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Marin Alsop On The Body Politics Of Being A Female Conductor

May 5, 2009

I've been working on a story for the Los Angeles Times about the new generation of women conductors. The article is scheduled to appear in the publication's Calendar section this Sunday.

As is so often the case, some of the most interesting details I learned in the process of reporting the piece -- regarding conductor Marin Alsop's ideas about how women conductors should and shouldn't use their bodies on the podium -- barely made it into the article itself because they were off on a bit of a tangent. So I thought I would bring the subject up here. That's one of the beauties of being a blogger; juicy material need not go to waste.

According to Alsop, who serves as music director of the Baltimore Symphony and is a mentor to lots of young maestros (many of them women), female conductors need to think more carefully about the way in which they use gesture than their male counterparts. Reno Symphony's new music director, Laura Jackson, tells a funny story along these lines about being coached by Alsop as a recipient of the Taki Concordia women's conducting fellowship. "Once, when she was watching my left hand, Marin shook her head and said 'your left hand is way too girly,'" Jackson recalls. A New York Times story from 2005 about Alsop corroborates Jackson's anecdote: "[Marin Alsop] coaches female conductors in ways a man could not, pointing out, for example, that if a man holds the baton with outstretched pinkie, it can look sensitive; if a woman does so, some may see it as frilly."

Alsop herself has a lot to say about gesture when it comes to being a woman up on the podium: "As a woman, you need to think twice about what you're doing on the podium," Alsop told me in a phone interview last week. "There's one extra step you have to go through to convey only musical ideas, rather than having your gestures reinterpreted because people think as a woman you're conveying something else. Think about shaking hands when you meet someone. If you have a very firm handshake as a woman, it's a bit frightening. But a firm handshake is appealing in a man. In other words, as a female conductor, you have to figure out how to be strong without coming across as threatening. People should only respond to your musical gestures, rather than some preconception they have in their minds about strong women."

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