Women composers and Graded Exams

Guest Post by David Duncan
Publications Officer, LCM Examinations

Should we care about the representation of women composers in graded music exams?

Guerrilla Girls

In the 1980s the Guerrilla Girls (a group of female activist artists) produced a striking series of posters, combining bold block text with lists and statistics about major exhibitions and galleries.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 by Guerrilla Girls
Image 1.jpg

They formed in response to a major international exhibition (International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, 1984) in New York, where out of 169 artists fewer than 10% were women. By listing the museums, galleries, critics and artists which were complicit in maintaining this inequality, and bringing the gender and racial inequalities of the art world into stark focus, they helped to raise awareness in the wider public of the situation.

Thanks to the work of activists like the Guerrilla Girls, and positive action by directors at leading art galleries, we have reached a point today where there are many more solo exhibitions of female artists; and the fact that four of the last eight Turner Prize winners were women does not come as a surprise.

Noticeably, the Tate Modern, under the direction of Frances Morris, has dramatically increased the representation of women artists in recent years, while the gallery itself saw a record numbers of visitors in 2016.

If the art world shows signs of change in recent years, looking for positives in music education is harder to find.

33 years after the Guerrilla Girls’ 10% poster, we’re in a position where:

  • a major examination board today released a series of books containing only 1 piece written by a women in the higher grades (5 to 8); 1 work out of 33 (3%)
  • last year the leading international exam board actually publicised the fact that they had a ‘number of pieces by female composers’ in their piano syllabus; the number in question? 2 pieces out of 36 in their grade 5 to 8 books (or 6%, with some generous rounding)
  • neither of the two leading exam boards has had a single piece in their Grade 8 books since 2012 (Amy Beach’s Scottish Legend); 2% of works at the level which is often considered the gold standard by learners.

Are these numbers acceptable?

As organisations whose books are primarily used by young learners, and whose syllabuses have a huge influence on their development, do we have a responsibility to question the decision to focus almost exclusively on works written by men at the higher grades?

A recent article by Professor June Boyce-Tillman outlined her experiences in growing up with the graded examination of the 1950s and 60s. She writes:

“My favourite was a collection of pieces by Yvonne Adair entitled Little Dog Tales: each simple accessible piece had a description of a particular sort of dog that it described. I still cherish my much-loved copy. There were, in my memory, pieces by Jessie Furze in the early grades but, as the pieces became more challenging, women composers disappeared from the syllabus. It seemed children would like ‘characteristic piano pieces’ but, as they grew up, they would prefer pieces called sonatas and suites, which women did not apparently write.”

What struck me when reading this was how little things have changed over the past 50 years. How, despite the evidence to the contrary, we try to convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter who wrote the music, and that children’s imaginations and aspirations aren’t informed by any outside influences. Is it really a surprise that talented composers such as June would become disillusioned with classical music’s hidden curriculum and abandon it for more inclusive forms of music-making?

What can LCM do?

We can ensure that in the future we:

  • reflect the diverse and dynamic heritage of music
  • don’t exclude candidates by nature of their gender or race
  • strive to continually improve the quality of works on our syllabuses by searching more widely for material
  • are never content with historical precedent
  • inspire the next generation with role models to aspire to

And fundamentally, we understand the influence that we have as an examination board. We will not respond to trends only when forced (Edexcel’s 2016 A Level syllabus), but rather seek to lead and offer a positive alternative to the current syllabuses on offer.

To meet this aims, we have put in place guidelines for all of our syllabus compilers and anybody who works on future projects for us; ensuring that at least 50% of the works we have considered by living composers will have been written by women, and ensuring that we actively look to rediscover the music of women from the past four centuries.

This is a hugely positive step for us, and we are looking forward to uncovering hidden gems, publishing new editions of forgotten works, and promoting and commissioning new pieces from today’s most exciting composers.

This shouldn’t just be the preserve of LCM — and I’d be delighted if the other boards are interested in discussing whether we can pool our resources to improve the situation across the boards.

LCM’s Piano syllabus (2018–2021) will be released in October this year.  46% of the works in the Grade 5 to 8 handbooks are written by women.

Now read the Pianodao response to this Guest Article here.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

3 thoughts on “Women composers and Graded Exams”

  1. I just want to applaud you for the sheer reasonableness of your approach to this. There are so many female composers working today (Wynn-Anne Rossi, Nancy Telfer, Melody Bober, Anne Grosby Gaudet, Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee, Martha Hill Duncan, Barbara Arens, June Armstrong… I could go on and on) and they are under-represented in pretty much every syllabus I have ever seen except the Canadian RCM. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. But the problem is that this is not a true representation of the musical output of the past 400 years. 50% of composers haven’t been women, the vast majority have been male. So why should a male composer (who may be as unknown as a female composer) not be considered because of him being male? Isn’t this exclusion based on gender? Surely the syllabus should be chosen based on quality of music and level of difficulty, not on sex.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Connor, I personally think that those are very valid points and legitimate concerns.

    The guest author of this post has a committed and, I believe, well-founded argument for addressing an imbalance, and in a limited short-term way I think that the work to do that within the next LCM syllabus is very worthwhile. But I agree with you that in their next syllabus, in four years time, there will need to be an equal concern not to become prejudiced against the inclusion of lesser-known or upcoming male composers.

    According to the PRS, around 14% of its members are women composers. With that in mind, my view is that around 14% of works by living composers should be by women. Where this clearly isn’t the case it should be addressed. But aiming for 50% of works by women composers, as the author here suggests, would indeed create an imbalance that can’t I think be justified in the longer term.

    Liked by 1 person

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