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Exploring the Gender Disparity in Classical Music Composition: A Personal Perspective

I am a 35 year old woman composer. I can answer the question of why there are a lack of female composers. There have always been many women composers throughout history (look up the Donne women composer database). The main reason music by women is not performed in today’s concerts halls as much as it should be is because of the detrimental effect the patriarchy has had on women composers. I know this fact from personal experience. There are two experiences in which the patriarchy almost completely destroyed my compositional career.

Growing up, all I did was practice, compose, and perform on multiple instruments. Both my parents were professional musicians, and some even considered me a musical prodigy. I played some of the hardest music in the piano repertoire beginning at age 11. I had almost no social life due to my focus on music. By the time I applied to conservatories at 17 years old, I was a top candidate for both piano and composition.

In 2007, at age 18, I decided to move to America to study at Boston Conservatory. My time at BoCo began well. I was capitalizing on every performance opportunity and my composition teacher even said I was competing with the graduate level composers in terms of the quality of music I was composing. I was especially excited when one of the percussionists, (name withheld), at the conservatory noticed my talent and asked me to compose him a marimba concerto. He offered to pay me and perform it with an orchestra. I wrote him the piece and sent it to him. He seemed to be making progress on learning it and I had no reason to think he wasn’t being genuine about the project.

Beginning in January 2008, he began exhibiting troubling behavior. He would set up plans to rehearse the piece and then cancel them and not reply for hours. Eventually lunches and conversations with him became less and less focused on the marimba concerto and more and more focused on my appearance and sexual innuendos. He eventually came over to my dorm room to listen to the piece supposedly. Instead, he brought hard liquor and gatorade and suggested that I should undress. I was shocked, but I partially undressed and pleasured him so that he would leave. Of course, I felt degraded and terrible afterwards. All my hopes for the piece had disappeared.

Our encounters gradually grew worse in a sense. I had to endure him shouting abuse at me in the street if I did not completely follow what he wanted. There was one incident when he came to my room and wanted to tie me up. When I refused to let him do this act, he suggested we take a shower together. He used the shower as a way of breaking my hymen with his fingers. Later, this would set up a situation during finals week in May 2008, where he could rape me outside of another dorm building without there being any blood. After this incident, he checked in with me multiple times throughout the following days to make sure I would not report the incident. The concerto was never performed. Years later in 2013, He returned to try to reignite the concerto project in order to have an opportunity to break me and my husband up ahead of our wedding.

I thought that such a thing could never happen to me again. I was wrong.

Of course, the untreated trauma caused me to act out in certain ways and hurt my studies and relationships with my professors. After graduating from Boston Conservatory, I discovered the organ, as an instrument and good source of income. Due to my earlier trauma, it was hard for me to form the connections I needed to gain entry into a good graduate level music program. Learning the organ allowed me to support myself and my young family (husband and son). It took until 2017 for me to complete my first master’s degree and then I was made to do a second master’s degree, which I completed in 2022. I am now completing my Doctor of Musical Arts degree, which I will finish in 2025.

In August 2023, while I was studying towards my doctorate, I played in a masterclass taught by the famous organist Stefan Engels. This encounter initiated a Facebook messenger conversation, a prolonged exchange for a few months, which eventually led to me being physically and sexually assaulted in a hotel room in Texas.

All I ever wanted was a career in music. I love music and have never done anything else. I know I will have my DMA by the age of 36, but I know if I was a male composer I would have had a less traumatic path and have completed the DMA sooner. Men in classical music often target women composers and make forming a career hard for them. I wish we lived in a world where a compositional commission was a commission, and a mentor was a mentor and not a ruse to assault someone.

I tell this personal account to help other people understand why less women composers reach a high level of prominence in the classical music community. There is still a lot of inherent sexism in the system. Many people (men and women) assume women are less capable and talented than men just because they are women. These false assumptions coupled with the prevalent objectification of women musicians, often mean women composers have two options: stay true to their authentic selves and choose another more accepting profession or desexualize themselves and make themselves appear more masculine in order to be taken seriously professionally. Both options are unacceptable. Women should be able to be fully women and be taken as seriously as men as musicians and given equal opportunities without having to work 10 times as hard and face unbelievable obstacles. We all know sexism is still an issue in classical music and the time has come to stop accommodating to sexism and start dismantling it permanently.

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