Girls play the flute; boys play the trombone

// 11 April 2008

Seriously, single-sex orchestras are the best recommendation people can come up with in their report showing that girls play smaller, higher-pitched instruments and boys have the hefty brasses? How about, I don’t know, working on changing attitudes – as the authorities have been aiming to do with school sport, to the extent that primary-school girls are now happily playing football with the boys – and encouraging girls to try out the beefier instruments while letting boys know it’s equally OK to give the clarinet a go?

I come from a rather biased perspective on this, it’s true. I was always good at music as a kid, and desperately wanted to learn the flute when I was six. But that wasn’t because I thought it was appropriate for me as a little girl (I don’t think I had such opinions – I was already happily going along to football at that age, having made a huge fuss and demanding to be taken) – it was because the flute teacher was also my music teacher, and I thought she was great. (She still is – hello, Mrs Joyce, if you’re reading this!)

Interestingly, my music teacher actually suggested that I give some of the other instruments a go before deciding to take up the flute – in particular, she thought I’d be good at the ‘cello – but I was adamant. So I learned the flute, and did very well. When I started middle school, though, I was given the opportunity to learn a second instrument, and this time I picked the double bass. Don’t ask me why. Once I was reasonable at that, I switched to bass guitar, and spent my teenage years playing bass in lots of bands.

(My younger sister at this time was learning violin and trombone, and she’s much, much more of a girly-girl than I am.)

Since then, I’ve done a bit of flute teaching for pin money, and in the past two years I’ve taught three boys and five girls. They’re all of primary-school age, so I’m willing to believe their attitudes may change when they get to Big School, but I don’t think any of them see the flute as a “girls’ instrument”. More likely, teachers and parents think of the flute as a “girls’ instrument”, and they pass that stereotype on to the children. So, in short, stop it. That would fix this “gender imbalance” (gender. Grrrrrr).

What does anyone else think?

Comments From You

Rachel // Posted 11 April 2008 at 1:37 pm

Like you I’ve always been of a musical disposition – started playing flute at about the age of 7 I think and since then have also played trombone, tenor recorder, piano bass guitar and cello with varying degrees of success. Looking back I’ve never encountered any attitudes along the line of flute being a girl’s instrument and the bigger, lower sounding instruments being more masculine – either from myself or anybody else. The school orchestra I was in also seemed free of discrimination – there seemed to be a pretty equal smattering of boys and girls on all instruments. I’m puzzled as to why somebody would ever think it would be a good idea to start gendering different instruments!

Joanna Moy // Posted 11 April 2008 at 2:21 pm

Hmm, I’m not sure about the previous commenter’s experiences… I too spent a lot of my youth playing in various orchestras, and there definitely did seem to be a gender bias in instrument choice. It wasn’t exclusive, but there were definitely many more girls than boys playing violin, flute, clarinet, and many more boys on brass instruments, cello and double bass etc.

I played the violin myself… although I’d wanted to play cello. When I expressed this desire at the age of 8, I was told that I was too small for a cello and pointed in the direction of the violin instead. I was very small for my age, so perhaps this was true — perhaps even the smallest cello available would have been too big for me, but if violins small enough for a little 8 year old girl exist, why not also cellos?

Samara Ginsberg // Posted 11 April 2008 at 2:55 pm

Joanna, there’s a simple reason for this: small size instruments are bloody expensive. And whilst at the expensive end of the market there is little or no difference in price between violins and cellos, a student-quality cello costs several times as much as a violin. It’s much cheaper to direct small children to a 1/4 size violin than to fork out megabucks for 1/4 size cellos.

I actually used to be a pro cellist, and there is no way in hell I would have been allowed to take up the cello at that age for exactly the same reason – I would have been far too small for the instruments available. I’m 25 now and am still playing a 7/8 size cello!

My personal view on this is that stringed instruments are so bleedin’ difficult to learn in the early stages that it’s not even desirable for most children to start until the age of about 10, when most children would require a 3/4 size instrument at the very smallest.

Joanna Moy // Posted 11 April 2008 at 3:18 pm

Samara, as my parents paid for the 1/4 size violin that I started learning on, it might have been nice if they’d also been given the option to buy me a 1/4 cello as I really wanted, instead of the no-can-do attitude they received.

Anyway, my original point stands, my own experience at County Youth Orchestra level is that the number of girls playing violins/flutes/clarinets far outnumbered the boys, and vice versa for bass and brass instruments.

Eleanor T // Posted 11 April 2008 at 4:34 pm

I played the tuba from the age of seven and had to sit on books to reach the mouthpiece. Baring in mind I was female, fiesty and had ginger hair, I stood out in the various bands and orchestras I played in until the age of twenty. Likewise, my older sister (Hi Alex T!) played the euphonium and trombone and was blonde, blue-eyed and petite. We were quite a pair.

We always thought it was ace sitting in the brass section at the back of a windband or orchestra. Brass bands are one of God’s gifts and you stand a better chance of being given a solo if you play a less in-demand instrument, which makes you a better player. I mean, who wants to be part of the crowd, anyway?

I think we stand a better chance of getting girls to play bad-ass brass and heavy stringed instruments if we encourage them to stand up and be counted as individuals. They shouldn’t be afraid of being unique. If you want to play a small instrument after that, go for it. After all, one mighty tuba blasts the sound of one teeny tiny flute right away so we need lots more of them. It’s not the instrument, per se… it’s the choice you make behind it that matters.

