A Note About Female Role Models in Music

As Kim warms up her flute, preparing for her seventh grade band rehearsal, she looks at the white board behind her teacher’s conducting podium. There she finds the names of the musical selections that will be worked on that day.

And as she puts her music in order for the rehearsal, she notices the composers’ names prominently displayed in the top-right corner of the page.  Names like Larry, James and John. She associates all of those names with old men and wonders if she has ever played a piece of music composed by a woman.

“Maybe girls don’t write band music,” Kim thinks. “Kind of like how boys don’t play flute.”

The band director takes to the podium, raises her conducting baton and the band begins rehearsal as always with a series of exercises and scales. Kim forgets her previous thought and the band director never addresses the topic that entered and left Kim’s mind as a passing whim.

Music teachers may be missing opportunities each day to use their leadership position to shape young minds and transform outdated beliefs, but many of them are already too busy or distracted to notice when those opportunities arise.

In addition, teachers tend to teach in the same manner in which they were taught, which at best leaves little room for innovation, and at worst perpetuates old stereotypes in music, leading to a dearth of gender diversity in some areas, such as composition and jazz education, both of which are still male-dominated fields (McKeage, 2004; O’Bannon, 2016; Costa-Giomi & Marcho, 2018).

Music teachers need leadership training that combines critical reflection, rational discourse and policy praxis. This increases awareness, acknowledgement and action within the field of music education (Brown, 2004); they also need support and resources in order to break free from outdated stereotypes.

All teachers attend professional development (PD) workshops in order to maintain certification, though most school-provided PD is focused on core subjects like math and literacy — but rarely on the arts.  Music teachers are left to sit through these workshops wondering: “What can I take away from this — how does this apply to music?”

With this need in mind, the School of Music at The Ohio State University hosted a free workshop for area music teachers in March of 2019 that focused on the need for increased leadership in the music classroom to facilitate social change. It also provided resources for teachers to take with them back to their own classrooms.

Partially funded by a grant from the Fisher Leadership Initiative at the Max M. Fisher College of Business, as well as funding from the Council of Graduate Students, the workshop titled Leadership from the Podium: Music Directors as Leaders for Social and Curricular Change provided approximately 30 music teachers, students and university faculty with a day of leadership training that included discussions about current research on women composers in professional and educational music and conversations with successful women composers about the challenges and barriers they have faced in their professional careers.

The Ohio State Wind Symphony performed 20 pieces of music from grades 1.5 to 4 composed by six different women, three of whom were onsite for a panel discussion.

Teachers left the workshop asking for even more, prompting School of Music officials to plan yet another workshop for the spring of 2020.

In the meantime, music teachers interested in providing more female role models for their students can find music for their ensembles in a variety of online locations.

Robert Deemer maintains a database at the Institute for Composer Diversity (www.composerdiversity.com) at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Major publishers carry the music of many women such as Ann McGinty, Shelley Hanson, Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larson, Lisa Galvin, Nicole Piunno, Jennifer Jolley, Julie Giroux, Cait Nishimura, Alex Shapiro, Chen Yi, Valerie Coleman, Erica Svanoe and many more.

Knowing about these composers is a first step to providing music students with female role models, which in turn, may help to pave the way for a future in music education with a more balanced landscape of composer diversity.


Brown, K. M. (2004). Leadership for social justice and equity: Weaving a transformative framework and pedagogy. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(1), 77–108. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X03259147

Costa-Giomi, E., & Marcho, T. (2018, October). Music and gender: How the music we play represents (or not) the members of our society. Paper presented as part of the Music and Gender program at the Universidad Nacional de las Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

McKeage, K. M. (2004). Gender and participation in high school and college instrumental jazz ensembles. Journal for Research in Music Education, 52(4), 343-356. https://doi.org/10.1177/002242940405200406

O’Bannon, R. (2016). The 2014-15 orchestra season by the numbers. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. http://www.bsomusic.org/stories/by-the-numbers-female-composers/. Accessed 6/18/2019.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.