Home » ‘We’re going to blame the women, not our sexism’: bias holding back top female pianists

‘We’re going to blame the women, not our sexism’: bias holding back top female pianists

Discrimination and misogyny in classical music are denying women opportunities at festivals, venues and in recordings, research finds

by Narges Mohammadi

A discordant chord over sexism in the classical music world has sounded again. The head of one of the most prestigious competitions is calling for the industry to confront an apparent bias that is holding back female pianists from pursuing concert careers, however brilliant their talent.

Fiona Sinclair, chief executive of the Leeds International Piano Com­petition, told the Observer that female pianists are failing to reach the top of their profession despite an equal number of men and women now training at conservatoires.

She said: “Fewer than 23% of career pianists are women, yet in the conservatoires it’s roughly 50:50. As they leave college, the men soar while the women are not getting opportunities. The more we get into actual statistics, it’s clear that something’s broken. The problem persists at the top piano level – festivals, recordings, venues – with men generally dominating everything.”

The 2024 Leeds competition has introduced new measures, including “blind” pre-selection rounds to disguise genders and “unconscious bias training” for the jurors, who will not have a musician’s name, nationality, age or conservatoire until an advanced round.

Sinclair said they needed to take action as “only 18% of the most recent top 40 international piano competitions have been won by women”.

Recent research found that only 20% of piano recitals or concertos in the UK are given by women, and only 19% of solo or concerto recordings are made by women. Of 20 piano soloists who performed in last year’s BBC Proms, only two were women, Isata Kanneh-Mason and Yuja Wang.

The Leeds competition, which has been held every three years since 1963, has helped launch the careers of some of the world’s foremost pianists, including Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia.

But only two women have won it, Sofya Gulyak and Anna Tsybuleva. Ironically, the competition was founded by three female pianists: Fanny Waterman, Rosalyn Lyons and Marion Thorpe.

A 2022 survey found that sexual harassment in the classical music industry was rife, with “unsafe workplaces where perpetrators face no repercussions” and where “a number of allegations of sexual assault … would be a criminal matter”.

Commissioned by the Independent Society of Musicians (ISM), it concluded that fear of reprisals stopped victims from making a complaint. One musician confided: “I was told, as a female musician, that I would only advance my career if I was prepared to give sexual favours.”

Vick Bain, the ISM’s former president and co-author of the report, said yesterday that her ongoing PhD research reflects that sexism and misogyny are holding back women’s musical careers.

She spoke of “either overt or unconscious bias”: “I’ve heard it said that women are not as good at music as men, not as good instrumentalists, not as obsessed and therefore they don’t practise, that women can’t play the big heavyweight ­concertos of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky because they’re frail little things and can’t produce enough sound. That’s just not true. It’s always: ‘We’re going to blame the women, not our sexism.’”

Concert pianist Joanna MacGregor, who has performed at the BBC Proms, said: “Of course sexism exists in the classical music world – but it just reflects the wider world. Women in classical music have to work tremendously hard and can be judged more harshly on what they do. People comment on what they wear and what they look like, but that’s not special to classical music. It’s a complex and thorny subject that goes beyond competitions.”

Pianist Alexandra Dariescu feels so strongly about sexism and misogyny in the classical music world that she is supporting a major new award for an outstanding performance of music by a female composer being introduced at this year’s Leeds competition: “Headline artists in our industry – conductors, soloists and composers – are showing a huge misrepresentation of women. Our industry is doing a lot to bring change, but it’s really not quick enough.”

David Pickard, director of the BBC Proms, said: “The classical music industry has work to do on diversity – and we’re certainly not there yet. But it’s something we’re deeply committed to. Last year, for the first time ever, the First and Last Nights were conducted by women. Our 2024 season, to be announced in April, will further demonstrate the degree to which we are championing female performers and composers.”

Source: Guardian

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