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Episode 5: Eline Cote on inclusion and gender equality in the world of classical music

"And I'm like: in our orchestra, you'll see a woman on every instrument. We do that for every little girl who comes to watch: that she sees herself on stage."

"A very big problem for women composers is: lots of scores are ready, but it's so expensive to make parts out of them that many orchestras don’t feel like it."

[general intro]

>>> You are listening to Let's Talk, a podcast where the talking points consist out of impactful initiatives, strong support offerings, and participation as a catalyst for innovation. Your host is Bart Wuyts, CEO of the group Blenders and WEB, the incubator of inclusive workplaces and innovative strategies concerning entrepreneurship, sustainability and job placement, among others.

[intro speaker]

>>> In this episode, Bart Wuyts talks to Eline Cote, a talented musician and advocate for gender equality in the music sector. They discuss the specific working regime that applies in the music world and how it affects professional musicians. They also discuss the underexposed work of female composers and the challenges of inclusion and gender equality within orchestras in Flanders. Eline shares her personal experiences and insights, offering valuable perspectives on how we as a society can work towards a more inclusive and equitable future in the music sector. Stay tuned and find out more about these fascinating and important topics.

Eline, you're sitting here with us now, is your surname Coté? Or how do you pronounce that?

Well, in Flanders they say "Koote". But I was actually born in America. My father was also born there and so over there we are called "Kodi".

What do you like me to say?[Koote is good] But I'm just going to address you by your first name.

Voilà, Eline Cote it usually is here in Belgium.

So you are American?

Yes I actually have dual citizenship. I haven't been there that long either, just a few months actually. But we go back every year because half our family is there and half our family is here because our mum is from Belgium though. And I was always brought up bilingual, so that was a big advantage for me over others. That was kind of useful.

Where in America were you born?

In Chicago. Yes, that's my second home.

Ah, really?

Yes, when I arrive there I feel totally de-stressed. That's also maybe because I go there during holidays. But yes it is a very nice city.

Tell me: who is Eline?

I'm a musician first and foremost. I play double bass. I am very small: I am only one metre fifty. Yet I chose the biggest instrument of all. That's just super cool when you're eight years old and you see such a gigantic thing and you think: yeah, I can play that! And yes, so far so good.

So you're a professional musician.

I am a professional musician. Yes, I got my master's degree at the Conservatory of Antwerp three years ago. Along with a master's in teaching for music and a master's in creative project that I was invited here to talk about. Because my creative project was my women's orchestra that I founded.

I always say it's been a bit of a playful beginning. I went to art college from the third secondary school. Before that, I was in a direction with five hours of Latin in a Catholic high school and I thought 'yes, it works out but it's not really my thing'. [The right side of your brain needed stimulation?]Yes, and I was doing music for a while by then anyway and I thought yes, I just want to be a musician. Where can I do that? And I discovered: there is such a thing as arts humanities where you can have both a general education and on top of that you get 13 hours of music. That seemed interesting!

And in fifth grade, during our English class there - a class in which I was obviously better than the other students because I was American - we were given the task of discussing a charity organisation of our choice. But I was always special and I had to choose something that no one had not heard of.

So I was just searching, searching and searching and suddenly I came upon a speech by Emma Watson, the actress. And she was giving a speech for the organisation He For She. He For She is an organisation that is trying to make sure that men join the conversation of gender equality.

She gave a speech about gender equality - and I was immediately captivated. I gave a half-hour-long speech and I was really super inspired 'see,this is the problem and we need to do something about it...!' And yes, typically the people in my class were then busy with other things.

But I was really enthusiastic and I asked myself 'how can I, as a seventeen-year-old, do something about this?' So I thought, 'maybe I should start looking at what I want to work in, in my profession.' And that's classical music. So I started watching concerts, as I always did.... And I paid attention: do I see a lot of women in the orchestra? There were women, but where didn’t they show up? Often not with my instrument: the double bass, often not with the brass or percussion. And I always keep my programme booklets. And I then started leafing through all my programme booklets and I actually saw a pattern. And I didn’t see female composers anywhere either. [Ah yes, ok, at the other end of the spectrum] Yes. And I thought 'don't they exist then?' Same with female conductors: I had never seen or heard of them. So I then really started looking up. And so it turns out that there are lots of women composers. There are a lot of female conductors, but they don't really get the opportunities of their male counterparts. Neither in history nor today - let's be very honest about that.

It has improved a lot and it is moving in the right direction, but it is very difficult.

Do you feel that is still the case today? That women composers, for example, get fewer opportunities?

Yes. I wrote my master's thesis around sexism within classical music - of course in the Western world, because I'm in that world too.

