Conference Report: International Women and/in Musical Leadership, 7-8 March 2019, London

The International Women and/in Musical Leadership Conference was held at Senate House in London, from Thursday 7th March 2019 through to Saturday 9th March 2019. The conference was co-chaired by Dr Laura Hamer (Open University) and Dr Helen Julia Minors (Kingston University); with Dr Rebecca Berkley (Reading University), Enya Doyle (Durham University), and Nuppu Koivisto (University of Helsinki) serving on the programme committee. The three-day conference very aptly coincided with International Women’s Day, which is celebrated on March 8th, every year. Originating over a hundred years ago, the day has typically been considered a focal point in the Women’s Rights Movement. Appropriately, this conference presented a timely and important opportunity for leading academics and professionals across a broad spectrum of musical fields and practices, to gather together and celebrate leading women in music, both past and present.

The extensive and diverse three-day programme explored meanings of women’s musical leadership, and several key themes emerged. Initial words, expressed by keynote speaker Jenni Roditi: ‘What do we want our music to be?’ And ‘how do we do it?’ provided context and a crucial starting point for discussion and conversation. The historical research presented throughout the conference shone recognition on the music, lives and careers of female performers, composers, conductors and impresarios. Keynote speakers shared inspiring stories describing the complex relationship between the struggles and successes of their careers, as innovative business women, which have led them to leadership roles in music.

The diverse and inclusive demographic of international delegates embodied the importance of communication, networking, and the breaking down of barriers. Keynote speakers, industry professionals, established researchers and early career researchers confirmed, unanimously, the potential for music as an inclusive and fluid communicator. Contributors were not satisfied with discussing leadership in the traditional patriarchal, hierarchical tradition, but continued to draw upon the many ways and many forms in which women’s leadership has existed and continues to exist in institutions. This topic was addressed in detail by roundtable speakers Alice Farnham, Emma Haughton and Sarah MacDonald. All of whom differently exemplified busy and successful careers as professional musicians and conductors; from guest conducting, and performing in, large-scale works in world-famous, international venues, to engaging young people in schools and communities. Additionally, workshops and presentations showcased and shared professional practices which harnessed music’s sonorous, gestural and interpretative value, appearing to challenge ‘norms’ in music and society. Particularly those norms attributable to highlighting the mainstream historical canon as problematic.

Strikingly, no matter the context or methodology- archival, ethnographic, qualitative and quantitative- there pervaded a commonality of passion, hard-work and embracing opportunity. A sentiment illustrated in Katherine Dienes-Williams’ keynote: ‘“You play the organ like a man”- creating a new legacy as a female cathedral organist’. Skill and determination in music imbued her evolutionary and enriching journey to being appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral. Where, now, she represents and begins to facilitate opportunities for female leadership.

Another major and common theme reiterated throughout the conference, was the passing on of the metaphorical, or sometimes physical, baton. It is important to acknowledge that as women in music, the success of an individual is not necessarily progress, and that there needs to be an awareness and active participation in the development of others. All of the speakers and papers illustrated the ways in which women have harnessed their own potential, and how they have taken and embraced every opportunity. Moreover, the conference also demonstrated and demanded that women, particularly musical leaders, act as facilitators, mentors, guides and role models to other hard-working women. Transpiring, in the ability to provide and offer new opportunities to others: giving young, aspiring voices the chance to be heard.

As individuals increasingly take a stand for the dissolution of boundaries across global platforms, speakers and delegates agreed that we are in an exciting and promising time for the development of equality and equity. Affirmatively, performers and evening hosts at Club Inégales provided evening performances which showcased and embodied these issues and facilitated the continuation of the theme of conversation, and the emergence of another intrinsic theme; the transference of leadership. Hyelim Kim (Korean taegŭm flute) and other talented musicians, utilised extended techniques in masterful solo performances, before turning their hands to sets of signs that facilitated a collaborative performance of their own design. Wherein, an eclectic mix of musicians and their instruments seemed to effortlessly blend stylistic musical features and roles, free from claim or association. Jenni Roditi’s Vocal Improvisation choir, TIC (The Improvisors Choir), was poignantly reaffirming of the power of the individual voice, and the difference it can make as part of a collective. Not least in the creative practice of collaborative music-making, but as a societal allegory.

Surrounded by strong and inspirational women in music, it was easy to forget that there might still be work to be done. The increasing examples of women in musical leadership certainly inspires hope. Nonetheless, for a fair and permanent democracy for all, we continue to advocate, look out for each other and above all work hard. Sing loudly, play masterfully, conduct proudly, compose creatively and research for better. We are all part of the conversation.

A huge thank you to conference sponsors RMAIMR and The Open University for their generous support. The conference and programme committee would also like to extend their appreciation to hosts, Senate House and Club Inégales, and to all delegates.

Abigail Bruce (Kingston University), Ann Grindley (Open University), and Chamari Wedamulla (Kingston University)

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