My Journey Down a Wonderful Rabbit Hole: Discovering Music Composed by Women

Alma Mahler c. 1908, from the Austrian National Library.

Alma Mahler c. 1908, from the Austrian National Library.
Alma Mahler c. 1908, from the Austrian National Library.

By Erica Ann Sipes

An earlier version of this article appeared on Beyond the Notes

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It all started several years ago, in the summer of 2017. I had been asked by a flute player, Sarah Wardle Jones, if I would play piano for a recital she had put together of music composed by women, a particular interest of hers. I of course said yes, not because of the program itself, but simply because I rarely turn down an opportunity to perform.

I very quickly realized after saying yes, much to my puzzlement and embarrassment, that I had never, in my entire schooling and career covering 39 years (!) performed anything written by a woman. I couldn’t even name on one hand the names of female composers. Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, and Cécile Chaminade. That was it.

The recital was a joy. It was refreshing to peer into a world I hadn’t previously known and Sarah’s enthusiasm for the composers (Anna Bon, Cécile Chaminade, Lili Boulanger, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Jennifer Higdon), was inspiring. I found myself feeling like Alice by the end of the experience, standing at the very top of a very deep but thrilling hole that contains a new musical cornucopia of creativity and expression I had yet to discover.

I jumped in.
I’m still on my long journey down.
I’m constantly discovering new wonders along the way.

At the end of 2018, Sarah and a friend of hers, clarinetist Michelle Smith Johnson, and I put together a fun Halloween concert. I don’t believe in that particular performance we performed anything written by a woman, but that project brought the three of us together.

Over wine and appetizers one evening, we found ourselves chatting about the possibility of forming an ensemble and we all decided that what we wanted was to focus on shining a light on works written by women and commissioning new works. It was shortly thereafter that our trio, at the beginning of 2019, The Alma Ensemble, was born, named in honor of composer, Alma Mahler.

Farther down the rabbit hole, at the beginning of 2020, I was thrilled to be able to finally meet in person Sandra Mogensen, a pianist who had long been a friend of mine on Twitter.

Sandra Mogensen
Pianist Sandra Mogensen.

Sandra was in the United States to present some recitals and presentations to celebrate and announce the release of her first recordings in a series she’s doing called “En pleine lumière,” which features all works composed by women. In talking with her during her visit, I think we both realized that we shared many of the same frustrations, especially in terms of finding scores for these composers whose voices really need to be heard.

When they can be found, they are often significantly more expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Another point we also found ourselves frustrated by is that many anthologies and method books for pianists just beginning their journey don’t feature female composers.

At that point in our discussion we started trying to figure out what we could do and it dawned on us that both of us had regularly been looking to the online resource, IMSLP, to find scores. We decided that perhaps we could both comb through the listings and create a shareable spreadsheet that would list all of the piano pieces composed by women on the site.

With IMSLP being a free resource, this would ensure that anyone who had access to a computer could also have access to the music that’s there. Sandra agreed to start at “A,” I started at “Z” working backwards, and we eventually met in the middle. By the summer we had our spreadsheet roughly put together.

Part I was complete.

Part II of our project started at the end of the summer. We created a YouTube channel, Piano Music, She Wrote, and started posting our own recording of works we’ve discovered in our IMSLP quest. So far we’ve faithfully posted two every week. We now stand at over 40 videos and have many, many more to go!

We now find ourselves in Part III.

We set ourselves the goal of releasing our spreadsheet publicly once our YouTube channel reached 300 subscribers. Last weekend our goal was achieved! So now, if people want an easy, quick way to discover the piano pieces written by women that have scores on IMSLP available to download for free, folks can head to our Ko-Fi store.

We are asking for a minimum donation of $10.00 USD to get the url for our spreadsheet. That is to cover the hundreds of hours we’ve already put into this project and will continue to put into it. This spreadsheet is a living, breathing one. We’ll regularly be updating it as new works are added to the score database. We are also donating 10% of every donation back to IMSLP since without them, none of this would have been possible.

We’ve had several people mention that purchasing access to the spreadsheet on behalf of others, like piano students or teachers, would make a great virtual stocking stuffer, holiday gift, or graduation gift and we couldn’t agree more. To make that possible, when purchasing access, any quantity can be selected. If people have 10 pianists they’d like to send the url to, they can simply select “10” as the quantity and then voilá, they’ll be all set.

Here’s our video announcement about our spreadsheet in case you want to learn more.

Sandra and I have many more stages forthcoming so stay tuned! We’d also like to start planning a world tour once this pandemic is all said and done so if anyone wants us to come share what we’ve learned, both through recitals and presentations, let us know!

But now, back to the rabbit hole analogy.

I feel like I’m still only a fraction of the way down this hole and I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. There is clearly much more to discover. Often I find myself researching one composition and am led to another fantastic one…and then another…and another. It never seems to end. So much music I’ve never heard, so many composers I’ve never heard of but should have!

Thankfully there are many others out there who are also on this same journey. I encourage anyone else who’s interested to join in the fun and to share what you find. Let’s get more of this fantastic music accessible and available to all. I think Für Elise and The Happy Farmer would be happy to step aside for a while.

What are you looking to achieve this year?

Soundfly’s community of pro music mentors can help you set the right goals, pave the right path toward success, and stick to schedules and routines that you develop together, so you improve every step of the way. Tell us what you’re working on, and we’ll find the right mentor for you! 

Erica Sipes has spent most of her musical time as a piano collaborator, playing with and coaching musicians who play just about every instrument. Her passion is helping musicians at all stages discover how to approach music, practicing, and performing in a way that leaves them empowered to make their own musical decisions, encouraged, and excited to share their talents with others.

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