Gender & Music at Wesleyan: Personal Storytime

The first in a series on the on-campus intersections of gender, race, and music performance 

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If I could conduct a survey about gender and music performance, it would go something like this:

  1. How old were you when you began playing music?
  2. What instrument(s) did you start playing at a young age?
  3. What instruments did you pick up as you got older?
  4. When was the last time you performed in public?

My questionable pollster skills notwithstanding, I would guess that the results would look something like this: started playing piano/trombone/oboe at age 6/7/8, picked up guitar/bass/synth at age 15, etc. According to my hypothesis, a gender divide wouldn’t start to show until Question 2–for the lucky ones who got an early start in musical education, our instrument choices would probably follow a gendered pattern: with a few exceptions, boys generally chose saxophones and baritone horns while girls chose flutes and oboes. By the time everyone quit band in high school, many boys got their hands on guitars and drum kits and began performing at school functions and family parties. And the girls learned guitar in their rooms, and never played in public again, unless under the influence of alcohol. The end?


Me as a child, expressing vehement musical interest.

PERSONAL STORYTIME: Alright, alright, so my hypothesis was based on my own experience. I started playing the flute when I was 8, picked up a guitar my senior year of high school, and then came to college with vague dreams of being a rock star packed in with my sheets and towels. In my freshman year, my involvement in music was limited to a cappella and audience-membership. I usually pretended that I didn’t play the guitar, and I had very little knowledge of the politically charged, gendered workings of the insular on-campus music scene. I was only vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding Amy Klein’s (of Titus Andronicus) experience at Wesleyan or of the generally blasé attitude held by many concerning the heterogeneity of the music scene.

My attitude changed my sophomore year when I moved in with some incredibly musical individuals. There were guitars, pianos, ukuleles, drums, harmonicas and trumpets, a working practice room in the living room, complete with a PA system, microphones, speakers, and a drum kit. I was on Cloud 9. I got to experiment with different sounds and styles and really grow as a musician. As I got more experienced and more confident, I began to look for places to perform. I had trouble finding outlets for my sound, though—I wasn’t loud or ironic enough to play the beer-stained stages of Psi U or Eclectic, nor did I have any desire to participate in the WestCo open-mic. Even in my own living room, I found myself sometimes drowned out by a louder, more aggressive, more masculine sound.

One day in the fall of my sophomore year, my house hosted a concert featuring three campus bands. The bands used our living room to practice, and effectively closed off the living room for an entire day. As the day went on and the constant bass and snare began to create a steady throbbing in my head, I began to notice a few problematic aspects of the scene, and I casually voiced them to a female housemate: Why are there only boys playing music in the living room? And why are we, girls who are just as much members of this house as they are, literally relegated to the kitchen while they monopolize a communal space to play music all day?

Bye-bye Mr. Nice Girl. I was pissed. And the more I thought about it the madder I got, especially as I began to consider the Wesleyan music scene as a whole. I vaguely knew that all-male bands dominate performance spaces and that women are a nearly invisible minority in the Wesleyan performance scene—at the time, I could think of only one band with a prominent female performer—but seeing it with my own eyes was maddening, as was the fact that it went completely unquestioned and nobody seemed to care. Even in my own house I felt the oppressive forces of patriarchal performance; in our living room jam sessions at home, I was often the lone woman in a room full of men. It drove me crazy that this was something only I, as a woman, had to consider, and that the boys didn’t give it a second thought. What’s more, I was incensed by the fact that hardly anyone cared or dared to criticize the music scene for its exclusion of nearly everyone but heterosexual, white males.

At that point, I’d had enough. The oppressively gendered system of musical performance had to change. I fueled my anger into a flamingly angry, Riot Grrrl-esque feminist music manifesto, and started spreading the word. I teamed up with some friends to form Das Sexist (which I will address in an upcoming post).

