It began with Sweet Charity.
In 2016, director Leigh Silverman hired Georgia Stitt to music direct her Off-Broadway revival starring Sutton Foster, and Silverman wanted an all-female band. That’s when Stitt and orchestrator Mary-Mitchell Campbell realized: They didn’t know of enough women musicians to fill the orchestra.
“We called the regular guys that we always play with and were like, ‘Who are the women that we should be hiring?' And nobody had the answer,” says Stitt. “It called our own biases into question too, because we were like, ‘Why don't we know them?’”
Stitt became obsessed with not only assembling her Charity band but building a bench. Though she began making a spreadsheet of musicians to hire, the music director recognized the need to expand her scope far beyond instrumentalists.
Where Are All the Ladies?
Aside from Charity, a hunger for female representation bombarded Stitt—from the audience member exclaiming she’d never seen a woman songwriter front and center to the grad student who complained that there were zero women composers on her music comp syllabus. So Stitt made a list of 22 living and working composers and invited them to a meet-up, which continues on a monthly basis to this day for a list that has grown to 173.
In the beginning, Stitt just wanted these women to know each other, to build a community, broaden the network. In the world of music—theatre, musical theatre, opera—individual productions don’t hold auditions; it’s all about who you know. Stitt’s new network answered the question, “If you're only ever hiring the people you've always worked with before, how does someone who is not already in the network get into the network?”
That compulsion to make the invisible visible motivated Stitt to widen the net further, and in 2019 her organization Maestra Music officially earned its non-profit status.
The little spreadsheet that could—what became the coveted “list” in the music world—is now a full-blown digital database of female-identifying, non-binary, and gender non-conforming professionals.
“It’s music directors and orchestrators and arrangers, but also the pit musicians and the sound designers and the recording engineers and all those people, so that anyone who works in some aspect of music for the theatre is in there,” says Stitt. “And we have lyricists and librettists in there too because they're all related and composers are always looking for lyricists and librettists.”
Anyone can access MaestraMusic.org and search for candidates in the directory based on parameters like expertise (i.e. songwriter, copyist, pit musician, keyboard programmer), region (i.e. NYC, tri-state, Boston, Southern California, U.K.), experience (i.e. Broadway, Off-Broadway, education, TV/film), software capabilities (i.e. Finale, Logic, Sibelius), instruments, union affiliation, and more. At the time of publication, the database contains approximately 800 names.
Stitt digs for names to add, guided by questions like: “Who are the women I don't know, who's graduating from NYU, who's been through the BMI program, who's winning the awards, and who's being produced at NAMT, and who are the people?”
The directory’s breadth, hitting cities all over the U.S. (and the world) is a major strength. “I so frequently hear that it's hard to find non cis-white-male potential music directors, and more broadly—collaborators,” says director Sammi Cannold. “Resources like Maestra nullify that statement and make it quite easy for those of us with hiring power to expand the list of artists we know and, thereby, the list of artists we can hire.” In fact, while directing a project out-of-town, Cannold needed a local music director and the theatre provided a list of all white men. The theatre didn’t know any beyond that list. With Maestra, Cannold was able to interview two women of color and hire one for the position—simultaneously broadening her network and the institution’s.
But it’s not just Stitt’s personal fortitude that populates the site with these candidates. Female-identifying, non-binary, and gender non-conforming artists can request to join the directory. After approval by Maestra’s committee, members populate their own profile pages.
“There have been quite a few people hiring who have contacted me explicitly stating they found my information through the Maestra directory,” says composer, music director and Maestra member Anessa Marie. “As a transgender woman, I've found Maestra has allowed me to make connections that I don't think I would have made had it not been for the organization.”
The best part? All of it is free. “I don't want to make money on the backs of the women that we're representing,” says Stitt. Instead, the Maestra team set ambitious fundraising goals for Maestra to achieve its big dreams.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling One Goal at a Time
As an organization dedicated to improving “support, visibility, and community” for these artists, Maestra’s programs feeds each mission branch.
