Meg Quigley: Creating a Supportive Environment for Young Women Musicians

Image: Photo by Laura Jue.

There is something magical about being in a room in which everyone is listening intently to a young woman. This was the case at the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition and Symposium, a bi-annual bassoon festival that hosts one of the only all-women bassoon competitions. The festival featured workshops, panels, masterclasses, and a number of bassoon greats, including Sue Bancroft, the first female tenured bassoon professor, and Monica Ellis, the bassoonist of the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds. The three day symposium and competition is meant to build connections between young musicians and seasoned veterans, and to create a supportive place where young women can feel powerful.

“You will see a good population of women either at auditions or in schools of music, but there is still a connotation that classical music is a boy’s game, is a man’s game,” Ellis said Saturday. “So to have an event like this that celebrates womanhood, that celebrates the power that women can bring to an instrument that you wouldn’t expect, again even in 2016, that you wouldn’t expect a woman to play, it’s a tremendous thing. It’s celebrating what we can do as women.”

Co-founder Nicolasa Kuster created Meg Quigley in 2005, after years of going to competitions and seeing contestants who were all men being ranked by judges who were all men on pieces all composed by men. So it’s understandable why women may not feel welcome in such a heterogenous environment.

For the competition, the contestants play a piece by Antonio Vivaldi, a Baroque composer famous for teaching and composing for a girls’ music ensemble at the Ospedale della Pietá, a home for abandoned children.

Women in classical music have come a long way in the past few decades. In her talk on Saturday, Sue Bancroft recounted stories of sexual harassment and stalking, as well as incidents of her male colleagues trying to get her fired because they did not want to work with a woman. The introduction of blind auditions in the 1970s, an audition process in which musicians are judged from behind a screen to prevent gender or race bias, has changed the way women musicians are perceived. We see more women as principals in orchestras, as well as teaching music at universities.

“The Metropolitan Opera…is known for doing completely blind auditions to the very end and guess what they have one of the highest percentages of black and brown musicians in that pit and probably women too,” Ellis said.

Today, musicians are judged primarily on their skill, not their gender. Most orchestras are about 50% women. Though there is much work to be done in terms of conducting and composing, as musicians, women are playing, teaching, and leading. “Women are good,” Bancroft said.

However, in the top orchestras, there is still room for improvement.

“In the rank and file of orchestras and schools, you see women,” Ellis said. “It’s when you get up to the upper eschelon, the top ten orchestras or the top ten schools of music, not so much.”

In 2012, the New York Metropolitan, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and the LA Philharmonic were about 40% women. These numbers may sound pretty good, but you’ll be disappointed to find that those are the best ones. At that time, the Russian National Orchestra was at 36%, the London Symphony Orchestra at 29%, and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra at 7%.

Being the only woman in an ensemble “is a little isolating, sometimes you do get that sense of you can’t really relate to other people,” Ellis said. “Especially being an African American…you look across the orchestra and you may be the only one.”

Marléne Ngalissamy, 22, one of the competition’s finalists, mentioned that the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra famous for being nearly entirely white men, recently appointed a woman, Sophie Dartigalongue, to principal bassoon. Ngalissamy said, “I found that really powerful.”

That is why events like Meg Quigley are so important. They give young women the opportunity to meet and learn directly from successful women in their field.

“It’s awesome to be here this week,” semifinalist Molly Murphy, 22, said. “So many VIPs, seeing all these people, all these women play these pieces, especially ones written for them by female composers is really cool.”

Younger and older players agreed that a major part of the problem is in how women present themselves. “I don’t know if women are raised to go about it in the same way,” semifinalist Corinne Crowley, 20, said, “to be as forceful and demand what they want and be confident enough to stand in front of a room of people and say that I’m worth so much you need to hear what I’m telling you.”

Bancroft, said the same thing, adding, “You gotta stand up for yourself.”

In addition to a supportive community of female musicians, the men are able to offer these young women support as well by “[staying] out of the way when they needed to,” according to Crowley. By teaching and giving master classes, she says, “They have found a way to be supportive without taking any of the focus away from empowering female musicians.”

“[It’s a] great way to express solidarity for women,” percussionist Gerald Scholl said.

Meg Quigley has been growing since it began in 2010. Though there has been vast improvement in the past few decades, women’s representation in the upper tiers of classical music can afford to improve, as well as their treatment by directors and instructors. Once they get through the blind audition process, they are often greeted by the patronizing attitudes of directors who do not take them seriously.

In the end, finalist Sarah Tako, who recently turned 21, took home first place. The importance of an all women’s competition is “the idea that women can hold their own and be brave,” she said. “You can’t put up with the attitude of alpha males.”

Women in classical music have a long history of being underestimated. But the women at Meg Quigley proved that patronizing men from band directors to international orchestra conductors can’t keep them from doing what they love.

“Frankly,” Ellis said, “flip them the bird and keep practicing.”

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