What is it like to be a female conductor?

Yes, this is the question heard most frequently: “So what is it like being a female conductor?” People are curious so I’ll cut to the chase: You do a lot of hand-holding.

Let’s start by asking, “What is it like to be female?” It is to be either invisible or intimidating.

Seven months ago I made a new acquaintance and gave him my card which says “Kim Diehnelt –Conductor” in bold letters. I see him on a daily basis and just last week he realized I didn’t work on a train. (Invisible) So you smile patiently knowing that building new cognitive pathways takes longer for some people.

I once worked with a group where after conducting Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and again after conducting Ravel’s Daphne et Chloe the principle trombonist approached to say, “Wow, you really know this music. How do you do it?” (Oops, intimidated him enough that he needs to prove something) I’d like to think that now days I have the nerve to simply make a naïve-like tilt of the head and ask “What do you mean by that?” But at that moment I responded each time with a ‘correct’ answer of, “It’s great music; you have to love it!”(Ok, then, I’ll make my self invisible, so you feel comfortable)

With another group where I was Assistant, when I finally, after extensive lobbying, conducted a major concert a listener approached me afterwards to ask, “I can’t believe this; you’ve been on staff for the last 3 years. Why haven’t we seen you?”  (Invisible) You smile and stifle any inkling of comprehension. And when the president of the same orchestra said he had never heard the orchestra sound so good the call came from the music director three days later “I’m sorry to have to fire you, but there’s just no work for you next year.” (Intimidating) You smile knowing it was the highest, most genuine compliment this fellow could offer. (This is hardly a gender-specific issue; any young conductor can potentially threaten the established conductor. However, when a 30 year-old-female out shines a 60-year-male colleague, it is unlikely he will say, “Son, I’m proud of you,” and assume a mentoring role.)

I studied in Vienna one summer. The very first day the teacher announced, “Someday women conductors will be accepted the way female soloists are. But not yet.” (Invisible, temporarily.) I guess this means the teacher just went through the motions of teaching since, well, it was all too soon to take me seriously.

Why might it be such a mind-block to envision a woman as a conductor? First, conducting is one of the rare positions where, because you stand on a podium with that title, you have the authority to tell a person – literally - when to breathe. That much power comes with the job. You also control time. That’s immensely powerful and historically almost a sacred power. Our image of what this power looks like is quite limited.

Creativity is a mystery; to bring a text to life implies important wisdom and skill. Inspiration and genius wound together to bring universal truths, ideals, beauty and aesthetics into the world. Our image of what creativity looks like is quite narrow.

Conducting also requires the cooperation of large groups of people. You need more than a “room of one’s own.” A leader needs clout, political leverage, and most importantly, followers. Our image of what leadership looks like is quite narrow.

Power, creativity, leadership. Unfortunately the current images of how these traits look are so narrow and precise that everything else remains invisible or threatening.

A recent TEDx Michigan Ave speaker Ian David Moss of  Createquity gave insightful comments on this narrowness in the arts. The democratic and equal opportunity to experience the arts is a major reason for government funding of the arts. We have the noble mind-set that everyone should have the right to consume the arts. Yet, as he points out, the opportunity and right to produce the arts is held in the hands of a very narrow slice of society.

I’d like to challenge my fellow female conductors to join me in widening these defining lines. When women conductors are asked this question about being female in today’s world, the default and ‘proper’ answer is a glossy, up-beat, and politically bland, “There may be some discrimination, but I haven’t experienced any.” Yes, I understand the political forces that require an American woman to deny the existence of any scenario that could paint her as ‘a victim.’ Any hint of victim-hood makes you weak and culpable; a taboo and stigma in this society. However, such white-washing of the world smacks of self-centered complacency: “Well, I found my niche, so things must be good enough.” Just because you or I have eluded the barriers certainly doesn’t mean the situation is ‘good enough.’

For example, I have a colleague who purports to have some vague, mystical European heritage because his teacher told him a Mexican-American could never be a conductor. Rather than stretching the concept of conductor and being an inspiring pioneer on and off the podium, he has spent his life as a well-groomed forgery of no one. While he forgoes his essence, the music and our listeners lose a vital angle on the well-cut diamond of art. One less facet; a little less sparkle. And the same old map of power, creativity, and leadership stays in circulation.

I have fellow gay colleagues who politely toe the ‘openly closeted’ line that keeps the classical world comfortable. Again, it’s a loss. One less facet; a little less sparkle. And the map of the world squeaks by again without revision.

The human scope of music, especially the music of the orchestra, is inspired and enlivened by each new version of genuine being. A diamond sparkles with brilliance because of its numerous facets. One, singular, limited surface makes for a lack-luster gemstone. As each version of what a conductor looks like takes to the podium, music is offered a fresh moment to sparkle with magic. (This goes of course for every version of orchestral musician and composer, too)

I’ve never been one to use a dimmer switch, so I will continue to intimidate those who still work from an outdated map of power, creativity and leadership. However, I’d like to do less hand-holding. Perhaps with this little blog, we could remind each other to check the revision dates on our maps of the world. The more visible and genuine each dot on the map becomes the more complete the universe. One more facet; a little more sparkle.