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Fostering gender diversity through new work

Koffman and Etezady composite

Carrie Koffman, left, and Roshanne Etezady

Carrie Koffman, lecturer in applied saxophone at YSM, and composer and YSM alum Roshanne Etezady ’99MM are leading a project of the North American Saxophone Alliance that’s focused on education and gender equity and involves a new commission. The Alliance has commissioned Etezady for a new work for virtuosic soloist and middle school band that will give students who are at an early stage in their musical life the rare and valuable opportunity to engage with top performers. During the first two years of performances, the professional-level solo part will be reserved for non-binary, transgender, and women saxophonists, after which performers of any gender will be invited to play the solo part. The commission represents a culmination of several years of research that the Alliance’s Committee on the Status of Women, of which Koffman is the community engagement project chair, has done on gender disparity in the saxophone community. We spoke with Koffman and Etezady about the vision they share and the impact they hope the initiative will have on gender diversity and new-music advocacy in the saxophone community and beyond.

LM: How did this project first begin? Have you been involved in other socially conscious musical projects on this scale?

CK: This community engagement project came out of work initiated by the Committee on the Status of Women+ of the North American Saxophone Alliance.

In the Spring of 2019, every NASA Regional Conference hosted a CSW+ presentation and discussion. Feedback was gathered and compiled from all presenters in all regions. One common point that was made by members attending in every location was that young girls don’t seem to have any trouble beginning saxophone study, but they tend to drop out at a rate greater than their male counterparts. Members in all regions suggested finding ways to reach out to younger students, ideally in middle school, with the hope of decreasing the dropout rate of girls.

This is our first socially conscious musical project as a committee. We formed this subcommittee three years ago and initial initiatives also included the creation of a formal mentoring program, an allyship committee, a research committee, and an online digital-resource committee.

LM: How did the two of you get connected for this commission?

CK: The members of the CSW+ discussed composers we thought would be a good fit for this initiative and voted to choose Roshanne.

Ultimately, we selected her for many reasons. Most important, she’s an excellent composer. She teaches in one of the most prestigious composition programs in the country, having been trained at two of the best schools—which of course includes Yale! She’s already written extensively for the saxophone so she knows the instrument extremely well. She is respected and admired within the saxophone community, which is important because it will be the NASA members who bring this project to fruition. She played a wind instrument herself—the flute—and has experience writing for wind band, so she knows how to transform human breath into sound. She grew up attending American public schools, so she is familiar with the educational environment our proposal is embracing. She has a lot of personality and a great sense of humor, so her writing is clever and has the potential to reach a wide variety of audiences.

Writing for this project is tricky because the composer must be familiar with the structure and curricular content of the typical school band program, as well as the restrictions that must be made to accommodate the average middle school band. She must do this in a way that makes it accessible to early adolescents without writing “down” to students. She must also be familiar enough with the saxophone to write a part that is engaging, expressive, virtuosic, and that can be played by our general adult membership. She must be able to reach across multiple ages and populations and write music that reaches our general American population while also maintaining artistic integrity.

Roshanne is perfect for this!

RE: For my part, I’ve been a saxophone groupie for some time now—I think it’s such a great instrument, with the agility of any woodwind as well as the dynamic power of any brass instrument, and the performance culture of being hungry for new music? Yes, sign me up! As a composer, when you write for instrument families who are really excited about new music, like percussion, saxophone, trombone, to name a few, the more music you write that includes that instrument, the more opportunities you get to write for that instrument. It’s so great. So, from my perspective, I was just going along, doing what I usually do, when Carrie and the CSW+ committee approached me for this project. It was right up my alley, and I couldn’t be more excited.

LM: What are some of the current issues of gender equity in your respective subfields?

CK: When we formed the CSW+, demographic data had never been collected, so we began this process. We found that approximately 20 percent of our membership is comprised of women and gender diverse individuals.

