Patriarchal Deification in the Brass World

I have been giving the idea of having a “musical hero” a lot of thought recently. What is a hero or heroine really? A hero/heroine can be defined as:

A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities

As young musicians, it is easy to develop this idea of a “musical hero” and apply it to the great musicians that we listen to. As young musicians, how can we not admire the powerful and seemingly perfect sounds that emanate from the back row of the orchestra? As young musicians, how do we make the distinction between professional orchestral musician and god?

It’s easy. Professional orchestral musicians are not gods. They are not automatically deemed heroes.  Professional orchestral musicians are simply that– professional orchestral musicians.

It has been a very eye-opening and painful journey for me to finally recognize this truth. It took me a long time to realize that good musician does not necessarily equal good person.  What a disappointment it is to admire someone for their outstanding musicianship and pedagogical skills, only to have it ruined in an instant.

What I am referring to in a rather round-about way is sexual discrimination/harassment/assault in the orchestral world. This appalling behavior is most commonly a direct result of the over-inflated ego of said  professional musician taking advantage of the admiration of the trusting student. It saddens me to write that this type of behavior in ever-so-common in today’s brass world. It makes me sick to know that most, if not all, of these highly regarded offenders escape any consequences greater than a slap on the wrist as their victims suffer in silence.

And why do these egregious offenders escape blame? Many women (men, too) say nothing. They are scared that if they do say something, then they might lose connections, cause an uproar, ruin their career, ruin their offender’s career, or even to not be taken seriously or believed.  Even worse, the employers of these sexual predators seem to value the talent and prestige that they bring to their orchestras over a truly simplistic matter of right and wrong.  It astounds me that professional orchestras in today’s society can so easily put up blinders and ignore this offensive and even criminal behavior.

While the worries and concerns of the victims of these abuses are legitimate, and I myself have had these thoughts, what is worse is to suffer in silence. These consequences are much greater and painful: to think that it was your fault, to think that you did something wrong, to feel nervous or sick every time you play your instrument, to cry alone, to hate being in your own skin, to worry when/if you might see him again, to see him praised and admired by others, to see him go to other universities and festivals and work with other trusting students.

I have had the pleasure of corresponding with Abbie Conant and William Osborne on this subject. (Visit their website and check out the many resources that they make available!) It has meant a lot to me to experience their support and encouragement, and for that I am truly grateful. William really hit the nail on the head with this statement:

We need to work against this patriarchal deification of orchestral brass players.  How ridiculous it is, when you think about it.  Please know that things are changing and that the victims of this behavior now receive wide-spread and very strong support in the community.  It’s not going to be too long before these predators start paying for what they do.

Patriarchal deification– this is exactly what fuels this type of despicable behavior and why so many offenders get away with it. We have somehow turned these musicians into untouchable gods that do as they please without repercussions. These men are people who play their instruments extremely well, nothing more. It is not my intention to stereotype all male orchestral brass players as being this type of person. I have met and worked with many who are amazing musicians, great teachers, and perfect gentlemen. Unfortunately, it would be mind boggling to learn how many of these men are exactly the opposite.

The solution is not simple or easy. To start, we must be brave and honest. We must not accept this type of behavior as “part of the business.” We must not support musicians or orchestras that condone this behavior. We must not invite these musicians to our universities and festivals, and we surely must not allow them to teach in our studios in a one on one situation.

I return to my original thought about this “hero status” that we sometimes attribute to professional musicians. I felt so cheated when my “hero” turned out to be nothing more than a creepy predator, and what was a wonderful experience for my colleagues continues to be a nightmare for myself. So, should we not have heroes or heroines in our lives? That doesn’t seem fair, either. As young (and less young) musicians, we should allow ourselves to be inspired musically. We should be able to dream and strive to be better at our art. I suppose I don’t know the answer to my own question, but I do know that a true hero/heroine in the music world is someone who is an inspiring musician, a thoughtful teacher, a respectful person, someone who stands up for what is right, and someone who is truly principled in everything they do.

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4 comments

  1. Great post, Jessy!

    Perhaps we just tend to “heroize” too much of whichever person instead of only selecting the qualities that we wish to attain for ourselves. Each “superhero” has weaknesses or even deplorable qualities just as all of us do so why not just take superman’s will to do good as our goal and not worry about the flying, spandex or especially the Krypton allergy?

  2. Even though it wasn’t intended as a present, this blog entry is one of the best birthday presents I have ever received. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are still a large problem in orchestras and music schools. It is astounding how many women trombonists report being inappropriately touched, sexually pressured, or even attacked.

    Nevertheless, women are often reluctant to speak openly about this problem. They fear ostracism, that they won’t be taken seriously, that they will be labeled radicals, and so on.

    We must begin shed more light on these problems. We need to develop methods and established forums for telling our stories so that these predators can be exposed. I know of one case involving a famous, American, orchestral flutist who sexually assaulted a 13 year-old student – one of the “grand old men” in a top five orchestra.

    I know of women, including one of my best students, who have quit their beloved instruments and have had their dreams and hopes dashed by traumatic experiences caused by sexual exploitation by famous orchestra musicians.

    We need to clearly and unequivocally know that the predators are wrong. Like any manipulator or bully, even the smallest amount of pushback scares them because they don’t expect it and because they are weak, characterless men in the first place. We do not need to act like helpless victims. We can blow the horn AND blow the whistle! Stand up for the dignity of women. Stand up for the dignity of men. Stand up for the dignity of music.

    Abbie Conant
    Professor of Trombone
    Staatliche Hochschule fuer Musik
    Trossingen, Germany
    March 14, 2012

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