“If You Want to Meet Men…”

Part III

I wanted to see how later generations of women fared in instrumental music.  I asked Diane Nichols, the first female director of the Eagles Band what her experiences were. Here’s her story:

Diane Nichols, clarinetist in the Eagles Band, shared this.

“I am fortunate to have lived in interesting times.   As an American Baby Boomer, I’ve witnessed incredible events and profound social change, not the least of which is the role of women in society.  When I came of age in the 1970’s, women were just beginning to assert their active role outside of the home, yet we remained conflicted. We wanted to have it all, career and family, and told the world to “hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore.”  As a young girl growing into band musicianship, I had no female role models as band directors. Although my male band directors supported what I was trying to do with my life, that is totally different than having a woman band director as a mentor.  Women band directors simply did not exist in my experience.  When I entered UMass as a freshman, I was one of two women majoring in clarinet (undergraduate or graduate level). By the time I left, there were several women in the department. My undergraduate class seemed to be split 60 percent men to 40 percent women.  The times were a’changing.      

 I joined the Eagles Band in May, 1975.  I was 19 years old and had just finished my college freshman year. I walked into rehearsal in the basement of the Fraternal Order of Eagles building on First Street, and guess what?  I was the only female in the room!  The only diversity was in the age range of the men in the room — college students who I knew from high school, to middle-agers, to elders who had been playing gigs since way before my parents were born.  Most of the men were kind and acted as mentors.  Some of them seemed a little unsure or uneasy with my presence in their domain.  Some called me “Little Girl,” which I chose to accept as a term of endearment rather than as a sexist slam.  The biggest challenge came two years later.

 Our conductor, Dr. Morton Wayne had called in his absence just before rehearsal.  The band manager stood in front of the group (we had maybe five women in the room at this point) and asked if one of us would volunteer to conduct the rehearsal.  Having just finished a year of conducting class, I sheepishly raised my hand.  For a second, you could hear a pin drop and then the murmuring started.  I stood in front of the band and rehearsed the first piece.  When I finished, the murmuring had settled down and the band was cooperative and kind for the rest of the evening.  Dr. Wayne appointed me Assistant Conductor for the rest of the season, and the following year he resigned and I was appointed Conductor/Music Director of the Eagles Band.  I was 22 years old, the first woman to be officially appointed to the position and the first woman to hold the directorship long-term.  Not everyone in the band was happy about it.  There were at least two men who quit the band because of it.  I believe the men who stayed were on the right side of history.

 I recently told a male colleague that women have to work twice as hard to earn the same respect as a man doing the same exact thing with the same skill set.  It is amazing that in the 21st century, I found it necessary to utter those words yet again in my lifetime.  I know of a band in the state of Florida that still does not admit women to its ranks. It’s their loss.”

 I recently told a male colleague that women have to work twice as hard to earn the same respect as a man doing the same exact thing with the same skill set.  It is amazing that in the 21st century, I found it necessary to utter those words yet again in my lifetime.  I know of a band in the state of Florida that still does not admit women to its ranks. It’s their loss.”

“If You Want to Meet Men, Join the Band.”

A Three Part Look at Women’s Struggle to become Accepted in the Band.

Part II

I recently heard some interesting reminiscences from a couple of ladies in music regarding their journey into the world of professional music. This is the second part of a three part look at the struggle of women in instrumental music from my point of view.

As a woman growing up in northern Vermont, I thought that some of the “experiences” I had in becoming a member of the music community and specifically the world of band and public music education were unique to my rural roots.  I entered that world in the 1960’s when becoming “free and equal” was in the air for everyone, or so I thought.

I began my career in music as the only female trombone player in my high school band.  My sister became the only female drummer a couple of years later.  Whereas, I had little trouble in moving to first chair (everyone ahead of me graduated), she found herself relegated to cymbals and triangle most of the time because the boys were assigned the snare and timpani parts by our male band director.

I went on to major in music.  I enjoyed being in the same classes as some of my former male Allstate Music Festival colleagues.  Then my college band director found a band piece featuring a trombone quartet.  I was one of only a handful of trombone majors so I was excited about having the opportunity to be part of the quartet.  He selected two of my fellow male trombone majors, selected another male trombone player not majoring in music from the band, and had our male tuba player, who also played trombone, perform.  I had ranked first or second each year at All State auditions alongside one of the male trombonists that he selected.  There was very little difference in our playing at that point. So, what was this about?