Dr. Kim Loeffert, one of our co-chairs, then took on the scholarly task of trying to analyze what we collected. She writes:

“Knowing the gender makeup of NASA allows the CSW to best serve NASA members and also provides the organization with participation goals. If, for example, approximately 20 percent of NASA members are women and gender diverse (as was the case just prior to the 2020 biennial), then we might expect that about 20 percent of conference presentations and performances be given by women and gender diverse NASA members. We can evaluate this collectively and by type of performance or presentation. 

“Ultimately, participation of women and gender diverse individuals increased at biennial conferences from 2008 to 2020. While there is variation from one conference to the next, women+ often give a proportionate number of performances compared to men in chamber and solo performance categories. Women+ are more often overrepresented in ensembles, master-class performances and lectures or panels, and underrepresented as evening featured performers, jazz soloists, master-class clinicians, and occasionally as concerto performers.”

NASA data courtesy of Dr. Kim Loeffert
Data courtesy of Dr. Kim Loeffert, co-chair, Committee on the Status of Women, North American Saxophone Alliance

RE: When I was a student, it was pretty unfashionable, not to say unwelcome, to point out gender inequity issues in composition. There was an unspoken law that we were just supposed to “be cool” and be “one of the guys,” and sometimes, we’d get rewarded for that, with little advancements in the field. I think—I hope—things are getting better for women composers. I see more and more women composers enrolled in degree programs (which is not to say this is the only measure of equity for women composers), and while it’s still somehow not a 50-50 split, it’s getting better. Even with an increased focus on the music of women composers, there’s still a distressingly small percentage of women represented on concert programs. The Institute for Composer Diversity has statistics to back it up … it’s dismaying. But it’s getting better.

LM: What do you hope for the outcome of this project in terms of its social impact? What is the value and importance of featuring specific composers and performers? What do you see as the role of representation (of composers and performers) within the larger project of making concert music a more equitable field? 

CK: This wide-reaching initiative has numerous intended benefits.

1. All members of the North American Saxophone Alliance will have access to this new work, but for the first two years it will be exclusively available to women+ (women, transgender, and gender nonbinary soloists). All performances occurring within this initial period will be considered world premieres. In years three and four, soloists of all genders will be eligible (and strongly encouraged) to perform it. Performing the work during this latter window is one significant way to demonstrate allyship as well as artistry. Nationally, girls that play the saxophone have a higher drop-out rate than boys. By putting women+ in featured soloist positions, we hope to allow younger students of all genders to see and hear that women+ can and do play the saxophone. In this way, our hope and goal is that more girls+ will be inspired to continue playing the saxophone into high school and beyond.

2. We all know that the most important part of learning music is listening. Bringing live, strong aural models into classrooms all over North America is great music education for everyone involved.

3. The North American Saxophone Alliance may become a positive resource for young saxophone students.

4. Action through the formation of a work of art on a large scale like this is a powerful statement to students, administration, and community about the significance of live music, performing music by living composers, and gender equity. Our goal is to share this project as far and as widely as possible, hopefully reaching hundreds of school classrooms and thousands of younger students. Younger NASA members who are still college students can arrange to go back to their own band programs, where they’ll hopefully be welcomed as alums of their communities. More experienced NASA members can reach out anywhere, hopefully multiple times.

We intend for this project to be a gift from the CSW and NASA along with our membership to help promote inclusivity and allow young students to participate in the creation of great art through this world premiere. The North American Saxophone Alliance is paying the commissioning fee of $7,000, so it’s a significant investment. Literally everyone benefits: pre-college students of all genders, band directors of all genders, communities and families, NASA members of all genders, and the trajectory of the saxophone and school bands overall. 

REI hope there’s some seventh-grade girl sitting in the middle of some clarinet section somewhere, and maybe her band is playing the piece, and maybe she has an epiphany: “Wait, a composer is a thing? That a living human person can be?" And maybe she realizes that she has some nifty musical ideas, and maybe she writes a piece for herself and her best friend, and then she falls in love with the process. Then she writes more music, and she’s hooked. You know what, if that even happens only once, I’ll feel like my work here is done.

Learn more about the project here.

Lila Meretzky is a first-year master-of-music degree candidate in the composition program at the Yale School of Music.