And then I ended up on a website - and I met the lady in question a month ago via a zoom call, I was so honoured... donne-uk. She has been doing a study for years where she goes to the top orchestras in the world and looks at their programme. And she sees how many pieces in their programme they have with male composers, female composers, of people of a different skin colour, of people who have a different sexuality she monitors all those things. Of course, I focused mainly on the difference between men and women. And I can say: last season's study for Belgium showed that 1.9% of the works played by the six orchestras here, the professional orchestras, were by women. 1,9%.

But then, doesn't that also have to do with the fact that they mainly play early music, so there was a big problem in the past? I wonder if you were to look at contemporary composers now, do you have the feeling or any evidence that women composers today have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts?

That's a very interesting question. It's moving in the right direction. What you do get now a lot is - what I hear from the female composers sitting around me - is that there are a lot of competitions coming up now that are specifically aimed at just female composers. But then what I also hear is 'yes I don't think that's actually that fair'. I just want there to be a competition for composers. Full stop. Because the fact that I'm a woman shouldn't really matter to me. And that's actually what I hope that will come true one day…

This is exactly the whole discussion about quotas.

Yes indeed.

Maybe we are in need of catching up. To arrive at a balanced....

Indeed. And that's why I founded my women's orchestra. To indeed create that awareness. Today, what I do see is: when they play a work by a woman.... Often that will be by one of the more popular female composers of history or a contemporary female composer. But there is no middle ground.

And basically you're saying: if you look for that, there is still a whole collection of interesting works by female composers that actually still needs to be discovered?

Yes, I had a very interesting conversation with a male double bass player. Who I interviewed for my record that I recorded - I recorded a solo record for me and my double bass, on which I play works by only female composers. I wanted to hear the story about why did they write that piece and what is the piece about. I wasn't able to reach that particular composer. But I was able to reach the double bass player she wrote the piece for.

And he talked about that fact that a very big problem with female composers is - lots of scores are ready, but it's so expensive to make parts out of them that a lot of orchestras don’t feel like it. You always have a score: there's just everything on there, that's what the conductor sees. But of course as an instrumentalist you're not going to play from a score that has twenty other instruments on it.... And purely for the print work and to have someone do that work of making parts of it, they find it too expensive because there are not enough people playing that music by those female composers. So they don't want to spend their time on that.

That's a question of the chicken and the egg.

Voilà. And so that repertoire just stays there.

Is that something you're working on yourself? Because I imagine that you want to play mainly music by female composers?

Yes indeed. So we play some works by female composers and I always look for a composer I've never heard of myself. And then either there is a very vague recording from long ago or there is a small snippet somewhere or even sometimes there is nothing to be found. And then I look at that with our conductor Pascale Van Os. She is also very good at the piano and then she plays a bit of a reduction and we can interpret it a bit: is this a piece that fits within the repertoire we want to play for this project? And that's great fun because it really is a voyage of discovery back in history. And you really do find so many gems! But then what's involved is a very expensive cost for us to play that music. Because if you want to play that music there is a hefty price tag to rent that.

That's expensive because of the reason you just said, someone has to make efforts to pull all those parts apart. And that is not the work that you yourselves are going to do or or have people in the orchestra who can or want to do that?

Yes the problem is: in reality, that's just a lot of work. You would really have to pay someone for that.

Yes then it remains expensive.

But it's something that has interested me for a long time.

But you could maybe make money from it? Because once you've done that, of course you could offer it to others.

Yes, that's true. After that conversation, I really started thinking about that: how can we make sure those works don't remain in the dark? How can we get the next gem, the next Beethoven V so to speak - it might be lying there in between.... But if nobody gives it a chance..

Another thing I sometimes hear or think I have heard is that perhaps historically quite a few female composers have published their works under the name of a male composer. Klara Schubert is an example that is sometimes mentioned - although she then also released things in her own name...

Yes, that's true. Another great example is Fanny Mendelssohn. You have her brother Felix Mendelssohn who is very well known. Quite a few of Felix's works were actually by Fanny. And there is also a woman: Augusta Holmès who had chosen the name Herman, Zolta or Herman Zenta as a name to publish her works. And afterwards, of course, there must be just one around who knows, who has written down somewhere that that pseudonym belongs to Augusta....

We have already played two of her works. Wonderful. Wonderful overly melancholic, romantic works that make you swoon. That was really her style.

History has always been hard on women, and it's no different in music history. Women used to be allowed to play music only in their living rooms, and I'm talking about the Baroque period and even after that. And then they were also only allowed to play instruments that were appropriately female. So the harpsichord or the harp or the lute. Some might even have been allowed to play the violin. But I read somewhere in - a very good book to read about female composers: The Second Theme - there's a history in there of lots of women composers over the centuries.

