Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Thinking about Equality in Musical Institutions

Every day seems to bring another piece of bad news about a high-level musical person who occupies a position of power in a partially closed and often merit-based musical institution. It seems that so far the people who have been exposed by adding the role of sexual predator to their role of teacher have been male. Is it because women don't usually abuse their power within musical institutions? Is it because women, no matter how well they play, write, conduct, sing, or administrate, don't have the same kind of power/entitlement mix that men have?

Operating to the extent that I do in the larger musical world, I do know that women participate in power struggles. And there are a multitude of hierarchies that women in every stage of the game of music have to work within. Women who men see as having power are feared. Men who men see as having power are admired.

When I was a CD reviewer I believe that I must have had power. Most readers had no idea about my gender because only my last name appeared on reviews. I know that I was despised by some (everyone hates a critic unless that critic gives a glowing review). Could I ever have inspired fear? Was I ever admired? Did it matter? Does it matter now?

I know that I was a "token" woman on the reviewing staff of the American Record Guide. Sometimes, out of a reviewing staff of 60 or so, there were two or three women writing reviews. And when the musical blogosphere was in its heyday, most of the musical bloggers were men. Now it seems that the field of musical bloggery is dominated by women, but the field of musical bloggery is a ghost of its former self. There are far fewer people who read blogs now. And, perhaps because of the degree of difficulty leaving a comment by way of a cell phone is, there are fewer still who engage by making comments.

Yet we persist.

Let me reflect on my youth a bit. When I was a teenager with a fierce dedication to music and a serious desire to engage in discussions about music as an equal, I believe I might have had the respect of my male peers. I know that I had the respect of the professional musicians (teachers and colleagues of my father) I interacted with. But I was a child with the kind of eagerness and dedication that projected an optimism nobody wanted to negate. Everyone likes a smart kid.

Once I was a college-age woman I found it harder to engage as an equal with my male peers because of the obsession with attractiveness that permeated all of our lives. If I was not attractive to a (straight) male musician, I was not worth talking to. If I was attractive to a male musician, I was rarely taken seriously as a thinking person or as a person with talent or a person with high aspirations. In a world where attractiveness-fueled self-esteem was currency, I was piss poor.

I did have wonderful encounters in the hallways with older male faculty members (I remember talking with Paul Doktor, David Diamond, and Rolf Fjelde) who were all gracious and interested in talking with me for the sake of talking about interesting stuff. I also did have great friends among my peers, and my fellow students who came to Juilliard with a college education served as inspiring teachers. And I had wonderful friends who were women.

My own teacher was deficient in the "teaching" department, but I was fortunate to find two teachers on the outside who taught me for free. One was a flutist who was just getting started in what has turned out to be a fantastic teaching career. He was appalled at the neglect that my teacher demonstrated, and he was eager to have a really good student who would take his (then way out-of-the-box) ideas seriously. The other teacher was not a flutist, but he wanted to "pay forward" the kindness of lessons that had been given to him, and wanted to emulate his teacher and keep his teacher's ideas alive. Both these teachers were men, and there was NEVER A HINT of impropriety in either relationship. I owe my life to these people. One is still a very close friend, and the other is inaccessible.

Some of my friends have experienced the dark side of trying to balance studying seriously and having to cope with the complications of having student/teacher relationship become intimate. Some people thought of it as a kind of flattery--that such a relationship was a relationship between equals. Some people felt trapped, and so no way of getting away without compromising their careers. This happened to students who were women and students who were men.

There are cases when cross-generational relationships can be relationships between equals, but the larger number of cross-generational relations between teachers and their students are not relationships between equals. They are exercises of power on the part of the person who has the career, has the influence, and often has a family.

Perhaps we are headed into a healthier musical world now, or at least a musical world where people who have, in the past, been able to get away with abusing their power, are seeing the consequences of that abuse.


Bonny said...

This is a great topic, Elaine, and I thank you for putting it into the blogosphere where it so often seems to be taboo. Another thing that makes for power plays (not only) in the classical music world, are perceptions of wealth or poverty.

Elaine Fine said...

People who have wealth (and therefore privilege and freedom) can more easily take advantage of those who do not. They might even feel "noble" doing it.

It works both ways, though. I had a friend (who will remain unnamed) who had little in the way of musical talent, but she did have youth, beauty, sex-appeal, and an interest in hooking her star to a successful musician. She worked her way through a few "stars," and then married an older musician who had wealth, power, and influence. And she is now well-respected as a musician!

She was very proud of her "path," kind of like Christina Engelhardt in relation to Wood Allen. Go figure.