When we are asked to name important figures in music history, what are some names that immediately come to mind? Composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, the list goes on. What about those who perform their music? Instrumentalists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Art Rubenstein, Wynton Marsalis, to name a few. Now the question is, what do these lists of musicians and performers lack? Women.
Musicologists only began to recover the history of women in music during the 1970s. Women who played orchestral instruments were met with the greatest of resistance for a long time. They were initially widely accepted as vocal performers because they were irreplaceable, but public instrumental performance remained problematic for years. At first, only certain instruments were considered “acceptable” for women, including keyboard, guitar, and harp. These instruments were seen as “ladylike” because their sounds appeared delicate and soft, just as a lady was supposed to be. Once piano was considered to a be a soloist instrument, violin became popular. This opened the door for other stringed instruments except the cello, for it was considered too “physical” because it has to be held between the legs. During the 1860s, the endpin became a standard accessory for cello, making it more suitable for women to play “side-saddle”. Flute was the only blown instrument considered socially acceptable for a long time, mostly because there was no facial contortion necessary. In other words, they would still look “pretty” while performing.
Women responded to exclusion from orchestras by forming their own all-female organizations. Many had gaps in instrumentation, but if no woman was available to play a certain instrument, a man dressed in a woman’s clothes would fill the spot. Ironically, popularity of these orchestras rose because they were “odd” and women were seen playing “masculine” instruments. There are many reasons why men thought women couldn’t play these instruments: they were “unladylike”, it could ruin their looks, they weren’t strong enough to manage them, they didn’t have enough lip or lung power, or they wouldn’t be able to endure long rehearsals or touring schedules. Ultimately, any instrument was alright, but appearance would determine their amount of success. The greatest compliment a woman could receive during these times was that she played “like a man”. However, women have won more spots through a process called blind auditions, proving that gender has nothing to do with how well one plays an instrument.
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