Once I played a recital and was approached by a gentleman after a concert who asked me with an expression of surprise on his face why there were so few female pianists. I immediately thought about the stars like Helene Grimaud, Martha and Katja but he was not happy with my answer. He wanted to go deeper. His argumentation was that the winners of the piano competitions are mostly men. I must admit I was at a loss at that moment what to answer. But the question remained open for me and did not leave me for days. The notorious joke of Horowitz about three kinds of pianists was in the air too….
The next “reminder” came two days later, when one agency asked me to call back a client who was looking for a pianist for dinner gala with classical repertoire, my joy disappeared within a second as a lady on the phone said that this job opportunity is open only for young male pianists.
The third time the same question re-appeared was a reader’s letter in the UK Pianist magazine; it was a question if there is something like a female touch and if we could tell from listening with closed eyes when a woman is playing.
All three incidents were a trigger for me to write this blog. To begin with, I asked befriended piano teachers in schools and universities about the gender distribution. The answer confirmed my own experience: it was 80 /20 percentage for schoolchildren, where girls were the majority. (Surely guys were doing sports in their free time). The music major faculties showed a different percentage, it was more like 50/50. I looked through the latest statistics of the competitions and it confirmed my own experience of taking part in them. For example, the recent Tchaikovsky competition statistics was that the third of the pianists were females (from 35 listed competitors) but the finalists were all men. The Chopin Competition was interesting to follow too: in the preliminary round it starts with 45% of women, and then the proportion diminishes. The third round has 35% and the grand finale only 20%. The figures were eloquent enough – I wanted to find out the reasons. Curious as I am, I consulted the youtube and entered Chopin Scherzo Nr. 3 in cis moll. I suggest you do it too: the results were fascinating, nearly all famous pianists of the past and even recent competitors recorded this piece. I chose Chopin as it has strong female component in it: But now we are back to the controversial topic. I am sure you will ask me to define “female” too. Back in the 19th century, the role of a woman and the word “female” was clearly defined. Clara Schumann or Cecile Chaminade were balancing their lives within the society where a woman was supposed to be taking care of the family and children and not pursue music as her career. Not so with the girls’ upbringing, it was a sign of good manners to play a piano. So a teacher (of course, it was a man) would come to give piano lessons.
Well, we are talking about clichés, it all starts in our early childhood when our parents pay attention to our education in conformity with the roles. When we speak of “female” qualities, the first associations that come to our mind would be sweet, sensitive, less aggressive, motherly, caring. ..The masculine qualities would be strong, daring, aggressive, risky… The thesaurus has no limits but the words are clearly defined. Music as a word sounds feminine to me, due to Greek mythology with 9 muses, the goddesses of inspiration of the arts. Euterpe was “rejoycing well” or “delighting” goddess of music. In modern language, the word “muse” is someone who inspires a musician. In the rock culture of 60s there was a phenomenon of groupies who were female fans following the music stars everywhere… This leads to another question, if the culture of being a fan and musician adoration cult is more of a “female character” phenomenon..
The youtube comparison of the Scherzo brought interesting results: after having listened to about 200 videos, I would say, yes, women tend to take slower tempi, they are more sensitive in the lyrical passages, they phrase differently, they pay attention to more details, men tend to be better at big forms, they have clearer structure and concept feeling, they are louder, more aggressive, faster. There are two exceptions: Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimmerman, but as the old saying goes, the exceptions prove the rule. Another thought would be, if the male composers wrote the music in a “manly” way, then the men would best understand it? I often heard from many people that female pianists cannot be good at Rachmaninow as they would not possess the strength and stamina to get through the concerts. We all heard the stunning performances of Tschaikowky Piano Concerto by female pianists. Men would often say that the sex appeal would make it easier for women to get attention. But the experiences of Rubinstein, Liszt, Pollini and many young 20 year old pianists show that their sex appeal work exactly the same way for the female audience and if you take into consideration that the classical music audience is getting older and women outlive men, you get exactly the gender preferences.
What is your opinion about this topic? Is there discrimination in music business? Do you perceive music differently when played by a man or a woman?