There is a lovely recent piece in The Guardian about getting more women trained as conductors. It’s good. I’m in favor of all of it. More highly trained, passionate women conductors means more pressure on the glass ceiling, and eventually ensembles will have to start hiring some of us. Which is good for all following generations.
That article cites an earlier one in which a conductor claims “women can’t conduct because their breasts get in the way!” Which has a bullshitness level that is off the charts, but it was published before I started blogging, so I never responded to it. Until now.
First, not all women have breasts.
Second, among those who do, not all of them have breasts that are prominent enough to interfere with standard conducting gestures.
And — let’s be factual here — there are plenty of men with breast/pectoral areas that are more prominent than many women.
Breasts are a part of the body that impact some conductors’ gesture. I’m one of those conductors. And, while the work of conducting is inextricable from the use of my anatomy, no conducting teacher has ever talked to me about my breasts.
Most of my conducting teachers have been men. I’ve mostly had very brief, workshop-type interactions with women conducting teachers, and all but one of them had breasts that were small enough that they didn’t impact their conducting gesture at all.
The one student I’ve worked with whose breasts were an issue for her gesture, I spoke to her after class. “Hey, I didn’t want to talk about this in front of the whole class, but notice when your arms goes across your body how your elbow bends because your upper arms is impeded by your breast. Here are some options for dealing with that…” Because I didn’t want to talk about her breasts in front of the whole class, just in case it would make her feel more awkward or self-conscious than when I talked about the angle of her head or the position of her feet.
So, here it is: some frank talk about how the shape and size of my chest influences my conducting gesture. Because I’m determined not to feel awkward about it.
When I hold my arms in front of me then try to move my arms in front of my torso, my breasts sometimes come between my upper arms and the middle of my body. I have to keep my arms especially rounded to make a clean line across my body. And sometimes I have to squash my right breast when I want beat 2 of a four-pattern to be particularly important or elongated.
But I had to think about this, make a decision to watch videos of my rehearsals to find solutions for some of the interference. Every body is different, and everyone needs to learn about how their own shape, size, and proportions affect their gesture. Long arms? Big hands? Broad shoulders? All these things will affect your gesture. Big breasts are just one aspect of full-body consideration.
Was that so tough? Is there a reason it should be omitted from the conversation? There’s nothing sexual about it. There’s no reason this should be taboo. But, of all the many conductors I’ve learned from, none of them has ever mentioned, “hey, you’re giving the ‘two’ beat short shrift because your right arm can’t come in front of your body the way most conductors’ you’ve seen.”
Because “most conductors” are men. Certainly all of the people who established the foundational techniques of conducting were men. Very few of them had to worry about proportion between their arms, ribcages, and breasts. But I do.
But not even I have talked about it. I’ve been blogging about conducting for five years, and I thought I got close to issues of women conductors when I talked about conductor attire, and when I talked about the underrepresentation of women on podiums at important conferences. But it wasn’t until I read press coverage of Wimbledon about Serena Williams’ body that I realized that I had never talked about my breasts because I was still ashamed of my femininity at a level so deep and so important that I had not yet even acknowledged it.
Serena Williams is an athlete, whose body influences the quality of her work. She is a woman; she has breasts. She is a tennis player; she sometimes has to reach her arm across her body while her breasts might impede her from doing so. So why did they spend so much time talking about her body in ways that have nothing to do with her athleticism? Her hair, her silhouette, her color… none of which necessarily impeded with her strength and speed.
The answer is: we’re still mystified and shamed by the bodies of people who don’t conform to societal norms. And the norm of a conductor’s body is still masculine.
And it occurred to me that my unconscious shame of my femininity, fed by the patriarchal structure of Western society, had played into the fact that I have happily, frequently, and freely talked about my feet, my shoulders, my spine, neck, scapula, clavicles, knees… But never have I ever mentioned that I move my arms in front of my body as a significant part of my work; and sometimes I have to take my breasts into consideration.
I’m a conductor, and I have breasts. They do sometimes require me to make changes in my gesture. I have to hold my elbow a little further out from my body than other conductors do in order to maintain consistent placement of ictus. I also have to pay attention to what bra I wear when I practice alone relative to what I wear when I rehearse and perform — it makes as much difference as does heel height on my shoes, or constriction of my jacket across my shoulders.
It’s not sexy or salacious or shocking. It’s just my body, which is an instrument of communication. What’s important to that communication is that I know my body, understand it, listen to it, love it, feel comfortable in it. Then it will pour out the musical ideas unimpeded by self-consciousness, artificial manipulation, or shame.
And it’s the music that matters.