Interview with the Team behind the Brass Bodies Study

By Rebecca Epstein-Boley and Kate Amrine, with Dr. Sarah Schmalenberger and Dr. Patricia Maddox

From, 25 September 2019

The Brass Bodies study is a cutting-edge research project led by Sarah Schmalenberger, PhD (Musicology) and Hornist, and Patricia L. Maddox, PhD (Sociology), at the University of St. Thomas. Based in an understanding that “women brass players are both an underrepresented and under-researched group in music,” the study investigates both the physical and social experiences of women who play brass instruments. On its website, the Brass Bodies researchers describe their project as follows:

Women brass players are both an underrepresented and under-researched group in music. Conventional practices in music teaching and performances are based on male physiology, which is significantly different from female physiology. Gendered bias in the music industry reinforces the idea that women are physically deficient and must “overcome” inherent limitations to play a brass instrument.

Despite assumptions of their inherent weaknesses, the number of female brass players in professional and avocational ensembles is substantial. And yet, female physical development differs from their male counterparts through unique experiences, ranging from menstruation to illnesses like breast cancer, and the gendered workplace of brass sections often creates stress that manifests in physical symptoms. 

First of all, yes, please. This is the sort of project that could really have concrete benefits for female brass musicians. Brass Bodies’ acknowledgement that female brass musicians have been under-studied and its intent to begin the work of fixing that makes it exactly in line with our blog’s goals. Concrete data on the experiences of female brass musicians as a group will enable us to understand our circumstances better and work more effectively to improve them in the future.

Suffice it to say, we were very excited to see the findings from the first phase of this study published in the sociology journal Societies this past March. Further publications are forthcoming. We had the chance to ask Dr. Schmalenberger and Dr. Maddox some questions about this first paper to come out of the study and what we can expect in the future:


Brass Chicks: What, beyond the general dearth of research you mention in the first Brass Bodies article, inspired you to begin this research project?

Patricia Maddox, PhD (Sociology): I was inspired by the lack of research on female brass musicians and I was interested in understanding some of the different social factors that might affect their brass playing.  

Sarah Schmalenberger, PhD (Musicology) and Hornist: As a horn player myself, I have noted the increasing number of female-identifying hornists over the decades since I began playing. I launched this research project to query whether female brass players actually do encounter specific, distinctively physical experiences that differ from male brass players, given what I see as a steady increase in the number of female brass players in schools and performing ensembles.

We considered what, precisely, could be distinct as physical experiences for female-identifying brass players.  Life-cycle events such as menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause would certainly be experiences exclusive to females.  But we also broadened the physical landscape to consider socio-cultural catalysts that have often been predominantly the experiences of females, such as sexual assault and harassment, divorce/separation, raising a child or tending to an aging parent.  Finally, illness and injury can also play out differently for female musicians in terms of access to appropriate health care.  Any one of these can affect the physical framework that we develop as optimum conditions conducive to brass playing.  Mental and emotional affect the physical, of course, and so we wanted to create a landscape of possible distinctions within the collective experience of female-identifying brass musicians.

BC: We were struck by the range of attitudes women expressed in narrative responses to the survey – especially, notably, by the way some responses reject the notion that women’s experiences performing on brass instruments differ from men’s experiences. Do you notice any correlation between women’s understanding of whether gender affected their experience and other identifiers (instrument, age, professional vs. amateur status)? Can we expect more of this data or qualitative analysis in upcoming publications or future research?

Patricia: We don’t know whether women’s experiences are different from men’s experiences as we only surveyed those who identified as female and played brass instruments.  When it came to gender parity, we did find that those who took the survey were equally split in playing in mixed gender environments and those who felt they played in male-dominated spaces.  We do hope to better understand how gender comes into play as we listen to female identified brass players talk more in depth about their experiences, through telephone interviews.  

