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“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
-Henry David Thoreau
When you’re a musician, there are many directions to take your career. You can perform by yourself, or you can perform with a hundred people. You can be a mentor. You can be an author, both with words and music. You can be a healer. An activist. An entrepreneur.
Meet Lauren Pierce. She’s an intrepid Double Bassist who explores many of these avenues in the Classical Music Industry. She is creative, innovative, and downright accomplished.
Pierce is courageous and true to herself: in the times of success, and also in the times of adversity. Some of us might remember her from the following YouTube video she posted from her YouTube Channel in May, 2016. In it, she sheds light on a situation in which she was sexually harassed by a colleague while on the job:
What struck me most about this video is that Pierce did not play the victim. Rather, she was brave, confident, and proactive. Her message was: Yes, sexual harassment is undeniably wrong; but what do we do when it happens? How do we handle ourselves in the moment, and how can we stop this from being a part of the workplace?
A little more than two months have passed since this video was posted, and I’ve been wondering. What were the reactions from the Classical Music Community? Did the video inspire conversations? And what was it like to make this video in the first place?
Lucky for us, Pierce has agreed to sit down and answer some of my questions.
Douglas Rosenthal: You initially doubted your own reactions to the situation. You told yourself that you were being overly sensitive, and you feared that voicing your concerns would jeopardize future work with this orchestra. Eventually, you decided to share your story with your YouTube viewers. How would you describe this path from dismissing your feelings to courageously and publicly expressing yourself?
Lauren Pierce: I did doubt myself, and part of me honestly still does, but I’m working on it. We tend to think of sexual harassment as someone pushing us against a wall and violently forcing themselves on us, but it rarely happens that way. The lines are usually much blurrier, as they were with my situation.
My decision to share my story was an unexpected one, and it only happened because some dear friends of mine unknowingly encouraged me to. Several months ago, I was talking to a couple of friends and somehow the topic of being hit on at work came up. I told them the story I recounted in the video in sort of a joking way, still half convinced that I was overreacting. My friends got very quiet as I was talking; after I finished, one looked at me and said “Lauren, that’s textbook sexual harassment.”
I thought a lot about the situation in the months following. I wondered why I doubted myself so much, and why I felt like I was the one in the wrong when he was the one who made me uncomfortable in the workplace. Two thoughts kept coming back to me. First, that I had experienced this before and tried to downplay it in the same way. And second, that almost all of my female friends had similar stories to mine from working in other orchestras. I was starting to realize that this was a big issue that needed to be talked about. There was a reason it was happening, and there was a reason why people didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about it; I felt like talking about my situation would help get the conversation started so things could change.
It was very difficult to tell my story, though. I made a point of being completely open and honest about everything. For a long time after I recorded the video I contemplated not releasing it. It felt like my situation was so silly compared to what others have gone through. But like I said, sexual harassment isn’t always clear-cut and violent; more often than not, it’s low-key situations like mine that really do a lot of damage to the culture of orchestras.
Historically, women have been underrepresented in the orchestral world, but we have come a long way in the past century. An important step towards gender equality in orchestras, aside from allowing women to audition in the first place, was making auditions truly blind by placing screens in between the musician and the judging panel and putting carpet on the floors (to muffle the sounds of a woman who might be wearing heels).
DR: One of the most earnest moments of this video is when you ask for input from your viewers. You were still contemplating possibilities for action in light of the unjust circumstances you experienced. Without compromising anonymity, what were the responses that stand out as helpful?
LP: I was truly grateful for each and every response. Although the number of responses was overwhelming, most people were empathetic and genuinely wanted to help by suggesting solutions or simply validating my feelings.
The responses that affected me the most were the stories from people who had experienced situations similar to mine. It was reassuring that people felt they could confide in me, but also tragic that there were so many people who had been affected by sexual harassment in some way or another.
One woman told me she had been taken advantage of by a very well respected conductor for the orchestra she plays for, but never felt she could come forward. Because he was in such a high position and she was just a section member, she was sure she would have been booted out of the orchestra if she had filed a complaint.
I spoke with a young woman who is a university student and is currently dealing with a similar situation with her professor. It was heartbreaking talking to her because she blamed herself for allowing the professor to abuse his authority and felt powerless to speak up. I asked if she could go to the Dean, and she told me that he was the Dean at her school. Universities can handle sexual assault cases between students terribly (just look at the Brock Turner rape case at Stanford), so just imagine the friction in the system when it’s between a professor and a student.
I heard from tenured orchestral musicians, jazz singers, freelancers, music teachers, and others who aren’t involved in music at all. It showed me how common an issue sexual harassment is in the workplace, and that we haven’t found a solution to handling it effectively and humanely.
DR: This video has been posted for over two months and been viewed thousands of times. In the Classical Music Community, it has certainly gone viral. How have your viewers reacted? Has this given you any new perspectives on the culture of our industry?
LP: The vast majority of people were very understanding and supportive. Like I said, most people just wanted to offer some sort of help or a kind word. I had a lot of people commenting who were truly horrified they had been unaware this was even an issue to begin with, let alone one that is so common. Additionally, there were people who asked genuine questions about the situation, or even doubted its existence was an issue at first, but then were open-minded enough to have a dialogue with me about it. Those discussions were really important because, even if we didn’t fully agree on everything, we were at least able to understand each other a bit better by the end of the conversation.
