“We Need a Man for Solo Trombone”

by Monique Buzzarté

Originally published in the International Alliance for Women in Music Journal Vol. 1, No. 3 (February 1996) pp. 8-11. Reprinted in Sforzando (March 1996),  The Women’s Journal (April 1996),  Music Clubs Magazine (Spring 1999),CUBE Newsletter (March/April 1999), and Emerging Voices (Student Association for Feminist Thought, Morehead State University, Kentucky, 2001). 

It was every performer’s nightmare: the last note faded away into stillness, yet the hall was silent, and remained silent. But then suddenly it became every performer’s dream as the audience erupted into wild applause and delivered a standing ovation which continued bow after bow. With tears streaming down my face as I rose and joined the others, I was reminded why I had become a musician: I wanted to affect people, as Abbie Conant had just affected me with her performance of William Osborne’s performance-art piece “Miriam: Part II.”

I knew of Abbie before that evening at the first International Women’s Brass Conference, held in St. Louis in May, 1993 and attended by nearly 350 participants, roughly eighty-five percent of which were women. A woman trombonist myself, I was familiar with at least the names of most the other professional women trombonists (perhaps numbering seventy world-wide), and Abbie had been featured the previous year in an article by Hugo Magliocco in the Spring 1992 Journal (Volume 20, No. 2) of the International Trombone Association. I had also heard her playing, since she had released a compact disc of trombone and organ music (Audite 97.410), one of the very few classical trombone recordings available.

But nothing had prepared me for the intensity and power of her performance that evening, when she sang, played, and enacted the visions of a woman in an insane asylum trying to tell her story. The work had been developed with her husband, composer William Osborne, during the years she had spent in legal battles with the Munich Philharmonic fighting a sex discrimination suit, and the emotional toll of those years clearly showed in her performance.

What follows is Abbie’s story.1

A native of the Southwestern United States, Abbie attended the Interlochen Arts Academy as a scholarship student. She received her undergraduate degree from Temple University. After completing a Master’s Degree from the Julliard School in 1979, Abbie won a position as the solo trombonist of the Royal Opera of Turin for the 1979-80 season. In June of 1980, invited to audition as “Herr” Abbie Conant, she won the solo trombone position of the Munich Philharmonic.

The first round of that audition was held behind a screen (the last time a screen has been used in an audition for the Munich Philharmonic), the second and third rounds were not. Abbie was clearly the superior trombonist, and the full orchestra voted to hire her. According to the orchestra chairman, the new General Music Director Sergiu Celibidache was opposed to her appointment2, but perhaps because he was still new with the orchestra and immersed in negotiations with the city regarding his own contract he felt that he was not yet in a position to overrule the orchestra’s selection.

Abbie played her probationary year with the orchestra without incident, and she was voted tenure by her colleagues. (In order to retain their positions in Germany, solo players must be approved by a vote of the full orchestra at the end of their first year.) However, after her probationary year was completed, she was informed that Celibadache wanted to veto the orchestra’s vote, and demote her to second trombone. During her probationary year she could have been demoted or dismissed by Celibadache without difficulty, since the only thing the musicians’ contract required for that were two written criticisms. But her trial year had ended without her ever having received criticism, either written or verbal, from Celibidache.

Confident of her abilities, Abbie offered to play a second probationary year for Mr. Celibidache to give him the opportunity to explain what dissatisfied him about her performance. That season she played one program for him, and although she received no criticism he did not allow her to play solo for him the rest of the year.

At the beginning of her third year with the orchestra, Abbie offered Celibidache another compromise: she would play second for him, but solo for guest conductors. He rejected her offer, stating that “You know the problem: we need a man for solo trombone.”3

In February of 1982 she was officially demoted to second trombone and filed a lawsuit to regain her position. Extensive court battles ensued between Abbie and the City of Munich, since the Munich Philharmonic is a municipal orchestra. For the next six years she had to play second trombone, a position with an increased workload and decreased pay. (In Germany, two “solo” trombonists are hired to split the principal trombone chair. Section trombonists are required to perform approximately one-third more services, and are paid considerably less than solo players.) 

In each of the first two trials the court ruled that not enough evidence was presented to support the orchestra’s position of demoting Abbie, and ordered the city’s lawyers to prepare specific complaints. In response, they claimed that Abbie did not “possess the necessary strength to be a leader of the trombone section.” Since in continental law the accused must supply the proof, Abbie underwent extensive medical testing to measure the capacity of her lungs and the speed at which she could inhale and exhale air. She had blood drawn from her ear to see how efficiently her body absorbed oxygen. She stripped and let a doctor examine her rib cage and chest. She also solicited forty-three testimonials of her musicianship from musicians and guest conductors. In March of 1984, after the third trial within three years, the court ruled in Abbie’s favor, finding that “The suit is permissible because the change in work assignments, due to the lack of a substantiated argument, is unjustified.” The city appealed. 