Kathy // Posted 11 April 2008 at 4:41 pm

I can’t comment from personal experience, being utterly devoid of any musical ability, but I was listening to Radio 4’s coverage this morning, thinking “I wonder if someone from The F-Word will bring this up”. I thought The Today Programme did a rather good job there (you can still listen to it on their website). The interviewee, a trumpet player, told that in her experience, the segregation into “boys'” and “girls'” instruments didn’t happen until the age of about twelve, and then this attitude was promoted by the teachers rather than the children themselves. There was mention of a boy who wanted to play the flute only to be told it was “for girls” (you know, when I try to think of famous flautists, the first name that comes to mind is James Galway…)

So yes, I agree: parents and teachers, please stop it.

Stacey // Posted 11 April 2008 at 8:41 pm

I played the trumpet for four years at my secondary school. In that time I was the only girl who was a part of the brass group and the school orchestra. Though brass instruments in my school were not very popular, brass group was one of the only mixed sex groups in my school that was male dominated. When I was twelve I noticed that some people thought it was unusual for a girl to play the trumpet. This did not stop me from playing the trumpet as I continued playing for three years.

I am now teaching myself to play the electric guitar.

Burrow // Posted 12 April 2008 at 2:10 am

Funny that you mention it, but I originally wanted to play the flute. I couldn’t do the mouth thing. So I had to make the hard distinction between the trumpet, the saxamaphone, and the trombone. (Every student in 5th grade was required to play an instrument.) I ended up playing the sax, and eventually moving to the baritone saxaphone, which is the best instrument EVER. I’m so glad I never played the flute.

Alex T // Posted 12 April 2008 at 12:58 pm

Hello, Eleanor T’s older (smaller) sister here.

Yep, I play the euphonium and the trombone and currently play in a 2nd-section (i.e pretty decent) brass band. My arrival 6 months ago meant that every section of the band had at least 1 female member. There are loads of girls and women who play in brass bands (we play at contests so I get a good look at who is in all the other bands) and although it’s not 50/50, I wouldn’t really say that it’s male-dominated. Until, of course, you look at the conductors, adjudicators (judges) and other bigwigs in the banding world and suddenly it’s back to reality, where all the authority figures are men. Grr.

My husband’s a musician, as are most of our friends, and I would say that in orchestras the gender divide definitely exists at school, youth and amateur level. Then things look diffrent as you move up the ranks to the top professional ensembles. All the flutes and harps and violins and oboes are, generally speaking, played by men. Why? Because they are the ones who are successful! Who rise to the top! Who get paid to play! It’s just like cooking. It’s women’s work unless there’s some glory involved: as soon as you look at the top chefs around the world, they are men, surprise, surprise!

chem_fem // Posted 12 April 2008 at 5:30 pm

I played the trumpet and bugle when I was young in the girls brigade of all places. They were really big on having a band and there were girls playing brass instruments and drums.

They are a religious organisation though, so although they promote these instruments to girls it would only be Christian ones (I asume this is still so – I was very young)

Lizzie // Posted 29 April 2008 at 9:31 pm

I have played the flute and oboe from the age of eleven. The oboe is such a minority instrument I can’t see a bias but with the flute it was ridiculous. In my secondary school orchestra there was a grand total of 20 flutes, five times any other instrument. And they were all girls. It even represented the social hierchy as the flute line was dominated by the ‘popular’ group. It was officially the only ‘cool’ and non-geeky instrument to play.

And, Alex T, I completely agree. Just as glass ceilings exist in the job market, the lead parts in professional orchestras are so male dominated it’s hard to believe women play some musical instruments at all.

Also, in rock bands (which I’m heavily involved with) the gender bias seems even more prevalent. One male friend was astounded to the point of speechlessness at the realisation that one all female group could (I quote):

“Look so good and play that well”

Enough said.

teena j // Posted 23 September 2008 at 6:12 pm

As a parent of a six grade girl who has chosen to learn how to play the trombone and has some interest in the tuba, I would like to just counter the comment made by Carrie Dunn back in April, about parents gender stereo-typing instruments and passing that on to their children. I just wanted to say that I have and will always encourage my daughter to do whatever she wants no matter how much society thinks that it is only appropriate for males.This comment is coming from a former flute player who always wished she could play the trumpet. I am very proud of my daughter who happens to be the only girl in her school that plays the trombone.

jess // Posted 29 October 2008 at 9:55 pm

I think that is alode rubbish because i know boys who play flute and i play bass trombone.i play in avon brass band and there is as many girls as boyshope you consider my comment thank you..x

jordan w. // Posted 14 December 2008 at 6:26 am

Well i joined beginner band this year and i fell in love with the trombone!! But every day i seem to get made fun of because i’m a girl who plays the trombone and by the way the only one my band has ever had!! So it makes me mad!!! And i don’t know what to do??

Alex M // Posted 18 November 2009 at 1:49 am

I am 19 years old, in my second year of college, and my major is music performance for the trombone! It is seriously so awesome to tell people you go to college as a girl for the trombone. I look at philharmonics with older people and there is barely one woman in the whole group. I feel like when I go for jobs I will get judged as a girl and a guy will get the job. Either that or they’ll think it’s cool. I feel like the professional music industry is predominately male and it makes me sad.

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