The first women who performed in orchestral settings were harpists who were substitute or extra players specifically hired for works requiring harp, such as Gustav Mahler’s symphonies or Maurice Ravel’s La Valse (c. 1919). It was not until flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer won the principal flute position in the BSO in 1952 that a woman was hired as a principal player of a major US orchestra. Following Dwyer’s lead, more women slowly earned their acceptance in professional orchestras. Focusing on the time period 1920-1950, three of the first pioneers who gained acceptance into American orchestras and were the first female orchestral players were flutists Doriot Anthony Dwyer, Lois Schaefer, and Frances Blaisdell. These women lived extraordinary lives and have inspired many generations of female flutists to continue in their footsteps pursuing their own orchestral and professional solo careers. One significant factor for the eventual increase of female musicians in the modern orchestra was the establishment of blind auditions. A blind audition is where a player performs behind a screen for an audition committee to preserve anonymity. Screens can be made of heavy cloth or a room divider that separates the player from the panel of orchestra members critiquing potential hires. This can often include the music director and other musicians. The screen conceals each player’s identity and allows the panel to focus their listening on how a candidate actually sounds versus how they may look and act while playing. Limiting stimuli to aural perception would help to mitigate bias or prejudice against race, gender, or age through the audition process.
This study summarizes survey responses on perceived challenges by conductors who a) identify as female, b) are not citizens of the United States, c) are currently living in the United States, and d) are working in professional positions in the field of orchestral conducting. The goal of the survey was to query the concept of “double minority” (female and non-native to the United States) and to gain insight into the conductors’ self-perceptions and perceived challenges they encounter during their employment and career advancement in the United States.
The survey covered four main areas: educational background, immigration status, the employing orchestra or organization’s budget, and conductors’ challenges and perceptions. Considering the sensitivity of the topic and following best practices of human subjects’ research, participant identities were coded with letters.
Participants expressed more certainty about the issues and challenges concerning how they were perceived as females than as immigrants. There was insufficient data to correlate the budget of the orchestra with the willingness of the institution to be a visa sponsor.
This study’s findings suggest that there are areas that should be further explored such as: the effect a conductor’s nationality has on their career and reception in the United States; how potential motherhood affects the conductors’ careers; organizations’ willingness and ability to hire immigrants, offer sponsorship, and assist the artist in the transition out of the student visa status; and the perceptions and experiences of being an immigrant conductor in the United States.