From the Bottom Up: Creating Change with Bassists with Boobs
Think of classical music and it doesn't take long for your mind to recreate horror scenes of competitive, overzealous musicians waiting backstage for a "friend" to have a memory slip, to fall off the fingerboard or be too seized by fear to go on in the first place. For the most part, shows like Fame, Glee and Tiny Pretty Things have blow our creative competitive side way out of proportion, but sadly competition can bring out the ugly in even the most saintly of us. Now, there's a revolution afoot! Long overdue, many of us are now choosing to celebrate the once seen competition: showcasing other peoples wins, trading the competitive for the compassionate to show that we are worth so much more than the critics and cynics would have you believe.
For those of you who follow me on Instagram, you'll know every Sunday is #shoutoutsunday doing my bit to support those who inspire me. But what about those doing it on a bigger scale?
One of my favourite, inspirational pages is that of 'Bassists with Boobs'. Promoting women bassists, these three women have created a page dedicated to creating a community, shining a light on just how powerful a woman with her double bass can be. They've been kind enough to share their time and thoughts about the things that matter to them from the power of social media, to the role gender plays as a bassist.
I am over the moon to introduce, Phoebe Clarke, Evangeline Tang and Yijia Cui to the blog!
Thank you so much for joining me, I wanted to start with the obvious question. What was the inspiration behind creating this community?
Phoebe: I think the main inspiration emerged from the pandemic, by having all this time on social media platforms, watching videos of one type of bass player. We felt like we could create a space to involve other types of bass players. Evangeline was the first one to mention that actually, we could change this. This was our initial thought about what we could bring to the table.
Evangeline: When I had the first idea to create this page, it was completely unintentional to create this community as we know it today. We’ve all been online for so long and every time we’ve seen a solo female bass player play, I’ve always wanted to be able to repost their videos a dozen times so that it gets seen by everyone!
Yijia: Evangeline, you approached me with this idea, and I really wanted to make some friends out of it!
Phoebe: Yeah, I definitely think we thought this could be a wonderful way of getting to know each other. Obviously, the inspiration behind it is a lot bigger… there’s a lot of things we’ve encountered within our own careers so far and our education that have inspired us to do this, but on a surface level, one of the main things that we can take from this page is that we’re inspired to inspire others… if that makes sense!
Yijia: “We were inspired by each other, for example, as we saw each other’s Instagram daily practice posts, and it just made sense to collectively put all of the inspiration and bass players we want to share and put it all in one place!”
Phoebe, in the interview for 'Discovering Double Bass' (in the Youtube clip below) you talk about how your Mum saw being a “bassist with boobs” as something to be proud of! Fantastic! But did you guys ever feel outnumbered growing up? Did you come across challenges that your male counterparts might not have done?
Phoebe: I was lucky in the youth orchestras I was a part of pre-conservatoire to have many female bass players alongside me. The numbers of basses weren’t big in the first place, as I was never in any massive youth orchestras, so luckily I never felt ‘outnumbered’. However, going to orchestral concerts and watching a professional context, it was very obviously outnumbered in terms of gender diversity.
Evangeline: In terms of coming across challenges that my male counterparts might not have done, in short, YES I did feel outnumbered. For example my first teacher was female and I saw a lot of female bass players growing up, however there’s this kind of pre-concept that female bass players are not as good as our other counterparts . I think the problem is not that we’re not enough, but it's expected we’re just not going to be as good. That’s the kind of pre-concept that I’ve come across. It’s been such struggle for me personally, because I’ve always come across comments such as, “Your bass isn’t big enough”, “You’re not big enough”, “You’re going to have to work harder because of your size/boobs” or “you’re going to be at a disadvantage even before you play a note because of your gender”.
Phoebe: I’m assuming this wasn’t the same response your male colleagues got either?
Evangeline: Nope. It’s not even malicious at all, I've had these kind of comments my entire life, and its been drilled even into my subconscious that we won't be good enough and it’s automatically assumed that we won’t play as well as our male counterparts, and why is that?
Yijia: It’s all the little comments surrounding not actually playing the bass, even when travelling with the bass. Immediately, people will make comments and ask if you need help, if you need this and if you need that - males don’t get it! They don’t need help apparently… and that’s even before you play a note!
