Mike Lawson • Archives • September 1, 2002

Gradually, during the last few decades, women have made their presence known in the music education field. As noted in this month’s SBO Report, a recent MENC study of its membership shows that 26,388 women are teaching music in the United States, compared to 22,221 men. While female directors are found more often in elementary and middle schools and less frequently at the secondary school level, they continue to be a strong guiding force in the musical education of the nation’s children.

In many cases, women band and orchestra directors are inspired to pursue their careers by other women in the field. During her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Debbie Durham, now the associate music director at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., was hand-picked by Joyce Thee to student-teach her high school band.


“She selected me – I was who she wanted. And that began my career in teaching,” Durham recalls.

Since her college years, a strong network of women and men have helped Durham along her career path in music education, including her high school band director Jimmy Burnes, at Cary High School in Cary, N.C.

Initially interested in working as a performer, she studied clarinet at UNC and taught lessons to the overflow of students requesting instruction from her clarinet professor. The faculty in the music department encouraged Durham to pursue music education as a career, and she contemplated it as she applied for graduate school. Only one of the three programs she considered – Northwestern University – focused on music education, rather than performance. Northwestern appealed to Durham because its faculty included some of the clarinet instructors she was particularly interested in studying with.

If Durham hadn’t selected Northwestern, she never would have met some of the more influential people in her career. There she met John Paynter, director of Northwestern’s bands, who set up an interview for her with Barbara Buehlman, who hired her to teach in the Round Lake Area School System upon completion of her master’s degree. Durham and Buehlman worked together for nine years.

“That was such a great influence – to know both Mr. Paynter and Barb. Along the way, they invited me to join the North Shore Band, which I still play in, and I’m now the personnel manager of the North Shore Band and the principal clarinet. So that was a very important connection for me to make,” Durham notes. “Because I knew Barb, she opened a lot of doors for me. After she left Round Lake, she became the executive administrator of the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. Because of her, I currently serve as a staff member of the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic – because she invited me.”

Durham’s current position at Stevenson High School was created specifically for her by the administration. For 14 years, she has been teaching with head director Jeff Slepak, whom she also counts among the influential people in her career along with student activities director Chris Franken and retired superintendent Richard DuFour.

Not forgetting the opportunity given to her early in her career, Durham has helped continue the tradition of women in music education by inviting young women to student-teach at her school.

“It has traditionally been a man’s world, particularly the farther up the ladder you go. But now women are fairly well accepted at the elementary and middle school levels. We had a lot of people – like Barb – that made those inroads for us.”

Overcoming the Challenges

In Hillsboro, N.H., Heidi Ort, director of music at Hillsboro-Deering High School, hasn’t found too many female role models in her immediate area.

“You can count on two hands how many women band directors there are here,” she points out. “So there aren’t a lot of women in high school positions that you can look up to in the state of New Hampshire.”

Nevertheless, Ort had her share of encouragement from her high school and college band directors, who seemed to know before she did that her future lay in music education. At Manchester Central High School, she participated in choir, but not band – until, at the end of her sophomore year, the high school band director, David Bresnahan, asked her to learn to play the baritone horn over the summer. When it came time to select a college, it was Bresnahan who pointed Ort in the direction of Keane State College, to study with band director Doug Nelson.

But Ort had had every intention of majoring in English and becoming a British literature teacher. She told her high school director, “But I’m not a music major.” And he said, “Go there. Trust me.” Four years later, she graduated from Keane State with a bachelor of music degree.

“Lucky for that because I couldn’t have selected a better job,” she notes.

Ort’s career in music education began at the elementary level, where she taught K – 5 general music, beginning band and chorus. Two years later, she started her current job at Hillsboro-Deering High School, where she teaches band and chorus, jazz ensemble, sax quartet and other classes. This year, she begins studying for her master’s of education degree.

In addition to Bresnahan and Nelson, Ort counts Glen D’Eon, a fellow band director in a nearby district, and vocal music instructor Gladys Johnsen, at Keane, among the influential people in her career. Johnsen is one of the few women she’s encountered, locally, in music education.

“I’m sure it’s like that in every state – there’s always the ‘old boys’ network,’ which is kind of hard to get into. I have great friends and I’ve known people since I was in high school, so luckily I haven’t had many problems,” Ort relates.

