Friday, July 30, 2010

No, I'm the Cello Lady...


You know what? It's hard out there for a lady in the arts. There are many expectations and assumptions that make things difficult. I just read this article about women in the Classical music world and it got me thinking of my own personal experiences.

Almost every time I walk around with the ol' cello on my back I get some strange comments from men. "Do you play that?" No, I'm just dragging it around because it's so much fun. My personal favorite: "That instrument is so big! You need a strong man to carry it for you." Ew. Just ew. These comments seem harmless, but they did make me feel very anxious to go out with my instrument, feeling everyone's eyes on me.

Nearly two years ago my boss and I attended a music industry conference to listen to panelists, network with others, you know, the typical conference spiel. I noticed there weren't too many women at this conference -- virtually none my age -- but I had a great time schmoozing anyway. That was until I was asked not once but three times by other male attendees if I was my boss' wife. I must admit that I was disturbed by this unusually popular question. Not because my boss is some kind of square (actually he is, albeit a totally cool one), but because to these industry men I could not possibly be at this conference for career or networking purposes. To them, I could only be there as merely some guy's plus one. After the conference, I told my boss over huevos rancheros at the nearby greasy spoon about how uncomfortable that made me. He assured me not to worry about it; they were just trying to be nice and include me in the conversation. Oh ho ho, did I disagree. To me, sexism is not created by the speaker's intent alone. Just because you "mean well" does not mean you are innocent. Of course these guys were not outwardly rude to me; they could not even see how their assumptions labeled me as a subordinate and were just plain inappropriate. Ugh. Kinda depressing that this type of thinking is so ingrained and automatic. There was some hope though as these guys were all quite a bit older than I. It must be a generational difference, I told myself. Surely no guy my age would leap to those assumptions...

Cue to a recent gig. I was asked to join a recording session on the north side of Chicago for an artist I had never met previously. I got to the studio and noticed I was very outnumbered, about seven dudes and just me. The typical recording studio sausage fest of twenty-somethings, a real pack o' franks.* Everyone was friendly and laid back and keenly listening to the current tracks being recorded. I felt surprisingly comfortable. Until another hired musician stepped out of the booth and into the main room. He introduced himself... to all the guys first. Then looked at me and said the words I absolutely dread: "So, are you like a band member's girlfriend?"

My heart sank. I blurted out what came to mind first, "How insulting!" The room got quiet. Everyone looked at me. "I'm the cello player," I said, pointing to the giant case next to me, "I'm recording tonight too." He shrugged, looking unfazed, "Oh, cool." I eventually laughed it off, and it in no way affected my performance that evening, but I have thought about it a lot since. It all boils down to the fact that everyone wants to be respected and taken seriously (ok, not too seriously) by others. Now I know that respect is earned, but it is more difficult to earn it when you start at a disadvantage because of assumptions. I work hard practicing, lugging that heavy cello case on trains and buses, enduring the stares of others. If I am anyone's girlfriend, I am my cello's. And I am totally her bitch. And she is seriously high maintenance.

*I hereby coin the phrase "pack o' franks"

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