The Professional Female Brass Player: Are We Novelties or Novelty Items?

by Mary Galime

If you Google the top 10 most famous brass players in history, you will find that not one female has made the list. However, you can’t deny that the top ten are true novelties of trumpet history. Maurice Andre, Wynton Marsalis, Louis Armstrong, Bud Herseth – these guys are all beloved novelties of the brass world that influenced generations of trumpet players. We look at them not as a gender but a quality:  “That one that can do it all”…”The best pic trumpet player”… “I’ve transcribed all of his jazz solos”… “Orchestral deity”… All these novelties have transcended gender because history has allowed them to, but this has not been the case for female brass players. We have been reminded at every step of the way that we are, in fact, female and we do, in fact, play a brass instrument. However, this mentality is in the decline. We’re seeing international recording artists such as Alison Balsom, Tine Thing Helseth, orchestral musician Carol Jantsch, and others, who yes, it is noted that they are female, but they have transcended the roles of gender, and the world focuses on the music they are playing and how they are playing it. 

They each have their own story of how they got there. However, I want to talk about how they didn’t get there. They are now novelties of the brass world, but how did they keep themselves from becoming a novelty shop item? When I Googled its meaning, these two definitions popped up for the word Novelty: 

1. The quality of being new, original, or unusual 

2. A small and inexpensive toy ornament 

The first is referring to a quality that brings meaning and is remembered. The second is referring to something that is cheaply bought, and momentarily appreciated. Because of the precarious position our gender places us in  the brass world, we ride a fine line between these two definitions and need to be careful not to fall on the wrong side. I personally have had to ride this line for years as a trumpet player, and as one of the very few females working in the music business manufacturing and marketing industry. Here are some examples of mistakes I’ve made or watched other women suffer along the way. 

Join the Pack Studies have shown men to be a little more limitless and ruthless in their competition, and women tend to be a bit more thoughtful and calculating about it (Check out this article... Very interesting!). We are all great competitors, but our styles are different.  When I want to win, I calculate and organize for the path of least resistance, prepare to ensure my chances, and then go for the win. That is my style and it’s established in my sections and my workplace. The guys are not expecting me to be one of the guys, they’re expecting me to be Mary who will join in with their prank war, or raise my eyebrow at their current antic, and will strategize the crap out of my next business event and secure the win to the best of my abilities. 

So are you part of the team or following the pack? 

Are you joining every competition to keep up with the pack or because you love it? A lot of times women feel like they need to become part of the pack, one of the guys, and do what the pack does in order to be accepted into it. However, trying to be one of the guys sets an expectation that you are in fact one of the guys. The minute you bow out or let them know something went too far, you get pushed out, and the pack rejects you. Or, you are not functioning on your strengths, you’re functioning on someone else’s so you weaken yourself, lag behind and get devoured (watch the nature channel for a good example of what happens to those who lag in the pack!). It is not enough to just be yourself. You need to find your competitive style and establish it so that you and your team knows where you fit, and how to respect it. 

The Beauty Queen “When you’ve got it, flaunt it.” I swear, I can hear some women singing this song from The Producers as they prance around some of the conventions I go to. Let me remind all of us brass player beauties out there that this is great advice for the stage, for the show! A show begins at a specific time, and while you may not know how long the show is, you know it has a finite ending.

I’ve seen women in performance and business who make themselves “the show” in every opportunity to promote themselves quickly. They talk to only the guys in the room, they draw constant attention to themselves, there is a flurry of drama surrounding them, and they get the instant attention, some gigs, and some opportunities. There is a definite and expected beginning to their popularity in this circle, but in nearly every case I’ve seen, there is a finite ending. It’s a façade that everyone figures out. When you take on this role, you have to keep it up because you established your relationship in those parameters. Most teams don’t have patience for “the show” for the long term. It lasts a few months, but then “the show” gets fired or pushed out. What does the team want?  Stability, confidence, and, above all, reliability. Legally Blonde has always been one of my favorite movies. Elle Woods was always “the show” growing up, and when she gets to Harvard, “the show” gets pushed out, and her abilities must take the forefront. Does she still dress the part of the show, Yes. Does she still do what she loves, Yes. But she has to establish her style of competition, her stability as a person, her confidence in her abilities, and above all, that she is reliable to the team. So ladies, you are a competitive force, but you must define for yourself and everyone else in how you compete. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, but not at the expense of the reputation of your abilities. I have, and you will, make mistakes along the way that momentarily made you “the show,” or they make you a pack follower, but if your goal is to establish yourself and your style, these mistakes will never be debilitating. Be wise and use those thoughtful, calculating senses that nature has blessed us with!

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