Young Women Composers Camp narrows gender gap in classical music

The camp empowers young women to follow their music dreams in a male-dominated field.

Emily Liu Shen (pictured center) and other students from the Young Women Composer Camp heard their original compositions performed for the public by string quartet ATLYS at Presser Hall on July 20. | HENRY SAVAGE / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When composer Erin Busch attended composition events and competitions while growing up, she was often the only girl among a group of boys.

“I felt isolated,” said Busch, the director of the Young Women Composers Camp. “It’s weird to go some place and not see someone that’s your gender.”

The 2015 M.M. music composition and cello alumna founded the Young Women Composers Camp, which aims to encourage young women composers to follow their dreams in the male-dominated industry.

High school musicians and composers from across the country came to Temple University from July 9 to July 20 for compositional training from experienced composers and to discuss narrowing the industry’s gender gap. From 2014 to 2015, living women composers wrote only 14.8 percent of compositions performed by major U.S. symphony orchestras. Women composers, both living and dead, wrote only 1.8 percent of pieces performed.

“You need to see somebody that looks like you, being successful in what you want to do, or you can’t imagine yourself in that place,” Busch said.

Busch also taught music theory and composition as an adjunct professor for three years through the end of the spring semester. She will pursue a doctorate in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania starting in fall.

For the last year, Busch said her days consisted of applying for grants, speaking with Temple faculty and gathering members of the classical music industry who want to see the field transformed.

During the camp, students took classes on music writing, theory and history. The campers also prepared original, one- to two-minute compositions that were performed for the public on the last day of camp by ATLYS, a Philadelphia string quartet made up of four women.

Busch said part of her inspiration for the camp came from realizing current programs and systems were not very supportive of young women musicians starting their careers.   

“For most of these girls, like me, you’re one of the only women [composing] in your school,” she added. “It’s such a thrill to be around people that understood you inherently, and connecting with others who share your passion.”

YWCC aimed to provide positive women role models, career advice and encouragement to the high schoolers who attended. From being shown what musical notations sound like on instruments to learning to write for instruments the students had never heard before, the young women learned about composition in a new way.

“All of us were composing in some degree, but when you’re usually being taught composition, you’re using music theory and staring at five lines on a piece of paper,” incoming Princeton University freshman Emily Liu Shen said. “You limit yourself to what you traditionally learned and the instruments you know how to play.”

She added that community is a huge part of the music industry, but that the experience comes with cliques that can sometimes be gender-based.

“It’s hard to break into a group without forcing yourself to change for that group,” Liu Shen said. “Having a community of people who you don’t have to change anything about yourself for is very important.”

Missy Mazzoli, a New York-based composer and guest lecturer at the camp, emphasized the importance of role models teaching young women about future opportunities because teenagers decide their career paths around that age.

“Cultivate the things that make you unique, instead of suppressing them,” Mazzoli said. “Find your community of people who make you feel good about yourself and art.”

Mazzoli has composed the acclaimed operas “Breaking the Waves” and “Song From the Uproar,” two pieces about the resilience of determined women in the face of hardship. The Music Critics Association of North America awarded her “Best New Opera of 2016” for “Breaking the Waves.”

Some of her other works have been performed by orchestras across the world and she has been hailed as “Brooklyn’s postmillennial Mozart” by Time Out New York.

Through presentations by successful composers like Mazzoli who have been through similar struggles as the students, Busch said she hoped to foster a community of support and encouragement for women to take a leadership role in the composing field.

Mazzoli echoed the importance of gender representation in composing and the value of seeing somebody that looks like you accomplishing something you want to do.

“That’s something that men get all the time,” Mazzoli said. “For women, it’s shocking how rare that experience is.”

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