When Did Gender Matter?

Hilary Apfelstadt on Female Choral Conductors


In the world of choral conducting, unlike instrumental conducting, there are many female conductors. But early in my career, I encountered a few people who were not used to women in positions of visibility especially in universities. One person told me that I was “pretty good for a woman.” Another told me that I “must play an instrument,” because my conducting was “so clear.” That speaker went on to express surprise about seeing such clarity in a woman choral conductor. Those comments made me more than ever determined to be successful, but they also made me think that I had to work harder than my male counterparts to be considered good. For a time, I resented that but realized it was wasting my energy to dwell on it, so concentrated on doing my best and being as well prepared as possible.

Throughout my career, I have focused on leadership as an element of conducting and observed that gender can affect people’s perceptions in some contexts. For example, if a female conductor is assertive, some people may take that as being aggressive, but if a man speaks with equal authority, his words might be met without objections. In other words, assertiveness can be perceived differently depending on the gender of the conductor. As a soft-spoken person by nature, I have learned to make my points simply by using clear language, direct eye contact, and engaging the musicians with respect. It is not necessary for me to raise my voice. To do so would be out of character. The characteristic of being quiet is not gender related as people sometimes seem to think.

Another misconception about gender and leadership is that females are more nurturing and patient than males. Again, that has not been my experience in observing hundreds of student conductors over several decades. It is a matter of personality. I do think that patience is an asset especially for conductors working with students and amateur musicians. And it happens to be a characteristic of mine. I do not like working with impatient people and don’t want to be one myself.

Characteristics of effective conductors such as good musicianship, excellent preparation, strong teaching ability, fine gestural clarity, and so forth are not dependent upon gender. If we make those things the core of what we do, rather than getting mired in perceived differences according to gender, we can be successful. Are there issues? Yes, likely so at least in some people’s minds and it is those we need to continue to work on. It is important that we use gender-neutral language in rehearsal, that we be respectful of all the musicians we work with, that we put music making at the center of the experience, and all of those take conscious effort on our parts. Inclusive language matters: a we-centered rehearsal, rather than I-centered, is more welcoming to people. The gender of the speaker is not important, but the language and the tone are.