Taking the Lead: Leadership as a Female Musician
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
By Raychel Taylor
My role as a woman in music is a culmination of my experiences as a performing musician, music educator, and arts entrepreneur. I have chosen to take a stand as a female percussionist for women in male-dominated professions. A byproduct of that stance is being viewed as a leader in my field; but it’s important to recognize that leadership is complicated. In my opinion, it’s an overused word used as a catch-all term to signify “that thing we all need to have in order to stand out from a crowd.” While there is some truth to that, there are nuances to leadership that are lost in the broader strokes: it is unique to you, adaptive, and may be situational.
In defining your own leadership style, prepare to do some deep self-reflection. I am still searching for and discovering my style, finding the qualities I want to develop and refine or cut out completely. Ultimately, positivity and authenticity are the fundamental traits that I hope shape my leadership style most. Everyone’s style is different, but I find most everyone enjoys being around people who encourage them. I want people to walk away from interactions with me feeling energized and good about what they do.
One of the most interesting things I discovered as a young adult was that my initial reaction to other women was often one of competitiveness. After much soul-searching, I realized this feeling stemmed from being socialized in a systemic patriarchal society where women are each others’ competition. Women are constantly pitted against each other in social circles by male and females friends alike. From a young age, girls are constantly being compared to each other, sometimes even participating in the comparisons themselves. It took me a long time to believe that it wasn’t my fault for thinking this way. It’s just the culture we are raised in, and as difficult as it can be to admit, we have made little progress beyond the patriarchal societies that have reigned over the world for centuries.
As I got older, this toxic competitiveness seeped into interactions with other women percussionists, but it evolved and came out in us trying to elbow each other out, either trying to be recognized as the best female percussionist in the room or essentially denying our own femininity in order to blend in and be “one of the guys.” To combat this, I decided to actively change my thought process so that every time I saw another woman I felt admiration and warmth towards her instead of fear and anxiety. I sent her positive vibes. I wanted her to succeed. I went out of my way to tell her she did a great job on a given performance and that she sounded great. I challenged myself to openly compliment other women, both on their skills and their hair, their clothes — whatever I genuinely liked or admired about them. I still actively practice appreciation of others and recognize what they have to offer, thereby counteracting any residual subconscious feelings.
For me, leadership as a woman in music is first and foremost supporting and lifting other women up. Believe it or not, there is room for all of us — musically, creatively, physically. There is no need for relentless competing, it is self-defeating. We are all talented. We are ALL pretty! We all have a voice, our OWN voice. Most of us fall for the false sense of scarcity at some point, the illusion that there isn’t enough space, not enough jobs, not enough opportunity, but if you look around and notice all of the projects your friends are creating, or anything that is being created by people all over the world in any given moment, you come to realize ideas are not scarce. Rather, it’s the people who have the gumption and motivation to put the work in and make something happen who are rare. Being comfortable with your own abilities leaves room for everyone so they can contribute and shine, and when people feel that there is room for them it brings a sense of ease. I enjoy working and playing with people who make me feel at ease, one of the first steps to building trust.
It’s really important to remember that as a leader, it’s not about you, it’s about everyone else. Care more about the other people in your group and less about what something is doing for you or your resume. Most of us have goals and dreams outside and inside of a given project. Find out what everyone’s interests are. Why are they playing in this group? What do they want out of the experience? If you can find out someone’s reason for participating in any activity, you can discover what motivates them. Help them get more of what they want, help them achieve their goals. Believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves. Figure out what kind of feedback they need so they can improve their work, and understand that everyone receives constructive criticism and recognition in different ways. Everyone wants to feel valued; make sure people know how and why you value them. These are the things leaders need to practice and contemplate deliberately.
And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a “title” to be a leader or exhibit leadership qualities. In fact, I think finding where you fit in or how best you can serve a particular group is a nuanced and subtle approach to leading. Knowing when you need to step back, when to step up, and when to step up with someone else to support them. Similarly, taking initiative to get something started can help move everyone forward. Some people are afraid of taking the first step toward something — getting the ball rolling can create just enough inertia to get everyone moving toward a common goal with you.
If you take anything away from this post, it should be this: don’t be afraid of the unknown. The reality is, most men are not afraid to voice their opinions or step up to the plate, primarily because they are socially expected to. When women speak up or step up, it may clash with some people’s expectations of them, so the very act of sharing or leading is a challenge. It may rub people the wrong way or meet immediate resistance. Keep in mind that the way someone treats you is not your problem, it’s theirs. What they are coming up against are their own expectations, not you personally (even though it might feel that way). Don’t shy away from taking on a new project or position just because you aren’t an expert or because you’ve never done it before. Sometimes the experience you gain is more valuable when learned on the go. It is precisely because you haven’t done “x” before that you should do it now. You don’t need to know everything about “x” before you do it, expertise is gained through doing.
No one is ever “ready” for the biggest leaps we take. We must take them, or someone else will. The secret is: no one really knows what they’re doing, we are all figuring it out as we go. And that’s ok! Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying... :)
Everyone starts somewhere — take the first step, embrace the unknown!
Raychel Taylor is an experienced educator, performer, and arts entrepreneur in northern Illinois. In addition to teaching and performing in an eclectic array of ensembles, like berimbau sextet Projeto Arcomusical, she founded "Girls March," a summer music and leadership program for young female percussionists to learn from some of the most influential women in the marching arts.