Phoebe: I remember travelling on the tube with two of my male colleagues. Obviously, seeing three basses on the tube is not normal anyway! I found it interesting that I was getting comments from the public en route, and I remember one of them turning to me and saying “Does this always happen?” Automatically, I responded “Every single time, without a doubt, there will be some comment.” And they were shocked, because they said that no one ever talks to them. One part of me wonders if the public talk to me whilst I’m en route somewhere because I’m approachable and because I often smile, being the over-confident Australian I am, or are they talking to me because I’m a woman and it’s unusual to see me carrying that kind of instrument?
Yijia: Oh dear, help this fair maiden!
Evangeline: I relate to these experiences so much, and it happens to me all the time. there are kind of good and bad things that come with it also… do you also get catcalled on the tube with you bass? I get a cat called all the time!
Phoebe: If people are drunk…yeah, it gets weird, and it makes you kind of uncomfortable. But I have had moments where I genuinely know that people are helping me, and I’ve had moments where I’ve been like “Yes, I’ll have your help please!” I’ve had people carrying my stool up the stairs for me, which is super lovely, so I can tell when it’s genuine versus when someone’s wanting a reaction out of it.
Have you been surprised at all by the response you’ve had since the page was started?
Yijia: Oh, for sure! For starters I didn’t know that there were even so many female bassists on Instagram, let’s say. I really didn’t know how much it would explode, especially based on the number of people who we were able to feature. I thought ‘Oh no, we’re going to run out after a couple of months’… oh no! We’ve got a long waiting list and that’s really amazing, but also like, how did we not notice them or how did we not form this community before us?
Phoebe: I’ve been so surprised. I think I’ve been more surprised by the amount of support, and the lack of negatively surrounding it. It kind of makes you wonder, well why has this been an issue up to this point? Everyone has been so overwhelmingly positive. We’ve gotten a weird comment every now and then, but generally, everyone has been so loving with sharing everything- especially as we grow larger and larger, the amount of messages we get which are thanking us for what we’re doing are incredible. Ultimately we’re just sharing people's work and helping to put a spotlight on their content, but like Yijia mentioned, I didn’t know all these women played the bass. Watching these female and non-binary artists is just so inspiring and I think I was surprised by how much I needed this in my life.
Yijia: I think the neutral and negative comments - none of it has shocked me. Honestly I was expecting more of them. But the positive comments have had a big impact on me.
Phoebe: That’s interesting that that’s been what’s shocked us! We’re not shocked by the negative responses, but we’re shocked by the positive responses. We didn’t expect everything would be so warmly received.
Evangeline: I’m the same, I was so surprised especially when we get comments mentioning the way we’ve made a difference even in the smallest ways. For example, we’ve had responses from people who were encouraged by our page and said “I’m going to post today”, or “I’m going to actually make myself public because of you guys”, or “Your page is my favourite thing to see” and that makes me so happy, because as you say Phoebe, we don’t do anything really we just share peoples stuff and it’s crazy, but really cool. The fact that we’re unintentionally making a community where we can all relate to each other and it makes us feel like we belong, where as before we didn’t. I’ve discovered the big importance of supporting each other.
Yijia: I think it shocked me how quickly we could connect to so many people. There are some really huge platforms out there such as ISB, Contrabass Conversations, Discover Double Bass. Through engaging with these household names known in the bass world, the people on our page are suddenly involved with them in some form or another. For example, from doing our interview with Discover Double Bass suddenly we’ve just connected three different worlds, from sharing peoples quotes to talking to different generations and impacting the big bass figureheads from the inside.
Phoebe: It's surprising to see things change in front of our eyes. I do think that we’re seeing change happen as we speak, which is crazy, and like you say Yijia, getting onto these pages helps make our vision seem a lot more achievable.
Do you think the classical music world can go further to be more inclusive to women and gender minority groups? What would you like to see change?
Yijia: I mean… yeah, for sure! I’m just trying to collect my thoughts here… but you know with everything that’s going on in the world right now, you’ll always find a way to do better, and I think by drawing a line at where you think that something is ‘enough’, or that you’ve ‘helped enough’ and therefore that’s not going to happen. We don’t think that's the case. Our opinion is that this shouldn’t happen.
