Where are all the Galway Girls? Some stats on gender in Irish traditional music

I’m a female Irish traditional musician from county Galway, and have played in sessions around Galway city for a decade. Sometimes I’m one of the ‘anchor’ musicians (paid by the publican to start and lead a session so they can schedule a trad session at a certain time for their punters). Sometimes I just go along to a pub session to play for fun. I’ve played in most of the pubs at one point or another, and with many different musicians.

Liz Coleman holds a doctorate in Physics from NUIG, and is also an excellent fiddle-player. She did a small study where herself and her partner went to all the sessions in Galway in one week, January 7th – 13th 2019, and noted the gender of every player. Out of the 65 musicians they observed playing in the sessions, 57 of the musicians were men.

9 of the musicians playing in sessions in Galway that week were female: 14%.

“Deconstructing FairPlé: Is There A Gender Bias in Traditional Irish Music Practice? Do We Need To Address It?” Liz Coleman, Women in Traditional & Folk Music Symposium, NUIG, 9/2/2018

As Liz observed, ‘[This is a] temporally and regionally limited sample’. But her findings accurately represent my experience of gender balance when playing sessions in Galway, and all over Ireland, for the past decade.

Why does there seem to be such a considerable gender imbalance in the trad sessions in Galway?

I posted an excerpt from Liz’s research on social media; one suggestion was perhaps “[female musicans] are just fewer in number”.

It’s difficult to gain data on how many Irish traditional musicians there are in Connacht, and their gender. However, there’s three sources that can give us a clue: results from the Fleadh, the Leaving Cert. music exam, and university admissions.

Let’s look at the number of adults (over 18 category) who competed in solo, duet, or trio instrumental categories last year. The county Fleadh has no barriers to entry, so let’s ignore those entrants – they could have been playing jazz, for all we know. But a musician who has won 1st, 2nd or 3rd in their county Fleadh is definitely an active Irish traditional musician who has reached a basic level of proficiency in tune-playing.

Last summer, 14 adults from Galway won 1st, 2nd or 3rd playing in a solo, duet or trio instrument competition at their county Fleadh. Of that number, 6, or 43%, were female.

The county Fleadh give an even more telling picture when we look at all age groups: overall, significantly more girls qualified for the Connacht Fleadh than boys, with 424 girls qualifying in the categories under 12 to over 18, as compared to 319 boys. The gender imbalance was most pronounced in the 15-18 category, with 71% of the youngsters who qualified for the Connacht Fleadh being female. 

But maybe this was a freak year? Surely there’s not usually 424 girls of all ages playing trad to a provincial level?

Actually, I think it’s likely this is the norm, as the trend of female over-representation is reflected in general music education.

The Leaving Certificate Music curriculum includes trad, classical, jazz and pop. Every year since records were published, girls studying music at Leaving Cert. level have dramatically outnumbered boys[1]. in 2018, 78% of the students who did the Leaving Cert. Music exam were female[2]. That means there’s currently almost 4 girls to every 1 boy in a school music classroom.

Not everyone who plays trad enters the Fleadh, or does music for Leaving Cert. Ergo these numbers are a subset of the amount of people who play trad in Connacht. However, they tell us that at the exact point Dr. Coleman collected her data, there were at least 44 adult women who were proficient trad players in Connacht. The stats also imply that it’s highly likely more girls than boys learn to play music. They tell us significantly more teenage girls than boys choose to study music in school and enter music competitions. So why were there only 14% women playing in the pubs that week last January?

Let’s say what everyone’s thinking: maybe more little girls learn music, and more girls enter the Fleadh, but maybe adult female musicians just aren’t good enough to play in a session?

Firstly: in the majority of sessions, you don’t have to be a brilliant player to participate. Sometimes the stars align and everyone is ‘flying’, but in general, you just have to:

  • ask if you can join in
  • play at a sensitive volume
  • be able to play around 40 common tunes to intermediate standard.

The 44 young female adults who have won 1st, 2nd or 3rd in their county Fleadh in Connacht have definitely reached a standard whereby they could play in a session in Galway city.

