After my first trip to IWBC last year, I wrote a little round-up of my experiences there. I kept it pretty top-level, sticking mostly to safe topics and general stories. The plan was always to dive back into certain things in more depth, but I decided I wanted to wait and make sure I still felt the way I did some time later. The post kept getting delayed, and now it’s been a year. On the upside, I do feel identically now to how I felt last May, so while we’re all still stuck inside, we might as well talk about it.
I love IWBC because it is an opportunity to connect with my sisters (though, now that I’m out as queer, I’ll have to reexamine my place in it all), but the first thing I noticed after arriving was “wow, look at all the men.” Sure, there were a shit ton of women, but the gender binary that first day was balanced shockingly close to 50/50. I recognized a nontrivial amount of them: friends, colleagues, classmates, respected teachers. The night of the opening festivities, I made the rounds, checking in with old friends and making new ones.
By day three of the conference, almost all of those men were gone. Because what happened first? The mock audition.
Before we go any further, let me contextualize this for y’all. I don’t particularly believe in the empty promises of orchestra jobs—I never have. I also have very little personal investment in orchestras as institutions, since the vast majority of them actively perpetuate inequality in their programming choices. On a good day, I’m not a big fan, as a composer or a performer. But I also understand that performance students are continually sold those highly-coveted section positions as a first-choice career path, so I get hosting a mock audition; it’s a great incentive for folks who might otherwise be on the fence about attending.
Interestingly, I love proctoring mock auditions, though that’s mostly because the composer in me is endlessly fascinated by what passages performers struggle with and why. So when IWBC asked for volunteer proctors, I jumped at the chance, even though it meant being at the music building by 7am. I didn’t get put with the trumpets—bass trombones or tubas, I think?—but that morning was an endless source of entertainment and good conversation. (I’m the proctor who will try to put you at ease and send you in feeling your best.)
Unsurprisingly, there were men taking every audition and men on most, if not all, panels. A good chunk of the prize pool went to men. And then they disappeared.
And that’s what I don’t like.
Because you know what they missed out on? Nearly every presentation and performance. The meat of IWBC. Virtually all the content by or about women in our field or writing for our instruments. Dozens upon dozens of men decided they’d happily try to take money our side competition was offering up even though they weren’t actually going to give a shit about why we were assembling in the first place. They were going to network with men and interview men for their podcasts and bask in the presence of people exactly like them, people who never have to struggle to see themselves represented in our fields. They were going to further their own careers while outright ignoring why we were all in the same place to begin with.
None of them have to wait two years every time they want to have access to more than a small handful of people who look like they do. At the same time, none of them seem to think they might learn things from a room full of women* that they might not otherwise. None of them thought it might be important, or powerful, or life-changing, to see the Athena Brass Band and understand for the first time what a room full of women at the top of their game can come together to accomplish.
They showed up, they played, they got the T-shirt, and they went home. (Veni, vidi, vici?)
Don’t get me wrong—throughout our industry, conference attendance is prohibitively expensive. It’s a barrier to justice and equality that needs to be addressed wherever and whenever possible. But my sympathy for more-privileged folks in these situations is limited at best. Yes, that conference cost me several hundred dollars, and I didn’t have far to travel. But it’s the one opportunity every seven-hundred-some-odd days to congregate and honor women’s contributions to brass playing and repertoire, and though the price of sisterhood directly correlates to the cost of attendance, we aren’t the only ones who can benefit immensely from close proximity to many, many women and femme folks. Every man in the brass world—hell, every man in music—should have mentors and role models and inspirations of as many genders as you can find. But even if you start from the binary, you should AT LEAST have women in those roles. If you don’t, you’re probably not the artist—or human—you could be.
And yes, it can suck to shell out a few hundred bucks for a conference where you don’t totally know what you’re getting into. Which is why you should ask the women in your circles about it instead of buddying up with your guyfriends and expecting to get a fair description from them.
And then you should come with us—for the whole week, if you can swing it. I promise we’re pretty cool.
And our contributions to the art form are absolutely worth it.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.