“You have to play drums like a man”

Evelyn Glennie, a deaf female percussionist,  plays marimba.There are many things that come with the territory of being a female percussionist. Exclusion, blatant sexism, and stereotypes are the most prevalent. Stereotypically, girls predominantly play mallet instruments like bells, xylophone, vibes and marimba. Many girls joined concert band after taking piano lessons for many years, so it is natural for band directors to assign them to mallet instruments. This incorrect stereotype has shaped percussion participation for females, and I can see it in many aspects of my life. It is appalling to me that such a misconception has yet to be abolished.

My mom is a percussionist as well, and experienced many instances of discrimination due to her gender. Opinions and views have changed, but there is still ground to cover. I participate in summer music festivals in my hometown, and one summer I had one of these experiences at a festival. An adult male, upon seeing me, handed me mallet parts instantly. He did not ask about my experience levels in other areas, what I consider to be my strong suit, and what I liked to play. These are common questions when assigning percussion parts. He asked the boys this, once he had assigned me, the only girl, the mallet parts. There is no worse feeling than being marginalized, passed over for a job without consideration to my skills and or strengths. The title of this post, “You have to play drums like a man,” is great example of this. I was told, constantly, to play like a man throughout middle and high school. Some teachers may call it grit, stones, or nails, but it’s all the same: be less of a woman. 

What I deal with is far less severe than it was during my mom’s day. I only have one significant story where a man belittled me, but she could talk for hours about all the times she was knocked down a peg for showing up to a gig as a woman. During middle and high school, she was given the worst equipment to use during marching band. Sometimes, they ran out of snare drums and had her play a tom tom, a drum without snares, because she was the only girl. Her male band director observed the whole situation and did nothing. My mom was not allowed to try out for section leader with the rest of the boys because she “wasn’t leadership material,” despite being overqualified for leading the percussion section job. Annie R. Chernow, a professional percussionist who is female, quit playing during middle school because “the teacher always let the boys play snare drum while I was assigned to play bells.” She is working on her Master’s in a male dominated studio, one of five females. 6% of percussion professors in the U.S. are female; a statistic that has not changed since 1970. Zaneta Sykes, a teacher and composer, wrote an article for Tom Tom Magazine about the inequality, and why women should play percussion.

Zaneta Sykes writes about her experiences as a female percussionist in an article for Tom Tom Magazine.
Zaneta Sykes writes about her experiences as a female percussionist in an article for Tom Tom Magazine.

There are stereotypes about every instrument, like the idea that only girls can play instruments like flute, clarinet, and harp. Boys play trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion; the loud, bombastic instruments. It was not ladylike for women to be playing such forceful instruments.

I am a member of the Sigma Zeta chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota here at University of Idaho. Sigma Alpha Iota is an international music fraternity for women. It is a professional greek organization, in contrast with the social organizations that are more commonly discussed. There is no house, no “bigs” and “littles”, and far fewer events. We still are involved with many philanthropy events, that all are connected to music. On October 10th, a few members of our chapter attended Province Day in Tacoma. During any size convention, we have ritual, conversation and musicale. The musicale consists of performances by the members. In chapter meetings, there is one performance. At Province Day, there was a morning and afternoon musicale. The performances consisted of flute, harp, vocals, clarinet and organ; all very “female” instruments. All of the performances were beautiful, but the instrumentation was just as any stereotype could predict.

Women’s position in music has been heavily stereotyped since they entered the field. Teaching, not performing, was suitable. Singing was a popular option for women. Woodwind instruments like clarinet, flute, oboe and English horn were also “appropriate.” These stereotypes can be seen in the instrument choices of the founder of SAI. The seven founders were split, five vocalists and two pianists. Our chapter at UI is mostly vocalists and flutists, with two percussionists and one clarinetist.

I may be able to walk into a room confidently as a female percussionist now. I will not be immediately written off, most of the time. Progress has been made, but I’m still the only female percussionist in room of 45 multigenerational women. Until young girls can walk into a gig, with no shame, nerves, or fear, the battle has not been won. There are not too many men, there are too few women.

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