“The world cares very little about what a man or woman knows; it is what a man or woman is able to do that counts.” Virgil
I never expected to be a choral conductor; it was not my dream. And when I realized I would have to major in Music Ed, I was horrified!
As a child, I took piano lessons. I sang in a host of children’s choirs available at the church where my Mom (a coloratura soprano) sang in the professional quartet. Both my younger sister and I sang. Sissy* sang soprano, since she could not read when we began choir and I sang alto, since I could. We were so good, if there was any solo; we automatically got them without audition. We sang lots of duets. And often sang them for musical programs our Mom put together, which included us, for church women’s groups.
Dad was a dancer, choreographer and stage director. I began ballet lessons with two of his friends, John Kriza and Ruth Ann Koesen, who had started a ballet school back home in Chicago after they retired from American Ballet Theater. I studied with them while waiting for a place at the ballet school all of them had attended, the Stone-Camryn School of Ballet. I was about 11 or 12 by the time there was a spot.
Around the same time I began lessons at Stone-Camryn, Mom and Dad were in rehearsals for a production of “Die Fledermaus.” Dad was the stage director and Mom was singing Adele. The last two weeks were at the venue, on stage, and the rehearsal accompanist was having trouble keeping up because of page turns. Dad asked me one day if I would like to be the page turner. I agreed immediately. So, five days a week, after getting back from my ballets classes downtown and having a quick bite to eat, I went with them to rehearsal.
Their production of “Die Fledermaus” opened my eyes. I loved the music and the wonderful dancing and the comedy of it all but I also realized for the first time, direction was important to a show. I began to understand the parts and pieces of a production; it wasn’t just the music and singing, or the dancing and acting but how things was put together which made it whole.
I flourished at Stone-Camryn. Believe me, it wasn’t easy! I was not the typical ballet dancer but Mr. Camryn saw something in me and put me in his character ballet classes. Those classes felt like coming home. There were plans for me, big plans, for my dancing career. But I saw Dad, in his 40s, not dancing as much and what to do AFTER my short life as a ballet dancer, specializing in character work, worried me. Dancers are not stupid people. I began to think about things I could do. I loved creating dance so perhaps, I could be a ballet choreographer. But I really loved music and how the music fits with the steps. I wanted to be a ballet conductor.
After coming to this momentous decision at the age of 13, almost 14, I mentioned to Mr. Camryn I had decided what I wanted to do after I could no longer dance. I told him I wanted to be a ballet conductor. HE LAUGHED AT ME! He told me I was being silly because girls did not conduct orchestras. It never occurred to me I couldn’t become a ballet conductor because I was a girl. I mentioned Sarah Caldwell (conductor of the Boston Opera). He told me I did NOT want to be like that fat slob but could probably conduct choirs. And THAT, my dears, is why I am a choral conductor.
While being a choral conductor is fulfilling and I actually love what I do, it’s still not easy to be a woman in this profession. It might be a little easier if you are in a school situation. It might be better if you do church work. But it might not. If you conduct in the community or professional realms, it is definitely not!
It is often attitudes from those we conduct or their difficulty accepting direction from a woman which makes it harder for women than their male counterparts. As a woman conductor (no matter the genre or level) if you are kind, you are a wimp and not strong enough for the job. If you are tough or know what you want, you are ah-hum, a witch and too emotional and out of control.
The public’s pre-conceived notions are also to blame for making it difficult. As recently as last April, I was confronted with blatant sexism. It was at a reception for another music organization and a woman (drunk) told me she didn’t think it was natural for a woman to conduct anything and told me I looked weird when I was doing so! I was so stunned, I said nothing but believe there is nothing I could have said which would have changed her mind.
Women conductors must help each other change attitudes, of those we conduct and of our audiences. We must unstick the doors long shut to us….or open a window if we can’t get that darn door open!