Are We There? Women's Studies in a Professional Music Program

By Macdonald, Claudia | Women & Music, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Are We There? Women's Studies in a Professional Music Program


Macdonald, Claudia, Women & Music


THIS ESSAY REFLECTS MY EXPERIENCE OVER the past fourteen years as a music history teacher. Therefore it seems fitting, before turning to the question in the title, to describe my particular situation. I teach at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, a professional music school almost exclusively for undergraduates. Our enrollment is near six hundred. Thus we have a large performance and academic faculty (seventy-five teachers), including three musicologists and one ethnomusicologist. While the Conservatory grants its own professional degree, the Bachelor of Music, and is to a large extent autonomous with regard to curricular decisions, it is, together with the College of Arts and Sciences, a part of Oberlin College. Conservatory students take courses in the College of Arts and Sciences, and College students enroll in Conservatory courses.

What follows is based on a talk I gave at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Columbus, Ohio, in fall 2002, for the open session of the Committee on the Status of Women. Some updating reflects my continuing engagement over the past year with the question posed in the title. The answers I propose fall under three headings: "Isolation," "Presence," and "Interaction."

Isolation

Oberlin College belongs to the Great Lakes College Association, a group of twelve private liberal arts schools that also includes Albion College, Antioch College, Denison University, DePauw University, Earlham College, Hope College, Kalamazoo College, Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Wabash College, and the College of Wooster. Every one of these schools has a music department, and every one has a women's or gender studies program. Five of them, Antioch, Denison, Kenyon, Oberlin, and Wooster, offer a course called "Women in Music" or "Women and Music," a standard title, but not one that tells exactly what the course is about. The descriptions range over a smorgasbord of topics including women's histories in Western classical music, jazz, gospel, popular music, and traditional world musics; women's roles as composers, music educators, historians, and performers; and the gendering of music.

The broad range of subjects encompassed under the rubric "Women in Music" suggests that women probably are not a large part of a course called "Introduction to Music History." For some seven to eight years I was invited to visit such a required introductory course each time it was offered for the purpose of giving one lecture on women in music. The specific topic was of my choosing, and I varied it from year to year. Yet it mattered little on what I held forth: women as composers of salon music; women as producers of large-scale symphonic works; the critical reception of works by women composers; the contributions of African American women musicians to the urban cultural scene; the recent presence of women as composers, conductors, managers, directors, and producers of opera. All were topics I took up, but none was validated in the course through in-depth questions on assignments, exams, or quizzes. A history of women and their part in music, or their presentation in music, was not integral to this course introducing the history of Western music.

Instead, the history of women in Western music was shunted off to a sidetrack, into a course called "Women in Music." I first taught this course in 1990 because I realized it was possible, both because of the abundance of information available to teachers in the form of readers, indexes, listening anthologies, and essay collections, and because of the readily accessible and increasing scholarship in the field. I no longer offer it but instead incorporate women's histories, women's contributions to music, and women's images in music into the surveys I teach. This means redesigning courses to center on genres, receptions histories, and social context, rather than on a series of great composers with detours to accommodate contributions by a few females whose names may be unknown to many and whose oeuvre may be slight. …

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