By Ricky O’Bannon
Every fall, music teacher Alex Mueller watches fifth graders at Riderwood and Warren elementary schools in Maryland choose an instrument they’ll focus on.
And almost every year — without fail — fifth-grade boys want to play trumpet and fifth-grade girls choose the flute.
“Obviously there is something going on,” Mueller said.
In fourth grade, Mueller and other elementary music teachers introduce kids to the instruments of the band and orchestra. The 14-year Baltimore County Public Schools veteran said he tries to remove gender stereotypes and stresses to students that they should pick an instrument they love and not choose something just because their friends — who at that age are usually of the same gender — chose it, too.
In large part, the strategy works. Mueller said that his clarinet and low brass groups — instruments that often show gender disparity — are almost 50/50 split between boys and girls.
“The trick with a 9-year-old and a 10-year-old [kid] is to not really address the issue,” Mueller said. “The moment you say, ‘by the way, guys, this isn’t just a girls’ instrument. This is a boys’ instrument, too.’ That’s really only hurting the situation.”
But year after year when his students choose their instruments, Mueller said there are instruments that return the same result. Not many girls will pick up the trumpet and few of his boy students opt for a flute.
The question that has raised the curiosity of many who study music education is why? Is it a case of nature where the character, range or sound of the instrument causes boys and girls to be drawn to different orchestral roles? Or is it a case of nurture where peer pressure and stereotypes guide students towards choosing to play certain instruments?
If male and female students are innately drawn to different instruments and are happy pursuing them, it would be easy to dismiss the trend as something unworthy of losing sleep over. But research has shown that stereotypes about what instruments are gender appropriate can influence the perception of musicians who go against that trend.
A 2002 study out of the University of Windsor found that college-age participants asked to apply descriptive terms to musicians playing both traditionally "feminine" and "masculine" instruments judged musicians differently based on their gender. In particular, male musicians playing traditionally feminine instruments were judged to be less dominant, active and poorer leaders than their female counterparts.
In music where performance is judged not only on technical terms but also for intangible artistic qualities, these internalized descriptors of musicians based on gender might influence the perception of what we think we hear.
Historically, some instruments have strong masculine or feminine associations. The French horn is traditionally linked with hunting and composers who used it in the 18th and 19th centuries were often making allusions to the hunt. Trumpets have military connotations dating back to their use as signaling devices on the battlefield, and many of the most visible trumpet players in the early 20th century — particularly in the United States and United Kingdom — came directly from a military brass band tradition.
At the same time, a male preoccupation with female lips meant women were discouraged from playing brass instruments like the French horn or trumpet. “Women cannot possibly play brass instruments and look pretty, and why should they spoil their good looks?” said Gustave Kerker in a 1904 edition of Musical Standard.
Kerker was far from alone in this concern. In a 1962 edition of American String Teacher, John Sherman wondered whether female lips “accustomed to compressing and making sounds through wind instruments aren’t a little tougher, less pliant, than those of non-wind players.”
While there were some concerns about whether women had the physical traits necessary to play certain instruments, a lot of the criticism came down to the appearance of the woman while performing. In the early 1800s, one critic thought it was a waste for women to even play flute because it concealed those lips. During the same era, women who played cello (which was rare) sat sidesaddle to the instrument as it seemed improper to straddle the cello.
For many musicians, their instrument can be considered an extension of their voice, and there is some logical simplicity that girls might play the higher-pitched flute and boys the lower-ranged trumpet because it corresponds in some way to male and female vocal ranges. But given the historic discouragement of certain instruments during eras where gender roles were more stratified, it is easy to wonder how much of those pressures are reflected in the numbers even today.
At the top professional orchestra level, analysis by composer and programmer Suby Raman shows distinct gender preferences for certain instruments. Women musicians in 20 of the top American orchestras accounted for the majority of flute and violin players, as well as accounting for 95 percent of harpists. Male musicians made up 91 percent of double bassists and anywhere from 95 to 97 percent of trumpet, trombone and tuba players.
But numbers in the professional ranks start with decisions made in classrooms like Mueller’s. Multiple studies show that boys and girls start to show preferences for gender-stereotype instruments between third and fifth grade and in some cases exhibit those preferences even earlier. A 2002 study from the University of Washington found that children as young as age five believed that saxophone, drums and trumpet were boys’ instruments while flute, oboe and violin were more appropriate for girls.
Researchers in that study found that girls tended to be more flexible about what instruments they might play, but boys were far more fixed in their perception of instrument choice.
“Boys mostly pick masculine instruments,” said Betty Repacholi who worked on the study. “They just cannot pick a feminine instrument. It is so hard for them that it just astounds me."
A 2009 study out of the University of Indiana found that boys’ become more aligned with traditional gender ideas in the latter part of their elementary school years. In a survey, third-grade boys ranked flute, cello and violin as their favorite instruments, but that changed dramatically by fifth grade where flute dropped to seventh out of eight instruments they were asked to rank.
By middle school, music is often a part of the social and personal identity that students are in the process of creating. The music that adolescents listen to — like the clothes they wear — begins to be influenced by friends and help define what circles they belong to. Similarly, what musical instrument a middle school student plays might become part of that same process in establishing their identity.
Researchers have found that whether a student played a gender-traditional instrument or not, they were aware of those stereotypes. In some cases students who played an instrument dominated by the opposite gender would say that stereotype encouraged them to go against the grain.
Interviews with students from a study from the University of North Texas study show that media examples they had seen were also a factor. Among male flautists, two students referenced a cartoon where a male character played the flute while two more cited a male video game protagonist who played the ocarina (an instrument in the flute family.)
If students see musicians of both genders playing an instrument that is traditionally dominated by either men or women, they are more open to the idea of playing that instrument. A 2000 study published in Psychology of Music found this to be true by having groups of students watch concerts featuring separate groups male and female musicians playing instruments both typical and atypical to their gender and then rating their interest in each instrument. The researchers wrote that the findings were useful but probably hard to replicate in a classroom setting.
But for teachers like Mueller, technology might remove that barrier.
“It's only been the past handful of years where we've been able to access YouTube in schools, which is great,” he said. “Now I can immediately pull up performances by anybody, and that helps tremendously.
“I have definitely heard over the years ‘don't play the flute, that's a girl instrument.’ Then of I’ll say, ‘have you ever heard of a guy named John Coltrane?’ And I can pull a video up.”
Mueller said he’s shown videos of a male flautist playing while beat-boxing, and videos like that might help show a student role models that can encourage them to play whichever instrument most appeals to them.
For Mueller, that is what matters most and also why it is important for students to look past the social pressures or gender stereotypes. A student who chose not to play the instrument they were drawn to isn’t going to practice and might eventually drop music altogether.
Put another way, if students are guided by social pressures and biases away from an instrument, that child might not enjoy playing music and we all might miss out on a great musician. Choosing an instrument is a decision that opens a world of possibilities for a young musician, and limiting those instruments limits those possibilities.
While orchestra rosters often reflect elementary school music rooms in terms of gender, there are any number of fantastic and talented counter examples like renown solo flautist Adam Walker who recently performed Kevin Puts’ Flute Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, tuba player Carol Jantsch who serves as principal tuba for the Philadelphia Orchestra or even Yo-Yo Ma (and in many studies, students believed cello was a “feminine” instrument.)
A thought that should keep a classical music fan up at night is if when any of those musicians heard in elementary school that their instrument was a “boys’ instrument” or “girls’ instrument,” what if they listened?