Did you know that last year, just 5% of the classical music pieces performed worldwide were written by women? That’s the highest percentage recorded to date.

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Her Ensemble is a string orchestra that formed during the pandemic with the aim to make a positive impact on the gender gap in the industry, whilst creating space for musicians of marginalised genders - the first of its kind in the UK.

 

Merging aspects from popular music and classical music scenes, the free form group aim to shine a light on music written by women which has been overlooked for centuries, and make this accessible to everyone by doing away with rigid rules and traditions. Performances have a distinctly relaxed feel, with players interacting with the audience, using artistic lighting, welcoming drinks in, and using fashion as a means for self expression, replacing standard binary gendered concert dress codes and playing around with gender stereotypes. 

 

The mould-breaking group was established during the first year of the Covid pandemic, when many musicians, including violinist Ellie Consta, found their performing careers put on hold. During this time, Ellie was living with friends who worked in the popular music industry and began writing string parts for their songs. This allowed her to view music making from a completely different perspective, whilst also highlighting many drastic differences between the scenes.

 

She says, “I’d always loved classical music, but hadn’t always loved all aspects of the scene. I started to question why we do things differently in the classical and pop worlds. Things like why women aren’t allowed to show their shoulders and ankles in an orchestral setting, why the dress code is different for men and women, and how this upholds patriarchal structures. What effect does all this have on people of marginalised genders and what on earth do you wear if you’re non-binary? I believe challenging the status quo is vital for progression.”

 

“Around the same time, I discovered that in 2019, just 3.6% of the classical music pieces performed worldwide were written by women. In 2020 it rose to 5%, which is the highest percentage recorded to date, despite a plethora of music existing and dating all the way back to 450 BC. I was embarrassed to find I could only name a handful of female composers despite having been through music school, music college and into the profession. I often wonder whether some of the composers that we know of as ‘female’ might have identified differently had they been alive today. I want to explore and share all this music!”

 

She continues, “Being in the pop environment with fewer rules, surrounded by people unashamedly expressing their authentic selves was extremely refreshing for me. It made me feel like I could be accepted in all my imperfections and allowed me to be vulnerable and explore parts of myself which I had previously censored for fear of judgment in the classical world.”

 

“We recently asked our followers if and how they alter their appearance to fit in to the classical world and we had a shocking number of responses, mainly from women. From being shamed and told to cover up skin, to dyeing their hair a more ‘natural’ colour, hiding their queerness, hiding body hair, removing piercings and covering tattoos so as to be taken more seriously and avoid harassment. These issues are all linked, and the list goes on. I find it strange that we are encouraged to express ourselves through music, which is art, yet confined to such a narrow margin when it comes to gender expression and clothing, which is also a means for self expression. I’m not opposed to covering my shoulders, it’s just more about unwillingly sexualising my body. I can’t imagine someone telling a chart-topping pop artist that showing your ankles is unprofessional or inappropriate.”

 

Her Ensemble musicians are passionate about creating meaningful change within the music industry, highlighting the ways in which outdated expectations, traditions and a lack of awareness restrict visibility and creative development. For performances, Her Ensemble musicians enjoy a relaxed dress code, often playing around with colourful trouser suits, and replacing gendered concert dress. Addressing the dearth of women who have been overlooked in global concert programming, Her Ensemble seek to engage with new and emerging composers, giving a platform to both contemporary and historic voices.