Of course, there were people who completely disagreed and refused to even try to see another side. There were people who totally blamed me and made sure to tell me what I had done wrong. One commenter asked me if I was an “adult or a toddler,” and told me I “took no responsibility for [my] own actions in the situation.” A few people argued that this wasn’t “real” sexual harassment, the guy was just flirting with me, and if I wasn’t interested, I should have just told him. And another person accused me of making it all up for attention, that “no one would want to rape [my] ugly fat ass, anyway.”
These are things people said to me when I spoke up about my experience. And we wonder why victims often don’t feel comfortable coming forward.
DR: On the videos of your YouTube Channel, you demonstrate a great deal of mindfulness both as a performer and a teacher. I imagine you have also given consideration to the workplace. What is your ideal environment for musicians who work in a collaborative setting? What can today’s musicians do to make this a reality?
LP: As musicians, what we can do is simply keep it professional, and most of the time, that means erring on the side of caution. When you’re at work, you’re at work, not a bar, and the risk of making someone uncomfortable is just too great to push the boundaries. Being a professional musician is difficult enough without having to worry if someone is objectifying you while you’re just trying to maneuver Strauss’s ridiculous bass parts.
I can’t cover every single situation you might come across in real life, but here are just a few quick tips to put on your Sexual Harassment Cheat Sheet:
- If you ever feel the desire to comment on an article of someone’s clothing, hair, or face, you can do it without making it sexual. (Hint: if you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, don’t say it at all.)
- If you ever feel the desire to comment on someone’s butt, breasts, or any nether region on his or her body, don’t.
- If you’re staring at the aforementioned body parts and thinking thoughts that are exciting you, fine, but no one needs to hear about it. Just keep it to yourself and play your instrument; that’s what you’re there for in the first place.
Finally, speak up if you see something shady going on, even if it’s just pulling someone aside to make sure he/she is alright. After releasing my video, I had a few people from that orchestra contact me to say they witnessed my whole situation happen way back when, but no one said anything to me at the time. I was new to this particular orchestra, so I didn’t know anyone. Not having someone to confide in made it that much harder. An orchestra is a community, and we have to look out for each other.
One last thing: If you or someone you know experiences sexual harassment while playing in an orchestra, it’s important to know that you would report it to either Human Resources or to the personnel manager directly. A lot of smaller, regional orchestras have a somewhat smaller administration without an HR Department, so it can be confusing to know exactly who to report to if you have an issue.
DR: Unfortunately, it’s very likely that there are many musicians who remain silent about situations in which their comfort and safety were compromised on the job. How would you advise someone to begin overcoming this adversity? Do you have any suggestions for “first steps” to moving on in a positive direction with his/her professional life?
LP: What really helped me was realizing that my uneasy feelings were valid and that he was in the wrong for pushing those boundaries. How he made me feel was not okay, whether he actually had malicious intent or not. More importantly, no one gets to decide for you if you’re uncomfortable or not.
Seeing each situation as a learning experience can be therapeutic, albeit difficult at first. I could have definitely spoken up sooner, but I don’t blame myself. I know how I want to be treated and I’m better prepared to stand up for myself before anyone crosses the line, no matter how blurry that line may be.
And also, I think it’s important to have a support group or friend you can talk to. Telling my friends what happened was what initially confirmed my uncomfortable feelings and was truly my first step to my healing. I hope you have someone in your life you feel you can open up to if you’ve experienced something like this. But if you don’t, I am more than happy to be that sounding board, and I truly mean that. No one should have to go through this alone. Send me an email anytime. My personal email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
DR: Your career goes into many areas of Classical Music. You are a soloist, a chamber musician, and an orchestral musician, just to name a few. What were the steps you took to cultivate and achieve such a diverse professional life?
LP: My career has really been a consistent cycle of me taking risks and putting myself out there, followed by someone else taking a risk on me and offering me a great opportunity. Almost every big opportunity that I’m really proud of happened that way, from my collaboration with Geoff Chalmers at Discover Double Bass, to the very first professional masterclass/guest artist recital I was hired for. I’m really grateful for the teachers, mentors, and colleagues who have taken risks on me because they believed in me.
I’m also proud of myself for not only having the courage to put myself out there, but for always trying new things regardless of whether I can know the outcome. My YouTube Channel was a happy accident, but once I realized it could be a great outlet for me to perform for people, I just ran with it, and it turned out to be the greatest decision I’ve ever made.
The career of a modern musician involves a balance of hard work, practice, and the creativity to figure out how to get your art to the right audience in a way that helps you stand out. I wish I had more clear-cut advice for figuring it out, but I’m still in the process of doing that myself!
DR: We’ve certainly covered a lot of ground here. Do you have any remaining thoughts related to gender equality in our field? Is there anything else you would like to offer our readers?
LP: I’m a firm believer that education is the answer when it comes to gender equality. We have come an incredibly long way in just the past 50 years, and that’s amazing, but we’re not done growing yet. Respecting women should be taught at an early age. In fact, respect for everyone needs to be taught as soon as we are old enough to interact with each other. And, how to be respectful online and in all forms of social media should be taught at home and in school.
My wholehearted gratitude to Pierce for being so open and thoughtful. I encourage you to visit her Website, YouTube Channel, and Facebook Page to learn more about her and hear some fantastic performances.
I have no interest in analyzing or editorializing this interview. Her words are so genuine and well-spoken, I want them to speak for themselves.
Rather, I’d like for Pierce’s wonderful music to have the final word on this post…