Should there be more women on the syllabus?

Tell us if Jazz conservatoires are getting the balance right.


I asked Twitter a question recently:

Check out some of the responses I received; I’m focusing on gender here. Generally, the answers relating to non-white musicians didn’t surprise me - by and large it reflects the pioneers and founders of the music.

Why am I digging about, asking these questions? I have no direct experience of studying music beyond my A levels or BTEC - across the four years, the syllabus included zilch works by women, by the way. I studied the scores of perfectly good 20th century composers like John Cage and John Williams, although learning about electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram or film composer Anne Dudley would have been equally as insightful. Perhaps learning about composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth - who once conducted a choir from her Holloway Prison window - would also have been a memorable and meaningful lesson.

When it comes to jazz, there are countless women - not just vocalists - who’ve made gigantic contributions to the genre, but a lack of visibility in the history books has further given conservatoires a false-sense that the works of women are inessential. If we do learn about female artists in conservatoires, perhaps we’d develop an inherent respect for female artists that this report demonstrates is clearly missing.

I have a theory; It’s not just important who we document, but who is documenting. The information that gets included - and left out - will be decided by the writer, based on what they think is relevant. But it goes deeper than that. The musicians documented in history are more likely to be studied. They’ve been put on a pedestal - and there’s plenty of course materials to read from. Historicisation cements someone’s accomplishments as worthy of remembering and reflecting upon. By comparison, the achievements of 20th century female jazz instrumentalists look a little sparse - but only if you’re judging how history has preserved them.

Music by women should be included in the syllabus.

I’m not pointing fingers at individuals. I’m not looking to shut anyone down or shame anyone. It’s simply this:

There’s a collective fog amongst conservatoires and universities and the school system at large, it seems, that sees no urgency nor a need to address the lack the lack of female musicians being taught about, or the lack of masterclasses lead by female musicians. This fog is toxic to women’s mental health and their careers in Jazz. It’s time to clear the air.

Here’s my statement of intention. I’m going to be opening conversation with various conservatoires to ask them:

1 | As a percentage, how much of your course material focuses on work by female musicians?

2 | As a percentage, how many of your full time teaching staff are female?

3 | In the last three years, how many guests and masterclass leaders have joined you, and how many of them were female?

4 | How do you curate the course syllabus and what are your thoughts on updating it to include more work of female jazz instrumentalists, composers and arrangers?

And I’m asking you to fill in this quick survey. Whatever your gender, share your opinion and experiences of music education, and forward this to musicians that you know.

On the next issue of the newsletter, I’ll be sharing with you what happened.

Tina x

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EZH is a twice-monthly newsletter written by music journalist, broadcaster and DJ Tina Edwards. Founded in 2014 as a radio show, it developed into a multi-media platform in 2016. Tina put EZH on a two year hiatus before bringing back EZH as a newsletter in 2020.