Awesome Women Pt 3: Women in Music

That’s right! It’s time for more Awesome Women because it is still Awesome Women Month!!! This week’s topic: Music.


Clara Schumann  clara schumann

Talk about a rough childhood. Her mother was one of her father’s piano/singing students, and we can surmise that Clara’s father did not treat Clara’s mother with much respect. When Clara was four years old her mother left. As in left. As in walked out of the house and filed for divorce. This was 1823 and women didn’t do that!! Because it was 1823 and women and children were considered property of their father, Clara was given about six months with her mom and then was handed over to her father to be raised. Clara’s father taught her piano, which it turned out she did very well. So well, in fact, that he had her touring around Europe by age 11. When she was very young he kept diaries for her… as in wrote from Clara’s first person point of view and often spent pages talking about “my beloved father” meaning himself– ew. While Clara was playing for super important and rich people around Europe she met Robert Schumann. Robert began studying music with Clara’s father. In 1837, when Clara was 18, Robert asked Clara’s father for permission to marry her. Her father refused. So, basically, they eloped. (Her father was PISSED!)

Clara continued to compose and play while she raised seven children, but mostly what she did was support Robert in his career and… well… raise seven children. Modern scholars are now sure that many compositions Robert sold as his own were actually written by Clara. The letters and diaries between them suggest a much more equal partnership than was common in those days. She probably knew he was using her stuff, probably gave him permission to do it, if only because any music would sell better if it was composed “by a man.” After Robert died, Clara went back to performing to support her family.

Clara was also the middle of a famous love triangle. Johannes Brahms because friends with Robert and Clara and was pretty famously in love with Clara. He hung around and was a good friend all through Robert’s sickness and death, but while he clearly pined after her there is no evidence that their relationship was “more than friends.”


Fanny Mendelssohn  fanny mendelssohn


Fanny’s brother Felix is much more widely known. Felix was a successful composer. Blah blah blah. Fanny was his older sister who was way more wicked awesome at piano. Her father, however, was very anti-daughter being a professional musician. He wrote to her in 1820 that her brother would become a musician, BUT, and I quote

“for you [music] can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing.”


Talk about a buzz kill! It would be years before Fanny performed in public. She got married and her husband was pretty pro-wife being a professional musician. She performed in small settings and did a lot of composing, but didn’t see much published. In May 1847 Fanny collapsed and died of a stroke. She was 41 years old. She did, however, live to see changing attitudes towards women in musical professions. She saw  a handful of her works appear in print, something she never thought possible.  In being among the first female composers to have their works published, Fanny established a precedent for the acceptance of women into a traditionally male-dominated artistic profession.

Opera Singers

Marian Anderson  Marian Anderson

Okay, Marian Anderson was a total BADASS!!!! I first learned about her when she was the topic of my Martin Luther King Jr. Essay Contest essay back when I was in 5th grade. She sang contralto (which is the lowest and most rare fach that a woman can sing in). She sang concerts and recitals all across Europe and America. She was considered one of the most important singers of the 2oth century. She was African-American.

Here’s the super badass story. In 1939 she was supposed to sing a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. The DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) were like, “Yeah you can come and sing and we want to hear you sing, but there can’t be any black people in the audience.” And Marian Anderson was like, “Um heck no! Screw You Guys!” It was A VERY BIG DEAL. So Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing on the steps of the friggin’ Lincoln Memorial instead!!! (That’s the picture) There were literally 75,000 people in the audience and it was recorded and aired on radio to millions. Total middle finger to the DAR. *sticks out tongue*

She was also the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955. This performance at the Met was the only time she sang an opera role on stage. She also sang at the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Beverly Sills  beverly sills

Beverly Sills, aka Bubbles, only died in 2007 and is one of the few people I was truly saddened to learn of their death. She was an American Opera singer who sang lots of opera roles and all sorts of concerts and recitals around the world. Part of my bias is that of all the opera singers I’ve listened to, my singing voice sounds most like hers in tone and in regards to the repretoire I sing. My favorite of her roles was The Ballad of Baby Doe. She was the original Baby Doe and sang the crap out of that role!! Baby Doe had FOUR arias. Count them– four. That’s sweet. And she’s awesome. She was on the cover of Time in 1971, where she was described as “America’s Queen of Opera.”

She was married and had two children, both with disabilities. Her daughter was almost profoundly deaf and her son was severely mentally disabled. This motivated her involvement with March of Dimes.  As National Chair of the March of Dimes’ Mothers’ March on Birth Defects, Beverly Sills helped to raise over $80 millions during her tenure.

Jazz Singers

Ella Fitzgerald  Ella

She was called “the First Lady of Song.” Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the US for over 50 years. She worked with Duke Ellington, Nat King Gole, and Frank Sinatra- for starters. After her mother died in a car accident when she was young, her father and younger sister died as well. Ella got into trouble with the police and ended up being sent to a reform school where she was beaten. She escaped when she was 15 and found herself alone during the Great Depression. So she started singing and she never stopped!!  She sang all over the place and then started appearing on television variety shows. She quickly became a favorite and frequent guest on numerous programs, including “The Bing Crosby Show,” “The Dinah Shore Show,” “The Frank Sinatra Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Nat King Cole Show,” “The Andy Willams Show” and “The Dean Martin Show.”

Side hats off to another awesome woman, Marilyn Monroe:

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Ella later said. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Billie Holiday  billie holiday

Fun Facts: The U2 song “Angel of Harlem” pays tribute to Billie Holiday. She’s on a stamp. Her early band was organized by pianist Teddy Wilson. A statue of her still stands at the corner of Lafayette and Pennsylvania Avenues in Baltimore, Maryland. She was called “Lady Day.”

