Orchestras & Social Reality: Abbie Conant’s Activism Through Music

I’ve read several notices on the gen-mus list about the difficulties teachers sometimes have interesting their students in gender issues.  Here is a recent example that was put on the list:


“I’m in need of suggestions for an essay to assign tomorrow (!) which

would help undergraduate music students grasp some of the main concepts of musical meaning as constructed and grounded in social reality.  We have to get past this hurdle before more specifics of gender and sexuality can be addressed effectively.”


That’s a well stated and terribly difficult problem.  I’m not certain I have understood specfically what she needs, but I want to provide some material “grounded in social reality” that might inspire interest in gender related issues in music, and ultimately, in musical meaning.


This material consists of concrete illustrations, exercises, and questions, to

accompany an article that will appear in the February issue of the IAWM Jouranl

about trombonist Abbie Conant and her experiences with egregious discrimination

in a major European orchestra.  (I list a web address where the article can now

be obtained.)    My post is in four parts:


I.  Part one explains why the material in these document is useful for young

performers, and why it is aimed at them.

II. Part two lists specific actions Abbie Conant took during her struggle, and

how she fought back with her art.  They are footsteps on a path that hint to

young performers  how gender related issues can help them find a role and

identity as an artist in society.

III.  Part three lists specifc “actions” performers can do to address discrimination.  They are examples young people can readily grasp.

IV.  Part four lists a constellation of gender-related questions that young

performers must consider before they can carry through those “actions”.  These

questions could lead to much more abstract considerations about

gender in music.


Some might be subjects for discussion and essays. All three sections could be used to help relate gender issues and “musical meaning” to “social reality”, as was requested.


Part I:  The material I provide might be useful because in most music schools

the majority of the students are performers.  Student performers are very goal

oriented by the nature of their field, and are also oriented to learning by

imitation.  It is their habit of mind, at least at first, not to deal in

abstractions, but rather to walk in their teachers’ footsteps. Perhaps if students were given a concrete example of how an established performer has experienced egregious discrimination, and how she literally “fought back with her art”, they might be able to identify with that person as a role model.  Her experiences would make the issues of gender real and relevant to them.  They could see that terrible biases really do exist in the professional music world, and how training in gender issues can help them prepare for the problems and questions that can arise. 


The young performer’s first question is, “How does gender affect my profession, and what can I do about it?” The experiences of Abbie Conant might help answer that question.  She spent 13 years resisting extreme discrimination in the Munich Philharmonic.  She won an audition as principal trombone, and was later demoted by General Music Director Sergiu Celibidache with the explanation, “You know the problem, we need a man for the principal trombone.”


Because she fought so determinedly, her long struggle is one of the more

incredible and well documented examples of discrimination in the business.  The

IAWM “Journal” article about them should arrive shortly, and is available on this site.

A more detailed report substantiated with 89 footnotes available on this site see:

“You Sound Like A Ladies’ Orchestra”


With these documents you can present Abbie Conant’s astounding story to the

students.  If you add the material I recently put on the gen-mus list about the

Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra which categorically forbids membership to

women, and present the staggering examples of how Prof. Hans Pizka and Lorin

Maazel defend this discrimination, the students will be confronted with something very real.  I think they will be the ones who start  asking questions about gender bias in music.


This could be a starting point that leads the more imaginitive students to a wider interest in gender related issues in music.  And once young people see that there really is a problem, and one that really hurts people, they naturally want to know what they can do, and what our music really is.


Part II.  Here are nine substantial “actions” that illustrate how Abbie Conant has reacted to  “social realities” in music.  They show how gender bias in music can affect a performer, and how she has responded.  And they are actions that performance students might readily identify with.