But there have been instances when she’s felt outnumbered – and didn’t let it stand in the way.

“I find it very hard when you go to a conducting symposium to get up in front of people,” she explains. “I’ve done it several times, but it can be very nerve-wracking. Because there aren’t very many of us women, it can be hard to get up and do those things in front of people.”

It is this stand-up attitude that Ort encourages women directors to take early in their careers.
“Continue to challenge yourself. Continue to be the best teacher you can be. Educate yourself. The stronger you are as a director, the less excuse you have for why you are not one of the ‘big boys’ – because you are one of the ‘big boys,’ ” she points out.

For Ort, the rewards have outweighed the challenges in her career. Highlights include watching her students improve and succeed in music over the years. This past June marked the graduation of her first high school class – students she has taught since freshman year. The musicians she introduced to music in the fifth grade are now juniors.

“I see them at other events in the state and that’s an incredible honor to me, that they’re still playing.”

But one of the most memorable moments of her career happened when she first arrived at Hillsboro-Deering High School.

“When I first came here, the students were very down on themselves. They had a very low esteem; they weren’t very proud of themselves at all,” Ort recalls. She took the students to competition and they earned an excellent rating. “They were beyond happy. They thought they could never reach that.”

In addition, Ort recently received the Withington award, as voted by the faculty, and was nominated for a Disney Teacher Award by one of her students.

“There are so many memorable moments in this job, and it’s only my seventh year. I can’t even imagine how many more things are to come,” she adds.

Running the Show

In Sugar Land, Texas, an area known for its large and active music programs, women band and orchestra directors are running the show at Dulles Middle School. Orchestra director Ellen Townley, who is in her eighth year of teaching at Dulles, points out that all of the head directors at her school – band, orchestra and choir – are women.

“It’s been that way since I came here. But if I were at the high school level, I think it would be different,” she adds.

In her previous job as an assistant orchestra director in Brazosport I.S.D., on the gulf coast of Texas, Townley worked with a male director, David McCutchan. For the first two years, she and McCutchan taught music in three different schools. For her third and fourth years, Townley took the helm at one middle school.

As an undergraduate at the University of North Texas, Townley was unsure about pursuing a career in music education.

“I think I realized that this is what I really wanted to do when I first went out and started teaching,” she explains. “I always thought that I would probably play, but there’s not a lot of security going the performance route. So I went out and started teaching and just really liked it.”

After four years in Brazosport I.S.D, Townley decided to pursue a master’s degree in viola performance at Northwestern University. Again, she considered a career in performance but found, midway through her studies, that she belonged in music education.

“About halfway through that year I realized I really missed teaching and decided that I really needed to go back after I finished my master’s.”

Along the way, several music educators have served as role models in Townley’s career: John Clinton, the music supervisor in the Oklahoma school district, where she first joined a string program; Legh Burns, director of the Oklahoma Youth Orchestra she played in during high school; David McCutchan in the Brazosport I.S.D.; and Michael Allen, Sharon Veazey and Lynn Thorton, all of whom she student-taught with at the beginning of her teaching career.

Sticking with music education has enabled Townley to achieve the highlights of her career thus far. In 1998, she was voted Teacher of the Year by her colleagues.

“That was really special – to be recognized by the teachers. Sometimes elective teachers are like the stepchildren of the school. Here it’s not like that. The faculty, staff and administration are all very supportive of what we do and they recognize our hard work.”

In 2000, Townley worked closely with the school’s band director to bring a full orchestra to perform at the Midwest Clinic.

“That was an incredible experience,” she recalls. “It was a great learning experience for me, in preparing for the trip, and the trip itself was really great. Two or three years before that, the band had gone and I had gone with them as a chaperone and kind of got that feeling, but it just isn’t the same as when your group is up there playing.”

For a rewarding career in music education, Townley advises young women directors to find a mentor as early as possible.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a position where you can work as an assistant, that’s great, but not everybody has the luxury to start out working with someone else,” she says. “If you can find a teacher, especially a veteran teacher, someone who’s been there, it will make such a difference. And ask a lot of questions. In public school, you kind of get thrown in and sometimes you’re not really given all the information you need. It can be really overwhelming for someone who’s never done it before.”

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