© 2023 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

All Brass Instruments Could Account For OSUMB Gender Gap

The Ohio State University Marching Band has been under intense scrutiny since its director was unexpectedly fired last month. The news shined a spotlight on the gender disparity in the band. Men outnumber women by a 4 to 1 margin. WOSU takes a look at what may be driving the band's gender gap. The robust, rich sound of the Ohio State Marching Band heard on fall afternoons in the Horseshoe comes from 192 brass and percussion instruments. Trumpets, trombones and snare drums fill the stadium with bright tones and high energy. The OSU Marching Band claims to be the largest brass marching band in the world. But there was a time when the band's sound and makeup was quite different. The OSUMB formed in 1879, and for the next 55 years it included traditional woodwind instruments such as flutes, clarinets and saxophones. That changed on October 6, 1934 when an all brass and percussion ensemble took the field at the Indiana game. "One of their calling cards is the fact that they are an all-brass band," Steven Peterson, College Band Directors National Association president, said. "OSU is a very traditional band. Even though you look at the drills that they're doing and it's really on the upfront of things, you can look at other things, for instance, their uniform haven't changed in forever," he said. A huge change came in 1972 when federal law mandated the band include women. Only five women marched the following year. "I was the second [female] snare drummer, ever," Jany Sabins, of New Jersey, said. Sabins was one of the first women to make the cut. It was 1975. "It was really hard. We worked very hard. We played very hard." Sabins, who majored in music, said she chose to attend OSU largely because of its marching band. Despite being outnumbered by men, she said she felt welcome. "I didn't feel any resentment or anything. I think probably there were just a very few guys who muttered about women and stuff," she said. "Largely, they knew we worked very hard to get into that band, and if you made the band, you were good." The band today remains a male-dominant group. Women make up 21 percent of the band. Compared to other Big Ten schools, that's low. At Wisconsin, about a third of its band members are women. Forty-one percent of Michigan's band are female. And the Michigan State band is made up of 44 percent women. All these bands have one thing in common - they include woodwind instruments. Traditionally, women play woodwinds more than men. That's how some explain the OSU band's gender imbalance. University of Iowa's Hawkeye Marching Band director Kevin Kastens, in an email, called the disparity at OSU a"non-issue" based on the band's instrument traditions. Women make up 43 percent of Iowa's marching band, which also includes woodwinds. Victoria Nolte played trombone in the OSU band. She said like many other players, she chose her instrument in fifth grade. Nolte was the only female trombone player in her high school band. "The college age kids right now are the kids like me [who] picked their instruments 14, 15 years ago, and that's what the college bands are made up of," Nolte said. But things may be changing. Columbus City Schools' marching band gender ratio is almost 50:50. That balance could be due to the instrumental makeup of the bands, but girls are breaking stereotypes. Nolte said her younger sisters selected brass instruments in middle school. "You can go to a fifth or sixth grade band concert and you can see that the sections are just way more 50:50 than they ever have been," she said. But the inequity in the OSU Marching Band has some people questioning whether it perpetuated the so-called "sexualized culture" in the band. "The fact that it is so imbalanced may be a reflection of the decades of harassment," National Women's Law Center Lara Kaufmann said. Kaufmann is an expert on education policy. "It's not that male-dominant environments are inherently unwelcoming to women, or that women can't succeed in those environments," Kaufmann said. "It's just that, in some of those environments, we find that conduct is allowed to fester that should be addressed. And as a result, women are treated poorly." The OSU band likely will remain a male-dominant organization, at least until today's middle and high schoolers enter college, or the band could reintroduce woodwinds. "I can't imagine that that would happen," College Band Association's Steven Peterson said. He said it would be "extreme" to expect the band to abandon its identity. "I would hate for that to happen because this is one of the great traditions and institutions in the band world, the good part of it. The bad part of it we have to get rid of." The OSU investigation does not recommend balancing the gender make-up of the band, but it calls for more training and monitoring of the climate of the band's culture.