Beth Higham-Edwards - What’s happening at the back of the orchestra?
Updated: Feb 21
Like many others I have been feeling lifted by fantastic initiatives that have been actively addressing what can be done about gender inequalities within the classical music profession. Although we have some way to go, it has been fantastic to see women’s composition starting to be played and more female conductors take to the podium. However, whenever I attend these concerts I find it hard to ignore one more, very visual gender problem within our orchestras…
I am a female percussionist and so it is no surprise that it has not escaped my notice that the back rows of most of our UK orchestras are dominated by men. I also noticed when I started my conservatoire masters in 2015 that I had ten percussion teachers who were all male and although there were six female students in the department there were no female teachers on offer. We also had weekly visiting professionals and I did not see a single female professional percussionist in the building during my two year masters.
Myself and my fellow female students were left thinking…where are the women and what are our prospects?
The most common response to this criticism is ‘there just aren’t enough female percussionists’ and to that I say - wrong! Paradoxically I now work with more female percussionists than male as it seems there are some areas of the industry where we are welcomed, and others which are more closed.
In the Autumn of 2017 I conducted some data collection. I surveyed the percussion teaching staff at all the UK conservatoires as listed on their websites. Out of 93 positions, 10 posts are held by women. Including visiting professors, there are a total of 142 positions, 15 of which are held by women.
In short, 90% of the percussion teaching posts in the UK conservatoires are held by men.
Turning to the orchestras, among a total of 104 percussion positions in the Association of British Orchestras’ groups, 8 posts are held by women. That is 92% male.
At this stage I would like to acknowledge that I believe there is a ‘boy’s club’ mentality within percussion which includes some exclusionary behaviour. I know that I left conservatoire feeling like I do not fit in. This is something I am striving to address and I am happy that some organisations and individuals are joining me in calling for a culture change. It should be an equal playing field.
As part of my new role focussing on instrumentalists with SWAP’ra I will be investigating whether there are perceived and real barriers for female instrumentalists within the classical music industry. I will not just be focussing on my own instrument, percussion, but other instruments which share similar ratios such as double bass and brass. I plan to conduct data collection into these instruments and also research the gender ratios of people holding principal positions. I am interested in learning about which different cultures exist for other instrument groups. It is time to look inside the orchestra pit - out of sight is certainly not out of mind for me.