Girls and trombone: odder than I first thought?

I had just begun seventh grade the first time I met a girl trombonist, who was also in seventh grade. It didn’t take long to realize that she was better than any other trombonist in the band, and there were lots of them. When we got to ninth grade (freshman year of high school), she played better than any of the seniors.

Her older sisters, recent graduates, had been just as outstanding on  horn and tuba. The best trumpet player was a girl, as were all of the hornists, and a euphonium player. It never occurred to me that there was anything odd about girls playing brass instruments.

Once out of high school, I continued to meet women who played various brass instruments. Many were very good, but as I talked with them and read about musicians in orchestras and on college faculties, I learned that many people did find women brass players more than a little disconcerting.

Many years later, I heard a friend from graduate school deliver a paper based on her doctoral research. She had studied references to music in almost fifty years of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an important magazine of the mid-nineteenth century. One particular thought sticks with me. Society expected respectable young women to play piano. I do not recall if violin was considered suitable for women, but respectable women did not play wind instruments of any kind.

That surprised me. I had always thought of flute as a woman’s instrument. No boys in my high school played flute, and I met only one boy flutist at another school. A man taught flute at my undergraduate school, but only one man studied with him. A woman taught flute in my graduate school, and I don’t recall any men students.

These musings came to mind recently as I read an account of Abbie Conant’s troubles with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Playing behind a screen, she won an audition for principal trombonist when conductor Sergiu Celebidache exclaimed, “that’s the one we want” and sent seventeen other applicants away without hearing them. Only then did he learn that he  had selected a woman.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, holding auditions behind a screen, which takes away all visual cues, has resulted in the hiring of many women in orchestras. Any number of orchestras may have been surprised that the best-sounding candidate was a woman or non-white, but most trusted their ears and adjusted.

Celibidache made no attempt to turn away from his hidebound prejudice that a woman could not possibly play principal trombone adequately. Conant took the orchestra to court, and the  litigation lasted more than a dozen years. She won every round. Celibidache, having decided to trust his eyes instead of his ears, could no longer hear what any other musician testified, that Conant fully deserved the position that she had won.

Now, when I see “Who says girls can’t play trombone?” in a woman’s signature line, I’m no longer surprised, but it’s sad. Everyone is good at something and no good at something else. No one can determine a person’s aptitudes merely by observing sex or ethnicity. I wish everyone would stop trying.

Meanwhile, check out this clip of an all-woman trombone quartet called Bones Apart playing an arrangement of Stars and Stripes Forever. You’ll be thinking, “Hey, you can’t play that on trombones!” But they do.

Music and references to music in Godey’s Lady’s Book : 1830-77 / by Julia Eklund Koza (Ph.D. dissertation: University of Minnesota, 1988).

Blink: the power of thinking without thinking / by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Back Bay Books, 2005), pp. 245-54.

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