As part of International Women’s Day on the 8th March, we have been talking to a select group of women about the issues facing women in the music industry.
We spoke to Catherine Arlidge from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra about her perspective on the challenges facing women in orchestra, and ways to inspire creativity.
Q: You’ve been in the Birmingham City Symphony Orchestra for 25 years, how have you seen the gender gap evolve in orchestras during that time?
A: It’s definitely changed in those 25 years. Many orchestras now hold their first round auditions behind a screen, so it’s very difficult to have any bias. It’s quite a ruthless way of selecting people - but it’s actually very much down to your performance. Our orchestra is very nearly 50-50 now overall, although the string section has more women, whereas the brass only has one woman out of about 15. There are imbalances within the structure but as a whole, but I think we’re getting close to parity – in our orchestra at least.
Q: What do you think has brought about that balance?
A: I think more girls are training in music. Certainly in the violin auditions I’ve done recently, I’d say we’ve had many more women to men applying. I think there’s definitely a supply of fantastically talented women.
One thing that has changed is now having part time working. It used to be very difficult to sustain a career in the orchestra beyond having children because of touring. You couldn’t just do a three day week and juggle your childcare like in other jobs. You’d have to do three weeks on and three weeks off and childcare arrangements don’t work like that. There are probably about seven or eight of us now in CBSO who are on part-time contracts, and historically we may have had to have left. It does impact on other people’s working patterns which sometimes can cause difficulties and tensions, but I think it’s a really positive thing for keeping women in the work place.
Q: Do you feel like there are any major challenges for women in the music industry?
A: I personally haven’t come across any myself. It’s never been an issue at all because it’s just a bit like being an athlete. If you can run fast, you can run fast. If you can do what you are required to do or you do it really well, then that’s the end of it. I think there’s definitely a more macho mentality in some places. I’ve presented at a lot of schools and family concerts and I’m always very uncomfortable if we only have male brass players because I think you do need role models and examples for girls. I always try to get more women in that mix so it doesn’t look like unfamiliar territory for the girls.
Q: What do you think makes a really good role model for a budding musician?
A: Somebody that is obviously passionate about what they do. For me, it’s about inspiring potential in the person that’s listening. I would never want anyone to be me but I would want them to be the best version of themselves that they can be. I teach the creative process in schools so I take music in, pull it apart and encourage the students to create their own version. It’s a process – you start with an idea, test it, adapt it and then evaluate it, it’s a process that you need in every walk of life. I work mainly not to inspire people to be violinists actually but to make them open to what it is that will set them on fire and make them the best person they can be.
Q: Do you have any key advice for budding female musicians?
A : Practice hard. Think about connecting to your audiences and think about the value of what you do. Think about how what you bring to music is unique and what you get back from it. What is your motivation and what’s the point of music? Everyone’s motivation will be different and that’s the beauty of it. We do some great creative workshops where we ask these 7 years old why is creativity important, and this little girl said, “We need different ideas because if we all had the same idea, even if it was splendid, marvellous and magnificent, we’d all be the same and we need different people.”