1. Through the court cases to defend her position—all of which she won—she

established a clear and detailed documentation of sexism in the Munich

Philharmonic.  Her story has thus become well-known in Germany and to a wide

international public.  A 90 minute documentary film about her experiences was

broadcast nationally on German television.  There have been feature articles in

numerous international publications including “The Washington Post”, “The Wall

Street Journal”, and “Der Spiegel” (which is equivalent to the “Time Magazine”

of Germany).  She was featured in a 20 minute interview on NPR’s “Performamce

Today”, and in a 90 minute portrait by the Southwest German State Radio.  Her

experiences have been the cover stories for three professional publications:

“The International Trombone Association Journal”; “The Trombonist”, of the

British Trombone Society, and “Frau und Musik”, of the Internationaler

Arbeitskreis Frau und Musik.  The newspaper and magazine articles are too

numerous to list. Reports of her experiences have had a profound impact on the

music world.


2.  In Germany there are no sanctions to enforce the laws against discrimination.  They say, in effect, that it is against the law to discriminate, but if you do you won’t be punished.  The documentary film examines this problem, and helps German politicians call for sanctions to enforce the laws protecting women in the workplace.


3.  Conant’s presence in the orchestra and her work as a soloist are a role

model for young women in Germany.  She was the only woman brass player in a

principal position in a major German Orchestra.  Now there are none.  There are

only two in the States.  But as a soloist she is even more in the public eye.


4.  She is the first woman professor of trombone in the history of Germany.

Only 3% of the professors in Germany are women.  (In all fields taken together,

not just music.) Most university students here never have a woman professor.

Her presence encourages women students, and especially those studying brass

instruments.  After she began work at the conservatory in Trossingen,

Germany in 1992, they accepted a woman trumpet student for the first time in the

history of the school.  She has what in North America would probably be named an artist-in-residence position.  She is free to tour extensively, and it pays

better than the Munich Philharmonic.  And there are only two trombonists who are

women with full time university positions in the United States.


5.  She performs a highly acclaimed one woman music theater work based on her

experiences entitled “Miriam”, which she has taken throughout Germany, and which

by the end of this season she will have taken to 35 US-American cities.  In

workshops following these performances she speaks to students about

discrimination and her experiences in Munich.  These schools have included, or

will include The Juilliard School, The Eastman School of Music, Indiana

University, Yale University, North Texas State University, The University of

Iowa, The University of Southern California, The San Francisco Conservatory, and (tentatively) Stanford University.  Countless young musicians around the world have been affected by her performances, workshops and discussions about discrimination.

Professionals have also been influenced.  For example, Sylvia Alimena, who is

conductor of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and a section

horn player with the National Symphony, was quoted in a feature about Abbie in

the “Washington Post”:


“ ‘You can not imagine the power of this piece (“Miriam”) unless you were there

in the room,’ Alimena says.  ‘All those professional women, just shaken to their

cores by this piece.  Of course it resonates particularly with other players,

because - believe it - the kind of treatment Abbie went through in Munich is

not, by any stretch of the imagination, unknown in the United States.’”

Many other well-known musicians can also testify to its effect.


6.  Conant has become a noted voice in the “International Trombone

Association”, which includes over 4000 members worldwide.  She is regularly featured as a soloist on its international festivals.  She was elected to the board of directors by the ITA membership and has been nominated for election as its President.  In part through her influence the ITA Festivals regularly include internationally recognized women trombonists and teachers.


7.  Here in Germany she often performs benefit concerts for women’s cultural

houses, and battered women’s shelters.


8.  She has made an internationally recognized CD of trombone and organ music

which influences people in Germany and abroad, and a second CD is under



9.  She is an active supporter of the International Women’s Brass Confererence,

and The International Alliance of Women in Music.


Part III:  Based on Abbie’s efforts here are some ways performers become

involved with gender issues in music.  They represent a wide range of

possibilities, from what students can do now, to goals they can set as



1.  You can publicize and discuss examples of discrimination internationally,

especially on the net.  Awareness brings change.  (Study the Internet work of

Irene Stuber.)


2.  You can learn about the situation of women in various countries and work

with them to make change, especially in orchestras, since that is your field of

expertise, and since the international music world is very interconnected.


3.  You can encourage your instrument’s professional societies to include women

in their festivals, to address discrimination in their journals, and to include

women in the executive positions.


