International Women's Day: Cheryl Frances-Hoad
I've never been a male composer, so I don't have anything to compare being a female composer to. I've always just thought of myself as a composer, but I'm well aware that it's not as simple for a lot of women and girls, and that I'm incredibly lucky to have begun my musical life feeling that my gender was completely irrelevant.
I've never been actively discouraged from pursuing my goals because of being female and know that in the real world this makes me extremely privileged. Sure, I'm often presumed to be a lot less experienced than I am, and find myself on the end of kindly-meant (yet eye-roll inducing) condescension too often in certain company, but this kind of stuff is water off a duck's back to me. It might be a lot harder to shrug off if I'd not received so much positive reinforcement throughout my career though. As a result, I'm very happy to be called a 'female composer' if it's of help to someone, if it makes a young girl who is less fortunate than I think that her dream is attainable because she can see someone who's like her doing what she wants to do. I know from the mentoring that I've done that for many teenage girls, it's very important to them that I'm a woman, and I'm happy to be of use.
I started composing early enough that I can't remember starting, when I was about 7, and it wasn't until I was 12 or 13 that I played a piece by Judith Weir, the first female composer I'd ever heard of. I wrote simply because I had a seemingly inexhaustible urge to, the manuscript books that I filled up every holiday being the only viable form of personal expression I had, all other avenues being stymied by a chronic shyness that lasted well past my university years. At the Yehudi Menuhin School, where I studied for ten years, I was surrounded by children for whom music was the most important thing, and the fact that I was the only one taking composing seriously didn't really matter. By the time I got to Cambridge University (despite the fact that I only had two A-levels and didn't get the grades required: I've since been told how much effort it took to get me accepted on the strength of my composition portfolio alone) I had won the BBC Young Composer of the Year and received several professional commissions. As a result, and despite my lack of confidence and academic training, there was never any chance of me not being taken seriously as a composer.
In the last ten years I have benefited hugely from commissioning and funding schemes for women composers and I am tremendously grateful for these opportunities. A quick glance at the percentages of women musicians represented across the board convinces me that positive discrimination is entirely justified, and schemes like the PRS's Women Make Music, and concert programming like that of the Southbank Sinfonia's should be heartily applauded. Of course, no-one wants to feel like they've got the gig solely because of their gender, but I have enough confidence in my own abilities to believe this is not the case, and frankly, my unashamedly ambitious, competitive streak makes it impossible for me to resist entering anything for which I am eligible, repeatedly, until I am politely asked not to apply again. This attitude has taken a lot of hard work though: throughout my life I've been plagued by feelings of unworthiness, and it's only by confronting myself repeatedly with empirical evidence of my own achievements (that I too often feel guilty about) that I manage to keep negative, creativity-destroying feelings at bay.
The more I look back, the more I realise how lucky I've been: having a musical mother who recognised my talent and has unfailing faith in me, being given the best musical education that money can buy (whilst paying for only a fraction of it due to income-related government funding and grade-related scholarships) and knowing that if things don't work out, despite not coming from an affluent background, I will never be homeless. These factors, I believe, have lead to me being able to throw myself wholeheartedly into fulfilling my dreams, and have shaped my career far more than any considerations of gender. Added to this, I'm dedicated, extremely hard-working and almost impervious to rejection - vital strengths in any professional composer.