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The Maestra Speech for the 2019 Lilly Awards

by Georgia Stitt

I had what I can actually call a life-changing experience two years ago when I was working as the music director for the Off-Broadway production of SWEET CHARITY. Mary-Mitchell Campbell was orchestrating the show, and our director, Leigh Silverman, asked us to hire an all-female band. It turned out to be REALLY hard. The contractors’ knowledge of female players was very limited. We were down to the wire and were literally googling “female guitarist, NYC” when a friend of a friend recommended someone. I called this woman at 7 am and asked if she could show up to sight-read for a band rehearsal that started in three hours. She scrambled to get a babysitter (of course), and as soon as she started playing, she had the job. Later, she said to me, “I’ve been trying to get into orchestra pits for years, but I just couldn’t get hired.”

Around the same time, female composers were telling me they didn’t know any other female composers. Female grad students told me there were no women composers in their curriculum. And because of SWEET CHARITY, more and more people were asking me for my own recommendations. What we were missing was a sense of community. So… I had a party. I invited every female, non-binary, and gender non-conforming composer I knew who was working in musical theater. Thanks to Kara Unterberg at The New York SongSpace, we had plenty of wine.

I’ve now hosted that party once a month for two years, and it has turned into a THING. Like, and official, not-for-profit thing. We named ourselves MAESTRA – because when I type that word into my computer, it auto-corrects to MAESTRO! In New York City alone, we now have 130 female composers on our roster. Our national group has over 500 female Music Directors and there’s a spinoff in the UK

Inspired by The Count, Maestra is now looking into the statistics of who’s getting hired to write the scores, conduct the bands, and play in the orchestra pits. Here’s a rough snapshot so far of the statistics culled by our volunteers from several public sources. 

Women make up 22% of Broadway orchestras. Those are the chair-holders, not the subs. But 24% of all Broadway shows in the last four years had NO women in the pit. That’s 1 in 4. And another 14% had only one. So that means over a third of the shows on Broadway in the last 4 years had, at most, one woman in the pit.

Also: the hiring is so gendered…. it’s the harps and strings that are pulling up the numbers. But for drummers? In the last eight years, out of 98 available jobs, TWO went to women – and those were both shows that consciously employed all-female bands. Still: thank you Tom Kitt at HEAD OVER HEELS and Ron Melrose at SUMMER for hiring women! And even though girls outnumber boys at every childhood piano recital, on Broadway women hold only 11% of the keyboard jobs. Guitarists are 4%! Trumpeters are 2%! Reed players are 5% — and that includes Flutes! Clarinets! Oboes! The “girly” instruments. AND… guess what? There is a pay gap which exists within every single instrument group. Women have the lower-paying, lower-prestige jobs as usual. 

There’s been one female orchestrator on Broadway in the last decade. There’s been one sound designer. And Music Contractors? Zero. There are currently zero women on Broadway in positions to hire the musicians.

OK, but here’s the good news: now has an online Directory with hundreds of members who have the skill sets and the experience to do these jobs. We’ve built a timeline showcasing every Broadway show that has a score composed by a woman. You know how many there have been, ever? 39. Which means if you produced all of the Broadway shows composed by women in the same season, you’d still have two empty houses.

MAESTRA, THE LILLYS, AND ALL OF YOU are going to change these numbers! So many women have written shows, and their shows will have women producers, women on the stage, women backstage and in the orchestra pits… and maybe we’ll even hire some men, too.

Thank you.

7 thoughts on “The Maestra Speech for the 2019 Lilly Awards

  1. This is AWESOME and I don’t know how I hadn’t heard about this until now!! I AM A FEMALE PERCUSSIONIST and a native New Yorker, and even though I’ve held a Principal Percussion job in a European orchestra for over 27 years, I’ve subbed on 4 Broadway shows during 2 leaves of absence from my orchestra job, 2 of them thanks to Joe Passaro (Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid), so he totally deserves a shout-out! Also Javier Díaz, who hired me for Guys and Dolls (I also played West Side Story). Please let me know how to find out about these parties and I’ll definitely go when I’m in NY (I’m in town pretty often)!! So glad MAESTRA exists!! Bravi!!

  2. These stats are missing essential data in order to draw the conclusions that this article draws.

    How many available and qualified females were available for a given position were there? How many qualified female orchestrators were there that didn’t get hired? How many qualified female drummers were available that were not hired? This article also keeps merit completely out of it’s discussion.

    Music is difficult because it is inherently subjective, but elements such as accuracy, time, appropriate style, and intonation are measurable in assessing someone’s merit. If we go for quotas, merit and quality can suffer.

    The best musicians should get the jobs, period.

  3. Hi, Bob. I have the stats. I didn’t include all of them in my speech but they’re available if you’re willing to dig through the data on the websites for the Musician’s Union, the IBDB, Wikipedia, and the Broadway League. For example, since 2011 there have been 113 shows on Broadway with 1439 chairs. 22% of those chairs were held by women (318 total). And as to your questions about availability and merit, well, take a peek around the Directory on this site and see if you are impressed by anyone’s resume. Meanwhile, I’ll try not to be offended that you mansplained “music is difficult” to me.

  4. Bob’s comment perpetuates a sad perspective that has been around for years. It is assumed that a woman does not have the chops to do the job until she proves otherwise, while a man is assumed to have the chops to do the job unless he proves otherwise. Yes indeed Bob, music is difficult.

  5. Bob, do you think that the best musicans currently get the jobs? If so, can you explain how/why you know this to be a fact?

  6. The best musicians get the jobs when you have auditions that are completely sanitized. The orchestral model of auditions works to an extent, but bias can come when the screen is brought down for the final round of auditions.

    Here’s the answer:

    Fully screened auditions for all instrumentalists, with no discussion on the committee, voting only.

    It’s noone’s goal to kill merit, but quotas kill merit. We already went through this argument in the ’70’s with affirmative action. Not only that, but if one were to hire based on one of the EEOC protected characteristics, it diminishes that person’s REAL ability. It then becomes VERY easy to say, well, X person was hired because they are a “minority”, not because they are a great musician, even though they might very well be a GREAT musician.

    Bob’s comment does not assume that a woman does not have the chops to get a job in music until she proves otherwise. It assumes that the PERSON with the BEST chops should get the job, regardless of which “diversity” box they check. The conversation needs to shift back to musical skills and musicianship.

    1. I’m going to argue that sometimes the best person for the job is not necessarily the one who gave the best audition behind a screen. Especially when you’re staffing a pit, you’re creating a work environment — and who shows up to work every day matters. When you’re working at the top of your game, there are usually a few choices of players who would be excellent, and indeed, arguing who is the “best” becomes subjective. I agree that quotas are problematic. But I think the opposite of what you’re saying is actually the solution. It’s not that we should isolate out musicianship and hire in a vacuum. It’s that we have to look at the whole player and contemplate what adding that person to the band would do for the sound, the environment of the company, the industry as a whole, and the next generation of musicians who watch to see whether or not there is space for them here.

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