Secondly: at senior level, 7 of the women who qualified for the Connacht Fleadh proceeded to the All-Ireland and won first prize in their competition at national level. That means that of all the people from Connacht who proceeded to national level and won first in the the All-Ireland last year, 41% of them were women. This is exactly in line with the national average:

last year, 41% of all senior instrumental champions in Ireland were female.

www.una.ie/all-ireland-fleadh-results-2018

The trend of girls achieving an exceptionally high standard of music performance is amplified at Leaving Cert. music level, where girls don’t just outnumber the boys, they slightly outperform them: in 2018 4.7% girls attaining an A, grade, compared to 3.2% of the boys.

So not only are the vast majority of female musicians good enough to play in a session, lots of them are exceptional musicians. So why are women not playing sessions in Galway?

Well, maybe women who play music don’t want to be professional musicians, or maybe they don’t like performing in public.

But the statistics suggest otherwise: there’s one undergraduate course in Ireland in Irish traditional music and dance – the B.A. in Irish Music and Dance in the University of Limerick. To date, of the 250 students who have graduated from this course, 63% are female.

UL also offer a masters degree in trad. Many musicians choose to initiate a performance career in the Irish traditional arts by doing this specialized postgraduate degree. Since 2003, 267 trad musicians have graduated from the MA in Irish Traditional Music in UL, presumably with professional development as their goal. Of that 267 graduates, 157 are women. So 60% of the people who have consciously decided to pursue Irish traditional music performance at a professional level are female.

So where are all these female trad music graduates? They’re not playing sessions in Galway; maybe they’re focusing on concert performance instead.

I’ve just analysed the concert line-up at the Fleadh for this year. Of the 145 instrumental musicians named in the programme, only 25% are female.

It is not my intention to bash the Fleadh – this male-oriented gender balance is typical of Irish traditional music programming. Ireland’s second biggest trad festival, Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, had a line-up of 38% females this year.

In fact, all this data shines a positive light on the competitions in Fleadih Cheoil na hÉireann: they seem to be an accessible platform for young women to perform instrumental music. When doing this research, I remembered a conversation with a female professional musician years ago: she confided in me that winning an All-Ireland title on her instrument gave her the affirmation, and a kickstart, to ‘go pro’.  

However, this is the current situation: 41% of the 2018 senior All-Ireland instrumental champions are female, but only 25% of the instrumental musicians who got a gig at the 2019 All-Ireland Fleadh were female. At least 43% of the adult trad musicians in Galway are female, but only 14% of them are playing in sessions.

Is this a problem? If it is, what’s causing it? How can we change it? My purpose in doing this research was to get some clarity for myself. I thank Liz Coleman for raising this issue; I hope for respectful, constructive discussions on this subject, where we all check our privilege, and really try to listen to one another.

But right now, I’m off to play a few tunes. The best of luck to all competing and performing at the Fleadh. Here’s hoping there’s a warm and welcoming attitude towards everyone there, regardless of gender.

Úna


[1] https://www.examinations.ie/statistics/

[2] 2018 Leaving Certificate Music, Higher Level: https://www.examinations.ie/misc-doc/BI-ST-55538710.pdf

2018 Leaving Certificate Music, Ordinary Level: https://www.examinations.ie/misc-doc/BI-ST-62521982.pdf

How To Find An Amazing (Arts) Accountant

A few years ago, I went to my accountant with a costing question. He took a 5-second glance at my carefully-prepared folder of data, and utterly ignored my question. I was grumbling about this to a harp student’s parent, when she said ‘Well, I used to be an accountant … how about I take a look?’ She took away my file, pored over it, spotted a serious mistake he’d overlooked, and got me a refund of over €700. My take-away? It’s vital to 

find an accountant who really cares about you.

In my experience, the self-employed artist is a financial paradox: they have to submit accounts, but there’s generally very little in them. ! All a typical self-employed artist really needs from an accountant is…

  • one initial meeting with explanation of business models, record-keeping, allowable expenses, preparing accounts
  • initial registration with ROS and a demo of how to file a tax return
  • answering a question via email once or twice a year.

So how does one find the perfect arts accountant? Well, in theory your accountant will have knowledge in, and experience of, the arts. However, in my experience, this is only secondary to them caring deeply about your welfare. The lady who helped me with my accounts question was a stay-at-home parent who used to do budgeting for a fuel company. She didn’t have a clue about artists’ exemption, and wasn’t au fait with lodging personal tax returns. However, she is a really lovely person, plus hyper-brainy. So with a couple of phonecalls to Revenue, a bit of Googling, lots of tea, and a bit of craic, we figured it out together.

