Orchestra Dreams

A guest post by my sister, Gigi Sherrell Norwood

I was raised on classical music.  When everyone else my age was arguing Beatles v. Stones, Jan and I were discussing Bernstein v. Ormandy.  So, when I reached the fifth grade and my teachers asked if I was interested in joining the band, taking up the clarinet seemed like the obvious thing to do.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of Gigi’s clarinet, or–better yet–Gigi with her clarinet. But it looked pretty much like this (big surprise).

I loved it.  Learning new skills kept me from getting bored in our rural school, and gave me the chance to learn one of the main themes from my favorite symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 4th.  I took group lessons on Saturdays, and later private lessons with my band director after school.  And I began to dream.  Maybe, some day, I would become a professional musician, and get to play with the New York Philharmonic!

I shared my dream with my band director.  He shot it down.  “Girls don’t play in professional orchestras,” he told me.

The all-male truth of 1969 revealed! Only the harpist was a woman.

 

I was crushed. How could this be true?  As soon as I got home I dug out my copy of Tchaikovsky’s 4ththe one with the picture of the whole orchestra on the cover.  One by one I checked out every single face.  And it was true!  The only woman in the entire ensemble was the harp player.

This was 1969, and the women’s movement hadn’t made it to small town Missouri.  I was still young enough to believe things would always be the way they were at that moment.  My interest in band began to decline.  Why should I work all those extra hours, if the boys were the only ones who could make a career of it?  By eighth grade, when they told me my final grade depended on getting up very early every morning, all summer long, and marching, I was done.  I dropped out of band and switched my allegiance back the theatre, where night owls who can’t tell left from right were more appreciated.

A “blind audition” for the Madison (WI) Symphony Orchestra yields a more objective result.

In the decades since, strong, wonderful women with more pioneering spirit than I, have broken the gender barrier in professional orchestras.  Blind auditions became the standard, concealing any gender cues and placing the auditioner behind a screen, so all the conductor could evaluate was the musician’s tone, musicality, and playing ability.  A whole generation of rigidly sexist artistic directors has died off, and about half the musicians in today’s New York Philharmonic are female.

A much more recent photo of the New York Philharmonic reveals a changed gender ratio.

But the hurt, and outrage I felt back in 1969 lingers.  It flares up again every time I hear a teacher shoot down a young person’s dream.  And I say, no matter what your creative field, feed the flame.

If someone comes to you with an impossible dream, remind yourself that it may simply not be possible yet.

The child with the shining face, who stands before you alight with the glory of her dream, may be the one who makes it possible, sometime in the future.

Nurture those dreams. We need them. They are the agents of change.

Gigi Sherrell Norwood

ABOUT GIGI: In addition to being my much-admired sister, Gigi Sherrell Norwood is the Director of Education and Concert Operations for the Dallas Winds (formerly the Dallas Wind Symphony), having used her BFA in Directing, her prodigious writing skills, and her lifelong love of music to become involved with a highly-esteemed professional musical group after all. Widow of the science fiction writer Warren C. Norwood, with whom she sometimes collaborated on projects under his byline, Gigi is also a talented writer herself. She is currently working on several urban fantasy stories set in the historic Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, TX. 

NOTE: for a similar post about a young woman’s creativity shot down, you might be interested in my post Death of a Purple Elephant, from 2011.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Lark in the Morning’s “Clarinets” page for the photo of the clarinet. Many thanks to Amazon, for the photo of the vintage NY Philharmonic album cover, featuring the all-male-except-the-harpist photo of the orchestra’s musicians. I am indebted to the Madison.com website for the image of the MSO blind audition. The photo is by Amber Arnold of the State Journal. Many thanks to Bidding for Good, for the photo of a more recent New York Philharmonic, complete with roughly half female musicians. Gigi provided the photo of herself. It is used with her permission.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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