Culture Trips

Bang the drum for change: why do orchestras have so few women percussionists? | Classical music

In 1913, Sir Henry Wood hired six female violinists to play in his Queen’s Hall Orchestra, the first women in the world to join a professional orchestra playing alongside men. “I do not like ladies playing the trombone or double bass, but they can play the violin, and they do,” said the conductor magnanimously. Since then, we have seen a steady increase of women joining professional orchestras and bringing us closer to gender parity, indeed, some ladies have even proved they can play the trombone and the double bass. But what is happening in the percussion section?

In 1992, Dame Evelyn Glennie took to the Royal Albert Hall stage as the first solo percussionist to play a concerto at the Proms. Glennie brought solo percussion into the mainstream and singlehandedly changed the perception of percussion, showing the world that women could play it too. Two years later, the BBC added the percussion category to its Young Musician of the Year competition.

By the time I was 11 years old, Glennie was releasing CDs regularly. My mum signed me up to her fan club, and we booked tickets to see her perform anywhere within a 200-mile radius. As an aspiring percussionist, I was fortunate enough to be taught by two inspirational female teachers during my teens and then had numerous female contemporaries studying percussion as a student at the Royal College of Music. The signs were good, and I thought gender stereotypes had disappeared. I had female friends auditioning for orchestral jobs and even going on trial, but none of these brilliant women secured a job in a London orchestra. I myself enjoyed a busy freelance career, yet I never felt compelled to put myself through auditioning for a manel – otherwise known as a panel of men.

Fast forward 15 years to 2021, and gender equality at the back of the orchestra in London is worse than it was than when I was a budding muso back in the early 00s. Today, in London’s seven top orchestras, women only account for 3% of all the timpani and percussion positions. In fact, there are more men called David with jobs in percussion than there are women.

A London orchestra - and its six-strong all-male percussion back row - playing at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2020.
A London orchestra – and a six-strong all-male percussion back row – playing at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2020. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

UK-wide, many orchestras may employ a few female extra percussion players, but often the choice comes down to whether they fit in with the boozy culture often found in the percussion section. Glennie wrote in her autobiography about student days at the Royal Academy of Music: “As I was no drinker and didn’t like to socialise in noisy and smoky pubs, I became increasingly isolated from my peers.”

It’s notable that all five of last year’s biennial Young Musician percussion finalists were male, of the 10 young players who made it to 2016 and 2018’s section finals, there was only one girl among them.

Some may argue that the problem starts at a grassroots level, yet in one of the UK’s specialist music schools, Wells Cathedral School, almost two-thirds of current percussion students are female. Jayne Obradovic, head of percussion at Wells, thinks that one of the reasons is because “we have a female head of percussion as a role model, and 40% of our percussion teachers are women”.

Today, I am a director of music in a London girls’ school, and I have seen how my students have unconsciously grown up with a perception of “boy” instruments, often projected on to them by previous generations (Sir Henry Wood, I’m looking at you). My school employs a female percussion teacher and we make a point of playing to students in class. And, offered a choice of 10 instruments, including the more “female” violin, piano or clarinet, half of year 7 pupils have opted to study percussion.

In 2019, data collated by Beth Higham-Edwards, a freelance percussionist and senior leader at SWAP’ra (Supporting Women and Parents in Opera), found that among 104 timpani and percussion positions among members of the Association of British Orchestras, only 7.7% were held by women.

Such is the strength of feeling among freelance female percussionists, SWAP’ra has set up a networking group to support them and give them confidence when trying to navigate their way into the back row, or as we used to call it, the “lads’ row.”

Another all-male back row in a 2017 Barbican concert.
Another all-male back row in a 2017 Barbican concert. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“When I was studying for my Master’s degree at a London music college in 2017,” says Higham-Edwards, “a third of the students in the department were female. We had 10 percussion teachers, all male. We also had weekly visiting professionals, and I did not see a single female professional percussionist in the building during my whole two years of study.”

Music colleges outside London, such as the Royal Northern College of Music, are appointing more female teachers and have female heads of percussion. At the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 64% of its percussion students are female. Head of department Patrick King suggests that initiatives such as “Women Can” events and the recent addition of a female percussionist to their teaching staff have helped.

Interestingly both the Royal Northern and Royal Welsh have female principals, driving change from the top. The vast majority of the percussion staff at London’s four leading music colleges: Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Trinity Laban, remain men. And, indeed, only 14% of the Royal College’s percussion students are female, 18% at Trinity Laban.

Higham-Edwards’ own experience at music college led her to choose to focus away from the London orchestral scene and instead develop a successful career performing with the likes of Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre.

She is not alone. One recent graduate told me: “Networking in the right pubs and ‘hanging out’ with the percussion section of certain orchestras so that I could get a foot through the door was exhausting. In the end, I decided to focus on the work I was getting in smaller chamber orchestras.”

So is it a case of “jobs for the lads”, unconscious bias on the part of the audition panels, or are women just not auditioning for orchestral roles in the first place? Without role models how can women believe it is possible to forge a successful career as a percussionist in an orchestra? And why would they? The lack of representation means that it seems almost impossible to smash the glass ceiling.

We need systemic change. The talent is out there, but the opportunity is not. Employing women is not a trade-off between diversity and excellence. Orchestras must diversify their audition panels and ensure all auditions take place behind screens. Maybe one day soon, a woman in the back row of a London orchestra will no longer be a novelty.

Emily Gunton is director of music at Blackheath High School, London.

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