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Obstacles and Open Doors: Female Clarinet Pioneers in the Mid Twentieth Century

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

A Brief Comparison of Opportunities and Impediments.


Dr. Anne Elisabeth Piirainen, Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki

Dr. Stephanie Zelnick, University of Kansas


Excerpts from a collaborative research study based on interviews with notable contemporary women clarinetists that were "firsts" in their professional environment. For the sake of privacy, the respondents are not identified with their answers. This is not intended as a comprehensive study of women clarinetists, but as a first-hand excerpted anecdotal account of the experiences of female musicians.


As two professional women clarinetists growing up in the 1970s in Europe and the United States, we were unaware that we were living and working in a new paradigm for women and music. By the time we were in college and conservatory in the 1990s, we had lived through the institution of screened auditions and anti-discrimination laws that paved the way for women in orchestras and full-time university positions. We thought this was always the way things had been. But looking back now, we realize that the change had been remarkably recent.


Notably, Jeanette Scheerer was performing as principal clarinet of the New Orleans Symphony in the 1940s and other women around that time were paving the way, such as Pauline Juler, Thea King, Naomi Drucker, Georgina Dobree, Pamela Weston, and others. Before then, women had made inroads in clarinet but were limited by convention and, in many regions, even by law from how far they could go professionally. Women as professional clarinetists were so rare as to be statistically unmentionable.



Despite some progress, real change didn’t come about until after the middle of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, Michelle Zukovsky became principal clarinet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Elsa Ludewig Verdehr became the first female full time, tenure-track professor in the United States at Michigan State University. Later, Jean Gould became the first female Concertmaster of the Army Field Band, Sabine Meyer became one of the most iconic clarinetists of our time, and Yamileth Perez Mora became the first woman professor of clarinet at the University of Costa Rica. In Finland, Marja Kopakkala and Anna-Maija Korsimaa were the first women to win orchestra clarinet positions, as late as the 1970s and 1980s. Others, too numerous to count, started making small and then larger inroads into the workplace until some glass ceilings shattered and others didn’t.


The time and speed at which women entered the professional clarinet world varied significantly by region or country. For example, in Latin America, women entered into the sphere of professional clarinetists later than they did in the United States and Europe. Sometimes this was due to legislation and anti-discrimination laws and in other cases it was because of prevailing attitudes about women in the workplace, specifically as performers and clarinetists. It was more common throughout the world for women to be seen in nurturing or mothering roles, such as educators and nurses. It took longer to accept women to the ranks of professional performers and professors. This situation has improved radically since the 1960s but there is still much progress to be made.


Our project begins with the era of women becoming mainstream, full-time, professional classical clarinetists. Starting with these pioneers, women began to fill clarinet positions around the world. We will look at what allowed these women to win and keep their positions in music. Through interviews with pioneering women in clarinet throughout the Americas and Europe we were able to find out how far we have come and where we need to go. We will find out what it’s like to be or feel like a “first” through the words of these women. We have been able to piece together the educational backgrounds, challenges, job experiences, and perceptions encountered by these iconic clarinetists. We will work through the areas of education, career, discrimination, instrument specific considerations, salary differences, and the general trajectory of women in the clarinet profession.


As “second generation” female university researchers and professors, we are in a unique position to look back in the immediate past and learn from the experience of these pioneering women. This project is by no means a comprehensive study of women in the field of clarinet but serves as an anecdotal and experience-based collection of first-hand experiences. There are many iconic females who are left out of this presentation and who also made significant inroads in other countries and regions. For the sake of time, we have selected eight well-known women who were pioneers in their all or mostly-male workplaces. We used first hand interviews to determine their perspectives on the past, present, and future of women and the clarinet.


BIOGRAPHIES


Elsa Ludewig Verdehr became the clarinet professor at the Michigan State University in 1962. She was the first female clarinetist to gain employment as a full time professor at a major music school. She became one of the most prolific and successful teachers of the clarinet in the United States, placing countless students in major orchestral and teaching positions. As a member of the Verdehr Trio, she concertized worldwide for 43 years, performing in sixty countries and all fifty United States. The Trio commissioned over 225 new works for the violin-clarinet-piano trio and made 44 CDs (Crystal Records and Blue Griffin) and DVDs. (verdehr.com)



Michelle Zukovsky became the principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1961. She was one of the first women to be appointed to the principal clarinet position of a major American orchestra. She held her prestigious position until her retirement in 2015.


Mary Jungerman was an early female doctoral graduate in clarinet and a Fulbright Scholar in Germany, studying the music of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen in the 1960s. She is an active performer and scholar based in Boulder, Colorado.



Sabine Meyer is one of the most outstanding clarinet soloists of our time. The dispute between Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra around her appointment as one of the first female orchestra members went through the world press. She has performed as soloist with over 300 orchestras all over the world and has been professor for clarinet at the Musikhochschule Lübeck for 28 years.