In the process of channeling all that anger I felt, I had to name, discuss, and combat the psychology of the “girl/musician.” After talking with many Wesleyan women who play or would like to play music, I noticed a pattern of timidity and sense of reluctance to participate in music here at all—which, to me, parallels the attitude of defeat with which too many women enter the gendered battlefield of musical performance. There is a startling lack of confidence in female musicians, which manifests in an unwillingness to take credit for their talent and often a refusal to take on the title of “musician.” When I ask other women if they play any instruments or sing, they usually reply with a “Yes, but,” answer: “Yes, but I haven’t played in years! Yes, but I never practice! Yes, but I’m not that good! Yes, but I’m really bad!” With these simple negations of musical ability, these women undermine their self-confidence and forfeit the identity of “musician.”

imagesCall me a social constructionist or a crazy person, but the reasons behind these psychosocial roadblocks to embodying musicianship are deeply embedded in our consciousnesses as women. From a young age, women are told to take up less space, make less noise, be more polite and less forthcoming, and only take part in “gender appropriate” activities. And folks, I am dismayed and frankly disgusted to announce that sadly, music is not one of these “appropriate” activities—especially in the traditions of jazz, rock, and rap. Women in these genres are too often relegated to the roles of backup singer, ingénue, or token girl, and the overwhelming majority are singers. Vocals and instruments that produce soft sounds are traditionally the responsibility of female musicians, while male musicians typically wield loud, powerful instruments (electric guitar or bass, drums, etc.). These “separate spheres” within musical performance reflect a gendered power structure in rock and jazz in particular, which more often than not strips women of the agency to participate in “masculine” music making by the factor of sheer volume.

As it stands, hegemonic musicianship requires creative aggression: in playing music, especially in the presence of others, a musician’s gotta “brag” (improvise, riff, etc.), always appear confident, and engage in a form of sonic wrestling with other musicians—especially in jam-session situations. The jam session, I’ve found, is minefield for a musical feminist. In many ways, jamming is a very masculine activity, at once a space for inclusive musicality and a showcase for musical bravado. The fundamentals of jamming often clash with socialized feminine sensibility: there is little room for meekness, accommodation, or excessive modesty during a jam, and as a result, girls are often shut out. This happens again and again, and turns into a systematic exclusion of women from musical circles, which creates harmful stereotypes about the inferior abilities of female musicians, and a general lack of respect for female performers brave enough to make their voices heard.

Where does this leave us? With a majority male music performance squad, and a small minority of non-dudes fighting for visibility. To be fair, it’s gotten a LOT better since those dark days of my sophomore year; I can now name 6 (SIX!!!) bands off the top of my head that are not exclusively male, and we have the Women’s Music Co-op, too. And that’s thanks to the folks who have stepped up and those that have stepped back in order to create more egalitarian sonic spaces on campus.


Beyonce’s all-woman backing band, The Suga Mamas.

So now it’s your turn for Personal Storytime: What have your experiences with music performance on campus been like? I’m talking about a typical Friday night, after 10pm, anywhere other than in the CFA. If you perform, what was it like? Who have you performed with? If you get your kicks as an audience member, what have you seen at concerts on campus? What haven’t you seen? What would you like to see?

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11 thoughts on “Gender & Music at Wesleyan: Personal Storytime

  1. meh

    I couldn’t care less whether a musician is male or female, and neither does any other Wes student. If there’s a gender gap in the Wesleyan music scene, it’s because more men are interested in it. I don’t think there’s one in the music department. What are you going to do? Tell men not to do music? Force women to do it who don’t want to?

      1. female musician

        You don’t think there’s a gender gap in the music department? Let me show you the numbers.

        Here is a list of faculty in the music department. There are 21 faculty members, 7 of whom are female, three of whom are visiting professors and one who is an adjunct. That that there are only 3 full time female music professors at Wesleyan, compared to 6 male full time professors.

        Why don’t you review the syllabi of every music class at Wesleyan? You would be hard-pressed to find a female composer mentioned in “Wagner and Modernism,” “Music of Coltrane, Mingus and Coleman,” or the intro music history class “History of Art Music,” which covers everything from Gregorian chant to electronic music without mentioning a single woman other than Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun?

        Or, check out the list of senior music majors who have completed a thesis. Considering that all music majors must complete a senior project, one can assume that this is a pretty inclusive list of music majors since 1952:

        2013: 11 theses completed by men, 1 by a woman
        2012: 11 theses completed by men, 2 by women
        2011: 7 men, 6 women (a little more balanced)
        2010: 9 male, 7 female
        2009: 8 male, 1 female

        I really hope these numbers speak for themselves and that I don’t have to define the word “gender gap” for you, but even if I did maybe you’d still feel “meh” about it.

        1. ducas

          whoa whoa whoa
          if you were hard pressed to find a female composer mentioned in “Music of Coltrane, Mingus and Coleman,” you probably didn’t show up to class. Braxton regularly brought up female composers, (often lamenting that they weren’t/aren’t given enough credit) and how many have changed the jazz landscape. I don’t have any information on the other classes you mentioned, but your generalization here doesn’t do anything good for your credibility. (it looks like maybe you are looking for facts and numbers to disprove ‘meh’ instead of looking for truth??)

