Trombonophobia and Theatrical Utopias

The UK (and I don't think they are alone) is suffering from a hypergendered system of music education:

Although the authorities have concentrated on tackling sexist attitudes in sport, the study shows that stereotypes are just as prevalent in music classes, with the "smaller, higher-pitched instruments" and singing lessons being overwhelmingly favoured by girls, while boys, although reluctant to learn any instrument, tend towards electric guitars, drum kits and music technology classes.

Some 90% of harpists are girls, as are 89% of children playing the flute. In contrast, 81% of guitarists are boys and 75% of drummers. The smallest gender differences are in African drums (an increasingly popular option), cornet, French horn, saxophone and tenor horn.

While girls have become slightly more adventurous in their choices in the past decade, boys are as conservative as ever.

OK, personal admission time: when I was wee, I dreamed of playing the tuba. I mean, I thought the tuba was the most miraculous invention ever to grace the earth. My parents took a quite tiny me to an event I can now barely remember (perhaps overcome by the quasi-religious ecstasy of the experience?) called "A Tuba Christmas." In the aftermath of this epiphanic encounter, I wanted more than anything to play this elephantine monster of an instrument. But then one night, after some talk of sending me to music lessons, I had a dream that I was chased around a band room by a maniacal trombonist. I awoke in terror and steadfastly refused to attend even a single music class.

And that, my friends, is why I have not even the tiniest shred of musical ability today. I did take up the cello* for a brief, excruciating time in high school. The sounds I made... (sigh) ... could best be described by likening them to the moans of a tone-deaf cow simultaneously in the grips of a searing digestive disorder and a broken heart. But my lifelong distrust of trombone players has scuppered my dreams of jolly tubaing.

Nonetheless, I am sad to see that students' choice of instruments is so clearly gendered because I am hardly the only one of my female friends to lean towards the portlier, less prim instruments. I have two female friends I can think of off the top of my head who play the bass (an instrument particularly cited in the coverage of this study as suffering from a lack of female attention). But I don't, I'm afraid, know many male flautists. And that, I think, is the rub.

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Did Leonardo da Vinci illustrate this chess manual?

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Kansas City is apparently experiencing something of a theatrical Golden Age, with Equity theatres and small indy spaces springing up (and staying open) all over the place. As this article points out, in a single eight-hour period this week, audiences have a choice of 12 different shows in the town. Most interesting is the article's impulse to trace this boom back to its regional or historical sources:
Asked to explain the growth, Byrd said in some ways Kansas City theater people still embodied a version of frontier optimism that has been part of this town since the 19th century.

“Self-producing is easier in Kansas City than in the larger markets,” she said. “It’s more of a can-do spirit.”

This gets at an interesting point: self-production as the key to a nation in which cultural riches are dispersed evenly across the whole community (rather than just in rich urban centers). Surely this is where governmental organizations like the NEA could be most helpful: providing advice and support (often financial) to foster cultural communities in medium-sized towns across the nation. Most urgently needed (if my experience with the arts in a college town was any guide to go by) are spaces for artists: studios, exhibition spaces, salons where writers can meet/give readings/have workshops, tiny black-box theatres. These don't need to be large and they don't need to be glitzy. They just have to be made available to the town and engage with it on a level that will allow the creation of a community of artists (through classes, support groups, workshops, affordably rentable gallery or performance spaces) as well as a supportive audience culture. Is this too utopian? Probably. But it is the sort of opportunity that universities and colleges offer their students all over the nation. The Kansas City boom is largely the result of a small group of committed professors and the artists they drew to the region (this gives me hope, as an educator, that I might actually accomplish something lasting someday):
“If you build a community of artists and they choose to live here and work here, it spawns community interest … and that community builds on itself and gets bigger and bigger,” Carrothers said of McIlrath’s vision. “I think you’re finally starting to see that.”
Can America emulate some of the success that Britain has had with its regional arts endeavors? We shall see.

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* As you can tell, my taste still ran to the beefier instruments, which I somehow thought were unloved and in need of championing.

5 Responses so far.

  1. Bybee says:

    I'm from a town that's not too far from KC. Maybe I should move there after Korea.

  2. Jaimie says:

    Our music programs are still in recovery after being totally wiped out in the eighties. I love the symphony and I do see women playing bass, tuba, and the more commonly thought of as masculine instruments. I don't see men playing the flute though!:)
    The violin seems to be the one instrument that consistently has a solid presence from both genders.

  3. Carl V. says:

    How cool! I live in greater Kansas City and don't take near enough advantage of theatrical offerings around here, but I do always enjoy it when we happen to go. There are a number of free 'theatre in the park' offerings in the summer which is really great too.

  4. Jaimie- Yes, I think it is easier for women to break the gender barrier between musical instruments than it is for men (after all, women face sexism, but they also get feminist affirmation. Men often face nothing but stigma.). As for the violin, I think the piano is also equally ungendered; also the cello.

    Carl V. - That sounds amazing! I would love to hear what you think if/when you venture out to this apparently vibrant theatre scene.

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