Society Magazine

The Underlying Sexism of Playing An Instrument

Posted on the 30 December 2016 by Juliez
I faced surprising sexism.

I faced surprising sexism.

I was the textbook definition of an awkward twelve-year-old. I had braces, wild frizzy hair, and tended to match my eyeshadow to the color of any one my assorted array of graphic tees. This was only made worse by the fact that everybody else around me seemed to have already begun their evolutions into their cooler and more stylish selves. The final nail in the coffin of my social status seemed to be my interest in joining the school band.

I was aware of the stigma associated with being in band before I even chose which instrument I wanted to play. Many classic teen movies and TV shows have depicted the band kids as “nerds” who are subjected to teasing and the objects of others’ laughter. In return, the band kids generally receive inadequate funding and empty seats at their concerts.

But despite this stigma, I was still attracted by what I saw as the reward of being in band: the gift of music and friends for life. My older siblings had all been in band, too, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. So in sixth grade, I took the leap and joined. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

While I accepted that my love for music would dent my popularity, I hardly expected to encounter a struggle within the band community itself. But when the time came for each member to enter the band room and meet with the conductor to choose their instruments, I realized I was already aware of which one I was expected to pick. The girls all came back from the band room with flutes and clarinets while boys carried away brasses or saxophones. There was as an unspoken code about which instrument each member could choose based solely on the gender with which they identified.

When I entered the band room, however, my eye instantly landed on the trombone. I’m not sure why — maybe it was its uniqueness or that its loud sound matched my loud personality. My band director didn’t bat an eye at my choice and signed me up as a future trombone player. I left the room feeling ecstatic and couldn’t wait to finally have the instrument in my hands.

But this elation quickly fizzled when I told my peers which instrument I had chosen. “Really?” they said when I told them. “Why’d you choose that?”

Prior to these encounters I had never really questioned why certain people play certain instruments. But on my first day of band, I quickly made sense of my peers’ confusion. The first two rows of the clarinet and flute players were strictly female, while the low brass section was composed of the opposite. When I sat in my otherwise male-dominated section, however, I somehow didn’t feel excluded. Over the years I have spent in band, I have found that students of music are some of the most accepting people I have ever met. Everyone marches to the beat of their own drum (although only some literally), and are their true and unique selves.

Being able to play music and experience the rewards of doing so still overpowers the looks of confusion I receive when I tell people which instrument I play. I continue to encounter slightly furrowed brows, but my experiences with music make me undeniably confident in my instrument of choice nonetheless.

Despite my relatively positive experience given this underlying sexism, I recognize that this acceptance and inclusion is not always the case in the world of instrumentation. Look at any YouTube video of a female-identifying player and you’ll see hundreds of comments proclaiming things such as, “She’s good… for a girl.” When a male musician is evaluated, their technicality or expression is noted, whereas females are first assessed on whether their appearance makes the cut or not — they’re instantly subjected to not only technical criticism, but also criticism about their appearance. This sexist discrediting often dictates women’s success in the industry, even when they have the same capabilities as their male counterparts.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the male dominance of and underlying sexism in music means that women must continue to play harder and louder. My passion for music has only grown since I learned to love the trombone, and I have since learned how to play other instruments, such as guitar and bass. There are no laws or rules proclaiming that girls are not capable of playing the tuba or shredding on the guitar, and there is nothing wrong with loving the flute. Instruments should not be gendered, and music should never be exclusive.

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