Gatekeeping: Four Ways Womxn Are Shut Out of Classical Music

“You don’t seem like a voice major. You’re not a diva.”

When I was in college, I mentioned something about my voice jury while in guitar ensemble. Another student was surprised I was taking voice and even more surprised when I said it was my concentration. “You don’t seem like a voice major. You’re not a diva,” they said.

Most of the voice majors at my university were womxn. They were kind, encouraging people. I now realize that this was the equivalent of “you’re not like other girls,” and just one small example of the many ways girls and women are kept away from classical music, especially Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways this happens.


1. We don’t teach children about womxn composers, especially not womxn of color.

Growing up, I knew about Mozart. I knew about Beethoven, but I couldn’t name one womxn composer until I was in high school. The ones I could name then were all white. Maybe I was seeing myself represented at that point, but many, many girls were not.

When someone doesn’t see themselves represented in an industry, it sends the message that the industry is not for them, or at the very best, is not welcoming of them. This can lead to the development of self-limiting beliefs, and may discourage many girls from ever trying. This causes the cycle of underrepresentation to continue.

2. We associate instruments with gender.

Girls play violin, boys play drums. Girls play piano, boys play guitar. If you’re a girl who wants to play percussion, or kick absolute a** at trombone, sorry. Those are boy instruments.

And I know what you’re thinking: “But girls can still play those so what’s the problem?”

The problem lies in the cultural perception of these instruments. I’ve witnessed time and time again girls and womxn be sidelined, overlooked, talked down to, and shunned because they were in the “wrong” instrument section. This forces them to work even harder for all of the wrong reasons, just to be seen as equals with their male/male identifying counterparts.

3. We ascribe damaging stereotypes to women based on their instruments.

On the flip side, I’ve seen womxn stereotyped and made the subject of jokes because they chose the “right one.” This instrument gendering often leaves girls and womxn to contend with negative stereotypes if they do happen to choose an instrument typically associated in Western culture with the feminine.

Women, especially BIWOC, are punished for breaking with convention, and they’re punished for sticking to it. That doesn’t do much to incentivize girls and womxn to pursue careers in this field.

4. We only make room for a few skills.

Will you perform or will you teach? This is entrenched in many music programs across the country, as well as in the popular consciousness. Everyone majoring in music must be good at one of these two things. This mentality leaves no room for the hundreds of other jobs one can do in the world of classical music.

We gloss over skills seen as more pedestrian — logistics, engagement, marketing, research — and look down on people who work in these areas as ones who “didn’t make it,” simply because they do not meet a very narrow definition of success. There’s immense pressure on womxn to either be the next Hilary Hahn, or to bust out the Orff instruments. This leaves so many skilled womxn out in the cold, and often leaves students exiting music programs underprepared for forging a career path outside of these narrow constraints.


So, what do we do about this?

How can we create a better path forward? I’m glad you asked! There are so many things we can do — even today — that can start to change the way the concert hall sounds for the better.

As educators, we can make sure the girls and womxn in our sphere of influence see strong, talented womxn — especially womxn of color — represented in their repertoire and listening assignments. While we can and should look at contemporary classical music and womxn composers from the past, we should seek out folk, and even popular musicians as important examples as well. Many BIWOC have been excluded from the world of “high art” due to systemic racism, so a wealth of important music exists outside of what we consider concert music.

As performers, we can ensure that we collaborate with other womxn, and create opportunities for their voices to be heard. We can perform the works of womxn and dig deep into how these works are significant, beyond just the fact that a womxn crafted them.

Classical music has been the property of white men for a long time. The concert hall has been a place of segregation. But classical music can happen anywhere and belong to anyone: coffee shops, parks, bars, and the list goes on. These places are the perfect venues for classical music to be appreciated. The general public aren’t uncultured people who can’t enjoy classical music. The general public loves all kinds of music, and we keep them away from it with exorbitant fees and dress codes and inherently racist and classist barriers. But if we go to D’s Diner and play a couple of hours of string quartet music in our jeans, suddenly we’ve taken those barriers away. And, trust me, people will love it and remember it.

Speaking to my fellow white women: ensure that you aren’t the only womxn on the program. Read From Ally to Accomplice: How to Support Black Women at Work by Tiffany Wadelle Tate for more on this (and how to be a better professional in general).

As listeners, we can diversify our playlists and share our new discoveries or old passions with people around us.

I’m guilty of letting myself fall back on my old white dude faves from time to time. And there’s a place and a value for those pieces. But you can find literally hundreds of composers and musicians with a few simple searches online, and your world will be all the richer for it.

In fact, do that now and pop your finds in the comments (mine will be there, too!) Add these folks to your playlists, tell two or three friends about them, and maybe even support them by purchasing their music.

Below are some resources you can peruse to get started. We’d love for you to share additional resources in the comments as well!

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