Singing the Praises of Women Composers


Fletcher Music Center at ECU is a place where sound reigns.

When visitors pass through the double doors of Fletcher Music Center, whether it’s 10:00 a.m. or 9:00 p.m., they may hear percussionists practicing, the notes of a piano concerto, and the melodious harmonies of vocalists.

Although various sounds permeate the building during all times of day, the musicians may be confined to playing their music within a classroom’s four walls. This fall, a new program, the Women’s Initiative Music Series “Music on a WIM,” plans to break these sound barriers by conducting concerts in a more open venue—Fletcher’s lobby.

According to Dr. Catherine Garner, director of this series and a music professor, concert choir accompanist and collaborative pianist at ECU, in the past, concerts were held in pretty informal settings.


Click here to watch the full 30 minute performance.

WIM concerts feature music composed solely by women, and past performances have taken place in September, October, and November of this year. Additional concerts are planned for February, March, and April, and each concert is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on the first Wednesday of the month.

“Concerts were small and intimate, such as in the salons in Europe. In fact, the idea of sitting quietly and not talking during a concert is very 20th century,” she said. “An open venue, like Fletcher’s lobby, appeals to me because it allows more people to enjoy the music. By letting individuals come and go as they please, we are able to reach more people.”

Garner also mentioned that the open-air setting invites listeners to interact with the music.

“Historically, at concerts, people were able to applaud when they liked a piece and boo when they did not,” she said. “Listeners were actually encouraged to talk to each other about the pieces they were hearing.”

Candace Little, a senior music-therapy major, agreed that an open venue adds a special element to a musical performance.

“The open venue makes it easier for people to see what we as musicians do,” said Little. “They may think that we just sing, but there is so much involved with music—so much to learn.”

At the November 3 concert, Little performed a piece composed by Florence Price, the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer in the 1930s. Price wrote more than 300 compositions, but many remain unpublished, even today.

Other women composers featured in the November 3 performance include Margaret Bonds and Andrea Clearfield.

Maurio Hines, a graduate voice major, and Garner on the piano, performed Bonds’ song cycle Dream Portraits. Bonds, a Chicago-born pianist, composer, and teacher, was the first African American soloist to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The cycle Hines performed includes three works—Minstrel Man, Dream Variation, and I, Too.

Kristen Richard, a senior in horn performance, and Alisa Gilliam, a piano faculty member at ECU, performed the first movement, Wolf Songs, from Clearfield’s composition. Clearfield, a current American composer, recently won the American Academy in Rome Fellowship from the American Composers Forum.

Garner, who received her doctorate in collaborative arts and chamber music from Eastman School of Music, added that she has always had a personal interest in women’s music.

“I feel, as a woman, it is important to highlight women in music,” she said. “ This series is a way to empower my students, both men and women.”

Also, according to Garner, introducing students to unknown music is a great passion of hers, and this series is a great opportunity to accomplish this.

“I just felt as though there was a vast repertoire of music from women composers that is fairly unknown. This music is wonderful, but is it overshadowed by men composers,” she said. “I felt the need to explore this repertoire and let women know that they can be successful in this field.”

Garner first encountered the idea of emphasizing women in music while completing her graduate studies at Eastman. Eastman devoted a week in March to women composers.

 She said the liked the idea of highlighting women in music, but wanted to create something that was more ongoing.


Kristen Richard, performing Wolf Songs on the horn, composed by Andrea Clearfield.

According to Garner, recognizing women composers is also important because the world of music has not been welcoming to women.

"In the past, it was difficult to be published as a woman musician because it was not deemed proper,” she said. “This music we are highlighting speaks to me because these women were successful in the face of adversity, and they made their voices heard, regardless of their gender.”

Despite the struggles that women composers have encountered in the past, Garner believes that women composers today are seen in a more positive light.

“It is easier now for any composer to have their music published,” she said. “Thankfully, women are treated with more equality and it’s a bit easier to be heard. Women are no longer confined to gender specific roles.”

In addition to showcasing women composers, Garner also believes that the WIM series offers students valuable performing experiences.

“Performing in this series is a great opportunity for students,” she said. “Other than formal recitals, they do not get a lot of chances to perform.”

Little also believes that performing music written solely by women has been a valuable learning experience.

“When I perform a composition written by a woman, I see myself in that woman’s shoes," she said. "I try to portray the composer and sing the piece the way I feel that she wrote it by putting emotion in it.”

For Hines, recognizing women composers was also a good way to contribute to the School of Music.

“I feel this is a great way to give back to the School of Music,” he said. “The school has given me so much in the two years that I have been here.”

Ultimately, Garner reiterated the value of a series like this and what students can learn from it.

“I want my students to know that they can be successful regardless of their gender. If the students can see that these women composers faced adversity and emerged triumphant, then they will realize they can be successful in their musical careers, as well,” said Garner. “My main goal is to empower the students in their professional fields, no matter what those may be.”

By Meagan Williford
University Marketing