Jean Gould was the first woman to serve in the Costa Rica Symphony and then as Concertmaster of United States Army Field Band. She served in the Army Field Band from 1985-2010.



Yamileth Perez Mora is the first woman to work as the professor of clarinet at the University of Costa Rica. She has travelled around the world as a performer and has taught generations of the most noted clarinetists in Latin America.



Marja Kopakkala studied the clarinet at the Sibelius Academy with Reino Simola and was the first female clarinetist to win an orchestra position in Finland. In 1979 she was appointed as E-flat clarinetist in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, where she worked as until her retirement in 2019.



Anna-Maija Korsimaa has been the alternating principal clarinet of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra since 1985. She also pursued an international solo career after winning prizes on prestigious European clarinet competitions such as ARD Munich in 1987.



EDUCATION


It seems like the general consensus among those interviewed was that there was a fair number of girls as clarinet students in primary schools. By the time it got to professional ranks though, women were excluded from careers in clarinet performance, especially professional orchestras and full time university positions. One respondent states:

It was very common for females to play clarinet. I didn’t run into male clarinetists until high school and especially when I went to music camp {later}, they dominated the section.”


Many were guided to teach younger students, which was seen as a more nurturing role for women. But women were better represented in other instruments than clarinet and much earlier. Harp, violin, and flute were seen as more suitable for women musicians than the clarinet, which was seen as a masculine instrument.


There were many girls in my section in school bands, and even in college there were other women in the section, but few were directed toward performance, mostly toward being band directors.”


For most of the subjects, their teachers were primarily men, but many found female role models to be very important. This could be a piano teacher or a flute player, during a music camp, or a visiting teacher in a more rural area. It seemed that sometimes a pivotal encounter let these women know that work as a professional musician was even possible. It seems sometimes like even a fleeting experience with a woman in music was enough to inspire a girl to pursue it as a career. It was almost like this "gateway role model” flipped a switch in the brain and allowed the idea that a life as a professional musician was possible.


"When I heard that [she] got a position in the [...] Symphony Orchestra, I thought that means I have a chance, too!"


Certainly in the time that the women interviewed for this project have been playing and teaching, they have themselves inspired countless female professional clarinetists.


CAREER & GENERAL TOPICS


The women interviewed met various acceptance issues during their careers, many particularly in the beginning stage. The subjects occasionally mention bullying, workplace and sexual harassment.


"In general I guess I would say that issues I faced were resistance to increased competition from a whole new gender! When I was chosen to play the Mozart Concerto with the Orchestra, the faculty conductor refused to conduct. I went to the head of the music school, who contacted the conductor and he was told that I would be playing the concerto, so the conductor assigned one of his conducting graduate students to conduct and we had a fine time doing the concerto together. I felt I was given a gift not to have to work with the faculty conductor who was so insulted to have to conduct a woman."


Another respondent says:


"My experience was difficult at times, for some players found it hard to accept that there was a woman playing in the clarinet section."


Another answer was:


"I was told that a woman is not supposed to be that bold and open[minded] as I am, and that I should not have been chosen into the orchestra, because I am a woman."


The interviewed women occasionally mentioned also a positive bias:


"An advantage probably was that I was a rarity, and publicity probably increased because of that."


One respondent states, half jokingly:


My only problem was that the men tended to want to take me out on dates, and I did not care for that at the age of 18.”


One respondent pointed out that there were different expectations for women and how they would act and play:


"Perhaps, the issue is that people relate to women with weak personalities or a kind of 'not too expressive kind of woman,' because whenever you are a strong woman or too expressive, people (mainly men) point that out, even if in a good way, as if it were amazing. Woman who dare to cross that line are often rejected or harassed."


Since there was no vernacular for how to judge a successful female clarinetist of the time, often one of the best accolades they could receive was that they played like a man. One respondent said:


"In fact, I often heard that I played like a man, which I assume was meant to be a compliment."


Women often experienced various forms of harassment:


"A challenge turned out to be some male orchestra managers, who obviously were expecting 'services.' I turned them down coldly, so it can be that I did not get some good concert engagements because of that."


Another respondent expresses it like this:


"And of course, I have also experienced verbal and even other sexual assaults in the course of my career. I coped with it well, but I am now also happy that, in the course of the Me-Too debate, many things have been uncovered and that one or the other conductor actually had to end his career."


It seemed to be especially difficult for women to advance to high positions in their careers as clarinetists. As one respondent says:


"In the course of my life, I did see what many women experience: for women it is especially difficult to get into leading positions. With a position for 1st violin tutti, everything is no problem, but a female concertmaster still has a hard time in many orchestras today. And I've also heard from several second wind players that they never want to play alongside a female solo wind player. Maybe many men are still afraid of strong women after all??"


