By Ricky O’Bannon
Like the old joke goes, practice is how you get to Carnegie Hall. But what do you do when you can’t practice?
“When I played the violin, I could practice all the time,” said Marin Alsop. “But for conducting, unless you have 40 people come over to your house every day to play, you can't ever practice. So you can't ever get experience because no one will let you conduct because you didn't conduct before.”
Alsop — who was speaking at Loyola University as part of the Sister Cleophas Costello lecture series — described it as a Catch-22 situation for young, aspiring conductors. For her, the issue was even more of a challenge because as one violin teacher told her when she was young about conducting, “girls don’t do that.”
Alsop said both of her parents were upset when they heard what she was told about women conducting. Her mother was livid and yelled. Her father, a quieter man, left a wooden box filled with batons at the breakfast table the following morning for her to find. So she had the support of her musician parents, but getting a chance to conduct — to practice and be seen conducting so that she might one get chances to prove her teacher wrong — was still an uphill challenge.
In her 20s, Alsop thought she'd make her own opportunity when she started the Concordia Orchestra with friends. She also led a swing band, which was hired to play the wedding of a Japanese businessman named Tomio Taki. Taki worked in textiles and fashion, and he had helped launch the career of designers Anne Klein and Donna Karan. After the wedding, Alsop said she called Taki and asked to take him out for a drink.
“I said, 'listen, I know this sounds crazy, but I need help,'” Alsop recalled. “The only thing in life I want to do is be a conductor, and I need somebody to help me.”
Alsop said Taki didn’t know her very well at the time, and he wasn’t even a huge classical music fan, but he helped support her orchestra for 18 years.
“His kind of generosity was just kind of a role model for me. He was so amazing,” she said.
As Alsop's career grew, she fully expected that she would eventually have more and more female peers in the conductor ranks.
“But 10 years went by and then 20 years went by, and I thought, ‘where are all the women? What's going on?’ she said.
Just like she had difficulty getting the chance to hone her own conducting skills, Alsop said she believes the biggest cause of a still large and stubborn gender gap at the podium is that we still don’t see women often enough in that role. And if we don't see them, we often continue to expect what we have seen before.
“There has to be more opportunities to see women in these positions,” Alsop said. “I think that's it. I don't think there's an inherent prejudice — and this is my personal experience — I think that it's just that we're not comfortable seeing women in these roles.”
To underscore that point, Alsop recalled an experience she had getting on an airplane and glancing into the cockpit to see three women pilots.
“I thought, ‘I got to get off,’” she said. “And that's me! I'm smacking myself in my head thinking, ‘what's the matter with you?’”
The flight, she said, was great, but that gut reaction of seeing something unfamiliar and raising an eyebrow stuck with her.
“I started thinking, ‘well if I have that reaction, I can imagine how those who aren't so predisposed to seeing women in leadership positions [might react],’” Alsop said. “So I decided then that it's really about conditioning. It's about seeing women in these roles.”
Inspired by that realization and the help Taki afforded her, Alsop created the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship for female conductors. Alsop said there have been 11 recipients. All are working, and four are now American music directors.
Alsop — who is the first woman to serve as music director for a major American orchestra — said she’s certainly happy to be recognized as breaking a barrier. But she also worries that there is an impulse to check that box off with her name next to it and have a false satisfaction that because a barrier has been broken, that there is no longer an issue. Solving that, she said, requires affording those opportunities to allow more women to be seen in that role — both so they have a chance, but also so that those who work in classical music and those who listen to it are conditioned to expect to see more women at the podium.
“Often people would say, ‘Well, it was really hard for me, so it's going to be hard for you, too,’” Alsop said. “But my view — like Mr. Taki always said to me — is that it was hard for me in order for it to be easier for you. And I think that's the kind of world we have to live in, to try to think about what we can do to make it easier for the next generations to come. Whether it's women or men. We really have to help young people in some way.”