Schools Training

Girls-only course aims to tackle shortage of female conductors

24 MAR 2014

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The rostrum is merely inches above the classroom floor and the orchestra is made up of two pianos. But for Pip Scott, a 17-year-oldmusic student more used to the brass section than the baton, an early attempt at conducting this modest ensemble soon ends in a tangle of hands and a shake of the head to halt the music.

Another attempt with the expert guidance of Alice Farnham, one of Britain’s foremost conductors, and Scott is soon guiding the players confidently though a snippet of William Walton’s Suite from Henry V. Beaming, she returns to sit among her seven fellow students, all young women.

It is some distance from a packed Royal Albert Hall, but it was the appearance of Marin Alsop last September as the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, and some boorish comments from critics about whether women were equipped to conduct an orchestra, that has led to these classes at Morley College in south London.

Although New York-born Alsop won high praise for the event, beforehand the head of the Paris Conservatoire, Bruno Mantavani, pondered whether conducting was too “physically demanding” for most women. More eyebrow-raising still was the view of Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, who ventured that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”.

The furore focused attention on the enormous shortage of female conductors with major orchestras. There have been some moves towards parity among musicians, but even in Alsop’s homeland top conductors overwhelmingly tend to be male, with only one of the 22 leading US orchestras helmed by a woman.

“If I’d known then how little would change in 20 years I would have been surprised, and it does make me rather sad,” Farnham said. “I was also surprised at myself for having been a little bit complacent about it, and thinking that’s just the way it is, maybe conducting is just something not many women want to do.”

Farnham is principal tutor on Morley’s pioneering and experimental female-only conducting course, which has gathered eight young women aged 16 to 18 from music schools around Britain for a three-weekend introduction.

“We thought: how can we challenge these ideas?” said Andrea Brown, Morley’s director of music. “It’s about celebrating role models and equal opportunities, but it’s also about putting that initial germ of an idea into a girl’s mind, that this could be for me. We wanted to give them a safe place to have a go. There’s no sense they have to achieve anything in particular. It’s a bit of an experiment to see how they respond, and if conducting is something they might consider.”

Scott admitted that before the Royal College of Music nominated her for the course she had not considered conducting as a career. “It’s not so much actively sexist but there is a stereotype, really, of conductors being slightly older men. But hopefully a course like this will get younger women interested. It’s a big opportunity.”

 

Read full article: The Guardian