“female” is not a monolith

Sarah: It’s great to see the range of attitudes in our data; this shows the diversity of experiences within the population of just brass players. This also confirms that “female” is not a monolith, and this appropriately challenges binary classifications of gender, sexuality, and much more.  As to participants’ understanding of gender informing their perspective, that is an intriguing question that depends upon not only one’s awareness of social constructions throughout their lives but also personal strategies and experiences with negotiating these constructions.  We are parsing this out more through interviews, which is why we love doing qualitative analysis!

BC: Another part of this first paper that drew our attention was its assessment of gender parity. Exactly half of the respondents answered “yes” to the question “Do you work in an environment where there is appropriate parity or equity of male and female brass players?,” while the other half answered “no.” What was your intent with this question, and were you surprised by the equal split of the results? To what extent do you suppose respondents considered numerical equality in their responses to this question, as opposed to other aspects of parity in the music-making environment? Do you have plans to investigate different aspects of “parity” in the future?

Patricia:  The intent was to better understand the culture that female brass players are playing in.  Respondents could have drawn upon their own lived experiences around a variety of different topics pertaining to equity, such as ratios of male to female players, pay, networking, mentorship etc.  We are currently asking respondents about support and any emotional challenges they may have experienced while playing their instruments.  

Sarah:  We were amazed at the exact 50/50 percentage of responses to this question, I’ve never seen this in my work before. I’m glad to see half on the “yes” side, because I think twenty years ago this would not have been the case. So, cause for celebration, but then also cause for pushing forward to 100 percent, right? Truly though, we posed this question in the survey in order to serve as a framework for probing more deeply, in the interview phase, beyond the numbers to understand what exactly “Parity” means to these respondents.  What I’m hearing, so far, is that notions of equality and parity have less to do with numbers – unless it’s a glaring type of tokenism (i.e. the lone female of color) – and more to do with appropriate/safe interpersonal among peers as well as an institutional transparency in procedures such as evaluation, promotion, networking.

BC: Beyond your article to be published in September, what future directions do you envision for the Brass Bodies research?  Do you plan to do additional public presentations of your work or adapt it for non-academic audiences in any way? How do you hope your findings might affect life for brass musicians on the ground?  What do you suggest we as a female brass-playing community do to make a difference with this data?

Patricia:  We hope that readers start to talk to one another and better support their colleagues. Talk to one another about life course challenges like pregnancy and childbirth. Give each other tips and tricks about overcoming the struggles of parenting while being a musician. Help each other network work and provide support through injury. Lastly, we plan to continue to present at both music conferences and sociology conferences and intend to publish again off of the qualitative research.  

Sarah:  Well, already we have initiated these conversations. This summer, I presented selected findings from the survey data to the International Women’s Brass Conference in Tempe, AZ. It seemed to me that lots of people were there and interested in the research, and I hope what I shared helped to encourage conversations. Then I was invited to be part of a 4-person panel on the topic of “MeToo In the Music Studio” at the annual conference of the Performing Arts Medicine Association. I presented a summary of our survey data on harassment that included selected quotes from the comment boxes about harassment and abuse. I also shared some preliminary comments from our interview participants (all in a way that protected study participants’ identities) that showed harassment and abuse as a systemic problem in the music industry. My co-presenters were author and percussionist Patti Neimi who wrote a memoir on her MeToo experience at Julliard, psychologist Patrick Gannon who counsels performers, and president of Longy School of Music Karen Zorn who shared some of the institutional solutions she has brought to make students and faculty safe. 

I joked to the group that we ought to make tour jackets and go around the country doing our panel presentation…and they actually thought we should contact organizations like College Music Society, ROPA, NASM. So, who knows. But in the meantime, Dr. Maddox and I have to finish interviewing people and then code the data so that we can share more information with musicians, educators, managers, medical practitioners, and the world! 

Thank you again to Dr. Schmalenberger and Dr. Maddox for making the time to respond to our questions! Those wanting to read more about this project can find the full published paper with its initial findings here.

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