Feminism | Posted by Rachel P on 07/2/2010

Seixsm and the Double Bass

Esperanza and her bass

Esperanza and her bass

Like Esperenza Spalding, I too, am a female double bassist, with the greatest of respect for the wonderful things that Esperenza does – especially with first-hand knowledge of the blatant misogyny that accompanies being a female double bassist, and how hard it is to even get your instrument through the door, let alone forge a successful musical career.

My double bass teacher was turned down by a professional orchestra, because, simply put, “he wasn’t strong enough”. The nature of orchestra playing means that you’re rehearsing for hours on end, and then playing your instrument non-stop in a concert that can last anywhere from 40 minutes to literally hours. When your instrument is quite literally bigger than you, and when it takes flexing your arm to its full length to even get a note out, this can get pretty tiring, pretty quickly. My teacher is a muscly, 6’3″ male. I am a 5’7″ teenage female. You can see where this is going.

Thing is, I know that’s just something that goes with the job. I chose to play this instrument, knowing that forging a career would be trickier. What I didn’t expect was the attitudes of the people around me. To sum it up in eight words:

Girl plays violin – “hot!”

Girl plays bass – “what?!”

Whenever I travel with it, I’m inundated with men (and yes, it’s always men) who feel that the fact that I’m carrying a huge instrument means that I’m completely pathetic. I mean, I don’t mind people opening doors for me, but believe me, I’m perfectly capable of carrying it myself. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be travelling with it. Also, from an insurance point of view, I don’t feel comfortable allowing complete strangers to carry an instrument that’s worth more than my life savings. Understandable, right?

the epic double bass

the epic double bass

This one time, I fell down a set of stairs at a train station, while carrying my double bass. (I admit it probably wasn’t the best idea to commute in heels, but never mind…) Interestingly, it wasn’t the men who stopped to help: it was a woman who dusted me off, got me on my feet, and offered to carry my bag for me. Curious – I’m allowed to be incapable of carrying my instrument when vulnerability is sexually appealing, but when the realities of scraped knees and twisted ankles sets in, it’s not worth the bother?

I’ve also heard all the blatantly sexual one-liners there are – “I bet my instrument’s bigger, love!” “I’d love you to play my instrument…” “Give us a show, darling”. What’s strange is that these kind of remarks seem pretty much isolated to female bassists.

If it wasn’t for the attitudes of casual strangers, I’d feel empowered by how I play a musical instrument that’s massive not only in size, but in volume. But instead of feeling like the strong, convention-breaking young woman that I am, I feel vulnerable and uncomfortable when I travel to concerts alone. I’m horribly aware that I can’t run away from a potentially dangerous situation easily, that I’d have to fight off a potential attacker with my words and my fists. And I don’t think that’s fair, at all.

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  • Katherine C. @ at 11:36 am, July 2nd, 2010

    Wow! Really original, well-written post about a side of sexism I had never known about before! Thanks so much.
    And I can’t believe that I never noticed that all the double bass players in my orchestra are, and will always be, guys.

  • KS @ at 1:04 pm, July 2nd, 2010

    What a great piece! I am a flute player and am familiar with sexism in orchestra. It almost seems like I am expected to play flute because of my gender. On the other hand, my younger brother also plays flute and he was bullied at school for playing such a feminine instrument (even though women’s prominent role in music is rather recent…) It’s appalling to find inherent sexism in so many different aspects of our lives. Musicians dedicate time and energy to create beautiful pieces of music: that should be a unifying cause, not another opportunity to segregate.

    KS

  • O'Phylia @ at 3:59 pm, July 2nd, 2010

    Love this!

    For those disgusting one liners, one finger should get the point across to them.

    And sidenote: Didn’t Esperanza have a song on Pretty Little Liars?

  • Joshua @ at 4:05 pm, July 2nd, 2010

    You go! I played the double bass in high school. It’s a great instrument, so don’t let the jerks hold you back.

    One of my fellow bassists was a girl, too. She certainly didn’t have trouble playing because of her chromosomes!

  • Grace @ at 7:30 pm, July 2nd, 2010

    I really enjoyed this. I play the cello and I have noticed the skewed ratio of male to female bass players–I have only met one woman bassist, ever.

