Where Are All the Great Women?
For a piano teacher, there is nothing more exciting than a young student possessing that magical mixture of natural ability, work ethic, and passion for music that indicates your lessons may have more meaning than a weekly window of time together. You want to give these students challenging repertoire and introduce them to the great composers. You want to pull back the curtain on how wide the world of music is and watch them take it all in. When you’re an advocate for dead women composers, you’re additionally amped to assign repertoire that you were never exposed to as a kid. You feel excited about making a small contribution to a generation of people who might know the concept of “composers” as something more than white men.
This is the excitement I was feeling about one of my piano students—I’ll call her “Allegra”—when my confidence in a diverse musical future crashed into an Allegra-sized wall. A rapidly advancing twelve-year-old pianist, Allegra was ready for a new list of repertoire and I was excited to curate it. I included a piece by Florence Price that would provide some of the technical challenges and emotional depth that Allegra needed at this stage in her development. Excited to give my female student of color a work by a female composer of color, I imagined that Allegra would accept the piece with open arms, take my word that it would be a musically demanding and rewarding experience, and be more empowered as she continued to grow as a musician and as a young woman. Instead, Allegra refused to practice it and seemed mildly disappointed that it had been included in her repertoire line-up. This was not a response I’d considered, and I was troubled. Why didn’t she want to learn it?
When I was a young piano student, explicitly studying music by men seemed so natural and normal that I never noticed it, let alone considered if it was true that all great music has been produced by one gender. It wasn’t until college that I studied a piece of music composed by a woman, when my friends and I selected Clara Schumann’s Trio in G minor to feature in a recital alongside works by both Schumann’s famous male composer spouse and her famous male composer friend. Sitting in a practice room on a chilly fall night, learning the opening notes of the trio’s gorgeous “Andante – più animato” movement, I was struck by the fact that the notes were written by a woman and that I had never experienced this before. It felt like Schumann and I shared something intimate, something special—a secret that should never have been a secret.
There are a few problems with the fact that piano students historically have not studied music written by women. I’m referring especially to the dead women—the ones from the 1700s, the 1800s, those who history has been quickly burying in the past. One problem is that this lack of exposure leads to an inaccurate understanding of music history (and therefore, of world cultural history as a whole). There are hundreds of great women composers, and women composers have been around as long as men composers. Even passively excluding women from music education is harmful because it helps fuel the patriarchy that continues to dominate the classical music world and contributes to a sexist culture in which men are still more likely to be associated with genius and women with weakness.
Sexism starts early. One study found that the level of sexism in the state where a woman was born has a direct correlation to her income and how much she works. Most babies can tell the difference between male and female faces before the age of one, and they start learning society-sanctioned gender roles right away. The immediate ingraining of harmful gender stereotypes means that childhood is a pivotal time for adults to supply an alternate worldview to kids. It’s important to advocate for women in the concert hall, but it may be even more crucial that young students are regularly exposed to music by people other than dead white men.
Thankfully, there is increasing awareness of this issue and publishers are starting to address the problem. Hildegard Publishing Company was founded by Sylvia Glickman in 1988 specifically to make works by women more widely available, and recently published a much-needed compilation of piano works by Black women composers. Since the founding of Hildegard Publishing, other prominent publishers have curated important resources for piano teachers, such as Alfred Music’s At the Piano with Women Composers, Carl Fischer’s Women at the Piano collection, and Hal Leonard’s Women Composers in History.
All of these books are important additions to any piano teacher’s library of intermediate repertoire (and from the perspective of my millennial generation, I personally love that there are women-only books available for me to purchase). However, as we consider the impact on the next generation, it’s clear that the existence of these books doesn’t solve the problem. Women might be on the piano music shelves in greater numbers than in the past, but they exist in their own category and everything else remains unchanged. Most compilations of classical piano music at the intermediate and advanced levels still exclusively contain music composed by men. Women’s music is frequently published in books with the word “Women” in the title, sometimes as simple as “Women Composers.” Can you imagine a compilation of essential piano works entitled “Men Composers” or even better, “Men at the Piano”? Because women are still excluded from the standard repertoire books, the message sent to young students is that there are two categories of piano music: music by “Great” composers and music by “Women” composers.
Allegra didn’t want to learn the Florence Price piece that I assigned to her because it wasn’t packaged in the way that she’s accustomed to greatness being packaged. While it was ordered from a publisher, the book was a taped-together collection of photocopied pages. The music didn’t arrive looking like one of those deep blue Henle editions or the yellow Schirmer books that Allegra had her ambitious eyes on. It didn’t give her the feeling that she would be interacting with greatness—because at the very least, isn’t greatness always presented on high-quality paper? I wish we didn’t have to care about this, but packaging influences everything from kids’ food preferences to psychological security, so it matters.
To combat sexism both in and outside of classical music, piano instructors of youth not only need to be intentional about how we include women composers in our students’ repertoire—which means using those “Women” books and giving money to the people who are publishing intermediate works by important composers like Florence Price, no matter the quality of the paper—we also need to demand real inclusivity of the publishers whose materials we’ve been working with for decades. Women need to be included in the standard books with the “Great” and “Essential” titles. Otherwise, despite all of our best intentions, we’ll teach the next generation that there is no historical precedence for great female artistry, and the cycle will continue.
Dr. Lillie Gardner is a writer and piano instructor based in St. Paul, Minnesota. She studied music and writing at New York University before earning her doctorate in piano performance at the University of Connecticut. Lillie is passionate about advocating for women composers and she has presented music by women and other underrepresented composers to college music departments, social justice series, and music teachers’ associations. Her TV pilot screenplay American Virtuosa about composer Amy Beach was recently an Official Selection and winner of Outstanding Drama Pitch at the 2021 Catalyst Story Institute. Passionate about providing quality classical piano training to students of all ages and levels, Lillie maintains her private studio in St. Paul and is an Evaluator for the MTNA eFestival as well as an MMTA Endorsed Judge. Learn more at lilliegardner.com.
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