Phoebe: I’ve seen a lot of good stuff happening in the UK at the moment, where we’re based. We’ve seen changes in our syllabuses at Uni, and in concerts advertised at the moment, however you also see the backlash that goes with that. This is why it’s blatantly obvious that we have a long way to go. I think, like you said Yijia, if you have accepted that you’ve done enough, then you’ve obviously not done enough. In terms of what we’d like to see change, and keep in mind we’re just covering the bassist side of things, we ultimately want to see more diversity! I think it’s as simple as that. Some of the ways we can help change that is by celebrating and promoting people. Obviously there’s only so much we can do through social media, but we’re going to do as much as we can!
Yijia: I think what we’re really trying to do is to just normalise diversity. At the moment what we’re doing seems strange and the opposite, where the scales are tipped the opposite way and what we’re doing seems strange in that sense. But then I think we’re nearing an evenly levelled playing field, let’s say.
Evangeline: It’s got me thinking about the interview we did with Her Ensemble, when we were talking about all the different composers there are, and we realised that it’s our responsibility to not just make one day International Women’s Day, where we’re going to play some Ethyl Smith, or one day where we choose we are going to be more culturally diverse and play some pieces by black composers. These all have good moral grounds but its time to move on and make it the norm.
Phoebe: I think it’s important to look at this in terms of orchestral concerts, but also with professors, or the professionals that you have on bass courses, and every single time you see a group of bassists, no matter where that group may be. Evaluate what you're seeing. As Yijia has mentioned in other interviews, we should celebrate the people that are doing the ‘right’ thing. It’s really hard to get a message through by shaming people, so to go to the opposite side of things and to celebrate, I think that’s an easy way to make change. Obviously you’re going to be so much happier if you’re being celebrated for what you’re doing, then if you’re being shamed there’s probably a better way to say that! I think what we’re trying to help change and make known with BWB is that the talent is there, the professors are there and the students, women and non-binary bassists are all there. I don’t think there’s much room for excuses at the moment!
Yijia: It’s a choice, really!
In the interview, you all touched upon looking at an orchestra and the surprise when a woman is in the double bass section. What would you say to those young girls who would love to learn the double bass but are having reservations whether it’s too big or more of a “masculine instrument”?
Evangeline: “Don’t be afraid to get a smaller instrument! The world is changing and we know that bigger bass doesn't necessarily mean bigger sound, in fact it's quite the opposite. Get one that fits you and your body! It’s not just a masculine instrument, but also has a good mix of femininity. Take the music of Bottesini for example.
Phoebe: You’re completely right! Find an instrument that fits you as a person. People need to understand, it’s like clothes- you’re not supposed to fit the clothes, the clothes are supposed to fit you. You’re not supposed to fit around the bass, the bass is supposed to be right for you. If you’re a girl and you think “I don’t know if that’s going to suit me”, we beg to differ!
Evangeline: It’s kind of the fact that you need to compromise but still you can’t really change, and there’s plenty of bassists that we know and we have seen online like Nina DeCesare and she’s in the process of making a new edition of Bach for small hands, and it’s kind of like she’s so insane and she can still do it like all of our other role models, then you can.”
Phoebe: If you’re a young bassist and you’re sitting there going ‘Hmm, I’m having reservations because it’s too big or it’s too masculine’, we want you to take one look at a full symphony orchestra, or any other professional context, and see yourself up there. These kids need to sit in a concert hall and see that representation, and they need to see it soon.
So what’s next for Bassists with Boobs?
Phoebe: Well, we have recently started our Facebook community page, which is slightly different to our other pages, because we’re wanting to create open conversations, where it's not just us reposting others' content but others can be even more actively involved in sharing . We’re hoping to do some in person stuff coming up- such as performances, recording sessions etc. and we want to keep the global side of BWB going, so involving people from all around the world. We’re starting a series where we’re going to be talking to female and non-binary bassists who have been in the bass field a bit longer than us. They will share with us their successes and wisdom, and give an insight that we can’t give at the beginning of our careers. So that’s the nearest thing we’ve got coming up next, which is very exciting! Stay tuned for more BWB content.
Do you have someone you believe deserves a shout out for something they've done, no matter how big or small? Message me and we'll get them up as a #shoutoutsunday!
Until next time, stay inspired and let's keep supporting each other!