Play Like a Man
About twenty years ago, the first composer to hire me for a professional job said to me, “I like the way you play the piano. You play like a man.”
At the time I was thrilled. Enormously flattered. I knew what he meant. He meant I was strong, that I attacked the keys with passion and energy, that I could be loud, that I had command of the instrument. I immediately drew a picture in my head of the kind of “girly” piano player he meant and I was glad I was not one of them. Those girls are afraid to dig in and play with their muscles. Their fingers lightly dust the keys. They play fluidly, yes, but gently, as if they are hoping you don’t really notice them.
One of the most visceral memories I have from growing up in the South is the sound of my mother’s voice correcting me. “Georgia, that’s not ladylike.” It might have referred to the way I was sitting or the way I was eating or something impolite I was saying about someone else. But “ladylike” meant “elegant,” “mannered,” and “appropriate.” It did not mean “ferocious.”
That composer who gave me my first job remains a friend of mine and he’s anything but sexist. The concept, however, that playing like a man is better than playing like a woman, has burned itself into my brain and I am only now starting to become aware of its implications. As the years have gone by, I’ve revisited his words a lot, and I have come to understand that that composer’s bias echoes my own. Clearly he didn’t create a bias in me, but he seems to have called it to the surface and forced me to name it.
To be honest, my friend the composer is a pretty aggressive pianist himself, and he writes bombastic solo lines and chords so big that I have to stretch my hands out to play them. I think it’s possible that what he meant to say was, “I like the way you play the piano, because you play like ME.” That would have been a great compliment. But that’s not what he said, and his chosen words have lived on in my psyche. Here’s how they manifest: I am constantly fighting against the bias that men are better musicians than women. I fight it prominently out in the world, I fight it quietly among my peers, and I even fight it, secretly, in myself.
Is it possible for a woman to be biased against women? Seems illogical. In fact, I think in many cases I actually prefer working with women. Let’s make a bunch of generalizations that are basically true: women listen. They multi-task. They have easy access to their empathy. But consider this: if someone submits to me a list of ten composers I don’t know, I look at the men’s names and wonder why I haven’t heard of them. Who are these guys? Where did they go to school? How did they get on this list? What scores have they written, and have I ever heard their music? If there are women’s names on the list– and that’s a big if– I’ll look at their credits and their references, and then I’ll think, “Huh. Prove it.”
What is that? What makes the first-response noise in my brain beep those words out at me? A fellow female composer once remarked that she didn’t understand why we composers were such a back-stabby lot of egoists. “After all,” she said, and I remember it clear as day, “there’s room for all of us to succeed.” But that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Is there room for all of us to succeed? What if there isn’t?
In the last few years The Lilly Awards Foundation (of which I am a Board Member) has sponsored The Count, a statistical analysis of who’s getting produced in American theater. The shocking national average is that only 22% of the theater made in this country is made by women. So that means that on every list of ten theater composers who are up for a job, roughly two of them will be female. I’m the female composer who plays piano like a man. But if that’s what you’re looking for, you could also just hire a man.
No wonder we are competitive! On that particular list, it’s nearly impossible for someone like me to be viewed as a “composer.” I’m a “female composer,” and as such, a novelty. A statistic. A risk, even. You might have also noticed in our national theater the dearth of black composers or Asian-American composers. According to The Count, white males create nearly 63% of the theater in this country, which means the rest of us are fighting to fill those 3 to 4 available spots on any given list of ten.
I’m not anti-establishment. I’m not anti-men. I’m not anti-white-men. But that majority of not-me kinds of people does have a tendency to make actual-me invisible. The fear of being invisible is a constant truth in the ambitious person’s life. Let’s be honest: the only thing worse than getting a bad review is getting a review where your work isn’t even noticed. Maybe that fear of invisibility is why I play the piano so loudly, so aggressively, so “like a man.” It’s okay. I’ve been at this long enough that I know I don’t REALLY play like a man. I play like a woman, and I write like a woman, and I think like a woman and I maneuver my way through this business like a woman. But I’m still working on the part where I worry that you’ll find me un-ladylike.
I want to redefine that word. In fact, I want to admit, to myself and to my poor mother who certainly never meant any offense, that I don’t give a shit about being ladylike. But that, in itself, is unladylike. And to the best of my knowledge, there’s no (positive) word that describes a woman who is strong, ambitious, visible, commanding AND polite. The only word I can come up with is “ballsy,” and I actually can’t be that.
Until we change the language, how can we expect to change the culture? A woman I greatly admire told me recently that the trick to raising daughters was to get them through college without breaking their spirit. I think about it all the time. I try to teach my daughters manners without requiring them to be “ladylike.” If I had a son I’d want him to have manners, too. And if these children of mine were pianists, I’d want my daughters to play boldly just as much as I’d want my sons to play sensitively. What’s the word for that?
Georgia Stitt (composer/lyricist) is currently writing the musicals Snow Child for Arena Stage (Washington, DC) and Big Red Sun for 11th Hour Theatre (Philadelphia). Other shows include Tempest Rock with Hunter Foster, The Danger Year, Mosaic and the commissioned children’s musical Samantha Space, Ace Detective, co-written with Lisa Diana Shapiro for TADA Youth Theater in NYC. Georgia has released three albums of her music: This Ordinary Thursday, Alphabet City Cycle and My Lifelong Love. She music directs concerts and recordings for singers like Laura Benanti, Kate Baldwin, Elena Shaddow, Susan Egan and Robert Creighton, and she writes quite a bit of choral music, including an upcoming oratorio for Tituss Burgess. www.georgiastitt.com