When I was a kid, around 8 or 9 years old, someone in my neighborhood in Queens tried to form a marching band, recruiting kids from Richmond Hill and Woodhaven to play one of three sets of instruments: there would be, of course, a group of drummers to keep the beat, and the other kids would either play glockenspiel or “trumpet” – actually they were bugles, but none of us knew the difference and we inevitably called them trumpets. Anyway, I was quite taken with the bell-like tones of the glockenspiel, so when the interested kids were first assembled at the local American Legion hall, I went into the room where all the glockenspiels and would-be glockenspielists(?) were. To my horror, I saw that I was the only boy there. All the girls had decided that this was their instrument; the boys had all gone to the “trumpet” room or to the drum room. What would’ve been a dream come true to a slightly older me was, in this case, a potentially hideous embarrassment. Clearly I could not want to play the glockenspiel, any more than I could want to wear a tutu and learn ballet. (I don’t think I realized there were male ballet dancers back then – I was not the most culturally aware kid, unless by “culture” you meant baseball.)
So I muttered something about “wrong room” and trudged to the room where my two younger brothers had gone to learn to play the “trumpet.” It was easy to find – simply follow the bleating sounds of a thousand goats being strangled. This turned out to be about a dozen kids – all boys, to my relief – spitting and drooling on their instruments in an attempt to imitate the teacher’s loud fanfare. It was disgusting. Long story short, I ended up in the basement with the other drummers – also all boys, but a far more hygienic group – and began learning the basics of parade drumming in the month before the band broke up.
I mention this now because clearly I have issues to work through. Plus Krin Gabbard’s history of the trumpet (the real one, not the bugle) got me to thinking about instruments and gender. The trumpet historically has been, like so many other instruments, the province of men. Given the trumpet’s age-old military use, that’s no surprise. But Krin’s book suggests that jazz as we now know it began in part because for African-American males in the late 19-century, playing the trumpet was an expression of their sexuality that was socially acceptable (mainly because it was also socially invisible). The trumpet was for jazz musicians what the electric guitar later became for rockers – a kind of phallic talisman. And Krin also points out that the sexism that has afflicted the trumpet is ironic because it is a soprano instrument, and should by all rights be a women’s instrument.
It’s funny how these things work out: we expect harpists to be women (though traditionally, they were men - bards like Homer or troubadours like Richard the Lion-Hearted), trombonists to be men. A woman who plays the double bass or the drum kit will still catch your attention because of her gender. The topic of instruments and gender is not the basis of Krin’s book – but it is certainly one of the thought-provoking by-products of reading it.
Why do you think some instruments are so closely associated with one gender? Does the trumpet seem to be a particularly “male” instrument to you? Leave a comment.