patronizing opinion rant in the Wall Street Journal, which advised soon-to-be First Lady Jill Biden to drop the "Dr." in her name, despite her considerable academic credentials.This week in the U.S., a number of news stories focused on a
Yes, people who earn doctoral degrees are literally entitled to the "Dr." before their names. Even if it's a doctoral degree in education, or heaven forbid, a doctoral degree in music.
But for one of my colleagues, violinist Colleen Coomber, this whole misogyny-tinged brouhaha brought up another irksome issue for women: the old-fashioned urge to call a female concertmaster a "concertmistress." I have to agree with her.
I remember being the “concertmistress” of my youth orchestra and the vague embarrassment over the name. It was an honor that put me in front of everyone, but I couldn't quite figure out why the “mistress” thing felt weird. I mean isn't "concertmistress" simply the female version of "concertmaster"?
Honestly, it really doesn't convey the same sense of authority.
"A Master’s Degree is not required to hold the position and title of concertmaster, however I was asked many times whether a female should be called concertmistress," Colleen wrote on her Facebook page. "Once, as I was about to enter the stage, I was asked to be announced as 'Concertmistress.....' I responded with, "The title is Concertmaster." When the guy asked my why, I said that my college degree is called a Master’s Degree, not a Mistress Degree. Backstage, the ladies with doctorates cheered."
I'd be very happy if the word "mistress" conveyed the same thing that the word "master" did. But the sad truth is that oftentimes, words associated with women turn into epithets. That is certainly the case here. Let's look at the dictionary definitions of both words for a moment. Both have an authoritative first meaning, but the second meaning diverges greatly:
Master — First, "a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves," and second, "a person who has dominance or control of something."
Mistress — First, "a woman in a position of authority or control," and second, "a woman having an extramarital sexual relationship."
Let's not delude ourselves, that second definition of "mistress" is used at least as much as, if not more than, the first.
We regularly say things such as, "It is my greatest wish to master the Paganini Caprices." We do not say, "It is my greatest wish to mistress the Paganini Caprices."
If Midori gives a masterclass, should we call it a "mistressclass"? Not likely. Do these book titles make sense?
Violin Mistress Works and Their Interpretation
10 Violin Solos from the Mistresses
The Mistress's Violin
Great Mistresses of the Violin
Mistresspieces for Violin
Another truth that goes hand-in-hand with this issue is the traditional reluctance to promote women to the position of concertmaster. There have been considerable gains, but at the beginning of my own career, this bias certainly was common. Colleen, who is about the same age as me, described an incident early in her career, in which she fought hard for the chance to perform as concertmaster.
"When I was in the American Youth Symphony," said Colleen, "it was unheard of and not possible in the conductor's eyes for a woman to be concertmaster. Though I spent 10 years there and worked my way up from the back of the firsts to assistant concertmaster, he’d never move me up. I begged for the chance, and did threaten to quit. Finally, he gave in and I performed as concertmaster three or four times. The conductor was proud of me, and I had proved myself! I know AYS only had a couple of female concertmasters during my tenure."
She did ultimately break through the barrier, if temporarily, and it's that kind of persistence that has helped change minds and pave the way for more female concertmasters in today's orchestras.
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