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BAN BAM: Talking Music

Ian Patterson By

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What sort of changes, Hartman asked, can be made to improve the gender balance in jazz, and indeed across all music genres? For Barratt, the way the music is taught could be significantly refined to foster greater gender balance. "It is definitely the pedagogy; you have to take away the Alphaness out of it and make it a much more relaxed environment. That Alpha culture is a turn-off for creativity."

A subject that arose repeatedly on the panel is the importance of female role models. In Dublin, in the summer of 2016, Bottone helped launch the summer school Girls Rock, Dublin, part of a global movement that operates in over a hundred cities. At these week-long camps girls and young women can study vocals, guitar, bass, synthesizer and drums. They form bands, write songs and at the end of a week play a gig. What's amazing about these camps is that no previous musical experience is necessary. "It's kind of crazy and that's why it's exciting," says Bottone.

"Only by showing that anything can be done by either a man or a woman can you really change the perception. If you've never seen a sound engineer who is a woman you will maybe never think 'Oh, maybe I will go and study that.' That's why we do it."

Girls Rock Dublin has already born fruit, with some of the girls since starting their own bands. One has gone to the music college BIMM to study music while another, Rosella relates, has gone on to Sound Training College. The relaxed environment that Barratt mentioned as being essential is clearly a factor in the success of Girls Rock camps. "The discomfort of being outnumbered, like in most summer camps wasn't there," says Bottone. "It was a safe space starting from a completely different level."

In his role as a music teacher at Headford Music Works in Galway, Matthew Berrill leads the Youth Jazz Ensemble, which as could be seen at the Galway Jazz Festival 2016 has a healthy gender balance. In recent years the jazz ensemble has had two female drummers as well as female trombonist and trumpeters, though Berrill admits that this has not been by conscious design. "It's easy to have that safe space in a second level institution like a secondary school because they haven't chosen to be there—they're there already. It's very easy to be relaxed in that environment and do whatever."

The issue of gender imbalance raises its head above the parapet for all to see when it comes time for students to make a decision about third level (university, college) study. "I see that a lot of the girls have gone on to do classical music or have gone into teacher training," says Berrill. "Very few have gone on into improvised music or jazz per se. It's a challenge to encourage that as just as viable an option as going for your classical degree or teacher-training."

Hartman and IMC have carried out research in Ireland on this issue. They found that at Leaving Cert (the final school examination for students aged 18) 70% of music students are female but that in third level jazz courses females make up only 8% of students. The security of a state-funded teaching job or a career in classical music appear to be the preferred options. "There's not the security in being a freelance musician," says Berrill, and maybe it's easier for a male to make that decision, although it's hard regardless of gender."

Barratt has long liaised with jazz festivals, asking them to do more to champion women in their programmes. The festivals are, she says, in close contact with the conservatories, and keep an eye on female musicians in the hope that they'll be ready for such a public stage whenever their projects are fully developed. As often as not, however, the female students drop out, or on graduating then give up the notion of pursuing a career in jazz. It's a frustration for Barratt: "Why not take risks? Why not throw caution to the wind?"

The answer to that may lie partly in the lack of opportunities presented to women while they are studying. Hartman makes the point that young men habitually ask each other to play in their respective bands but that women are more often than not ignored. Discouraged, they drop out. Why this bias against female jazz/improvising musicians? The panel members agree that the bias at work is unconscious.

Hartman relates anecdotally how a lot of female jazz musicians in Dublin make the same observation that whenever they go to jam sessions or gigs in order to network the conversations about music that the guys are having change as soon as they arrive. Barratt gives the example of the jam session culture at Ronnie Scotts in London, where female jazz musicians who have been there from early in the evening don't get called up to jam whereas guys who arrive much later are called up within half an hour of arriving. "The next day they'll get 'Oh we're sorry we didn't call you up it was so busy.'"


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