In addition to the monthly composer meet-up, Maestra encourages new partnerships through an annual composer-lyricist exchange and hopes to support increased production of work by women through a composer-producer mixer in the future. An ongoing partnership with Broadway Inspirational Voices has led to multiple commissions from Maestra composers. Technical workshops help Maestra members build new skills, such as music copyist Emily Grishman’s class on “Finale for Music Prep” (teaching lessons like “when you write this, this is what they play”) or the “Percussion Workshop” led by Rona Siddiqui and Macy Schmidt and Elena Bonomo (asking attendees to consider “if you play piano with a drummer, do you play piano differently than when you play without a drummer and what do you need from me in rehearsal?”). As Maestra’s leader, Stitt works to identify gaps in women’s education so that Maestra members feel (and employers know) they enter the room with the tools for success.
During the current shutdown, Maestra presents free live virtual classes open to the industry (led by women, NB, and GNC pros, but attended by all genders), which Marie sees as “another way for us to come together in support of one another while continuing to hone our skills so we're even more ready to get back to work when this passes.” (Full schedule here.)
While the database shoved the needle in terms of visibility, an annual “music share” night offers members the chance to play their works-in-progress for the group as an introduction to the sounds of new and different artists. Maestra’s blog #WomenWhoWowUs regularly spotlights artists. Not to mention the formal mentorship program with the New York Youth Symphony matches student composers (regardless of gender) with Maestra mentors. It’s an outreach changing the conversation about leadership. “There’s power in a young male student having a female mentor,” she says. “How does it change your perception of the world if one of your mentors is a woman?”
But not all of Maestra’s strides come in big initiative form. Posts in the Maestra MDs closed Facebook group have led to tangible victories for members. “There was a woman who was passed over for a promotion—she had done all of the legwork and they brought in a man to conduct. She was the assistant conductor and she had applied to be [the conductor],” explains Stitt. “Our community was like, ‘You go in there and you tell them that either they're going to offer you the supervisor position or you quit. You can do it!’ And she did it and she got the job.”
For Marie, that inclusivity is key. “The Maestra community as a whole has been open and welcoming to women from all walks of life,” she says, “and I truly think that is the biggest strength of Maestra: the ability to come together and show how many of us are in this industry, and to drive home the fact that we are just as talented and deserving of the work as our male counterparts.”
From Facebook groups where members can connect virtually or arrange in-person rendezvous when passing through on tours to the Maestra Moms group run by composer Tina deVaron and Lauren Cregor, Stitt’s original mission of “just knowing each other” has exploded. “Sisterhood maybe is really one of the things that I love most about this group,” she confesses.
Stitt and Maestra won’t rest until half of all music-related theatre jobs and leadership roles are filled by qualified women, NB, and GNC artists—inclusive of people of color. So as Maestra bolsters the current crop of musical talent, Stitt never stops thinking about building the next generation. But part of what comes next relies on knowing where we are.
What is happening in the industry? How does it compare to the classical music world or the pop music world? “Then the next year,” Stitt says, “we can be building programs to affect the changes that we have identified need to happen.”
In the vein of The Lillys, Maestra is set to partner with the musicians union for their version of “The Count” to present a statistical picture of where female-identifying, NB, GNC folx stand. Based on research, Broadway orchestra pits between 2012 and 2016 employed approximately 22 percent women. And within that 22 percent, instruments tend to be gendered, with women populating string sections far more often than rhythm sections.
“As you look at what gender parity really means, you have a long way to go if you're operating at 22 percent,” says Stitt. Yet, the numbers energize Stitt and her Maestra board.
In three short years (and one as a certified non-profit), Maestra has already witnessed milestones—from the first female music contractor hired on Broadway to all-female bands like the one that inspired the movement. See what can happen when you put a woman in charge?