Lost in music: why piano competitions must address the gender gap | Classical music

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Just over a month ago a hard-hitting report about misogyny in music was published by the UK parliamentary women and equalities committee. The report contained personal accounts that showed not only that inequality is still pervasive in the world of classical music, but that women are enduring an unacceptable level of sexual abuse and harassment, often being silenced with non-disclosure agreements to protect those in power.

Like so many of my colleagues, at first I did not recognise this version of our beloved profession, which after all, is going through a difficult enough time. But recently I was challenged after presenting our own research – an interviewer said: “It clearly is sexism – how can you call it anything else?” And when you see the scale of the problem, it’s hard to find another explanation.

As a woman CEO of a female-founded music competition, the resonance of gender inequality strikes a particularly discordant note. Our journey began with a poignant moment in the 2021 edition of the Leeds international piano competition, when all five finalists were male. As the curtains fell on the competition, we were compelled to confront this. Peering into our own history, only two of our first prize-winners have been women in 20 competitions. Across the sphere of piano competitions, the same pattern emerges.

Leeds international piano competition finalists, 2021 … l to r, Kaito Kobayashi, Ariel Lanyi, Dmytro Choni, Alim Beisembayev (the winner) and Thomas Kelly. Photograph: Andrew Benge/Getty Images

Among members of the World Federation of International Music Competitions, men won 82% of the most recent 40 major piano competitions, and more than a third of these had all-male finals. The violin world reveals a striking contrast, where women claim 75% of first prizes. It’s tempting to use this to dispel any notion of inherent gender bias in classical music. But it still begs the question: why does the piano carry a different tune? And more importantly, what can we do to orchestrate a more equitable future?

It’s complex. The trajectory of pianists through the corridors of education shows boys and girls on an even footing from first lessons to conservatoire graduations. But beyond this the pipeline breaks, and female pianists are far less likely to win a major award or gain a place on a career development programme. Whether you love or hate them, competitions are more important to emerging artists than ever. They celebrate talent, offering concert opportunities and prize money that can be a lifeline. They can even be life-changing, establishing emerging young artists on a global platform and providing support systems for their careers.

The window to launch a career is short, particularly once a musician has left the safety of a conservatoire or their familiar networks. And what might seem like a small difference of opportunity at the start, can have a huge impact over the lifetime of a career. If we’re failing to distribute these early opportunities equitably, it may explain why less than 23% of career pianists are women, and why concerts, festivals and record labels have such low representation.

No doubt you’re rattling off successful female pianists in your head. But the fact that there are exceptions does not prove the rule. Many AI imaging apps have now learned that a “concert violinist” is female, and a “concert pianist” male. That’s why at the Leeds piano competition, we’ve taken a data-led approach. As well as gathering research ourselves, we were given access to extensive data, collated by musicians who had chosen not publish it themselves for fear of the consequences to their own careers. I understand why – in a profession which ascribes success to individual meritocracy (talent and hard work), it’s easier to accuse someone of being a lesser musician, or jealous of others’ success, than to acknowledge there are structural barriers at play that are limiting some.

Fiona Sinclair, CEO Leeds international piano competition. Photograph: Johnny Bean

We took this evidence to a number of leaders in classical music and the competition world, and every conversation opened with a puzzled “really?” Then the gender conjectures began, ranging from differences in resilience, persistence and risk-taking, to societal expectations, hand size, body frames and volume, through to yes, you guessed it, the desire to have a family. It was even suggested to me that in some parts of the world, some men excel at piano competitions to avoid being drafted for national service and women use European conservatoires as finishing schools to prepare for marriage.

Deficits like gender gaps are often unintentional. But they evolve and become ingrained over time, creating insurmountable structural barriers for those in the minority. Vick Bain’s superb Counting the Music Industry: The Gender Gap shows that individual meritocracy, bias and the absence of diverse role models each cast a dark shadow over our journey towards parity. Furthermore, there’s bias that plays out in competitive situations, where strong personalities and opinions abound. As orchestras discovered decades ago, this is an area that needs intentional and collective action. Any comparison of vintage with modern footage shows the rebalancing effect of blind auditions, even if male principals still dominate.

‘We can take heart from the world of conducting’: Dalia Stasevska conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra (with violinist Elina Vähälä) at the Barbican in February 2024. Photograph: Mark Allan

We’re taking a wide-ranging approach at this year’s Leeds piano competition. Through initiatives such as blind pre-selections, minimising biographical details throughout all rounds, unconscious bias training for jurors, and targeted career support for aspiring pianists, we are committed to modelling a more equitable stage. We have also reviewed our voting processes with a lawyer – even though no legislation actually applies to competitions. Feedback from panellists so far has been encouraging. All understand the privilege and power they hold over our pianists. Blind listening has been liberating as there’s a real risk of bias when we know about someone’s references, scholarships or other competition wins. We’re also evolving female representation in our repertoire, prizes and concert opportunities, including being the first competition to offer the Clara Schumann Concerto as a finals option and launching a new prize with concert opportunities for the best performance by a female composer, sponsored by the equity-championing pianist Alexandra Dariescu. Our purpose is to try to show female pianists that the odds are not necessarily stacked against them.

We can take heart from the world of conducting, where a purposeful approach to narrowing the gender gap has made swift progress. So we must do the same, or we will continue to lose original and unique voices, limiting the full potential of artistic expression in the piano world.

Fiona Sinclair is CEO of the Leeds international piano competition. The first round of the 2024 competition takes place in April at six locations around the world. The finals are in Leeds and Bradford, 11-21 September. Leedspiano.com



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