4. You can teach and study internationally and speak about and represent the

ideals of equal opportunity for women.


5.  You can perform works by and about women to strengthen their rights and

respect at home and abroad.


6.  If you are a woman performer you can accentuate your professional status as

a role model for all women on this planet.


7.  You can perform and/or organize benefit concerts for women’s organizations

at home and abroad.


8.  You can make recordings that show internationally the level of music women

can make.


9.  You can join and support societies for women in music.


10.  You can write a letter of protest to the orchestra chairmen (Orchester

Vorstand) of the Vienna Philharmonic at:


Orchester Vorstand

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Boesendorferstrasse 12

1010 Wien



(It is the orchestra and it’s chairmen who are responsible, not the administration, but you should send a copy of your letter to the administration at the same address.)


Part IV.  Through Abbie’s efforts and the above examples students see

how gender issues can be applied to their own careers.  Here are some gender-related

questions that young performers must consider if they become involved in

similiar experiences or activities.  These questions could lead to much more

abstract considerations about gender in music and musical meaning.  Some might

be subjects for discussion and essays.  The list could be greatly expanded with

the student’s own questions, and your special area of focus.


1.  Are Abbie’s experiences unique?  Could something like that happen

to you, or someone you know?  What causes them to happen?  What factors can prevent them?


2.  Are you being taught how to research the issues concerning women in the

music business, and apply that knowledge when you enter the profession?  There

is a dicrimination suit now going on in a major American orchestra every bit as

unbelievable as Abbie’s.  If that happens to you are you going to be prepared?

Can you wait until then to start becoming informed?  How can you

avoid problems? Three men in prominant US orchestras have recently lost or left their jobs due to sexist behavior.  Do you know about these examples?  Are you being taught professional decorum?  What is necessary so that women can have children and play in orchestras?


3.  Do your professional societies have a fair representation of women in their

festivals and executive positions?  How can you help them to?  Do they address

discrimination or other women’s issues in their journals?  If not, why not?  What training do you need to write such an article?  Would you have something intelligent to say on a panel discussion about women in music?  What topic would

you address and what would you say?


4.  How would you teach or study internationally and represent the ideals of

equal opportunity for women in an effective way?


5.  Do you perform works by and about women to strengthen their rights and

respect at home and internationally?  What are such works?  Where can you find

them?  How would you write a music theater work dealing with the identity of

women in society?


6.  What can a woman do to accentuate her professional image and status as a

role model for all women on this planet?  Which women might serve as models for

developing such an image?  What are those characteristics?


7.  Can you make recordings that show internationally the level of music women

can make?  Who has in your field?  How well do you know those recordings?  What is that woman’s history?


8.  Have you joined or supported women’s music societies?  What do those

societies really accomplish?


9.  What would you say in a letter of protest to the orchestra chairmen

(Orchester Vorstand) of the Vienna Philharmonic that might have an effect?

Their address:


Orchester Vorstand

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Boesendorferstrasse 12

1010 Wien



(It is the orchestra and it’s chairmen who are responsible, not the administration, but you should send a copy of your letter to the administration at the same address.)


Students like to know how knowledge is applicable, and what it can do for them.

When you show them, they put you to work.  The discussion could lead to more

abstract considerations about gender in music, and musical meaning.  Perhaps

these concrete examples will help young performers see how gender issues in

music can be used to better understand their role and identity as an artist in

society, and lead them to question what music really is.


You are welcome to this material and can forward it to whomever you wish.  I

will put it on the IAWM list, and the Women in Music list.  Soon I will no

longer be able to participate actively in the list discussions.  I hope your

reaction to the VPO material I posted will not be described as “flurry &

forget”, but rather that you will become involved in publication, and long term

social action and research.  Perhaps you can formulate ideas on how

to structure a “movement” and put them on the list.  There are so many women musicians being deeply hurt in orchestras.  Some have written to me and said that assistance would be very helpful.


William Osborne