Music Has No Gender
In Carly McDonald's brilliant blog post 7 Reasons Why There's No Such Thing As Music For Boys, she writes:
"An educator's perceptions and projections of gender stereotypes affect educational outcomes for students. Gender bias and stereotypes have no place in music education."
Music is sound. It has no gender.
Lots of things have gender. Sound just doesn't happen to be one of them.
Too many desperate teachers are using stereotyped materials to try and grab the attention of their students. Using these materials only perpetuates the stereotypes.
I don't believe we need to reduce ourselves to our worst stereotypes in order to sell music. It's in vogue now to talk about "student saver" pieces - a concept I find puzzling on many levels. I can understand the need to mix things up, to reengage a student who's losing interest. Instead of grasping for music that's marketed to gender stereotypes, why not simply choose better music? Music that doesn't come weighed down with all the worst and most limited views of boys and girls?
Note: clicking on any image in this post will enlarge it so you can take a closer look.
It wasn't until it came time to write the titles and art concepts for Piano Town that I realized how difficult it was to keep gender stereotypes out of educational music. Until I had to make those decisions myself, I hadn't thought much about the fact that other people had been making those decisions for me.
If you're wondering what I'm talking about, here are the kinds of things I consider when evaluating a piece of music. Think about these things when you choose music for your students. Your choices matter.
Descriptive titles can help bring a simple piece to life. For that matter, they can bring a complex piece to life. Think of Gustav Holst's The Planets. (You can listen to some excerpts here if you're not familiar with the piece.) I am sure that the music would have been a success on its own, but having pieces with cool titles like Neptune the Mystic and Mercury the Winged Messenger do a lot more to engage my imagination than if he'd called it "Big Multi-movement Piece for Orchestra".
As a composer, I know from experience that it takes work to come up with great titles. I spend valuable time doing my best to create vivid, inspiring, evocative and (of course) gender neutral titles. It can be done and it's worth the effort.
When an Amazon search for Dolls and Girls Toys brings up a world of pink plastic, I flatly refuse to title a song Pink Princess Fairy (Yes, it's a real piece) or Boys Who Play With Trains. (I made that one up.)
Lyrics are usually an offshoot of the title, so if you're playing a piece called Pink Princess Fairy you can be sure it won't be featuring a woman astrophysicist. (I'm pretty keyed into that particular demographic because I teach the daughter of one.)
I will not teach a piece that perpetuates stereotypes.
I also personally screen out any lyrics that mention "having fun". I can't listen to another song that tells me:
"We'll have fun in the sun!
Fun in the sun has just begun!
We'll have fun fun fun
In the sun sun sun
'Till the day day day is
Done done done!"
But I digress.
Music for young children often features art with animals. This serves a two-fold purpose of avoiding issues of race and sometimes issues of gender.
In Music for Little Mozarts, the authors have chosen to use animals. In this case it sidesteps the issue of race. However, on the cover we see a whimsical illustration of two boys performing on the keys of a piano. Look closely and you'll find the only girl included is somewhere in the audience, faceless and wearing in a pink tutu. This isn't a singular example. I've included two of the many covers in this series.
Mozart Mouse & Beethoven Bear are named after long-dead European men. In Level Two of this series, the authors introduce a female character named Clara Schumann Cat. She is described as a character who, "Helps Beethoven Bear and Mozart Mouse with their studies." Note that the girl is the helper, not the learner.
I asked one of the authors, Gayle Kowalchyk, if she'd like to comment about the gender choices made in Music for Little Mozarts. Here's what she said:
"All of the characters were named after famous composers, so the gender was already set. We went for the alliteration in their names -- Mozart Mouse, Beethoven Bear, etc. We did out best to include female characters. We have three female characters - Clara Schumann-Cat, Nannerl Mouse (named after Mozart's sister), and Nina Ballerina (she is the only character not named after a composer)."
I disagree. The gender wasn't already set. The authors chose to follow the conventions of European male composers. By doing so, they never even considered having strong females featured in the series. Making this choice for instant name recognition at the expense of female representation is not a choice I would have made.