The appeal hearings began the following year, and continued for three more years as Abbie continuing playing second trombone. At the first appeal hearing, the city used the orchestra’s calendar to “reconstruct” specific accusations against Abbie. In the most preposterous example, the city claimed that her “shortness of breath was unoverhearable”4 in the famous trombone solo from Mozart’s Requiem, which directly contradicted a glowing testimonial from Yoav Talmi, the guest conductor for those concerts, who specifically mentioned her solo.5 

At the second appeal hearing, the judge said he understood nothing about music, and determined that a specialist, preferably a conductor, should decide

“Whether the Plaintiff for an orchestra of the quality of the Munich Philharmonic possesses unconditionally the necessary physical strength, endurance, and durability to play the most difficult passages according to the conductors’ instructions for length, intensity, and loudness.”6

Both sides were to provide the judge with a list of candidates were to listen to Abbie play selected orchestral excerpts and prepare a written report to the court for a fee of $2,200. Abbie provided a list of all of the conductors in Germany’s ninety-five state orchestras, and a list of several German trombone professors. The city’s list had no conductors, and listed only two trombone professors, both of whom were competing with Abbie for a professorship at the Munich conservatory. In spite of the fee, the court had great difficulty finding a conductor willing to judge Abbie’s playing — perhaps because all of the candidates were well aware that if they ruled in Abbie’s favor they might never be invited to work with the Munich Philharmonic. 

After almost a year’s delay, Paul Schreckenberger, the trombone professor of the State Conservatory in Mannheim, agreed to judge Abbie in March of 1986. Three different audition dates were set and canceled by him in the next sixteen months, until finally in July of 1987 he withdrew completely, saying he did not have time. For each of these dates, Abbie had prepared extensively, only to have her chance to prove herself repeatedly withdrawn at the last moment.

At last Heinz Fadle, a professor at the State Conservatory of Music in Detmold and president of the German Trombone Association, agreed to evaluate Abbie. Three years after the court determined that a “specialist” should assess Abbie’s musical abilities, she traveled to his city and played the list of orchestral excerpts he requested, observed only by Fadle, a representative from the City of Munich, and a tape recorder. She played each excerpt several times, altering her performance each time to meet his instructions to vary the style, dynamics, phrasing, and vibrato. This audition was far more demanding than any normal orchestral audition, rehearsal, or concert, yet his court report praised her playing in unequivocal terms:

She is a wind player with an outstandingly well-trained embouchure, i.e., lip musculature, that enables her to produce controlled tone production in connection with a controlled breath flow, and which gives her the optimal use of her breath volume. Her breathing technique is very good and makes her playing, even in the most difficult passages, superior and easy. In this audition she showed sufficient physical strength, endurance, and breath volume, and above and beyond that, she has enormously solid nerves. This, paired with the above mentioned wind-playing qualities, put her completely in the position to play the most difficult phrases in a top orchestra, holding them out according to the conductor’s directions for adequate length and intensity, as well as strength.”7

The court ruled in her favor in July of 1988. After eight years in the orchestra and six years in court, Abbie was reinstated to her position of solo trombone. However, this was not the end of her battles. The Munich Philharmonic then refused to pay her as a solo trombonist, or to deliver her the back pay she was entitled to until they received the actual written judgment. It took the judge two additional years, until August of 1990, to complete a three-page judgment. 

The Munich Philharmonic then placed Abbie in a lower salary group than all fifteen of her (male) solo-wind colleagues. In June of 1991, after further legal battles, Abbie won a trial against the City of Munich in order to be placed in the same pay group as her male colleagues. The City of Munich appealed. 

In March of 1993 Abbie won the appeal. She had finally regained the position she’d won thirteen years earlier, receiving the same pay and seniority as her male colleagues. Vindicated, she decided to accept a prestigious tenured position at the State Conservatory of Music in Trossingen, and left the orchestra. The Munich Philharmonic hired a seventeen year-old male with no orchestral experience as her replacement.

Few trombonists are as renowned or as versatile as Abbie Conant. She is in demand as a recitalist, soloist, and performance artist; she has been a guest on NPR’s Performance Today ; the subject of a docu-musical film Abbie Get Your Gun , in addition to being profiled in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post . Her first CD of trombone and organ music was highly praised, and her second CD of trombone and computer music (featuring “Music for the End of Time” by William Osborne) is scheduled for release next year.

Since she left the Munich Philharmonic, Abbie has toured the United States each spring, presenting performance-art pieces, workshops, and masterclasses throughout the East Coast (1994) and the Midwest (1995). This spring she will tour the Southwest and West Coast. Although her itinerary is not finalized as this article goes to press, confirmed engagements include performances at the University of New Mexico (March 31), the University of Southern California (April 3), the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (April 8), Portland State University (April 10), and the University of Washington (April 14).

