The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Teaching “Women and Music” in a Liberal Arts Setting: an Introduction

Posted in Susan_Borwick, Teaching by iawmblog on January 9, 2010

Thirty-five years ago, it happened.  In my first full-time teaching job post-Ph.D., at my alma mater (full-time music jobs weren’t so rare then!), I sat on a master’s oral committee, along with three others: a choral director, a religion professor, and my mentor in music history.  I was “the kid” committee member and the only woman.

My question to the master’s student, a conductor-to-be, was simply “Tell us a little about a woman composer of your choice.”  Long silence.  “Well, just name a woman composer.”  Deadly silence.  Unbearable silence.

Then the music historian, my mentor, spoke up: “Well, women don’t really compose much, you know.  Their creativity goes into mothering their children.”

I was stunned.  Not only had the student not been able to answer a fairly broad [!] question; my mentor had had an issue with the question!  That mentor’s comment dropped my respect for him down several notches.

As a young second-wave feminist who had seen gender bias against several female students in grad school, I set about to design a “women and music” course, to educate the next generation’s musicians and their mentors about women composers, yes, and also about the dynamics behind stupid assumptions (my term!) about women and composing.

Musicians now early in your careers doubtless witness more nuanced challenges that undermine women.  I guess earning 79 pennies for every man’s dollar, U.S., isn’t all that nuanced, but let’s consider today’s more subtle challenges.  Ellen Malcolm, president of the U.S. women’s political action committee Emily’s List, describes today’s U.S. political scene as “corridors of power where more attention is paid to the tap of a woman’s high heels than to the ideas she champions; reporters who waste ink and airtime discussing women’s clothes instead of their character; the men who call themselves liberals but always seem to reach back into their network of guys when an opportunity for advancement materializes.”

In music, the nuances involve not knowing or including music written by women; choosing texts and methods that hardly allow for discussion of women’s compositional creativity; devaluing musical contributions that are by or about a woman; measuring a female colleague’s or student’s feelings as her “problem” rather than her frustration at the different treatment she experiences compared with her colleagues who are male.  All of us, men and women, carry these biases as cultural baggage.

In the face of the politics of today’s educational scene, then, how can we organize a “women and music” course that is academically viable and effective?  After all, we’re in an art whose participants often, perhaps usually, identify with being a musician above even being gendered.

I’ve found that including the powerful politics of gender—even beginning a women-and-music course with a theoretical model for gender politics—allows students and instructors to sit in our discomforts, whatever they may be.  Including musical politics at the get-go sometimes offends the music majors while making the liberal-arts majors more comfortable.  It’s a good place to begin.


Susan Borwick

Susan is a musicologist, theorist, and composer teaching at Wake Forest, and she’s also the Secretary of IAWM. Her areas of specialization include women’s and gender studies, and spirituality and the arts. She’ll be blogging about teaching “women and music” in a liberal arts setting.


Experiences in the Classroom: an Introduction

Posted in Jen_Baker, Teaching by iawmblog on January 7, 2010

Hi!  Thanks for reading my blog.  I’m really excited to be sharing my thoughts here because I feel that my experiences-both as educator and as performer- are unique and interesting.  I hope you will enjoy my posts.

I have taught music for nearly 17 years.  During this time, I have evolved enormously in my philosophy and outlook in terms of what a teacher is and does.  Prior to 2004, my teaching experiences were limited to private music lessons and chamber music/sectional coaching.  I had never had any interest in teaching classroom music, and had never even considered formal studies in music education.  (Blessed be, I’m a delusional trombonist.)

When I finally realized that I was interested in teaching, I brainstormed my ideal classroom setting and lessons.  These ideas came out of thinking over how to relate better to students so that whatever the age group, the whole person, not just the mental aspect, could participate and contribute to the class. I realized that I needed to have more information about how kids of all ages learn and what the various stages of learning look like.  I believe quite strongly that as teachers, we can better access the minds of our students when we have an understanding of each stage of development, starting as early as two years of age.  At that point most of my students had been high school or college-aged.  My goal then was to create a music class for young kids ages 4-12 that would allow their ideas to be an integral part of the curriculum and would nurture their spirits with compassionate teaching so they would feel free to be their authentic selves.  At the time I believed (accurately, as it turns out) that teaching younger kids would strengthen and enrich my development as a teacher so that when I returned to the high school and college-aged students with whom I had been familiar, I could reach them more easily and be a better teacher.

Here are a couple of the basic concepts that direct my activities.  I will expound further on each of them in upcoming blog posts.

A great way to send a message to a kid that their ideas are just as valid as the teacher’s is to sit in a circle.  I find that this seating arrangement feels better spiritually as well.  Everyone has eye contact with one another, and even though nothing in the circle indicates superiority of one person over another, the implicit understanding is that the teacher is the one in charge.  Besides, it’s not so easy to talk behind the teacher’s back or play with toys when everyone is equally exposed.

Hands-on Projects
Kids aren’t interested in learning theories alone.  They learn the theories by means of physical practice and by making mistakes.  I always include a major component of hands-on learning by using the body, musical instruments, or composition in class.  As much as as possible, I break the group into smaller groups or partners so learning (and making mistakes) can be less intimidating.


Jen Baker
Jen is a trombonist who specializes in new music and freelances in New York City.  She also teaches composition, improvisation, and homemade instrument making to children, and she’ll be blogging about experiences in the classroom.