline is in order. Are our criteria and processes for entrance into programs inclusive enough? Do they allow us to see/realize the potential a student can eventually achieve, even if she might not meet rigid entrance requirements at that moment because she didn’t have certain opportunities at the “right” time in the process? I’m not supporting lowering standards, but simply taking a fresh look at how the process works for everyone.


Kathy Kelly, Associate Professor of Voice, Coach/Conductor of Opera

What we see modeled for us is more significant than we know. I say that not because I never saw female conductors, but because I did. The music director of my hometown community theatre, my first two church choir directors, and my junior high orchestra conductor and choir director were all females. But as I moved up in skill and age-to competitive high school ensembles, state youth symphonies, and college-men filled all those podia. So one interesting set of questions would ask why that was so. But another set of questions might ponder why we place less professional and artistic value on community-based and youth-based creative activities, why there’s not more connective tissue between them and jobs we consider to be higher on the “professional” food chain, and what are we doing-whether consciously or unconsciously-to funnel students in one direction or another. I don’t remember thinking “Hey, all the pro conductors are male!” I do remember that I made no connection between what those men were doing and what so many women modeled for me when I was a kid. How do those deep, unconscious biases play into the things we face later?


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.

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