This past week, my school held its annual Power and Privilege Symposium, in which students present and attend workshops, panels, and a variety of sessions concerned with examining and interrogating all forms of structural and systemic oppression. The Symposium aims to instigate productive, and hopefully ongoing, dialogue about these issues within the campus community. This year, I was asked to participate in a panel entitled “Women in Music.” Along with several other students who identified both as females and musicians, I shared some of my experience, largely focusing on being a female saxophonist in the male-dominated world of jazz. I've been incredibly lucky throughout my musical career to have been met with massive encouragement from both my band superiors and peers, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced situations in which I strongly felt the fact that I was a girl/woman. Here are some of the main ones, hopefully applicable to other female (and probably jazz) musicians:
1. For some reason, you always become the mom.
This was something that my fellow panelists shared as part of their experiences as well, which I was really glad for because I’ve never been certain if this phenomenon is a result of my personality or my gender (to be honest, it’s probably a combination of both). Basically, nearly every time I’ve played in a small ensemble (whether it’s just saxophones or a combo of instruments), I’ve encountered the same rehearsal situation: none of the other guys are being productive or showing a lot of motivation or awareness of what they’re supposed to be doing, and I get this feeling that everyone is waiting for me to step in and take on the boss-people-around role. I don’t ever ask for that position, and I don’t ever feel like I put out the vibe that I want that position, but so many times I feel backed into a corner to the point that if I want a good rehearsal for even just myself, I have to become the mom of the group and herd everyone around like they’re my ducklings or something. It’s annoying, it's frustrating, and I have yet to figure out how to avoid it.
2. Picking hotel roommates is never a problem because there’s always only one option: the other three girls in the band.
When everyone is signing up for hotel rooms for the upcoming band trip to wherever, the three or four girls put our names down and nod at each other, like, “We knew we were going to have to become best friends anyway.” Granted, I’ve always had a blast rooming with my fellow girls. Apples to Apples parties for the win.
3. You have two choices when the inevitable offensive sexual jokes happen around you on bus rides: fake-laugh and roll your eyes, or put your earbuds in and try to pretend that you didn’t hear.
This was definitely more prevalent in high school, when everyone's maturity level was pretty low. Somehow, even when I sat in the very front of the bus, I would catch the words of some random joke that I’m sure most of the boys saw as perfectly harmless, but that would make me feel uncomfortable and alone. Usually, I would opt for the ignore and look out the window strategy.
4. You feel overjoyed when you meet another girl who plays saxophone (or trumpet, trombone, bass, or drums).
This one actually disturbs me. The gender gap in jazz and with certain instruments is so ingrained in my own psyche that when I meet another girl who plays one of the more traditionally masculine instruments (honestly, it’s mainly trumpet and the others I mentioned at this point; I've encountered a wonderfully increasing number of female saxophonists), I feel genuinely surprised myself and say something like, “Wow, good for you! You go!” Then I think about my reaction and feel a little sad that this had to be my reaction.
5. You never quite know how to fit into the boys club culture of your band, so you stand on the periphery during downtime and always get very close to the other girls.
This is a difficult one, because it’s not like any of the guys can help it; they don’t even notice it. It’s how it is, and how it’s always been for them. I, on the other hand, always notice it and always feel awkward trying to figure out how I can somehow fit into their culture and feel normal.
6. You can feel like you’re representing your entire gender while soloing or doing something significant.
This may seem ridiculous to anyone who hasn't experienced this situation before, but trust me, it's a thing. If you are one of the few girls in a band, and especially if you’re the only one who takes solos, you can legitimately feel like all of the judgment of your gender’s capabilities are on your shoulders, because you’re literally the only one from which people can form their impressions.
7. You get that deep, sinking disappointment when you see only one girl in a jazz band.
I remember watching other jazz bands or walking past group photos of jazz bands in various high schools and seeing the lone girl amid twenty other boys. It always makes me question the degree to which progress has really been made, and I wonder to myself, how do we make this better?
8. Sometimes, you simultaneously feel special that you’re doing something not many other girls are doing and immensely frustrated with the fact that you have to feel this way.
I’ve struggled with this a lot. I often feel a deep sense of pride that I have been and still am one of few women playing jazz, that I hold my own musically in that environment, and that I haven’t been intimidated or induced to give up. But I also recognize that at the same time, I am so tired of having to feel this pride. I want more women to join me so that I don’t feel special, even though sometimes that can be a good thing for me personally to feel. I force myself to look at the bigger picture, and when I do, I tend to get little disheartened. I try, though, to channel this feeling into motivation to encourage other girls to get into jazz, and to encourage myself to keep plugging away (at the patriarchy).