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Musical musings on International Women's Day

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

Three days before International Women's Day, I debated if I shouldn't touch on my journey as a multidisciplinary composer, musician, and music director. I caved and started typing this the next day, as I felt that I've got quite a story to tell.

This post covers my musical journey from the lens of my gender, other people's perception of me for it, and the things I experienced because of my femininity.

CW: misogyny, transphobia, child abuse, sexual abuse, rape.

As a musician

I'd written in a previous post that my parents forbade me from playing drums (or any instrument that required me to spread my legs apart in order to play it, for that matter). I mentioned that my image as their daughter was so tightly controlled that it was unbearable, and I often faced physical, mental, and psychological abuse for even pleading to be given a chance to drum. My parents' idea of femininity was stuck in the 1700s -- that's my honest assessment of their outlook while I was growing up. They gendered the various instruments.

I was to decide between three instruments -- the piano, the violin, and the flute. I was determined to finish up my Grade 8 in piano in my early teens, and I did not feel partial towards the violin or the flute. However, I felt unsafe to mention my favourite instrument to my parents. If any place I visited had a drum lying around, I would make sure that nobody was there before I played it; if I heard anyone approaching, I would stop playing. I didn't want to be reported to my parents; I dread to think what they would have done if this ever happened.

It got so bad that when I was 15, I felt I couldn't hide myself anymore -- I honestly believed my life would be forfeit if I mentioned to my parents that I had a passion for the drums, if I ever smashed their ostensibly "feminine," dilettantish image of me. The day I revealed this to my parents, something changed. The thing I had dreaded most of all thankfully did not happen, which is why I am here and able to tell you my story today.

This is from a session at Soundskills, the community centre / studio / creative place in Brookfield, Preston; I took this photo before recording my medieval snare drum.

There have been other toils that I have faced that have been directly related to my gender; these affect me to this day. It took me a long time to muster the courage and the words to explain my situation, but I ultimately sent a long and difficult-to-write e-mail to my drum tutor addressing the various things I spoke of above, among others.

To this day, in my local area, it is often said that female drummers and bass players are a rarity. I don't know if it's simply because women and girls don't gravitate to it... or rather, if there are external factors preventing them from taking up those instruments. I can think of a few in my head: 1) how they might be perceived by their families and peers, 2) how they might be underestimated or misjudged by their prospective tutors or the people around them, 3) the lack of role models, 4) how privilege plays a factor.

I can speak to this last one with a great deal of passion, because in my short time in a group mostly aimed at female drummers, I have heard many of them saying something along the lines of "I wish I could be as talented or as skilled as this little kid who was lucky enough to have been given the opportunities from the get-go by their parents." What a depressing thing to say! This has also been an axe for me to grind, because I'd often been on the receiving end of comments like, "If you're over (insert age here), you haven't a hope of learning or catching up to those little kiddos." What does that say for many women out there who have been prevented from taking up instruments or getting into music due to poverty, abuse, or other factors?

I have the privilege of being under the wing of a tutor who sees me as I am, and who is willing to lift me up. As of late last month, I am officially starting Grade 8 preparations on the drums. I feel for many late starters and I want to lift them up in my own turn, because I know what it's like to have received comments and treatment that could have very well stopped me from advancing, from expressing myself to the fullest.

To put it simply -- and this is something that I feel also applies to the other headings in this article: I am not lacking in confidence with regards to what I'm capable of. The lack of confidence comes because of the way other people have seen me, at least in the past if not also in the present. I am in a better situation than I have been in the past, as I am surrounded by a supportive fiancé, supportive friends, and a community of VGM scorers and digital fusion musicians who are advocating, in small ways and great, for better conditions for all of us. What benefits women can serve to benefit all of us in the long run, I feel. But I cannot deny that the past has knock-on effects on the present. Trauma and hard experiences don't simply go away with a snap of the fingers. Things don't become hunky-dory just because our surroundings are better. The pain that I and other women go through in the field of music isn't gone just because some things are better for us, or because there are more of us about making a louder noise. As long as we face ill-treatment, abuse, underestimation, ignorance, misogyny, ageism, etc. in any stage and in any corner of the music industry, we can't pretend that things are okay. We want genuine change.

As a performer

Expectations were placed on me from the get-go regarding my performance style. Many of these were linked to my parents' expectations surrounding my musicianship. Many of these were spoken out loud when I was preparing for a regional music competition of some sort; I was then nine years old. My mother told me, the night before the performance, that I needed to sit "daintily," walk "ladylike," and smile even if I didn't mean it.

What fakery is this, indeed? How can anyone perform like this? The stilted nature of the expectations could easily be read by the ordinary member of the audience. But to my parents, it didn't matter: I was a girl, and so my appearance, my expression, and my movement could be tightly controlled. I wouldn't be surprised if I wasn't the only girl out there at the time who had these unrealistic expectations placed upon her shoulders; I can imagine there being countless others.

I would finally break free from my parents' expectations of me as a performer when I left the family home. Away from their influence, I could develop my own expression.

This photo was taken by a fan from the last pre-pandemic live performance of my first band, The Just Numbers, in March 2020 at Vinyl Tap Preston. From left to right: Nigel Coleman on bass, me on drums, and Greg Slater on guitar. I was using the house kit in this gig; only the medieval snare drum was my own.

While my performances have been cherished by a good number of people, they have also met with resistance and abuse from a few. This only concerns my drumming -- I do not face this for any other instrument I play, but I find it significant enough to write about here as the drum is the instrument closest to my heart.

