“Overcoming the Fear” by Savannah Boles
By Savannah Boles (MM Saxophone Performance ’21)
Hello, everyone! My name is Savannah Boles, and I am a first year master’s student at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, studying saxophone with Dr. Weiss-Holmes. It was only recently that I began embracing my differences as a performer and found the confidence to stand up for myself musically. I used to think that I was alone in what I was dealing with: the teasing, the bullying, the condescending comments about being a woman in this male-dominated industry. As I continue my journey in the music, I would like to share some of my personal experiences and encourage anyone else who has been discriminated against to reach out to me. No one has to face this alone because, no matter what anyone has to say, females are strong as hell.
When I started playing the saxophone, it was out of genuine curiosity for the instrument and my passion for music. I never knew what future difficulties I would face as I progressed. Gender inequality in the music industry has unfortunately become a big part of my life; from the moment I step out on stage, the whole room is filled with unconscious thoughts: “is she even good?” “Can she hold her own?” “Can she play fast, loud, altissimo?” I know that these thoughts happen because I, shamefully, have also had them at times. I believe it is important to break down those stereotypes and support each other in the industry to create a safe space for everyone in music.
When I started high school, I remember being so different from everyone else in my section. Besides the obvious difference of gender, it always seemed like I was on the outside. All four years, my entire section was made up of guys, as was most of the jazz band. I felt so insecure about my playing because I was always being overlooked and held down by others in my section. The arts school that I attended placed a huge focus on the jazz bands, and if you were not a part of that top jazz band, then you were basically nothing. I tried really hard to find my place during my time there, and where I felt like I had found my place was by learning and performing classical music. Of course, to be a “successful” saxophonist, you have to play jazz, and that is a whole other problem in itself. I distinctly remember the conversation some of my peers were having about how “women cannot play music; all of the best recordings, performances and master classes have been by males.”
So, after a very exciting graduation (mainly because I could not wait to be done with high school), I realize that I am still damaged. Damaged from the false information that had been told to me by my peers about my playing and damaged from the lack of ability some of my band directors had to stand up and become an advocate for young female musicians like myself. College was a little bit easier — I was very fortunate to not only have a saxophone professor who was female in undergrad, but also a band director, orchestra director, and clarinet and flute teacher. I was witnessing so much strong female empowerment, and I began to heal the damage that I thought could never be undone.
It was not until I started my master’s degree that I heard of the North American Saxophone Alliance (NASA), which has a Committee of the Status of Women (CSW). I was able to attend the annual NASA conference with the CCPA Saxophone Studio this month, and it was amazing to not only find other musicians who I could connect with, but other saxophonists who I could share my opinions and experiences with as well. While at NASA, I attended a panel discussion given by CSW talking about why it is important for our voices to be heard in the workforce. The panel talked about their experiences as women working in the industry and how they have been able to overcome some of the challenges they have faced. The most important takeaway from the discussion was the need to speak up; change can only happen when the ones who are being oppressed educate those who are doing the oppressing.
And for the first time, I am preparing a piece written by a female composer, commissioned for a female saxophonist: Hilary Tann’s “In the First, Spinning Place,” which is the most powerful and inspiring piece I have ever had the honor to study and soon perform. Tann’s piece has made me feel so empowered, both as a performer and as a female saxophonist, while I am also learning about more female composers. As I continue my graduate studies and forge new connections, I want to utilize what I learn about women in the music industry and what I have gained through my experiences as a female saxophonist to educate others, regardless of their gender, on the importance of equality in music.