Episode: Tubas for Girls, Harps for Boys: Shaking Gender Roles Among Instrumentalists

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Tubas for Girls, Harps for Boys: Shaking Gender Roles Among Instrumentalists

According to several recent studies, young musicians are still following traditional gender stereotypes when they choose an instrument. Girls at a young age go for what they perceive as "feminine" instruments, such as the flute, piccolo, violin, and clarinet; boys gravitate towards trumpets, tubas and percussion. Kids’ views of masculinity and femininity can lead to other problems; for instance, boys who take up the flute are more susceptible to social isolation and bullying.

Hal Abeles, the co-director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University's Teachers College, cites several reasons that these gender perceptions persist: a lack of role models, the physical size of an instrument, and general societal pressures. "Adolescents, males in particular, get intimidated by not being with the majority," he tells host Naomi Lewin. "So if the majority of students in your middle school who are playing flute are girls, young boys feel 'I want to belong.'"

Abeles co-authored a 2014 study in the journal Music Education Research, which found that choosing the "wrong instrument" can provoke young students to drop out of instrumental music completely as they face online "cyber-bullying" and other forms of harassment.

But our guests note that instrument-based stereotypes vary from culture to culture. Sivan Magen, a New York-based harpist, said he experienced few harp stereotypes growing up in Israel, "Especially in the States, it has become a woman's instrument." Magen notes that among his eight harpist classmates at the Paris Conservatory, four were male.

Being strong-willed and successful can lessen a student's risk for harassment. Carol Jantsch, the principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, says she never got grief from her classmates as a kid in Ohio. "If you're good at your instrument, your peers don't care what you play," she said. But today, she'll occasionally encounter conductors who use the phrase "gentlemen of the brass." "Usually I'll cough very loudly and they'll correct themselves after that," she noted (Jantsch appears in Part Two of this segment).

Ricky O'Bannon, a writer in residence at the Baltimore Symphony, recently interviewed several teachers about this issue. Among his takeaways: It's better for teachers not to address the issue in the classroom. "The moment you start saying 'this instrument is not just for girls or not just for boys'" is the kiss of death, he noted. "Teachers are also playing YouTube videos in classrooms of counter-stereotypes," such as a beatboxing flutist. "It's about having a child find the instrument that they're going to enjoy and not having any extra pressures on that."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this page and please tell us what you think below: have you experienced gender associations with an instrument? What can be done to lessen these?

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