Equality for Women Composers

Women Composers, Piano Exams, and the Quest for Balance

When I published David Duncan’s guest article Women Composers and Grade Exams I really hoped that it would promote a healthy debate about a really important issue, and I am pleased that it has done so.

While I don’t generally comment on Guest Posts, on this occasion I would like to add a few thoughts. And I must begin by applauding David Duncan and his colleagues at LCM for their determination to address an imbalance. David makes a valuable contribution to the discussion, and I believe his efforts at LCM deserve our support and enthusiasm.

My hope is that by including far more works by women composers, their forthcoming piano  syllabus will be an eye-opener, in which unjustly neglected works will receive the greater exposure they deserve.

Equal opportunities for women composers?

The significant representation of women composers in the forthcoming LCM Piano Syllabus is – David tells us – part of an ongoing strategy to ensure that 50% of included works by living composers will from now on be by women.

But according to the PRS (The Performing Rights Society), approximately 14% of its composer members are women. Our first reaction might therefore be to think that aiming for a syllabus representation that is much higher than 14% might conflict with basic principles of fairness and equality. Responses to David’s article certainly suggest that a few readers were uneasy with any implication of positive discrimination, and I have been giving considerable thought to the online discussion.

However, I think we really need to be questioning why only 14% of PRS members are women. Isn’t this surprisingly low?

Addressing the issue Why there are so few female composers, composer and teacher Kerry Andrew notes that while there are presently more female than male students at Junior Trinity where she teaches (and again – shouldn’t we be asking why?), only one third of them choose to study composition.

She suggests:

“We need to address the inequality at the nub: those writing the curriculum, the National Music Plan, and teachers at all levels should make an effort to use examples of music by women in the classroom; to promote composition as a living, breathing, utterly unisex profession.”

“Teachers at all levels”. That includes piano teachers!

Some “more equal” than others..?

Looking at this bigger picture, then, more complex priorities come into focus. Is it perhaps necessary to include a disproportionately high quantity of repertoire by woman composers to encourage more female students to develop an interest in composition? And – importantly – can this be done without avoiding a further decline in numbers of male students at Junior Trinity?

Certainly we must encourage change wherever we perceive a need for it, and again, LCM are again to be congratulated for looking for positive ways to do so through their syllabus initiative..

Ultimately though, whether selecting pieces for our general teaching repertoire or for exam purposes, it is surely the quality of the music itself which must remain our top priority, and not the gender of the composer.

With that in mind, I hope that when they next revisit their syllabus in four years time, LCM will equally maintain a concern for the inclusion of lesser-known or upcoming male composers in order to avoid charges of bias or prejudice. Some careful, nuanced research and thinking will surely be necessary.

Statistics: a closer look

I can’t leave this post without commenting on the statistics David referred to in his post. As William W. Watt sagely advised:

“Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say.”

Do David’s statistics give a fair impression of the other Boards?

Firstly he mentions that:

“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%)”

I contacted the Board concerned, and they replied to me saying:

“We are committed to producing syllabuses that reflect the diversity of our teachers and learners and thank you for bringing this issue to our attention.”

They pointed out that in fact two of the pieces in the published selections are composed by women, not one. More significantly, once the alternative choices are also factored in, an impressive 30 out of 178 pieces across the syllabus are by women composers: a PRS-beating 17% of the total.

David also stated that:

“…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)”

Looking at their current piano syllabus, I agree with David’s assessment that women composers are poorly represented in it, and note that between Grades 2 to 5 there is not a single piece by a woman composer in the selected pieces books, with just one arrangement by a female at Grade 4.

However, specifically considering living composers whose works are included across the full syllabus, a somewhat different picture emerges. Out of 25 pieces by living writers, 7 are by women. This represents 28% – twice what we might expect from the PRS statistic.

With this in mind, I hope we can safely dispel any inadvertent impression that exam pieces are selected by a committee of men nursing any grudge towards women composers!

The Bigger Picture

In conclusion, I am struck by that phrase ‘syllabuses which reflect the diversity of our teachers and learners’, because it points to far wider issues than simply the question of gender. And if we decree that a specific quotient of pieces be written by women, I wonder whether there’s perhaps a danger of unintended consequences elsewhere in the selection process?

Constructing exam Repertoire lists comprising pieces which genuinely reflect diversity is a monumental challenge, requiring knowledge of a truly vast amount of music, as well as a sympathetic identification with the audience for the syllabus.

Having made a case for boosting contributions from women composers, mustn’t we also consider candidates from India, SE Asia, Africa and South America, taking care to include the works of successful composers from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, ensuring that the syllabus isn’t dominated by Western European composers? In my review of the current ABRSM syllabus I highlighted their particular efforts to address this important issue of inclusivity.

Efforts to balance these competing concerns, alongside the need to celebrate the best music from our core classical and pedagogical traditions, require a huge amount of work. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how LCM and the other major exam boards rise to this challenge over the coming years.

Let’s hope that with ongoing vision the syllabi offered by exam boards can, over time, both reflect and help to shape our changing society and culture for the better, encouraging a truly global participation in high quality music making.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.