Women knock down brass barriers

When I was in junior high school—the time of the BeeGees, back-pocket hair brushes, and green M&M’s—only one girl played a brass instrument in our school band, and I am embarrassed to say that we boys often teased her. Her named was Wendy and she played the cornet. We didn’t tease her to her face because she was tough and probably would have punched us, but we did make comments about her when she was out of earshot, though she certainly must have known what we were saying. One time a fight broke out in the band room between her and a boy who played the trombone. Maybe she’d just had enough of putting up with our comments. Our sweater-clad band teacher, Mr. Pontrelli, didn’t seem to know how to stop it. He stayed in his chair and called out, “Hey, guys cut it out,” but they ignored him, and the wrestling went on for a long time before fizzling out on its own.

Like the fish in the joke who responds to the statement from another fish, “Water’s nice today, isn’t it?” with the question, “What’s water?” it never occurred to me to question why only boys played brass instruments in my school. Somehow, I believed without knowing why that brass was meant for boys and girls played the flute. How thoughtless we were!

For a bit of context, brass is a family of instruments that includes, in addition to the cornet, the trumpet, French horn, trombone, baritone, and tuba. It’s true that brass instruments are physically demanding—a lot of air has to jet through a tiny hole in the mouthpiece—which may explain why women were not encouraged to play them in the past. Brass was probably seen as too physically demanding and “masculine” for women.

This has changed since I was in school, and we are very fortunate. Today, some of the best brass players are women. From Norway, there’s Tine Ting Helseth, and from the UK, Alison Balsom, both international trumpet stars. Here in the US, we have Mary Elizabeth Bowden who is blazing a trail as an A-list trumpet soloist. On the trombone, we have Megumi Kanda, Shannon Barnett, and Amy Bowers. In jazz, there are many excellent women brass players, including Ingrid Jensen, Andrea Motis, Rita Payes, and Angeleisha Rodgers.

Even in major league symphony orchestras, where men still dominate brass sections, there are signs that women are breaking in to the club. Orchestral players such as Nicole Cash, Amanda Stewart, Rebecca Cherion, and Karen Bliznik are not just members of major orchestras, but also occupy some of the top seats in their sections.

Instrumental music still hasn’t come to a transformational juncture, as sports did in the US with the arrival of Title IX in the early 1970s, but there is hope that more women will excel at brass instrument playing and become mentors to girls and young women.