As a tenured trombone professor in Germany, Abbie’s position is comparable to an artist-in-residence position in the United States. She teaches between ten and fifteen students, and has no other teaching duties or committee assignments. She is allowed virtually unlimited paid leave, and can make up lessons at her convenience. Her salary is equal to or higher than those offered by any of the German orchestras (excluding the Berlin Philharmonic).

Brenda Parkerson’s film Abbie Get Your Gun , a eighty-two minute musical burlesque and documentary, continues to acquaint people with Abbie’s case. The film (in English and German, with English subtitles) intersperses footage of Abbie recounting her experiences with scenes from a grotesque cabaret-musicale, in which the actors (all women, most in outlandish drag) re-enact the unbelievable but factual story of Abbie’s struggle in Munich. The film was first broadcast on national German television, and has since received subsequent screenings at theaters in Dortmund, Freiberg, Hamburg, and Berlin. It is scheduled for screening in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in March of 1996. The director writes:

“I knew that Abbie Conant’s story must be told and told in a way that opened people up to her dilemma. For me, that meant it must be told with humor, emotion and dignity. In addition, it was important for me to reach a particular group of women – young women who cringe at the mention of feminism. This film wasn’t made for feminists, but for people who believe that discrimination against women is a thing of the past.”8

Unfortunately, sexual discrimination is neither unusual nor a thing of the past. During a recent conversation between the author and Rebecca Bower, Co-Principal Trombone of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Becky remarked upon the “striking similarity” of her situation as compared to Abbie’s. Becky won her position in 1989, hired by Lorin Maazel. Despite his repeated assurances throughout her first year that he was very happy with her playing, and without her having received any criticism from him, she was denied tenure by the same conductor that had hired her a year earlier. The following year Maazel did grant her tenure, but at the same time assigned her to play primarily second trombone, despite the fact that she won and is tenured to play the Co-Principal chair. She has filed complaints of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment with the Department of Labor and the Equal Opportunity Commission. This year the Pittsburgh Symphony hired an interim Principal Trombone: a twenty-year old male with no orchestral experience.

Is it any wonder why so few of the talented and gifted women trombonists choose to pursue an orchestral career? There are just a handful of woman trombonists in major orchestras. This year marks the first season the New York Philharmonic carries a women trombonist player on its roster. Lisa Albrecht, Assistant Principal Trombone joins Rebecca Bower, Co-Principal Trombone of the Pittsburgh Symphony and Heather Buchman, Principal Trombone of the San Diego Symphony as a member of an elite minority.

Academia is no better. Abbie Conant is the first (and only) female professor of trombone in all of Germany. In the United States there are only two women with established positions: Marta Hofacre at the University of Southern Mississippi, and JoDee Davis at Kent State University. A handful of other women teach at small colleges, most as an adjunct position connected to their orchestral employment. Why? Could it really be that so few women are talented enough, or qualified enough, to hold these positions? Of course not.

There is a tremendous amount of hostility and resentment towards women in our society, and it is magnified in the back rows of the orchestra. The autocratic and hierarchical structure of the symphony orchestra permit and perhaps even encourage sexual discrimination and sexual harassment to flourish.

Sylvia Alimena, conductor of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and a section horn player with the National Symphony, recalls the reaction of other audience members to Abbie’s St. Louis performance of Miriam :

“You can not imagine the power of this piece unless you were there in the room,” Alimena says. “All those professional women, just shaken to their cores by this piece. Of course it resonates particularly with other players, because – believe it – the kind of treatment Abbie went through in Munich is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unknown in the United States.”9

Unfortunately, Abbie’s story reflects the rule, not the exception, for women trombonists. Her case is distinguished from so many others not by the actions she endured, but by their severity, her documentation of them, and most notably, by her eventual victory.

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Monique and/or Abbie would like to hear from you. The film “Abbie Get Your Gun” is available (in NTSC and PAL video formats) from Brenda. (We all get a lot of mail, so please put in a subject heading!)

1)Much of what is reported here regarding Abbie’s experiences with the Munich Philharmonic and her subsequent legal battles is summarized from William Osborne’s You Sound Like a Ladies Orchestra.2)Heinz Hofl, “Aus dem Blech gefallen”, Der Spiegel , Nr. 44/45. Jahrgang, October 28, 1991. Page 89.3)Berger, “Frauen mussen freundlicher sein”, Frankfurter Rundschau am Wochenende, November 30, 1991, Page ZB 5., see also, Final judgment, Conant vs. LH Munchen, AGM 13 Ca 50/91, June 7, 1991, page 6.4)LH Munchen vs. Conant Aktz: 5 Sa 639/84, September 17, 1984.5)Letter from Yoav Talmi to Abbie Conant, November 17, 1981.6)Judgment LH Munchen vs. Conant, LAG Aktz: Sa 639/84, March 6, 1985.7)Report of Professor Fadle, February 27, 1988 for LH Munchen vs. Conant, LAG Aktz: 5 Sa 639/84.8)Electronic mail to the author November 20, 1995.9)As quoted by Mark Adamo in The Washington Post , March 14, 1994. Page D8.