Women were (and are) subject to extensive criticism on their appearances. One respondent said that she had no issues on how she felt as a performer:


“...but it did on the way I dressed up. Once at the [orchestra], the office staff man points out at me with a censored kind of look and signs that I was wearing too long earrings and that my dress was too 'uncovered at my chest.'"


Another woman says:


"..and there are other disadvantages for women too, for example the fact that a female soloist is of course judged more by her appearance and concert dress than a male soloist. Men can always wear the same tailcoat, or today mostly the same black shirt."


It seems like female specific concerns such as a potential pregnancy were considerations for employers. Pauline Juler, the great British clarinetist, retired from playing at the height of her career when she got married in 1948.


One respondent states:


"In the early 1960s, when I attended the auditions for 2nd clarinet, I checked in with the personnel manager for the audition that morning. He said, 'but you’re a girl—what do you expect us to do when you get pregnant like the second harp player is now?' I said, 'well, right now I’m not pregnant!' I auditioned but actually didn’t play all that well that day and wouldn’t have gotten the part as a male either."


Another main topic is salary, as one respondent says:


"The salary of women is the same in the orchestras, but in gigs there are differences, men do get more money."


One respondent states that there were:


“...no problems except for salary. Long story short: after faculty salaries were publicly listed one day in the State Journal, I wrote to the president of the University illustrating how the 5 women in the music faculty received noticeably less than their male counterparts (yes only 5 women at that time in the department). The next year we all got substantial raises thanks to help from the one female member of the board of trustees. As the Department Chair said at that time, 'I don’t know why we pay women less than men-we just always have!'"


The issue of a gender pay gap is indeed still an important issue, with women making, in the United States, 82 cents on the dollar of every man.


MUSICAL / INSTRUMENT-SPECIFIC


Physicality has often been used as an excuse to preclude women from certain positions. But interestingly, the women interviewed didn’t seem to relate to any actual differences between the genders in physicality such as lung capacity or hand size while playing the instrument. One respondent jokingly mentioned that she 'wouldn’t have minded having more lung capacity,' a sentiment reflected by clarinetists of any gender. But in general, even if the external world thought that women were weaker, this was not actually reflected in their playing.


The interviewees seem to take the attitude of one respondent who states:

“No one ever mentioned such things, and I forged cluelessly ahead and stretched and worked and practiced and it all seemed to work.”


Probably there was even more need to justify oneself, as one respondent states:


"No one has told me ever that I wouldn’t be physically suitable as a player. Small comments have sometimes been made in the orchestra as to whether I can play loud enough, and men challenged me about how much noise was coming out. That's how I felt, that I had to prove quite a few things."


One respondent concludes:


"I also don't think that a woman interprets differently than a man.There are so many different women and so many different men-it always depends on the individual character and not on the gender. There are also tough women and sensitive men, for example."


CHANGES / PRESENT-DAY


Some of the subjects mentioned the importance of anti-discrimination laws.


“There have been some changes because of new laws that punished actions like discrimination, tokenization, and sexual harassment."


The practice of holding auditions behind a screen is an important factor for enhancing equality. One respondent states, "there is a lot of room for improvement, but since auditions are behind the curtain, there are more chances of these fantastic women clarinet players to win a post."


One respondent talks at length about active encouragement of policies that support women in their clarinet careers. She states, "my organization has made huge strides and boasts pay equality and will continue to promote the most qualified people. The glass ceiling has mostly been shattered.”


She also points in this context to the difficulty of women to maintain careers while raising children and the need for active legislation in family support and parental leave policies, as it is, for example, in the Scandinavian countries.


Several mention the importance now of increasing diversity in orchestras and full time teaching positions. For example, people of color still make up a very small percentage of full time clarinet professors and performers. Though great women around the world are bringing a more diverse perspective as professional clarinetists and are working to redefine what a classical musician looks like, there is still much work that needs to be done to take us all forward in this area.


CONCLUSIONS


In conclusion, as we look through the eyes of these iconic pioneering women in the field of clarinet, we have been able to see challenges we have overcome in the past and where we need to go as an industry in the future. Many of our subjects mentioned the importance of pay equity and more diversity going forward. At the writing of this presentation, women clarinetists are still underrepresented in prestigious full time orchestras and university positions. Women of color are even more significantly absent in these ranks. Though women have come far, there is still a drastic need for policies and education that will allow more women entry into the highest ranks of clarinet positions.


RESOURCES


Buckenmaier, Nicola. Caroline Schleicher Kramer, First Female Clarinet Soloist:


Loungsangroong, Manchusa. First Wave Women Clarinetists Retrospective-A Guide to Women Clarinetists Born Before 1930:


Sargent, Desmond Charles and Evangelos Himonides. Orchestrated Sex-The Representation of Male and Female Musicians in World-Class Symphony Orchestras:


Weston, Pamela. Clarinet Virtuosi of the Past. London: Robert Hale & Comp., 1971.


Zelnick, Stephanie. Notable Women Clarinetists Born Before 1950:








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