          I think meh just had a weird sort of defensive reaction that is natural (not necessarily right) for boy musicians to feel in reaction to this sort of thing. “what do you want ME to do about it? I’M not a bad guy!”. And i think he would have the same responses to your response. Do you want him to make less men/make more women have music theses? Do you want him to teach a class on women and music?

          but i AM on your team, female musician! And maybe you doesn’t realize it, but meh is too. I think hes confused and wants to do something to help, but doesn’t know what. I think that just by reading this article, he has partaken in a growing awareness of the issue.

          1. KatCo

            I’m not a musician, so I’m not going to comment on course content, but I am interested in gender in academics and I can tell you that music is consistently one of the most heavily male dominated majors (if you want numbers, I have them). Suggesting that this is simply a result of way more men being interested in music every single year is lazy and insulting, as is the implication that there is nothing to be done about this apart from forcing women into majoring, and forcing men not to.

            Maybe step outside of your cosy bubble and try to imagine how an environment that is welcoming and comfortable for you might be threatening or otherwise unwelcoming for others. Maybe try a little empathy.

  2. together

    yeah the westco open mic seems exclusive to the westco community, I don’t hear enough about how new performers are received there though…

    once I was in a room with like 10 friends and randomly picked up a guitar and started playing a song I wrote and started singing. people fell silent and listened, and then I moved into another song and someone mentioned at the end how it felt like being around a campfire. wish more music happened this way–friends listening to friends making sonic magic. and then if strangers could feel the same way without really knowing each other, that’d be true magic.

    while calling out the influence of gender on the music scene is an important realization, I wonder if that also reinforces the same concepts you’re criticizing. I try not to be demeaning to anyone, and I try and apply every instance of me essentially being an asshole to my life universally. in the same way, as much as there might be a gendered problem here, I also think there’s the universal problem of people just not being empathetic enough towards each other. why not also bring in issues of technology being socially isolating? contributing towards hyper-individualism, and occasionally leading to a false sense of sexist exclusion. as much as the Women’s Music Co-op is a great thing for female-identifying folks to find an entry into the music performance scene, and as much as I get that the group is a political statement against excluding said female-id’d people, the group seems exclusionary in itself. how could someone stand in solidarity with a group that does not seem very concerned at all about general inclusivity while the focus is on creating a stronger music space for women?

    maybe I’m attempting to answer too many questions here and opening up too many others. I’m just frustrated. don’t try and guess my identity, take me as I am.

  3. femininja rocks

    This was awesome and very needed, thank you.

    I’d also like to point out that the bravado mentality often has a negative effect on music, especially in groups. I’ve been part of a (non-Wesleyan) small choral ensemble whose biggest problem was people not being able to rein in their individual performances to blend with a group. Having a loud and beautiful voice is great, but if you can’t pull it back, you’re not much of a singer, and you’re definitely not going to be a respected member of the group.

  4. Geoffrey the Giraffe

    Bravo femininja, killin it as always

    I would like to add that this jamming and virtuosic showmanship has been going on for centuries, Indian musicians would have competitions for kings at court mainly consisting of running crazy scale patterns with their voices, in the 19th century, people were dazzled by virtuosi like paganini who could also play real fast, my point is, it has always been hard for the creative individual, who wishes to engage an audience to get past the pressure of their own objectification as a technical master, to showcase their meekness and modesty, which are not bad parts of music. Just imagine the little guy sitting in a corner with simple melody while Paganini shred the violin. We can all be meek and modest, so our music can and should engage meekness and modesty.

    it helps
    play quiet
    and then play really loud
    and then play quiet

  5. ducas

    what’s wrong with the westco open mic?
    i liked the article though. as a meek boy i feel like i understand the aversion to the bragging and showy offy aspects of a jam session. maybe thats why i dont really like them. but i also feel they dont always have to be that way, and actually isn’t what makes a good jam session. im digressing though: i still am a musician, and others likely see me that way. and i am a boy, and this article has made me realize that my gender has motivated me (or rather didnt restrict me) from becoming this. thats a good thing, and writing this sort of article seems to be one of the most productive ways to make a positive change—bringing the issue to light clearly and calmly but not without emotion

  6. Thank you!

    I wasn’t able to put it into words until I read it here. This explains so much of what I’ve been feeling. Thank you!

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