    I have heard that similar prejudices exist against women brass players, especially in professional orchestras. Until orchestras began to hold blind auditions, which place the musician behind a screen so the judges can’t see them and refer the musician by a number rather than by name, extremely few women were accepted, especially into the brass section. I love how orchestras became more inclusive and diverse just by taking musicians’ appearance, gender, and race out of the picture and focusing only on their musical ability.

  • Naizzers @ at 8:59 pm, July 2nd, 2010

    Double bass is awesome! My husband and I just bought our own last year after playing electric for some time. I find that there is more of an acceptance in the rockabilly/psychobilly scene but then again, women are expected to be a little tougher and more into traditionally masculine things.
    I have found that most people think “Oh, it’s so cute that you play that” mainly because I’m only 5’4 which pisses me off. No, I’m not cute, fuck off, I’m a musician like everyone else regardless of my gender.

  • chloe @ at 10:00 pm, July 2nd, 2010

    as a former female double bass player i can relate to this very much. i must admit that my reasoning for even learning bass (and also trombone) was that there were so few girls playing them. there were always the questions about whether i was playing because my boyfriend played etc. it was just so frustrating. but it’s glad to see i’m not alone, because that’s how it felt sometimes.

  • Samuel W. @ at 11:52 pm, July 2nd, 2010

    The only disadvantage there should logically be of being a woman with a double bass is that because women tend to naturally be a bit smaller than the big guys that you often see playing it (think the hulking Willie Dixon), it’s difficult to carry. But it’d be very difficult for me to carry it as well, seeing as I may be a guy but not too big a guy myself. As a matter of fact, there should be, for common sense, smaller double basses, but that’s another story altogether.

  • shaneru @ at 12:30 am, July 5th, 2010

    I am a female percussionist in my school band and surprisingly we have more female percussionists than males this year but last year all of the females except me quit band because of sexism coming from the male percussionists. Ever since I have been set on proving I was a good drummer and decided to try out for provincial honour band. I got one place before the male who was mainly bothering me but I noticed out of the three age catagories I was the only female percussionist.

  • Naizzers @ at 12:38 pm, July 5th, 2010

    Oh yes, as my Dad always said, “We need more female drummers” himself being one :)
    There’s not as many females wanting to be drummers because we’re sent the message that’s it’s for boys. We’re allowed to play instruments where we look sexy like guitars but percussionists aren’t “sexy”, all slouched and sweaty and actually being the backbone of the band O_o

  • Shaneru @ at 7:00 pm, July 5th, 2010

    I agree naizzers. I remember when I first started band everyone told me they were surprised that i choose drums. They all expected me to choose something like flute. I did originally try Clarinet but I couldn’t even get the instrument to make a sound so drums it was! I am so happy now that I picked drums and glad that I stuck with my gut feeling of trying percussion1

  • Naizzers @ at 6:54 pm, July 7th, 2010

    That’s so awesome Shaneru :D
    Blarh flute. I mean, it’s lovely but every girl is expected to play it. I chose alto sax in band but was actually pretty terrible lol I had this vision of being this super cool jazzy chick but yeah, my talent, (re: lack therof) had other plans ;)

  • t amp @ at 5:42 am, September 25th, 2010

    What I dont comprehend is how youre not even a ton a lot more popular than you may possibly be now. Youre just so intelligent. You know so substantially about this topic, developed me take into account it from so quite a few diverse angles. Its like men and women arent interested unless it has some factor to accomplish with Lady Gaga! Your stuffs excellent. Continue to maintain it up!

  • Katiee @ at 6:41 am, October 13th, 2010

    I loved this! It’s so true! I’m a female double bassist and a baritone saxophonist :) I was looking at double bassists in general online and realised i couldn’t really find any women. Suprisingly enough though in my university orchestra there was 3 females and a male bassist so it’s not too bad ha
    But why aren’t there more known females?!

  • Ricky @ at 10:28 pm, November 3rd, 2010

    I’m a cellist, but I would love to be a bassist. Strangely enough, at my school there were all female cello and bass players, six cello and two bass. So I guess that was out of the ordinary? I never got much problems on the sexist front, but I can imagine.