That same band director was my trombone teacher my freshmen year.  It seemed odd to me that he was always late for my lesson and always had a phone call during the lesson.  This was way before cell phones so the calls had to be transferred to the chapel where he scheduled the lesson.  This continued until I went to the Department Chair about it.  I thought things had improved until I was assigned a graduate student working for his masters in trombone.  The only thing I remember from his lessons was a criticism he had of my playing.  “Don’t play like a girl.”  Now, exactly what does that mean?

After graduation, I taught music in the public schools.  I was the first music teacher since the former music teacher had passed ten years before. He had the entire music program from elementary through high school. When he passed, his position had not been filled until I came along.  I was responsible for all aspects of the program in the high school including resurrecting the band.  I began the band program the best that I could.  There was no feeder program from the elementary schools at that time.  So my high school instrumental students were beginners with only a few exceptions of students who had transferred in from other school districts with a full-fledged music program.  The only advantage my “newbies” had over those who would have begun to play in the 4th or 5th grades was that some of them learned the intricacies of counting music faster.  But we persevered.

One day I overheard the headmaster telling another faculty member that the band sounded like an elementary band. I was devastated.  Of course, they would sound like an elementary band at that stage of their development.  A few days later, the headmaster said to me, “Would the band be better if you were a man?”  Now, what was I supposed to say to that?

I thought about my situation as compared to Doris’ and realized that it wasn’t difficult for me to join the concert or marching band; my difficulties came in being accepted as a worthwhile contributor to the world of instrumental music beyond high school.  I left teaching after only 8 years and entered the business world.  When I reentered the music world 20 years later, I found I was welcomed and encouraged to use my education to assist with the band. The Eagles Band has opened its arms to me. Now there are many well respected female contributors in the band and I enjoy being part of such a wonderful community band.

“If You Want to Meet Men, Join the Band.”

A Three Part Look at Women’s Struggle to become Accepted in the Band.

Part 1

I was talking with one of our band members, Doris McNabb, and she shared some interesting insights into what is was like to be a woman in a concert or marching band when she joined during the depression.  Here is her story.

Early experiences that Doris had as a child in the Midwest set the scene for the difficulties she would face later as a female instrumentalist.

“My grandfather McNabb in the early part of the 20th century before there was public school music in Indiana took the restless young men on the farms, secured instruments and taught them how to play.  He formed a band that marched on holidays and gave weekly band concerts in the summer in the gazebo in Auburn, Indiana.

Every year in my grade school in Michigan we had a penny social on Halloween.  There was a big parade in costumes with prizes.  I was five years old.  Mickey Mouse was fairly new.  Another girl and I were dressed as Mickey and Minnie.  We were chosen for first prize.  Minnie was handed a prize, but when I took off my mask, the woman was surprised and said, “Oh, this is a boy’s gift.”  She kept it and walked away.”

Doris grew up with an insatiable desire to play an instrument:

“Finally, I was able to study a band instrument.  My father was a fine trumpet performer, my mother a pianist.  However, with a larger family than most during the depression, I had to wait.

Off my father and I went to the high school to see the instruments.  In those days I had to choose a girl’s instrument; either a flute or clarinet.  One had to purchase the instrument as no rental program existed.  The salesman said, “The Germans have just marched into Paris.  It may be difficult to obtain reeds.”  I chose the flute.

When I arrived at the University of Michigan, the band was made up of mostly men.  The few women in the band were not allowed to march in the marching band.  All of the men were required to march in the marching band.

The men could walk in the front door of the Women’s League.  Women were required to use the side door of the Men’s Union.

In 1955, I walked into a building dressed very neatly in pedal pushers.  The Dean of Women approached me in the hall and said, “You may not be here unless you are wearing a dress or a skirt.”

All of my instrumental teachers were men.  It was rare for a young woman to be pursuing instrumental music education as a major.  The clarinet teacher felt strongly about this.  He refused to give me the grade I had earned; he also wrote in my instruction book, “To Irma”. (a reference to “My Friend, Irma” a dumb blonde in a 1940’s radio station comedy).  A blonde definitely could not have any brains.  There was no recourse in those days.”

Doris may be diminutive and was obviously a blonde, but her desire to be a music educator held her in good stead.  She continues to this day to play in the Eagles Band and to give private lessons.  Doris persevered and even in her 80’s returns to the University of Michigan each year to march in the marching band during their homecoming football game.  Good on ya, Doris.