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The Only Girl in the Orchestra

Anne Collis

By Anne Collis.

When I left the Royal Academy of Music in 1964, there were no women on ANY instrument except the Harp in any major London orchestra, and certainly none on the Percussion! In fact when I entered the RAM in 1962, there were no students studying Timpani or Percussion at all.

There had been a couple of famous women a few years previously, Maggie Cotton (who went to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) and Pat Brady, who had held the job of Timpanist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but they were the only ones and non of the ‘Big Four (the LSO, RPO, LPO and Philharmonia) refused to even audition women!

When I announced to the RAM Dean of Students that I wanted to study these ‘male’ instruments, they had to create a new faculty for me, as there were no professors and no facilities – not only were there no female Percussion students, there weren’t any male ones either!

When the RAM 1st Orchestra gave a concert, they had to bring in the Timpanist and the whole Percussion section from the Royal Opera House to make the concert possible. For the first year I was sent over to the BBC studios once a week to have a lesson with Eric Pritchard, the BBC’s Principal Timpanist, on the BBC Timps. Eventually they invited James Blades to teach on the premises and discovered some dreadful old instruments down in the basement for him to teach on.

After I left the RAM, there was plenty of work around: touring ballet companies, visiting opera companies needing an orchestra, chamber music or ‘stiffening’ amateur orchestras who were planning to give concerts, but had no one to play the Percussion. My first proper professional engagement was with the Old Vic, (which subsequently became the National Theatre) as a musician in the iconic production of Royal Hunt of the Sun, but as we were invisible, behind a huge gauze, they didn’t care that I was a woman, although they were rather surprised when I turned up for the first rehearsal – Jimmy Blades had simply told them he was sending one of his pupils. Jimmy was wonderful, with no sexual prejudice at all. Another important engagement was also thanks to him. At the very last minute, the player who had been booked to play with him in the English Opera Group’s new production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Paris London and Expo ’68 in Montreal, pulled out and Jimmy asked me to take his place. It was a dream come true, but very scary as the EOG was a very distinguished group and this was a very difficult work for the Percussion.

There were a couple of other women in this orchestra, Thea King, the Clarinettist and Violinist Maggie Cohen, so I wasn’t completely alone. However, in spite of the fact that I was kept busy with lots of very satisfying work, the world of the major established orchestras was very firmly closed to us women. This was such a pity, because not only was I dying to play with a ‘proper’ orchestra, but since they had created the Faculty at the RAM, several other girls had taken advantage of it and were working their way through the course and would be hoping for the same thing. Eventually I became friends with the Principal Percussionist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and I gave him no peace on the subject. I am afraid I nagged him unmercifully, but he was a good sport and at last gave me a chance to work with the RPO, much against the wishes of the Board (!) not as a member of course, but at least as a regular ‘extra’. The first two major outings were tours of America, where I caused a great deal of interest in the American press, as there was the same amount of prejudice against women in orchestras as there was over here.

This was the early 1970s and I had a ball! I was treated like a Princess by the 70 men in the orchestra and the PR department made the most of the story with the press. I featured in The Sun in a leather mini dress and this leads me to an important little story about how to behave as a woman in a man’s world; in this case, the symphony orchestra. The very first engagement I had with the RPO was a recording session at Watford Town Hall. This was 1970 and this fairly attractive 27 year old decided that the occasion required a see-through mini-dress and thigh length pink boots! That could have been my first and last date with the RPO, but the senior member of the section took me on one side and kindly explained to me that while the men really enjoyed girls dressed to kill, it was a really bad idea for a serious work situation. I took the advice to heart and turned up the next day in jeans and a shirt – and every time after that! Coming to London as a student in the early 1960s was, I realise looking back ,a very exciting time – many better writers than I have written about the whole new world opening up before us, although we didn’t know it at the time.

As a woman in a man’s world, I can truthfully say that I was not filled with a mission to promote women’s rights! Really, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and it happened, up to then, to be a man thing! It seems now, looking back, that I blazed a bit of a trail for other women to follow, but then I was just doing my thing as best I could and enjoyed most of it mightily! There are lots of female musicians on view these days, not only because it is now illegal to discriminate against them, but because we have proved ourselves to be as good as the men! I am very proud to have been one of the first!

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