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Playing like a man

April 15, 2013

I came across something on the web recently where a female musician was taking exception to the phrase “play like a man”. It’s probably something we’ve all encountered, either directed at us or used to describe others. It is indeed offensive with its implication that women are somehow defective when it comes to performance, and resonates with the sexism that still abounds on the planet. What’s wrong with how we play? Isn’t music genderless? Don’t we have something to bring that’s special and relates solely to our talent? I would reply that  there’s nothing wrong with how women play, and of course every individual of any gender or sexual orientation has something unique to offer. This is the miracle of music: a gift is a gift; after that comes work, persistence and the courage to realise that gift.

So the phrase “playing like a man” is demeaning and nonsensical.  And yet…and yet… I was recently listening to a colleague (male) who was having fun on my piano, and heard qualities that I liked very much. Soon after that I heard another male pianist in performance – fabulous stuff. Both times I was struck by how they were “playing like a man”, and was surprised at myself. Much thought was needed! What exactly does this mean?

I started to think about what was different, and realised they both played with a confidence that was almost separate from their music. They felt assured enough in the world (yes, I know: almost all musicians doubt themselves sometimes!) and that quality came through their playing. It wasn’t aggressive, just a feeling of reasonable entitlement as to their place on the planet as human beings, which informed their performance.  This is what struck me as different. I heard it in the way they played out – boldly, making a statement about their playing and themselves. I’m not sure that as girls or women we  reach that confidence: we aren’t always taught that our gender does not make us lesser beings. 

What we need to to do is sift out the noxious stuff about men – the cliches and assumed behaviours, exactly as we want for women. There are differences – some genetic, others learned. That is a another enormous and complex topic, but the point is: what can we learn from men that is useful to us, without it being at the expense of our female-ness? I believe that that confidence-in-the-world is a wonderful thing, both at the piano and away from it. It’s a quality which I am busy learning for myself, and when I get it right, it’s like being able to fly!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013 8:59 pm

    Reblogged this on Barnaby Priest and commented:
    Did you get the chance to confirm with the pianists how they felt about how they were playing? Can you be certain about your analysis? Couldn’t the adverb “powerfully” be substituted? I know that traditionally that might be associated with masculinity but that could be more of a cultural more

    • Jill permalink*
      April 19, 2013 1:19 pm

      No, I haven’t yet had the chance to talk to them: one of them was in Switzerland, and I’m not there right now. I would like to ask them about it. As for my analysis: I feel pretty certain, but this IS a subjective post. “Powerfully” is a fine adverb, and I appreciate what you say about the cultural more, but I don’t think it completely covers what I heard.

  2. April 25, 2013 11:26 am

    Thank you for these words Ms Richards. I appreciate the way you have expressed this.

  3. Chris Gilfillan permalink
    January 25, 2014 11:04 pm

    Yet as an avid lover of music, but sadly not a performer, I am as much drawn to female as to male pianists. Angela Hewitt as much as to Daniel Barenboim, Helene Grimaud as much as to Paul Lewis. Each give me great pleasure, help me experience the music in special ways. Gender has never featured. That it can be an issue is a surprise.

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