Gramophone guest blog

The challenges of being a female conductor

Alondra de la ParraTue 26th April 2011

It's a daunting career...but for many different reasons

In the June issue of Gramophone, we named ten conductors under 40 who we felt will be acknowledged as the true greats of the future. And then noticed that they were all men. To try to understand why, we invited Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra to reflect on this state of affairs.

I can think of no better medium than Gramophone to answer, perhaps finally, a question that has beset me for a very long time.

In the process of becoming a conductor, like everyone else, I spent several unglamorous years working to absorb and learn the vast array of subjects that are indispensable for the profession. To be honest, during those many years of endless hours at the piano analysing scores, reading biographies, practicing gesture technique, training my ear, and fighting for every second I could get in front of an orchestra, I spent very little time – minimal I would say – thinking about the particular challenges of being a “female” conductor. It has just been in the context of interviews that I have given the thought some serious consideration, as it has become the question de rigueur in everything from after-concert dinners to formal questionnaires.

Frankly, the challenges of becoming a conductor are daunting enough without adding to them the worries of doing it as a woman, and considering what that might add to the difficulties of succeeding in the career. If anything, I have decided that being a woman is not a handicap but perhaps in some ways even an advantage. A simple example: like many girls growing up, I was always allowed, encouraged even, to do ballet, gymnastics etc, using my body to express myself artistically, which then gave me an upper-hand as a conductor. Furthermore, since there are so many male conductors, being a woman has given me a creative space that brings a different experience to the audience.

Have I been the subject of discrimination because I am a young Mexican female conductor? One never knows for sure. To investigate specifically why has one been rejected or challenged is both impossible and futile. What I know, is that every person who has shown resistance has only increased my determination to grow stronger.

Back in 2003, in a seminar under Maestro Kurt Masur's direction, he shared a story that has stuck with me since. I was 22 years old, terrified of being there. The only female accepted to the programme, still an undergraduate student, and many years younger than the rest. One morning, Maestro Masur tearfully recounted when as a boy in Germany, he went with his mother to an important concert and was awestruck by the conductor's presence and magic. His mother, sensing young Masur’s excitement, turned to him and told him to be cautious of his dreams since this profession was not for ordinary people like them.

Hearing this from such an important and commanding figure as Masur was an enormous lesson for me. I constantly go back to this story to remember that the career that I have chosen is not for the weak of heart, regardless of their condition, gender or nationality.  Musicianship is the ultimate levelling field. Everyone who has dared to travel this path has experienced the fears and challenges of the conductor’s life. However, of the many privileges that life has given me – being a woman amongst them – I have been blessed to know that the music, the audience and my ability to dream are far more important than my fears.

Gramophone's June 2011 edition – on sale May 3 (UK) or available now as a digital edition – explores today's young conductors.

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