Our collaboration with Her Ensemble and The state 51 Conspiracy is live and we are so excited to share this project with you.
When we first came across Her Ensemble, we instantly knew that this was a group that we wanted to work with. They are the UK’s first all-female and non-binary string ensemble who are passionate about diversifying your knowledge of classical repertoire, and performing pieces by the women who you may not have heard of in your traditional classical music education – something that resonates perfectly with the RSL Classical Violin syllabus.
In collaboration with state51, we had the pleasure of having some of the RSL Classical Violin syllabus performed by Her Ensemble. After taking the solo violin part from the syllabus, group leader Ellie Consta arranged the rest of the ensemble parts and the end product is a stunningly beautiful set of performances. Be sure to give them a watch in the link below.
On top of their fantastic performances, we talked to the group about their experiences as female and non-binary musicians in the classical music industry to get an insight into what progress can be made so the industry is as accessible as possible for all future generations of musicians.
Without further ado, here is Part 1 of our interview with Her Ensemble!
So, tell us about your experience growing up being a female/non-binary musician!
Natalia | she/her | violin | @thetaliasb
My journey as a musician has been an unexpected one - it went from me being adamant as a teenager that I wasn't going to be a classical musician, to getting all my qualifications as one, whilst having big periods of changing my decision on the road to becoming a professional. I think coming from a non-classical background and learning the 'traditionally classical' way (which can be very daunting and high pressure at times) had me constantly unsure for a few years of whether it was for me - on top of that being a female/non-male can also be disheartening when sometimes you see and feel the way some rules seem to be different. I definitely feel that the support of my family and friends, and finding out that learning 'classically' doesn't mean you have to always play classical music, has made it a much better and meaningful journey to being the musician that I am today.
Lizzie | she/her | harp | @elizabethbassharp
I feel very lucky to be working as a musician and to have had the opportunities I have had both in terms of my education and professional experiences. I do feel however that there are many aspects to working life as an independent artist/musician that have been much more difficult and stressful as a female. Particularly when I was starting out as a professional I felt a desperate need to be taken seriously, worried a lot about my appearance and image - is this too much makeup? Maybe heels are inappropriate for a rehearsal? Is this skirt too short? And how that might impact how others viewed me as a musician, and constantly feeling like I wasn’t being perceived as ‘strong’ or ’confident’ enough. I had been warned by professionals growing up that I should be wary of people in positions of authority taking advantage of me as being a harpist I am often alone, at the side of the orchestra and when I was starting out, often didn’t know anyone. I felt extremely aware of my youth as something which made me seem inadequate and feeble and felt I had to be ready for conductors to pick on me because it would be easy to assume a young woman on her own at the side of the orchestra is the root of the problem. I remember conductors making jokes about me “being as pretty as my solo” and sometimes people openly compared me to harpists who had previously been in a role that I was being trialled for, saying that they would have thrown their weight about more and kicked up more of a fuss about non-musical matters. I felt like I was too nice but also feared speaking out too much and thus appearing bossy or ‘diva-ish’. It goes without saying that musicians and self-employed artists in particular have to learn to stand up for themselves, be resilient and quickly learn from mistakes but I can’t help but feel like the constant feeling of being too weak/small/amiable as opposed to strong/opinionated/clearly a ‘leader’ is something that women in particular experience.
Lucía | she/her | double bass | @luciapolo
Growing up as the only female double bass player in my conservatoire in Spain was really hard. I felt like I didn’t fit into the stereotype of a bass player (a man). During the first few years of learning, I met another female bassist, but people would say that she was "too feminine and too weak” to play the bass properly, which made me feel like I had to be “more manly” to be seen and respected. This came with its consequences, as I always felt comfortable as a woman, but the societal and musical stereotypes only viewed being a woman as a delicate thing. I was often asked why I wanted to play such an unladylike instrument and people would question why I hadn’t picked a more ‘feminine’ instrument like the flute or the violin. I found this extremely hurtful and confusing as a child, not only because instruments don’t have a gender, but it also made me question if I belonged in the right body because I liked and chose more ‘masculine’ things that I wasn’t supposed to like.
Through time I met some wonderful female teachers that tried to empower me the best way they could, but in retrospect I can see how they were also victims of their time. I remember talking to my first female bass teacher a few years ago and she told me she was always harder on me than with the rest of the boys at the time, because she knew life was always going to be harder for me as a woman in the industry. I also just took for granted things like sexist remarks/jokes and harassment because I assumed that this was just part of the reality of being a female bass player in the industry and something I just had to deal with. I will always carry these experiences with me, but thanks to having met so many other wonderful female and non-binary double bassists I feel much more understood, as we share similar experiences.
Ellie | she/her | violin | @ellieconsta
I’ve been really lucky to have had some wonderful musical experiences growing up. However, in hindsight I can see that I wasn’t really aware of a lot of the sexism around me at the time. I think I often held back unnecessarily because I didn’t want to take up too much space or come across as too much. I remember teachers commenting on other female students’ appearances (they never really did with the boys), commenting that they wore too much make-up or had unfavourably dyed hair or directly comparing my appearance to them. Nail varnish/piercings/tattoos/brightly dyed hair were seen as unprofessional and there was an implication that you were of a lower/unfavourable class. I remember at music college, a girl in my class shaved her head and the teacher sent her out.
Unfortunately, a lot of these assumptions have fed through into the profession. For example, in some orchestras, it’s still deemed inappropriate for women to show their shoulders and ankles because of the sexualisation of women’s bodies, and often dress codes are different for men and women, but completely overlook the existence of non-binary people. I remember being told to cover my ankles as young as 12.
It also seems outrageous to say out loud, but the first time I played a piece of music written by a woman was when I was 23, and it wasn’t until last year (26) that I realised I could only name a handful of female composers. Embarrassingly, I assumed Boulanger was a man until last year because I had only ever studied music written by men. I also never really questioned why the majority of students studying composition and music technology were male.Thanks so much to Natalia, Lucia, Lizzie and Ellie for chatting to us. We’ve split our conversation into a four-part series, so be sure to look out for the next blog to continue this important conversation, and in the meantime, enjoy their beautiful performances!