If you’re both on the same page, you can figure out the finer points of an artist’s tax return with a few calls and the ability to read.

It’s also really important to be clear on an accountant’s fees, and what’s included in their service. In my experience, there’s a massive disparity in accountancy fees. From what I can see,

some accountants are like handbags. Their price is based on prestige, rather than the actual product.

For example, the exact same accountancy service – auditing – can cost €800 or €2000, based on the status of the firm. Filing a tax return can cost €240 or €0, depending on the accountant. This makes it even more important to research your accountancy options!

So if I could go back in time and get an accountant for the first time, I would… 

  1. Ask MULTIPLE, seniorself-employed people in my artform to recommend an accountant
  2. Interview multiple accountants, doing my best to evaluate who has integrity, getting information on how they structure and charge for their services, and asking about their experience working with artists. 

So if you’re at that stage, you may appreciate these brainstorming questions … 

  1. Is there any senior self-employed artists in your artform you have a good relationship with, whom you could ask for recommendations?
  2. Is there any self-employed artists outside your artform you could ask for recommendations? E.g. do you know any playwrights, authors, poets, composers, classical musicians, pop musicians, trad musicians, rock musicians, visual artists, sculptors, actors, directors, or theatre technicians you could contact? 
  3. Do you know any self-employed people, whose opinion you respect, who could recommend someone?
  4. Best of all… do you know of anyone in your artform who double-jobs as an accountant? E.g. a theatre maker who did accountancy in college, an uilleann piper who’s an accountancy teacher?

I would ring up 3 people from that list and ask for their recommendations. (If I couldn’t think of any self-employed referees, I would simply Google ‘accountant arts <my local area>’).

I would ring up my shortlist of recommended (or Googled) accountants, and informally interview them on the phone / during a free initial consultation. 

I would then choose an accountant based on these factors, in this order …

  • their integrity – this is crucial.
  • how much of a good communicator they are – if you don’t understand what’s going on with your money, you are dangerously vulnerable. It is vital that they communicate clearly and promptly about your finances.
  • their availability – it’s no use having a genius accountant if you’re not a priority for them. 
  • their location – I like to meet my accountant in person for an initial consultation, and thereafter once every year / two years. 
  • their cost – all other things being equal…
  • how much I like them – bring on the craic!
  • their experience in the arts – this is a cherry on the comptrolling cake! 

So that’s my two bitcoins. I hope you learn from my experience, and that these ideas help you find a brilliant book-keeper!!

Intentional Dialogue

Lately, a good friend sent me a link to a video on ‘Intentional Dialogue’, a relationship tool invented by Harville Hendrix. I found it really helpful for changing an argument into a constructive conversation.

For me, the best approach was to watch the video. Here’s a brief summary:

  • The person who wants the dialogue is the ‘sender’, the other is the ‘receiver’.
  • The sender asks for an intentional dialogue. The receiver agrees to do intentional dialogue within the next 24 hours. (pro tip: ensure neither of you are hungry or tired before beginning the intentional dialogue.)
  • Sender says ‘When … , I feel ….’
  • Receiver says ‘What I’m hearing you say is . . . ‘ and repeats the sender’s words back to them
  • Receiver asks ‘Did I get it?’
  • Receiver asks ‘Is there more?’
  • When the sender has finished speaking, the receiver puts themselves in their shoes, and empathises. ‘I can imagine that when …. ‘

There are full instructions here: https://www.relationshipjourney.com/dialoguetipsdawn-print.html

I suspect that if we all listened more deeply, our relationships, plus our music, would improve! Here’s to more listening in our world.

xxÚ

Decision-making: advice from a priest, a Google exec, and Tony Robbins

One thing I really struggle with is making decisions. For years I’ve read books and articles, listened to podcasts, and asked wise people (including a karate black belt and a priest) for advice on how to make good decisions. Lately I decided (! 🙂 ) to synthesize all the pertinent ideas I’ve found into one system.

1. Avoid and minimise

Decision-making is what shapes our lives, but it also takes time and energy. So how about conserving your decision-making mojo for the big ones? Be like Barack Obama, who only wears 2 colours of suit, and if you can avoid a decision, do.

