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Chathasaigh. There’s Spiro’s Jane Harbour, Kathryn Tickell (who has her new band Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening), and Rachael McShane (once of Bellowhead, now about to release a new solo album).

As school children, these musicians experienced that aptitude and talent is not gender-specific. Boys are not inherent- ly more capable than girls or vice versa, and this is borne out by their later experi- ence as teachers – and mine too. I’ve found that whilst not necessarily more capable than boys, girls tend to pick up more quickly the connection between effective practise strategies and outcome. MacMas- ter says, “My partner is a drummer, and he says the best students are girls.”

Obviously not everyone who shows interest in or talent for learning an instru- ment at school (or in fact at any age) becomes a professional musician or even keeps it up on an amateur level. But this doesn’t account for the disparity in the numbers once out of college, female drummers being a case in point – and pipers too, as Tickell says: “I teach pipes and with youth groups there tend to be more girls coming in. What happens to them, I wonder?”

Catriona Macdonald says that “As far as the industry side of things goes, I knew early on that if I was going to be booked you could never be sure that other female instrumentalists would be on the bill. You’d never meet three or four of us at the same festival. It’s very uncomfortable.” Lauren MacColl says, “Over time I started to notice that the bands getting picked for festivals and headlines are predominantly male, all male. You see these line-ups and start to question if females are not taken as seriously in terms of their music and why that is…”

Making the link between this disparity in the numbers and a subsequent (lack of) demand, Newton went to Facebook and started a dialogue: “I asked, ‘Do people feel that live acts should be male and are they more popular?’ That kicked off a big conversation. A lot of women said, ‘We’ve all been thinking about this and nothing’s being done about it.’”

This isn’t just about the relative recog- nition and popularity or otherwise of male and female musicians. On a fundamental level it’s about accepted norms for use of social spaces. Jo Freya points out that when she was a young teenager playing sessions in the ’70s, “these took place in the lounge bar, not the public bar.” Indeed it’s not that long since a woman has been able to walk into a public bar alone without automati- cally incurring the assumption that she’ll ‘put out’ for a pint of Babycham.

Freya came to folk instrumental play- ing through the Morris and was, with her mum and sister, part of the first women’s revival side to dance at Cecil Sharp House. The boos from a male contingent in the audience were for her an early demonstra- tion of ‘traditional’ male attitudes that prescribe the space for women’s public performance.

Rowan Rheingans says that actually

“There’s an idea that women should not take up space, full stop. It relates to

women’s lives in all areas that we should not take up room, whether we’re in the fast lane of the swimming pool or on stage. It’s difficult to get that across to men and boys who have it reinforced that space is theirs for the taking.”

“At a festival last year,” she says, “an all-male big band were sound-checking. They just took all the time they needed and went a long time over [their allotted slot.] So our gig was late. I remember being on stage and thinking “We’ll have to cut out the last songs in our set, the big rousing, rallying songs. And immediately I thought ‘But the male band didn’t think anything of taking up the extra time. So do your set to the end.’ It takes a lot of confidence to know your worth.” And here Rheingans opens the can of worms and pulls them out by the fistful.

As children, none of the musicians I spoke to expressed being aware of gender issues relating to their instrumental play- ing. MacMaster says, “I’m one of four daughters, no male peers, I grew up not realising you should be a feminist; in our family there was nothing we couldn’t do.” Out of the home, she says, prevailing atti- tudes eat away at your confidence as things you’ve taken for granted are questioned.

Jane Harbour sums up the general feeling: “I’ve been surprised to come up against difficulties. In my experience as a musician and composer there have been incredibly supportive men; I didn’t realise that I would have to fight my corner, that I would have to shout about what I do.”

And shouting about what we do ties right in to perceived/received notions of femininity which mitigate against leaping on stage and strutting our stuff – being loud, being confident. This boils down to the issue of sound itself. Sandra Kerr says, “I was once told by an illustrious guitar player, ‘You play like a man.’ It was meant as a compliment. That must have been twenty-five years ago.”


tell her my experience, playing tenor sax in an R’n’B covers band, blowing a big fat ‘growly’ sound. After a gig a bloke came up and said, “You play like a man.” I hadn’t thought about it. I play like me. “Er, thanks,” I said. “Well anyway,” he said, staring at my chest, “nice pair of lungs.” I tried to picture him saying that to ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s sax man, an ex-American footballer. Kerr laughs at the thought. “I know. Why can’t they just say, ‘blimey, you’re good!’”

Jenn Butterworth, a stellar guitarist, gets this all the time, “I’m always being told I play like a man. It’s being congratu- lated for playing forcefully.” It springs from ingrained attitudes as to what constitutes appropriate male and female behaviour. Loud, forceful and confident are ‘good’ if they are tied in with masculinity. The oppo- site is not true: if men create a nuanced, gentle sound, they are not told they’re good because they “play like a woman.”

And as Green says, “There is a percep- tion that to go on stage takes a lot of con- fidence, you can learn that. But that is not seen as a good thing in a woman, like it is in a man.” Rheingans concurs: confidence

on stage is not seen to be ‘ladylike’. This, as Harbour points out, “is rooted in women’s traditional role as being about family and nurturing, and being on stage and loud on some level is about ‘I’, it’s not about ‘we’, and that goes against the grain of what’s expected from women.”

When it comes to playing live, women find male assumptions about the sound they should make shape how their sound is conveyed, springing, says Rheingans, “from a cultural assumption of how we should sound that bears no relation to the sound we want to make.”

They find that they are not given cre- dence for actually knowing what that sound is or how they need to hear it. Green again: “You are often questioned in your ability by middle-aged men. One sound engineer couldn’t find the channel for my accordeon, and he said, ‘How about I tell you what you need in your monitors, darling.’” Rachael McShane says that typically it’s, “‘You’ll need a jack lead for that, do you know what that is?’ No I’d be really pleased for you to tell me, you crack on love…”

Rheingans and her trio Lady Maisery travel with their own sound engineer, because “Before, we’d have absolute nightmares with sound.” Apart from all the usual technical issues, “there was just a lack of respect.”

This impacts on the work that women get, particularly on the festival circuit. Green says “We are less busy than our male contemporaries. A duo is not seen as a festival headliner, though we can go on and make just as big a sound as a male band of five.” “The idea that females can’t make exciting music that makes an audi- ence dance around is to my mind crazy,” adds MacColl.

Obviously an ability to make a big sound is not the only issue when it comes to securing gigs, but this underlying assumption that females are just not going to ‘rip it up’ is retarding. Everyone I spoke to enjoys smashing it for six. Rheingans says, “I love coming onto the stage, the three of us women, and people not expecting that sound to come from us. We’ve got the shock factor.”

But this begs Newton’s question: “What do audiences want to hear?” par- ticularly as end-of-the-night headliners. Do people really always want a testos- terone-fuelled party band at the end of the night? And is this a particularly British thing? Máire Ní Chathasaigh, playing in her duo with husband Chris Newman, has headlined across the world.

Beyond addressing assumptions that

it’s only men who want to make rabble- rousing music, MacColl says, “Let’s look at other kinds of music that make great con- certs. In the last ten years, some of the greatest gigs have been in the back room at a festival or a solo acoustic slot.” When it comes to nominations for live awards, she says, “The focus shouldn’t just be on the headline-grabbing party bands. We need to think more about what makes a great live act. It’s not just about dancing. For me it could be Chris Wood, whose songs hit you straight in the heart.”

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