  • Emily @ at 1:45 am, July 30th, 2011

    Props for you! I have had similar incidents, but I don’t play double bass, I play marimba(which is similar to a really big xylophone). The instrument is roughly six feet long and is a bit less than double my weight but I have no problem maneuvering it on and off the field during marching band season!As a member of a competitive marching band I also have gotten cat calls and disparaging remarks. Being a female percussionist sometimes sucks. Not because I’m mostly surrounded by men(who I’m friends with) but because of the attitudes associated with being in a “men’s world”. Keep playing, the only way for sexism like this to stop is to push through it and prove to other people and musician’s that you have what it takes. And if any females out there are considering becoming percussionists you should know that even though chances are you will be the minority,it doesn’t mean that you are any worse than the guys, they just say that to make themselves feel better :)

  • Catherine @ at 6:46 pm, August 12th, 2011

    Wow, I guess I never knew double base was a man’s instrument. Of course our band didn’t have strings. I do know that, contrary to Emily’s experience, the marimba and other piano like instrumentsin the precussion section were considered girl’s instruments. We had a guy say that onlyy gays and girls played those instruments.

  • rivergoddess @ at 10:08 pm, October 7th, 2011

    I know what you mean about sexism in music- I’ve encountered the same infuriating precepts in band. I am our school’s 1st trombone, and have been kicking butt and taking names. I have repeatedly proven to my band director my mental and physical grit. However, when I informed him that I would like to march sousaphone this year, he told me that I was simply too small. Too small? One of his males has the same body as me- 5’3” and 115 lbs. Why then does my extra quarter of a chromosome make me “smaller?” Is my 115 any weaker than his? My 5’3” any shorter? I have high pain tolerance, and managed to hike the AT with 50 lbs on my back while sporting a high fever. Does this sound weak to you? No, the only reason I am still marching my trombone is that I have a lack of a penis, which I don’t see as being helpful in band anyway. When I expressed my outrage to the (all male) tuba section, they agreed this was a sound decision on the director’s part. “Besides,” one added, “girls playing tuba isn’t sexy.” This sent me over the edge. Am I in band to be sexy? Do I don my ridiculous uniform to, like some bird of paradise, attract mates? NO. I am in band to reach my full potential as a musician, and I am infuriated that I am not allowed to do this just because I am female.

  • Autumn @ at 6:49 pm, October 18th, 2011

    I am a female double bassist at my school, (im in 8th grade) im the only girl out of 7 players, and befor i started playing the 2nd yeah bass said “girls cant play bass worth a shit” well, now im 1st chair

  • Crystal @ at 12:01 am, October 5th, 2012

    I feel your pain. I, too, am a female double bassist, and I am 5′ and weigh 110 lbs, so you can imagine how people react to me when they see me carrying my bass. I totally get the issue of feeling vulnerable and helpless, but just know that you are a strong, badass woman. I’ve been subjected to sexism by being placed in the back of my section in orchestra (I’m an undergraduate music major) repeatedly, even though I play better than some of the male basses who play alongside me. We can get through this and prove to everyone that girls can indeed play the bass, tuba, whatever we want, and sound amazing. Keep playing :-)

  • e! @ at 9:00 am, January 19th, 2013

    Try being left-handed (denied even an audition for collegiate orchestra)

    “You can apply for our jazz program.”

  • Shelly @ at 1:08 am, November 18th, 2015

    I can completely relate to this article! As a female bass player in my first year of high school I have played at school concerts with both the orchestra and in the Jazz band. I get questioned a lot by my peers and even my teachers why I even chose the instrument. Even though its not the easiest to carry around I truly love the bass and would consider playing it professionally in the future!

  • Livvy @ at 3:17 pm, February 24th, 2016

    I am a female double bass player as well! I am the only girl in my whole school to play the instrument, in the orchestra it annoys me that in the section of the orchestra I am surrounded on both sides by a guy playing the same instrument as me. This really used to bug me but now I’m a statement that I hope younger girls will pick up on and this great instrument will not be entirely dominated by guys in the future!

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