2. Limit the time allowed

Well, if I’m trying to decide whether to do an hour-long gig, it’s totally ridiculous to spend more than an hour on this decision-making process. I could have done the gig while deliberating.! I agree wholeheartedly with former Google exec, David Girouard: WHEN a decision is made is much more important than WHAT decision is made. So before making a decision, I ask myself…

  • How much time is this decision worth? I agree with David Girouard’s advice: “There are decisions that deserve days of debate and analysis, but the vast majority aren’t worth more than 10 minutes.” And a decision should definitely take less time than the duration of the longest outcome, e.g. in the above case, less than one hour.
  • I also ask myself: what’s the deadline?

3. Make minor decisions in 1 minute or less…

If I have to make a minor decision quickly, I use my friend Father Ciarán’s trick: I imagine myself vividly doing option (a), then option (b), and simply choose what feels best.

4. Make major decisions using OOC/EMR

If it’s a complex decision I use Tony Robbins’ OOC/EMR system, which I find supremely helpful. Here’s an article on Tony’s site where it’s outlined: https://www.tonyrobbins.com/ask-tony/making-tough-decisions/ My summarised, slightly amended version follows…

Step 1: GET A PEN AND PAPER.

You’re going to write out all your workings on good ‘ole-fashioned paper. As Tony cleverly observes, if you try to keep it all in your head you’ll just end up looping over the same facts and conclusions. Boy do I identify with that…

Step 2: DESIRED OUTCOME?

Write your desired outcome on top of the page. If there’s a few, write them all down.

Step 3: WHY?

Write the reason(s) you want this / these outcomes. Tony Robbins says knowing the ‘why’ means you’re more likely to execute the ultimate decision. I agree, but I also find knowing the ‘why’ is a good reality check to see if this outcome is really what you want. E.g. Desired outcome: do a triathlon. Why? because I want to improve my swimming. Mental review: well, Úna, you could just go to swimming lessons… or do the swimming section of a triathlon relay team… or … you get the idea. It’s a great tool for clarifying what you really want out of the situation. Once you’ve confirmed your desired outcome is what you really want, and you know why, it’s time to brainstorm your…

Step 4: OPTIONS

Write out each potential course of action for achieving your desired outcome, no matter how nutty.

Step 5: CONSEQUENCES

Write out the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of each option.

Step 6: EVALUATE

Evaluate the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of each option. I answer the following questions for each pro and con:

Will this fulfil my desired outcome(s)? (y/n)

How likely is it to fulfil my desired outcome(s)? (0-10)

What’s the probability this will occur? (0-100%)

What’s the emotional consequence of this option?

When evaluating I may need a bit more information; if possible, a real-life sample is invaluable. E.g. when deciding ‘When doing artistic research on chords, should I also make a harp tutorial on the nice chords I discover?’ I played around with one chord (5 seconds), and then made a mock tutorial of that process with my phone (37 seconds). Knowing the difference in the duration of the tasks, and my focus while doing the tasks, was invaluable in helping me make the best decision.

Step 7: MITIGATE

Review the ‘cons’ and brainstorm ways to reduce or eliminate them. E.g. I was asked to do a last-minute gig when my harp was at the harp-maker’s being restrung. I would be performing on a loaned harp, so it wouldn’t be my usual performance standard, and I was worried an influential guest would form a low opinion of my playing. I rang the event organiser to check if The BigWig would be present, and … was told they wouldn’t be there. Con eliminated! Did the gig to the delight of all concerned!

Step 8: RESOLVE

This, for me, is one of the great gifts of the OOC/EMR. In the words of Tony: “This is your best option – and because you’ve looked at so many other possibilities, you know that to be true. Resolve that, no matter what happens, this option will give you a win.” So the final step is to decide, and then to be confident in your decision. Then, of course, you EXECUTE. He makes the great point that it’s better to make a decision, and subsequently change approach if necessary, than to remain in ‘paralysis by analysis’.

…. So that’s it!! I have finally decided upon The Úna-Guide to Decision-Making! 🙂 Below is a chart I designed to help myself out the next time I use OOC/EMR. Click here to download and use, and I hope it brings you as much clarity and motivation as it did me. Go n-éirí leat with your decision-making, and may your decisions bring growth, and joy!!

Úna