Many of us make faces when we play certain instruments; I have the most noticeable ecstatic faces and movements when I play the drums (when compared to other instruments I can play, e.g. piano, pipe organ, bass guitar, ukulele, harp...). There is a physicality about the drums that there isn't for any other instrument, and so it transfers into my expression. However, I have received catcalls, unwarranted touching, and even sexual assault and rape for my reactions when playing the drum(s). There are some venues that I do not feel safe in, because those places are sleazy and nothing is done to stop people's creepy behaviour towards women performing on stage; as such, I have treated them as no-go zones.

I look at organisations and labels like Tiny Waves, who have made it their first order of things to ensure a safe space for all their musicians and audience members and everyone coming to venues where they perform. I long for that feeling of safety, that feeling of acceptance and belonging as a performer, and especially as a woman taking to what was once considered a typically "masculine" instrument. In fairness, there are venues where I live where creepy behaviour of any kind towards anybody is not tolerated, and I'm grateful for these places. Unfortunately, these venues are small, and their efforts are limited as protections can vary from venue to venue. I wish I could provide accounts of bigger venues encouraging women to perform more, with the understanding that these venues would be safe for them -- but unfortunately, I can't account for it as I don't have the experience. And, if unsafe venues are still a thing in our day, then it only tells me that we have a lot to change in our culture to allow performers of marginalised genders, and women in particular given the occasion, to express themselves without fear of reprisal.

As a composer

I'm certain that I'm not alone in saying that I was grossly underestimated as a composer for a good length of time because of my femininity.

My particular experience came from the circlejerking that was rife on the Newgrounds audio forum at the start of the last decade (the 2010s). "There are no girls on the internet" was a phrase very commonly used to brush off the contributions of girls who wanted to make themselves known. There were, in fact, a few women on Newgrounds whose works got significant followings, like Hania and Phyrnna, but many others like LadyArsenic, headphoamz (Elspeth Eastman), and myself seemed to have been ignored for a good while.

To be clear: I don't think that follow count equates success; nothing could be clearer than the case of Elspeth Eastman in this regard. However: I spoke in private to a number of women on Newgrounds who all reported the same findings as I did, where they felt alienated, shamed, lonely, for being creative women on that site. Some of us, myself included, were on the receiving end of abusive comments, reviews, and replies simply for being women, and a smaller number of us were abused for pointing out that some users -- not naming who -- were masquerading as women to get huge amounts of followers, but were actually cis men, taking away the listens from women (both cis and trans) at a time when we needed them the most. Many of us often felt like we had to work twice, perhaps three times as hard to stand a chance of being heard.

My particular brand of musicianship began to take shape in 2013: layered vocals, lush instrumentation, harmonies that sound like they come from hymnals or from pieces of centuries past. Setting myself apart early on helped me to gain some form of recognition, however small, during that time when I felt unsafe to be a composer online. However: the old stereotypes about 'whining and complaining women' persisted when I raised concerns on the audio forum or in news posts about things that I felt were wrong and needed addressing, e.g. whether a competition was being run fairly.

Today's Newgrounds userbase, thankfully, is much more open, diverse, and willing to give all sorts of things a try. There are many women -- cis and trans alike -- many people of marginalised backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders, and many allies. Gone are the days of edgy internet circlejerking. It took us years and time was probably the biggest factor in this equation. I feel much safer on that site now than I ever have been. The concerns I raised in past years were addressed, and we're still working to make it as equitable and as fair as we can. Elsewhere on the net, on Discord, on Twitter, and on Instagram, I am surrounded by supportive people in the VGM and digital fusion communities. The solidarity between us is palpable, and so is the camaraderie.

But here's the important thing about this: Toxicity can happen anywhere. Newgrounds or not, the fact that I and many other women were belittled for being women in our field shows that there's still a cultural shift that needs to happen, that it's not good enough to simply say that "it happened" and pretend everything's okay after the fact. We need to make it safe for women coming in -- and we need to address what happened to the women who already felt unsafe. It could happen anywhere. It likely is happening elsewhere.

Circlejerking, verbal abuse, transphobia, hatred, misogyny, sexual abuse, ageism, mysogynoir, etc., are all facets of the same tainted gem. Just because something is "lesser" doesn't make it okay. Other women in this field have conceivably faced a lot worse than the example I wrote of above. Tolerating any part of this tainted gem of evil seems to give some people the idea that they can try worse things because the "lesser" things seemed to not affect us nearly as badly. But they do. And they should stop.

As a music director

Surprisingly enough, this has been the single field of my musicianship where I've not faced any ill-treatment related to my gender so far -- long may this continue. I want to specify that as things currently stand, my position is that of a liturgical music director: playing the organ at Masses and services, curating, composing, and arranging liturgical music, and (hopefully down the line) gathering together a choir and training them up and encouraging them musically.

This photo was taken by my fiancé during one of my many organ practice sessions.

Sixty years ago, my position would have been the remit of cantors, who were part of the clergy -- a decidedly male position. The music director under whom I trained as a chorister for the last eight years (and arguably one of the best around) is a woman; I follow in her footsteps. I am in the process of making connections with many people in my position; this position seems to have attracted all manner of minorities eager to use their musical skills to serve others. Nobody bats an eyelid.

I am pretty fortunate. I shudder to think that out there, there may be others scorned for being women in their positions. I hope and pray that it isn't the case.

The level of acceptance that I and many female music directors have had, I wish that for every woman -- and everyone besides -- in the musical field. To create that sort of culture where nobody bats an eyelid but just sees us for who we are, and accepts what we can give -- that's the dream, and it is a dream worth realising!

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