At Tuba-Euphonium Workshop, women outnumbered, not outgunned

By Francis Chung
The Pentagram

News story photo
Photo credit: SFC Chris Branagan
As the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own" hosted the 35th annual Tuba-Euphonium Workshop at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall's Brucker Hall Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, a few of the musicians on hand stood out for one simple, but striking reason.

They are women.

Reflecting the prevailing demographics of the low-brass community for which the workshop serves as a yearly showcase, only six of the 50 tuba or euphonium players listed by name as performers on this year's program were female.

An open reading session held on Thursday evening was attended by 41 professional and amateur tuba and euphonium players, nine of whom were women.

A Friday morning panel discussion between music educators featured one woman and four men.

"I think our field is probably more heavily male than just about any other instrument out there," said Dr. Bethany Wiese, a tuba player and professor of music at Appalachian State University, who performed in a college teachers' recital Saturday morning.

Wiese noted that of her 16 current students, only one is female. In her three years of full-time teaching, she said she has never had more than three women pupils at one time, out of a cohort of 16 to 20.

Dr. Danielle VanTuinen, who performed on euphonium during a Friday recital led by her mentor, Dr. Deanna Swoboda, reported that she has only five female students among the 30 she is currently supervising at the Portland Conservatory and various public school districts in Maine.

Although they help comprise a distinct minority in their field, several women musicians at the workshop recalled being passionately drawn to the tuba or euphonium from an early age.

"I think the instrument chooses us , in a lot of ways," said Swoboda, a professor of music at Arizona State University who switched from clarinet to tuba in 8th grade.

"I loved the sound of the instrument and the role it played in the band," she remarked. "The tuba is the foundation of the band and tuba players have the responsibility of providing a sound for everyone else to build upon."

Swoboda added that "for me as a younger player, it was cool to be the only one, kind of a leadership position in the band, being the foundation of the group."

Wiese, too, was attracted to the "uniqueness" of the tuba. "I liked not being one of a thousand, and being a female tuba player, that made me even more unique," she said.

Wiese and VanTuinen both cited the expressive versatility of their instruments as a one of their defining qualities.

"I loved how agile of an instrument it was, and how deep the instrument is in terms of range and tone color," VanTuinen said of the euphonium. "I loved the virtuosity of it."

For Amanda Cariati, a Masters student studying with Swoboda at ASU, the "warmth" of the euphonium was what stood out when she was inspired to pick up the instrument at age 7 or 8 after witnessing a soloist's bravura performance.

"It sounds like a hug," she said.

All of the women agreed that having chosen to specialize in tuba or euphonium makes them an exception to the rule.

"The tuba is still a male-dominated instrument because of the stigma associated to instruments and gender," Swoboda asserted. She cited a prevailing notion that "girls should play flute and boys should play the tuba" due to the factors like the relatively large size of the instruments, and their comparatively low voice.

Wiese, however, lends little credence to stereotypes based on any supposed physical advantages male tuba and euphonium players might have over their female counterparts.

"Tuba playing is about efficiency, not size," she insisted, adding that she believes the lack of female role models in the field has played a much more significant role in discouraging females from choosing and sticking with tuba or euphonium.

Several of the women acknowledged that, at various points in their careers, they have encountered skepticism and resistance from what they described as "the boys' club." For some, this only fueled their motivation to succeed in spite of any gender-based prejudice they might face.

As Swoboda recalled, "a mentor in college, when I told him I wanted to focus more on tuba, looked at me and said, 'first of all, you're a woman in a man's world, and seriously, what are you going to do with a tuba?' I was pissed, but I let that light my fire. The next thing I thought was, 'I'll show you what I'm going to do with a tuba!'"

Cariati noted that "it's been harder at times to be taken seriously, but, honestly, that has developed enough of a drive to prove myself, and that it's because I'm a woman that I can do this, and that I can do this as well, if not better."

As they went about their business at the Tuba-Euphonium Workshops recitals and panels, Wiese and others said they were heartened to see subtle signs that women are starting to make their presence more prominently felt within the low-brass community.

"I do see it shifting as our society changes too," Wiese said. "I've been doing these conferences for about ten to 15 years, and it's definitely becoming less unusual to see and meet other women."

Noting that she has a lot of students who come to her specifically because they want to study with a female mentor, Wiese opined that the growing visibility of women role models has been decisive in driving a slow, but steady demographic shift.

Swoboda seconded that notion.

"I think now with more women role models, that landscape is changing, because girls can see professional women playing what would have been considered a man's instrument and see themselves doing that," she said, adding that her own studio is, surprisingly but encouragingly, half female at present.

Swoboda said events like the Tuba-Euphonium Workshop can offer invaluable opportunities for female musicians to learn, network and see exemplars of female musicians doing cutting-edge work.

"It is important for young girls to see successful women playing the tuba," she said. "It is empowering and inspiring."

VanTuinen cited Saturday's Mock Service Band Auditions as an example of a gender-neutral professional setting that evens the playing field between men and women. During the mock auditions, musicians performed anonymously behind a screen, and VanTuinen said she has been pleased to see that model becoming the norm in the civilian music world after being pioneered by military bands.

"They make it completely gender-free and invisible until they meet you at the very end, once they've picked you, which is ideal," she said. "In any situation, it needs to be that way, so that gender plays no part."

Looking ahead, Wiese and Swoboda expressed optimism that the tuba-euphonium community would continue to draw more women into its ranks, due both to institutional initiatives and the excellence and perseverance of individual musicians.

"I see the quality of female brass players going up, which is probably directly related to having good role models and feeling more accepted in this field," Wiese said. "I think the way that women are accepted because they're very good performers and are acknowledged first and foremost for their contribution to the field, I think that's a way to make our presence grow holistically and in a meaningful way rather than forcing inclusion just for the sake of inclusion."

Swoboda will host the 2019 International Women's Brass Conference, an event that last year celebrated 25 years of supporting the professional development of female musicians.

While highlighting the significance of such events, Swoboda also advised women who aspire to a career in tuba or euphonium playing to, first and foremost, focus cultivating their own technical skills, entrepreneurial savvy and relentless perseverance.

"I've always just taken the adage of working extra hard, working smart, in order to excel in a man's world," she said.


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