Unsung Heroines: Contributions of Selected Early Twentieth-Century Women to American Piano Pedagogy

By Burns, Debra Brubaker; Jackson, Anita et al. | American Music Teacher, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Unsung Heroines: Contributions of Selected Early Twentieth-Century Women to American Piano Pedagogy


Burns, Debra Brubaker, Jackson, Anita, Sturm, Connie Arrau, American Music Teacher


A woman at piano has traditionally symbolized the pleasures of genteel society. (1) For the past three centuries, women have enriched the quality of home life by playing beautiful music at the piano. However, while encouraged as amateurs, men traditionally did not pursue music professionally. Nevertheless, women throughout the twentieth century played a large and important role in furthering the art of piano teaching and piano performing in America. Unfortunately, their accomplishments are not recognized in current piano pedagogy textbooks or periodical literature. Perhaps as a result, many female independent teachers today do not fully appreciate the rich legacy of their past and the vital importance of their work to American musical life.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, American women had moved "out of the fields and shops and onto the pedestal." (2) Expected to stay at home and be domestic, submissive and dependent, women also became status symbols for upwardly mobile husbands and fathers. An idle, well-dressed woman confirmed the financial success of her male provider. A lady was "allowed to work, provided that what she does is perfectly useless! She may embroider, but not make a dress.... She may make music, but not coffee!" (3) Playing the piano was considered the perfect hobby for a well-bred lady, and it became firmly associated with women. As a result, female pianists far outnumbered their male counterparts.

By the turn of the century, more and more American women had become employed professionally as musicians. Census data indicate that the percentage of women employed in music grew from 36 percent in 1870 to 66 percent in 1910. (4) However, stereotypes and prejudices against female musicians persisted. Amy Fay, the noted concert pianist, student of Liszt and author of the widely read Music Study in Germany, (5) gave the following account of employment conditions faced by female music teachers:

 
      A woman is at a disadvantage on account of her sex, and the reason of 
   this is that, as a rule, boys and young men do not study music. Young girls 
   find it more interesting to take of a man teacher.... This preference for 
   men is so well known that it is almost impossible for a woman to get a good 
   position in the private fashionable schools in the city.... If women teach 
   in schools, it is usually as under-teachers, poorly paid. (6) 

Another prejudice--that has not completely disappeared even today--was that women were most suited for elementary teaching of young children. A noted early twentieth-century female pianist and teacher observed that "[t]he professor will find his branch of the work is to impart artistic finish and interpretation. The well-trained woman teacher will be expected to lay the foundation." (7) Another well-known female piano teacher deplored the fact that parents chose female teachers for their children only until the children were "ready" to go to a male teacher. (8) Even in a 1929 special issue of The Etude magazine celebrating women's accomplishments in music, the editors included articles reinforcing stereotypical women's roles as mothers of great musicians, and as those who inspire men to compose musical masterworks. (9)

Despite the fact that "[i]n the musical centers of America the man teacher has decidedly the best of it," (10) women musicians persevered. Against the growing backdrop of the women's suffrage movement, women musicians made their mark on the music profession. Various articles, advertisements and announcements in The Etude magazine during the first two decades of the twentieth century confirm that American women were working in a surprisingly wide variety of piano-related occupations, including concert pianist; accompanist; pianist for the movies; piano teacher for universities, conservatories and public schools; music administrator; composer, author, manufacturer, and seller of piano music, books and records; workshop clinician and lecturer; concert manager; and piano tuner. …

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