The Educational Jazz Band: Where Are the Girls?

by Kelly B. Clingan

In Seattle’s nationally celebrated jazz ensembles, we have a serious but often-overlooked equity problem. Where are all of the girls? Let’s be brave, let’s be honest, let’s talk about it, and let’s problem-solve. I don’t have surefire answers, but we need to start the conversation.

I want to be clear about a few things before we get started. I believe that if half of your school’s students are girls, one half of your jazz band should be girls too. Mine isn’t, but it’s close. I’m working on it. I am a female trombone player, a strong and bold female trombone player, who is actively working on this problem. It isn’t an easy one to solve. We aren’t dealing with overt sexism in most cases. Nope. We are dealing with cultural norms and habitual practices, deeply ingrained in our American fabric.

I am suggesting that structural changes at multiple levels need to occur, starting with recognizing the problem, setting goals, and planting some seeds. Here are my ideas, as a former public middle school band director of eight years in Seattle’s Central District and the current Education Director at Seattle JazzED, a non-profit devoted to equity in music education.

Music education’s original sin: what is up with gendering instruments? Is there a guidebook for picking instruments that I don’t know about? Folks, the flute takes more air than ANY instrument, excluding the tuba. Suggesting flute for tiny little kids so that it isn’t too heavy to carry home is just silly…what about actually playing the instrument with success? Isn’t that why we carry them home to practice? Little girls do not have to play the flute (and neither do little boys or girls in general). Be subversive. Push girls towards trombone, trumpet, drums, and bass. DO IT. It is your job, because for whatever reason, the vast majority of your parents won’t do this. Elementary school teachers, the responsibility is on you here. Let’s go.

At our Seattle JazzED “meet your instrument” open house, I staffed men at the flute table, women at the bass table, and one man and one woman at the clarinet, sax, trumpet, and trombone tables. Guess what happened? Kids selected instruments based on how they liked playing them – half boys and half girls for each instrument group. And how about the kids who were absent for the open house? They gendered themselves. This is a real thing.

Middle school teachers, you get what you get with incoming students. Still: if you have a beginning band, SOLVE THE PROBLEM. It’s on you. Now, if you don’t start kids on instruments, you need to help your elementary feeders out. Maybe a petting zoo in September with female tubaists and male flutists? If we don’t intervene by middle school, it’s too late. Meaning: if girls don’t have traditional jazz instruments in their hands, game over. And you need to MAKE all of your middle schoolers improvise. If you don’t make them do it, the majority of your girls won’t.

This is challenging work, my friends. We all have biases, none of us is perfect, and there are no clear answers. But how about a list of easy best practices to start shifting the dynamic with the students we have?

  1. Matching outfits need to stop. Go all-black—you can even be very specific (i.e. long sleeve, knee length, black dress). But do not make all your girls wear the exact same dress, and especially, do not make them wear a tuxedo.
  2. Instead of telling girls to “smile,” suggest that they “look engaged.”
  3. Do not comment on your female students’ outfits, hair, or makeup. This is called objectification, and it isn’t cool.

A culture shift is needed in our classrooms. Create a safe learning environment. Be intentional. Hire female coaches, clinicians, and guest artists. Play music composed or arranged by women. Curate your classroom artwork to show female musicians who do not exclusively play piano or sing. And don’t make a big deal out of it!

Messaging matters. Be intentional with your words. Would you say it to a male student? If not, don’t say it to a female student. And the opposite is important too. But its okay to talk about what is going on. Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra doesn’t have any women in the band. This is our region’s premiere jazz band that plays in the fanciest venues. I think we should talk to students about what is going on with that.

Representation matters. Consider that the lack of representation in top groups makes girls less likely to audition for all-state ensembles, or maybe even the jazz band at your school. You’ll find that in high-performing jazz programs, honor bands, select groups, etc., there will be fewer girls. I recently returned from the Washoe County (Reno, NV) Honor Jazz Band Festival, where I directed the middle school honor ensemble. We had six girls in that group. Guess how many were in the high school honor ensemble? Just one. On piano.

Create a gender-neutral teaching space. My band classroom can start to feel like Animal House real fast. I constantly need to control the vibe of my room, mostly by modeling a vibe that is chill, so that everyone can learn and feel safe. We laugh, we learn, we have a fun time while being studious, but fart jokes and burping out loud are just not going to help you retain girls. There are subtle but important cues that you are sending with your words, too. Swap “folks” or “gang” for “guys” to refer to the “crew” of kids.

As part of Seattle JazzED’s equity work, I would love to hear from you and am happy to help you brainstorm ideas for your own classroom. The strength of jazz education in our region means that gender disparities are often stark, but also that we have a lot of opportunity to build stronger foundations for the next generation of music students and young musicians. The patriarchy sure isn’t going to solve things on its own.

Kelly B. Clingan is the Education Director at Seattle JazzED, a non-profit organization dedicated to racial and gender equity in jazz education. She is the former Director of Concert Bands and Jazz at Washington Middle School, where she taught since 2008. In 2016, Kelly was named the University of Washington GWSS Alumni of the Year for her work on gender equity in jazz. She can be reached at [email protected].