"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.