It can be said that Billie Holiday changed the art of pop vocals forever. Several of her songs have become total jazz standards, like “God Bless the Child” and “Lady sings the Blues.” Her parents where not married, and her mother was kicked out of the house after getting pregnant at 13 (!!). Her mom had to work a lot and Billie had a rough growing up. She was raped by a neighbor at age 11. She was arrested along with her mother for prostitution. Singing is what saved her. She started singing in clubs and quickly got attention before getting signed. She released lots of albums and sang all over. Her personal life was kind of rough, but can you really blame her?

Popular Artists

P!nk  Pink

Here’s what I love about P!nk– she’s actually herself. Other artists I can think of *cough cough lady gaga cough cough* are all about being crazy for the sake of being crazy. P!nk is just like “this is me and if you don’t like it I don’t care” and I respect that. She’s not out to prove how out there she can be, and she doesn’t have too. She’s just all around badass. Also she is all about equality for LGBTQ people, having several appearances of Same Sex couples in her videos. Also she wrote “Dear Mr. President” which is pure brilliance. She sang in the We Are the World for Haiti. She’s big into Animal Rights. Plus, did you see the videos of her twirling around in the air at the 2011 Grammy’s?

Adele  Adele

I don’t even have to talk about how Adele just won a won bunch of Grammy’s right? Good.

Okay, first I feel like I have to address the whole “vocal surgery thing” so here goes. I was/am a singer. I spent a lot of time and energy being very afraid of vocal injury and having a lot of disdain for anyone who has ever had to have vocal surgery. But the thing is that that makes me a giant hypocrite because when I was in undergrad I totally had pre-nodes. (this is a minor vocal injury) I didn’t have pre-nodes because I did anything wrong. In fact, I was one of the few people in the department who didn’t smoke and scream my throat out. I was good to my voice, I took care of myself and I sang with all the technique that I knew how to sing with. I had pre-nodes because I was always singing 1st sop in both (!!) choirs I was in which spends a lot of time hanging out in the hardest part of my range to sing– the transition between my middle voice and high voice. This part of my voice (called the passagio) is higher than most other sopranos because I’m a super high voice, but it meant that the hours and hours I was required to sing in choirs a week I was having to sing in a really difficult part of my voice. It wasn’t my fault and yet I internalized all this guilt that I was a bad singer because of it. Lame.

My other thought on the matter is that we singers have gotten so concerned over vocal injury probably because until… like, yesterday… having a vocal injury meant you could never sing again. And never singing again would suck a ton for a singer. So we had to be all super careful. Okay I get that… but we took it too far.  And when vocal surgery started to become available us singer-type people were all “OMG she had to have surgery and that means that she has terrible technique and is a terrible singer” when that is just NOT TRUE. Lots of awesome people have had vocal surgery mostly because their professional lives require them to sing alll the friggin time.

Also–Olympic athletes get injured, dancers get injured, college and pro athletes get injured and have surgery and get rehabilitated and we don’t go– oh he’s not a good runner because he once twisted his knee. No! We don’t have a problem with these people getting injured and coming back from injuries because we acknowledge that what they are asking their bodies to do is pretty insane. What professional singers ask their bodies to do is equally as insane. And its good to teach practices that will decrease injury as much as possible on every front– athletics, dance and singing. Also instrumental playing too– we don’t discount pianists that have problems with tendonitis. Professional singers should minimize injury as much as possible. But if it happens, they can get it fixed and its not the friggin end of the world. So we singer-type people need to get the eff over it. Adele is an awesome musician. Period. Don’t make me list the number of classical performers who have had vocal surgery also.

Okay, moving on… besides the fact that I love her music and her singing my favorite things about Adele are that she is comfortable being who she is– not feeling the need to be a size -2 and wear skin tight clothes. She’s all “I like the way that I look and I don’t feel the need to be skinny mini.” In a world that sends the message to women every second of every day that they need to be supermodel skinny I SO APPRECIATE THIS!! At the Grammy’s I was so excited to see her– not only because she sounded amazing– but also because she wore an ENTIRE DRESS! It was a whole dress. It covered her boobs and her back and her butt. She looked classy. And Beautiful. She didn’t feel the need to role around naked to get attention. She just stands and sings and awesomeness ensues.

Musical Theater

Audra McDonald Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald has won 4 Tony awards. She studied classical voice at Julliard. She was on the Stephen Colbert Show. She’s very into LGBTQ Rights!! She spoke at the Action= Marriage Equality Rally in New York,5/17/2009. PFLAG, Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is honoring Audra McDonald and her fiancee Will Swenson with the Straight for Equality in Entertainments Award for their work for the LGBTQ community. Audra has said that she has “not one but two fairy Godfathers” and has spoken how they influenced her life.

Also have I mentioned that her voice is amazing? Audra McDonald is one woman I could listen to all day every day, and live she is even more amazing. You can see everything her character is feeling across her face. 100% awesome.

Bernadette Peters  bernadette peters

I have to mention her because for most of my life I wanted to BE her. Seriously. She’s super short. She’s super awesome. She has kind of a weird voice, but I just love her so much anyway!! I saw Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music on Broadway and it was incredible. First off, even knowing her height (5’3″) when she stepped on stage I couldn’t help but think how tiny she was. And she was funny, and heartbreaking and amazing. I’ve seen that show many times, and heard the climactic song Send in the Clowns even more. I’ve explained it to many a student. I get the song. But watching Bernadette Peters sing  Send in the Clowns I experienced/understood/felt it all on a whole new level. I just sat there balling. Feeling what Desiree was feeling. Heartbroken. Awesome.

Also, she founded Broadway Barks with Carol Burnett and works with animal rights and getting animals adopted. And she wrote two children’s books.

There are so many other women I could talk about but don’t have room. Just take some time this month to appreciate the Awesome Women in Music– and all around you!


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