Interview with Abbie Conant

The story of her epic fight and ultimate victory against egregious gender discrimination in the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra where she won the position for principal trombone at a screened audition in 1980, inspired author Malcolm Gladwell to write the NY Times Bestseller, Blink where Ms. Conant’s story is detailed in the last chapter. The 11-year-long court battle was documented by composer/musicologist/activist, William Osborne in an article entitled, You Sound Like a Ladies Orchestra. The document is supported by actual

court records and experiences in the orchestra with 89 footnotes. This source document has generated countless newspaper and magazine article (Der Spiegel, {the German analog to Time Magazine}, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, etc.) as well as a documentary film, (Abbie Conant, Alone Among Men by Brenda Parkerson), a play produced at the Landestheater Linz, Austria by Award-winning British playwright, Tamssin Oglesby called, Der (eingebildeter) Frauenfeind, (The [Concieted] Misogynist) and a screenplay for a feature film in the works by Canadian writer/producer Dale Wolf.

1. Fanny Mendelssohn: After one of her concerts, people would tell her she played like a man. How do you feel about this comment?

Well gosh, that was about 1820, something like that? I have been told that myself, many times, but especially when I was younger. I participated in The Geneva Competition and I didn’t make it through the first round. It was behind a screen. I went to go and get my

comments and feedback afterwards. First of all, this was 1979, sexism was still really bad. It could have been the fifties. There was a famous trombone professor from Paris in the jury and he just started screaming at me and I couldn’t understand French, so I didn’t know why he was yelling at me. I had never been treated like that before. Then the trombone player from the Vienna Philharmonic butted in and he said that he was so surprised because he thought it had been a man behind the screen. He said that I had played very powerfully. But what does that mean playing like a man? Is that bad? Does that make me not a woman?

2. When and why did you decide to play the trombone?

I was probably 14 and in junior high. We had a class called ‘typing’, which was with typewriters, not computers. It was important if you wanted to get to college, to write papers. It was an elective. I was absolutely terrible at it. The girl who sat next to me was typing 60 words a minute without mistakes and I was writing 35 with 15 mistakes. So, I could see that I wasn’t going to pass this class, but I still had a small window to transfer to another elective. The only other elective available at that timeslot was ‘Beginning Band’. So, I had to pick an instrument. In my science class I sat on a bench with three people. On my left side was the star quarterback of the football team and on my right was a linebacker. As it turns out, the quarterback was the lead trombonist in the band and the linebacker was the bass trombonist. They were telling me how great the trombone was, but I also think they were kind of winking behind my back, a let’s see how this girl is going to play the trombone. When I went in to the band room, I could just try out all the instruments and see which one you liked the most. I almost immediately went for the trombone. I immediately got a nice sound out of it too. I thought it had such an elegant shape and was so mysterious. I wondered how you could get all of those notes out of that tube. I became fascinated and kind of obsessed with the trombone. I made such quick progress in that semester because I loved it and practiced a lot. Come next semester, I was the first in the band. The quarterback and linebacker were pretty pissed off about that. It was a complete fluke and the trombone saved my life. Music has saved a lot of musicians, I think.

3. Did you have any pre-conceived ideas about your instrument/conducting/composing?

No, I actually didn’t. The trombones back then didn’t have all of that extra tubing, so it was light and elegant. It seemed very natural to play.

4. What were your parents’ reaction to your choice of instrument, and your decision to make a career out of it?

When I first started, they thought it was kind of funny or cute, but they encouraged it. My father had played in a band in grade school and in a brass trio that went to competitions. So, he knew a bit about that part of it. When I went more serious, they pretty much supported it, they didn’t discourage me.

5. Do you believe that criticism or comments about gender from male colleagues have caused you to alter some aspect of your playing, whether consciously or subconsciously?

That’s a good question. I went to this famous band camp in the summer, which was just incredible. It was very competitive. Every week we had so called challenges, where you had to play your part in whatever ensemble, and the teacher then decided, with the fellow players, who would be seated first, second, and so on that week. I didn’t really think about it because I was just happy to be there. But there was one boy who felt competitive with me and was always vying for the first chair. So eventually I got first chair for six weeks in the orchestra and he got first chair for six weeks in the band. Even if I beat him, he was just making a big stink about it all that the teacher came up with that arrangement, so everybody is happy. I wasn’t looked down upon for my gender, but I was actually taken seriously by my competition. I am not a competitive person and I just tried to play my best. In high school I could play very well so, I got to play with all of the best ensembles. I went to Temple University and we only had three trombones. I was always first. In Julliard I was a master student, and they had four orchestras there. Only once did I have any kind of friction there, and that wasn’t from the students. It came from the orchestral manager of all the orchestras in the school. He was very sexist. I went to him and told him I was going to Chicago because I wanted to go for a competition for the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and if you won you got to play a concerto with them. So, I told him I was going to be gone for two days and would be missing the very first rehearsal of this particular Mahler Symphony. He said that it was fine and that they encourage things like these at Julliard. He told me he would find a substitute for that first rehearsal and then I could just come back to play my part. So, when I came back and got to the second rehearsal there was someone sitting on my chair and it was actually someone I knew. I told Vince that I was back and he told me that the orchestral manager had said that I should just play the part for the whole project. That wasn’t what he told me. And then he said that the orchestral manager told them that I wasn’t at rehearsal because I was having sex with my boyfriend. I was just dumbfounded. I went to him and I was never so outraged in front of an adult before. I surprised myself because I just felt so wronged. So, I lost my chance to play a Mahler symphony. I think later he realized how wrong he was because he gave me this wonderful opera that only had one trombone and a lot of solo’s in it. He tried compensating for that. But it was just such pure, primitive sexism. After that, I saw that they had a bulletin board up and that the Florence Orchestra had a spot open for the first trombone. I tore it off the board and said: “That’s mine”. I prepared and I won the audition. They would send the contract to me, but I never heard anything back from them. So, I called and they said: “Well, we had another audition two weeks later and we gave it to someone from the opera house in Turin. They didn’t explain anything to me. Two years later I saw the guy that they took, and he said: “It is so embarrassing but I want to tell you what happened. They called me up and asked me to audition and I did and I heard afterwards about why they didn’t stick with you. They called the musical director to tell them that you had gotten the first trombone part, that they had finally found someone, and oh by the way, it is a woman. And the director said that he didn’t want another woman because there were already too many in the orchestra”. In those two years I had no idea that that was the reason. It wasn’t long after that, that I saw that the royal opera house of Turin was looking for a trombonist because that guy had gone to Florence. So, I went to the audition. It was with the conductor and a lot of other people standing around and I probably played about 35 excerpts. It was like he was just having fun and then at the very end he just said the word ottimo. I didn’t know what that meant, until someone else told me in English that I had the part. That was a really enjoyable time in my life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: