Relatively recently, I wrote a paper exploring the potential gendered implications of the marimba. This paper was formally for a class I was taking, but informally something I had been wanting to look in to for quite a while. I’ll be posting about the marimba/percussion and gender in various installments. I believe the issue is too big, and too complex to discuss in one blog entry. Well, one entry that any person who isn’t me would actually read the whole way through.
A few years ago at the annual Percussive Arts Society International Conference (PASIC), I had the stark realization that I am a minority in my field. To many of you, this is probably obvious, but to me, I think I couldn’t see what I didn’t want to. Long story short, I am an avid promoter of new music. And so, like any overly zealous, naïve young percussionist, I thought it’d be a great idea to attend the New Music Research Committee meeting. I walked into the room with another female colleague and we doubled the amount of women in the room, not that that really did much for the ratio has a whole. Needless to say, this experience alongside many similar ones throughout my budding career led me to ponder why the percussion field still seemed so heavily male-dominated. Then I realized where all the women are. They’re playing marimba. This is of course hyperbole, but relevant nonetheless.
I’m still fine tuning aspects of the paper and my research, but I thought I’d put this idea out here now that I’ve had some time to sift through the available literature and my thoughts as well. In my paper, I focused on the issue of gender and the marimba through the critical reception of Paul Creston’s Concertino for Marimba and the social climate in America at the time. I feel the attitude surrounding the marimba was, and to an extent continuing today is, that it was/is a woman’s instrument. There are potentially many reasons for this. One being how closely related the marimba is to other historically feminine instruments. I also believe that the way in which the physicality required to play the marimba puts the body on display may have led to females being directed to this instrument to be viewed by the male gaze. I discuss the complicated issue of gender more thoroughly in the essay, but for now I think I’d like you to consider some of the following evidence regarding not necessarily the concertino, but gender and percussion playing in general in the early 20th century.
“. . . but this should not discourage them by any means from the profession of drumming, for there are many other engagements open which are a good deal easier from a physical standpoint.” –George Lawrence Stone, “For Ladies Only,” Jacobs Orchestra Monthly 8 (1923): 91.
There are numerous examples of the thought that the “tender” sex could not physically create the necessary sounds on drums. One such example is in the words above from percussionist George Lawrence Stone in an article from 1923. Stone went on to suggest that one of the open engagements appropriate for women was marimba performance. In the early 20th century, the thought of a woman playing an instrument that required so much physical exertion was presumed unattractive.
In a 1931 ad for Deagan, one of the first marimba manufacturers:
“This impressive stage setting featuring thirteen Deagan Xylophones is the finale of ‘Tune Types.’ Critics pronounced it one of the most striking and entertaining finales of the year. Thousands of Chicago theater-goers were thrilled by the spectacular tonal effect of a 13-piece Xylophone band—yet these twelve Abbott girls spent only five and a half hours in practice. Could any proof be more convincing that the Xylophone is the easiest of all musical instruments to play?”
Discovering the impression that the instrument requires little skill to make a desirable sound was an enlightening moment for me in my research. Although, I’m not entirely sure now. Non-percussionists walk up to my instruments all the time, pick up the closest sticks/mallets and start playing. I wonder what would happen if I went up to one of my wind or string-playing colleagues, picked up they’re flute/trumpet/violin/oboe/you get the point, and just started playing. On some level, I find the accessibility of percussion one of it’s most beautiful aspects, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that people find it “easy.”
Oh dear, I have digressed. Let me return to the subject at hand. It is interesting how these remarks on the simplicity of playing the instruments constrain the performer, who was often female. As will be seen in a later post, critical reviews of the concertino were generally complimentary. However, when said compliments are trapped under the guise of an instrument that “plays itself,” as one critic said, are they really compliments?
The “all girl ensemble” aspect of this ad will be discussed in a later entry, as that is a problematic notion all to itself. I can’t resist providing the following quote and video for you to ponder though…
“smart, good-looking girls, who can play real good music and, at the same time, display good figures and bare legs.”
Musser was not the only person promoting all female marimba ensembles. Perhaps more famous in the public sphere, but not hailed so unequivocally as Musser was “Reg Kehoe and his Marimba Queens.” The importance of appearance in this ensemble can be understood through the above quotation from Kehoe himself regarding the success of the ensemble. And now, for your viewing pleasure (interpret THAT however you please), a video of the Marimba Queens:
I’ll just…I’ll just let that sit there…
Once I have this essay cleaned up, and in a place in which I’m comfortable putting it out into the world, I’ll be sure to post it on here. In the meantime, I’d love get some sort of dialogue going on the issue. Do you see this occurrence in your own studios/musical atmospheres? Do you feel you may have been steered towards towards a certain instrument in percussion, or ANY kind of musical performance? Or maybe, do you think this is a non-issue that I should just drop? Let me know your thoughts, regardless of the gender by which you identify yourself.
 D. Antoinette Handy, Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras (Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998), 204.
 “Clair Omar Musser,” Percussive Notes, 37, No. 2 (April 1999): 14.
 Eyler, David P.. “Development of the Marimba Ensemble in North American During the 1930’s.” Percussive Notes 34, No.1 (February 1996): 66-71.