"That thing is bigger than you!"; Why We Need More Female Bassists in Professional Orchestras

When a stranger sees me with my instrument, usually their first instinct is to make a joke. (“That thing is bigger than you!”) While I meander awkwardly around an airport with a flight case, everyone basically stops and stares. (“Is that a harp? Do you need help with that?”) I’ve had uber drivers literally try to grab my (very expensive and fragile) instrument out of my arms to “help” me put it in a car. (“Here, let me get that for you!”)  I am not writing this blog post to complain. I’m writing it for my fellow lady bassists because this will sound too familiar to them and there’s some stuff we really need to talk about.

In the 335 bass auditions that have occurred since 1998, only fourteen were won by women.

A room full of bassists can feel like a boys club and the audition circuit for bassists and the culture around excerpts and auditions in particular is very macho. There’s a big focus on being able to play loudly and nail all these heavy excerpts: Strauss’ Heldenleben, Mahler 2, Shostakovich 5. At this point, we are subconsciously expecting orchestral bassists to be big and strong and look like 96% of the people who have won bass jobs since 1998: male. For anyone, taking an audition can be terrifying and often demoralizing. Deciding during school that you are ready to start auditioning is a big step and requires a certain level of confidence in your playing and this step is even harder to take when it feels like every orchestral bassist looks nothing like you. Yes, there is an undeniable unconscious (and sometimes conscious) bias by the audition committee. However, role models are important and currently, there are dozens of symphonies across America without a single female bassist to look up to or be inspired by. Just to name a few: Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, LA Phil, Metropolitan Opera, National Symphony, and many more.  Looking back, I know that I was really affected by this, even though it didn’t even cross my mind at the time.

I took my first audition, not because I thought I could or would win the job, but because the audition was happening in the city that I lived, and it seemed like a low risk opportunity to gain experience and see how it went. I am incredibly fortunate that I was in the finals of my first audition, because until that happened, I honestly believed that I would never win an orchestra job. I had spent a lot of my undergrad dreaming of becoming a soloist and trying my best to improve my excerpts, but at no point did I feel that they were good enough that I should start taking auditions and win a job (and I still feel like this sometimes). Looking back, I know I was very affected by my colleagues in my teacher's studio. All of them are awesome people and were very hard workers, great bassists, and they all happened to be male. From when I was a freshman, I believed that each of them would win an awesome job and to varying extents, each of them believed it too. Let’s face it: our society encourages men to become more confident overall and of course that is the case with musicians who play a “masculine” instrument. Looking back, I now realize how strange it was that I believed in all of them, but not myself.

So here I am, preparing for my first audition and this is what I was thinking: “I hope I at least get to the finals, because then maybe they’ll call me to sub!” and “It would be awkward if I won because the members of the section have all been mentors for me as an undergrad and they probably don’t want a 22 year old girl as their principal.” At no point was I thinking “I am qualified and ready to win this job!” 

In the audition that I did end up winning, I remember being nervous about the fact that I could win the principal spot instead of the section spot (I didn’t), because I didn’t think I was ready. Thinking of all the male bassists I know around my age that are taking auditions now, I can’t imagine most of them feeling that way. Looking back, I know now that I was selling myself short. THIS is why I’m writing this blog post, for all of the female students who aren’t sure they’re ready to go for it. I was incredibly fortunate that the first few auditions I took went very well, because otherwise, I don’t know if I would have continued taking auditions. I wish it hadn’t been external validation that led me to the success I’ve had, but it was the confidence boost that I sorely needed. 

I am the first female bassist in the Oregon Symphony (which has been around since 1896) with the exception of Kate Munagian (Nashville Symphony), who is fantastic and had a one year contract a few years before I arrived. I am super lucky that I landed a job in the best city (Portland, OR) with some of the nicest and most inspiring musicians.  However, my time with this awesome orchestra has also been my first time out of the bubble of being a student in a politically correct university and it has been eye opening. Sometimes after shows, audience members will approach me and say awesome heartwarming things like “I’m so happy to finally see a girl up there in the bass section!” or “You’re my favorite to watch!” or my all-time favorite, “My daughter is starting bass this year because she saw you play at a concert last year!” 

However, sometimes it goes the other way, and my small size makes me an easy target. I met a board member for the first time and upon finding out who I was, her response was “I was wondering who that seventh grader in our bass section was!” I found myself in a conversation with a very influential member of the audition committee before a recent audition for our title chairs and he told me “Because of our hall, we need an alpha-male player as principal. No, I don’t mean gender, I mean as a playing quality.” One substitute musician asked what instrument I play, and upon hearing the answer, he literally just laughed at me. A donor told me that she loved watching me play because I’m “keeping up with the men and their big muscles!”

