Published: Aug. 21, 2019 By

female musician for Cleveland Orchestra

As the College of Music gears up for another academic year of artistry, students, faculty and staff are also preparing for one of the college’s marquee events in just a few weeks. Sixteen members of the renowned Cleveland Orchestra will be in residence at CU Boulder for three days in early September.

Occurring every two years as part of the Daniel P. Sher Master Class Program, the residency provides College of Music students with a unique opportunity to pick the brains of some of the top orchestral musicians in the country. Hands-on learning in the form of sectionals, master classes and a huge side-by-side rehearsal with the entire CU Symphony Orchestra provides a new perspective and supplements the superb coaching students receive every day from college faculty.

This year, in addition to an intensive few days of insight about the music itself, the residency will also include a new component. Organized by the college’s Community Engagement and Social Innovation Coordinator Katie Skayhan, members of the Cleveland Orchestra will take part in a panel discussion on women in orchestras on Tuesday morning, Sept. 10. Skayhan will moderate the conversation, which will be free and open to the public. Lynne Ramsey, viola (pictured above); Jessica Sindell, flute; and Trina Bourne, harp, will join her on stage.

In an industry where, according to a 2018 study by Quartz at Work, 69% of the musicians in the top 20 orchestras in the world are male-identifying, Skayhan says this is an important conversation to have.

“Panels like these should raise awareness and open our hearts and ears to the possibilities that we haven’t even imagined,” she explains. “Oftentimes, we uplift women’s voices, but it’s framed in a narrow context (women talking to other women). It’s important to prioritize women’s voices in a position of leadership for a public audience.”

Working with members of the College of Music’s Diverse Musicians’ Alliance (DiMA), Skayhan says she has heard myriad stories about unconscious bias in the music world—even in cases when blind screening is used during auditions.

“A female-identifying student might have a lighter breath when preparing for a flute entrance in contrast to a male-identifying counterpart. Female-identifying students of all instrumental varieties will choose flats over heels so as not to trigger the ear of the listener.”

Even Skayhan, herself a vocalist and a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, has her own stories to tell.

“As a singer, I experienced an entirely different form of audition bias as a student and aspiring young professional. With pressure to be ‘HD-ready’ for the world of televised opera, we can’t lean on tactics such as blind screening. 

“We must commit to inclusive casting practice with a body positive message”

A similar bias exists for composers. According to data from the Composer Diversity Database, which studied the programming planned for 120 orchestras’ upcoming seasons, nearly 20% aren’t planning to present any works written by female composers, and only two orchestras have seasons planned with more than 30% of programming written by women. 

Skayhan says while data is compelling, the answer to this problem is not in leveling the numbers. It’s in having discussions like the one that will happen at the Cleveland Orchestra panel.

“I do not believe that the gender equity conversation should be about leveling the data points and finding balance. That’s too simple. We need to wrestle with why this imbalance exists in the first place. How do we ensure that this doesn’t persist? What is the role of the orchestra in all this moving forward?”

As part of its strategic plan, the College of Music has been making efforts toward bringing more diversity to the music world. A new Diversity Committee, DiMA and other initiatives are only part of the work.

“This past year, we launched the Persevering Legacy series (pictured here), which celebrates the music of historically marginalized female African American composers,” Skayhan says. “After the inaugural concert, one of the student performers commented, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever played a piece by a female composer, let alone a woman of color, like me.’ How is that possible, and how many others share this story?

“The college is distinguishing itself as a vehicle for elevating these critical discussions. We are catalyzing recognition of gender equity and creating space to go deeper in other conversations. We see these conversations as a chance to steward student development and plant seeds for long-term impact on the industry.”

The Cleveland Orchestra members’ residency was made possible by a $150,000 pledge from The Clinton Family Fund. Bruce Clinton is a longtime philanthropist and supporter of orchestras nationwide.

Find more information about the Cleveland Orchestra women’s panel on the Events page, and don’t miss members of the orchestra in concert with our own faculty on Tuesday night, Sept. 10, during the Faculty Tuesdays series.