A brand new method, Piano Safari, does a much better job of using animals to integrate art with gender neutrality. Not to mention that the cover art is stunning. It was written by two women, Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr, who clearly had no interest in creating a gender stereotyped world. The animals in the songs are both boys and girls, and when they were able to, they chose no particular gender for the animals.
The covers of Nancy and Randall Faber's popular Piano Adventures use abstract piano-centered art.
For their newest method, My First Piano Adventure: For the Young Beginner, however, the Fabers changed their concept and used stylized illustrations of young children in their art and throughout the books.
Could it be possible that as the parents of a young daughter, the Fabers might have been hoping to create positive images for her? In my search, this is the only example of cover art where the girls actually outnumber the boys.
Keith Snell and I did our best to keep gender stereotypes out of Piano Town. When we wrote the lyrics and designed the art concepts, we made decisions about what the world of Piano Town would look like: a world where the Mayor is a woman and boys dance. Because that's the world we want to live in.
Becoming aware of the ways in which gender stereotypes sneak into the music publishing business can help us make more educated choices for our students.
One series that used remarkably simple and innovative art was Edna Mae Burnam's A Dozen a Day technical exercises. Their iconic stick figures have stood the test of time and their simplicity and gender neutrality was a wise choice when they were first published in the 1950's.
Her book of solos, Girls, was less fortunate both in song title and marketing choices.
Marketing is a particularly insidious way to stereotype gender.
The prolific and gifted American composer Dennis Alexander has written literally hundreds of individual pieces and many collections (like his A Splash of Color) that are completely free of boy/girl stereotypes.
I feel certain that he wasn't trying to perpetuate gender stereotypes, but unfortunately his books Especially for Boys and Especially for Girls do just that. I asked him to comment on these books, explaining that I was writing a piece about gender stereotypes.
"I wrote a book called "Especially for Boys" that has a mix of both types of pieces, knowing that many of my young male students in the studio would find some of the slower, lyrical pieces every bit as attractive as the fast ones. My publisher thought it would be a good idea to also do a "companion book" called "Especially for Girls". This was a bit of a dilemma for me, because I also knew that there were girls in my studio who loved the "big sounding, fast pieces" every bit as much as some of the boys. And so, I wrote a real variety of pieces for each book. Reality, of course, is that it's impossible to gender stereotype pieces for piano students today. Interestingly enough, the "Especially for Boys" book has always been a big seller, while the "Especially for Girls" has been a distant second."
Here are the two books with the song titles listed in the captions.
Teachers are powerful. We choose the world our students see. It should be a world of possibility.
I teach a young set of boy/girl twins. What messages would they get if I gave them each the "appropriate" book? Is Caleb supposed to like frogs and snakes? Is Alexandra looking forward to a life of being a princess while babysitting? Can she actually BE an astronaut or only "Wannabe" be one? What about the covers? What messages are implicit in the choices?
By far the most egregious gender stereotype I've discovered is Teach Piano Today's The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo (Piano Music for Boys).
From their description of the series:
"How would you like a secret weapon for teaching boys piano?
In a piano world designed for girls comes a hero destined to save the boys on your bench. Motivating piano music written for boys. Every piano piece is an action adventure.
Let's be honest, teaching boys anything can be a bit of a struggle - not because they are evil creatures but because they are fun filled, high energy, adventure seekers."
Let's bullet point these words so their meaning and implications are completely clear:
- The piano world is designed for girls
- Boys need a hero to save them from said piano world
- There is such a thing as music for boys
- Boys are fun filled, high energy, adventure seekers.
- Boys are not evil.
Have a listen to the music and decide for yourself. The music starts at :50. (Note that ironically the music was composed and performed by a woman.)
Compare that to this video of Leo playing this piece called Still Blue. A piece that's just a piece, with a title that's just a title. No secret weapons involved.
Here are just a few examples of great music I can wholeheartedly recommend. Each and every one is delightfully free of gender stereotypes.