None of these interactions were malicious and I’m sure that none of these people gave our conversations a second thought. However, these little things add up and for a young female bassist, it starts from the beginning. People constantly trying to “help” us with our basses, exclaiming “that thing is bigger than you!” or they'll ask, “Is it hard to play that thing because you’re so small?” Yes, we are all tough cookies, but I think it’s important that we all talk about it and become aware so that it doesn’t subconsciously affect our confidence and our view of ourselves. 

Up until a couple years ago, I would not have been able to write this blog post or even understand the problem. In all of my experiences as a student, I felt completely supported and my gender was never a factor (to my knowledge). In writing this, I am hyperaware that I am a privileged white girl who has succeeded not only because of my own ambition, but because of the resources available to me in my upbringing, my incredibly supportive family, and fantastic teachers. I feel so lucky that throughout my education, I never felt that my gender was an issue.  However, it’s time that we all become more aware. I was motivated to write this blog post after Ira Gold organized a luncheon discussion about the lack of women bassists in professional orchestras, and I find it very heartening that the luncheon was organized by a dude. I know that others have had completely different experiences and I am hoping that this conversation is continued by others with different backgrounds. Let’s start talking about it more and maybe things will begin to really turn around.

How an Injury Saved my Playing

As a classical musician, injuries are terrifying. It doesn’t matter if it happens while you’re still in school or while you’re working a full-time gig with a symphony. Even if you have months before your next performance and you wanted to take a break anyway, it will probably be painful and scary. 

After I had finally recovered from an injury that kept me from playing for around a year and a half, fellow students approached me fairly regularly, looking for advice. Everyone asks the same questions when injured: “How did you get better?” “How long did it take before you got better?” “Did you have this or that symptom?” “What doctors did you see… did it help?” “Is it really bad if this part hurts?” “Do you feel completely better now?” I told everyone the same thing: Take a few days off from playing, get a massage, try not to stress about it, and take really good care of your body (drink way more water than seems necessary, get eight hours of sleep every night, drink less alcohol, exercise). However, I am not the slightest bit qualified to give medical advice, so here’s what I don’t say: my injury was the best thing that could have happened for my playing and approach to music.

First, a little bit about my injury, which is a common story: I started playing when I was really young and formed some bad technical habits, which weren’t always immediately apparent, so I got away with them for a long time. Entered college, didn’t exercise as much, drank much more frequently, and suddenly felt much more pressure to practice as much as possible and preceded to do so in an unhealthy manner in combination with new levels of stress. In retrospect, it’s completely obvious why I got injured, but like most college freshman, I thought I was invincible. I ended up with nerve injuries in both my arms and took five months completely off of playing, gradually working up to playing more and more over the next year. I feel much better than I did, but it’s something I will be constantly aware of for the rest of my career.

While in school, we form goals: studio class performances, summer festival auditions, recitals, professional auditions, even just weekly lessons and suddenly it’s a never ending timeline of performances to prepare for. Then, an injury strikes and it’s a huge roadblock. Recovering from an injury takes time and energy and forfeiting those goals feels like a step backwards. Committing to resolving bad technical habits and spending large amounts of practice time on nonmusical elements like posture doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with learning and perfecting a new sonata before a recital in two months. It’s possible to do both (and obviously preferable), but the pressure of being a musician in college makes us prioritize the short-term goals.

When I was injured, I had to completely relearn how to approach the bass. Everything needed to be reevaluated: how I held my instrument, how much rubber was on my bow, my posture, where the energy was coming from and how it was directed towards the instrument and music, etc. I even bought a different backpack to help my postural problems. I would spend entire practice sessions standing in front of a mirror, holding my instrument but not really playing, trying to figure out how to relax specific muscle groups (shout-out to my incredibly patient teacher, Paul Ellison, for his guidance and wisdom). The entire time, I was deathly afraid that I had lost too much ground, that I would never build the muscle strength back up, that I had lost my chances at having a real career. More than anything, I missed playing, desperately. For a long time after I had “recovered”, I still worried that I was behind, to the point of scheduling a recital too early and having to cancel. It took me awhile to accept and understand, but I had changed my playing so much that a lot of the technical aspects of playing that I had really struggled with came more easily and the length and seriousness of my injury had changed my mentality. I spent an entire year playing a slow, beautiful piece that I had literally played since I was thirteen and all of the gradual changes allowed me to make a musical statement that was more introverted and personal than anything I had played before. I had changed my priorities. Maybe I would have made these changes without an injury, but it forced me to reevaluate everything about my playing and myself as a musician.

So if you’re injured, don’t panic! Most serious musicians go through it at some point and what can be learned and integrated during time off playing is far more valuable in the long run than preparing anxiously for your next performance. Embrace it as an excuse to take a step back and cultivate amazing posture and technique and grow into the musician you actually want to be.