And one piece they traced back was from a reviewer - and I don't remember which work it was from, I don't even think it was by a female composer, but it was ranting and raving, because he said 'how hallucinatory it is to see a woman at a cello with her legs spread wide - horrible.' So yes that was not allowed.

And a wind instrument. That's military, that's loud. Even today people of a slightly older stamp sometimes say: 'they don't have the lung capacity, they don't have the strength to get sound out of that.' Which, of course, is nonsense.

Let me just make a comparison: the rest of the labour market - which we are constantly working on and where we are seeing that women, and we have started to focus a bit more on women with migrant roots (but you could open it up to women in general) - that they are getting fewer opportunities in a number of places. Do you have any evidence of that today? Do you notice that in the music world too? That women tout court today also get fewer opportunities in orchestras, for example?

Yes. In general, yes. There really is a big difference if you compare it to 50 years ago. Because women in orchestras has only been a thing since after the Second World War. That's actually not that long.

No, female suffrage in Belgium too....

No voilà. It's only then that they were effectively allowed to start in orchestras. Now look at the Berliner Symphoniker, for example: I think that was only a few years ago when the very first woman was allowed into that orchestra. Now there are about five women there I think. So that's promising. But there are other orchestras. It's also different from country to country. You have countries that are a bit more progressive than others where that was almost never really a problem, so to speak (after the Second World War).

How is it with us? In Flanders and Belgium?

When I look at the situation as it is with us today, I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised. So here it's really almost fifty-fifty.

Because I heard you say... I'm quite a music lover myself and the times we go to a concert I've never really noticed that and I always take it for granted that it's a mix of men and women.

Yes, and that's very good, that's a very good attitude you have. But unfortunately that is not the case in all countries. In Europe even.

No, but you really consciously said I'm going to put together an all women's orchestra here in Flanders in Antwerp to show that it is still an issue?


And so I just want to gauge whether that issue is actually here? Or do you and the orchestra really have the ambition to go abroad and create awareness?

That's obviously our big ambition: to open that up abroad. We very much want to spread that message. For example, last year we did a concert in collaboration with the International Alliance for Women in Music (IIAWM), of which I have been a board member for three years. It is a worldwide organisation that you can join. They organise conferences, concerts, etc. I'm now the concert chair for this year and next year and the year after that. After which, within three years, hopefully we want to do a very big project in London. It's a bit ambitious. That's our passion. We played at the past conference, we did our concert at Amuz and that was broadcasted worldwide. And then we did a zoom panel from Antwerp and we got many reactions 'I was totally moved', 'that really sparked something in me to want to do even more than I'm doing now',.... So that was overwhelming for us.

And how big are you guys as an orchestra?

It depends from project to project. With our very first project, there were 140 of us in the Elisabeth Hall.

That's a full symphony orchestra.


I can imagine that men also like to join because it's about unique works too that you play?

They are. Our big project that we're going to do in London (hopefully), is going to be a bit of a mix of three different orchestras so we want a kind of fifty-fifty even split. My message has always been: as long as we don't see - and I'm not just talking about Belgium but Europe-wide - that things are really good in terms of gender equality, we're not going to change our set-up.

Our message remains the same and it's mainly as role models. And that's a very big thing. I interviewed a lot of women for my thesis. I made a survey where over 500 people responded and in it I heard from every woman 'I never had a role model to look up to'.

And I'm like: in our orchestra, you'll see a woman on every instrument. We do that for every little girl who comes to watch: that she sees herself on stage. I think that's very important, because I didn't have that myself. I didn't see a woman on the double bass until I was thirteen years old, and to me that was the nicest thing in the world at that time.

The same phenomenon - and I think you raise a very important point - the same phenomenon is happening on a large scale to a lot of people who are missing opportunities today. And if we were to look at the issue of poverty for a moment: young people who grow up in an environment of poverty are even in their choice of study unconsciously influenced by that: that they think and are convinced that a number of professions are just not feasible for them. That they can't. Because they just don't have those role models anywhere in their environment. And they do see all kinds of people doing different things, but they assume that they all have I don't know how many gifts and backgrounds that they can never access. So I wonder at the same time: you are right to focus on women in the orchestra, but that is still a very wide range. To challenge that: are they all white women you work with? Even within that, how can you still fulfil your role as role models as broadly as possible? As diverse as possible and also as inclusive as possible. Apart from the fact that men are then not allowed in.

That is something I have been thinking about a lot. One of the projects we would really like to realise - for which I am still looking for certain organisations - is to work with our orchestra to engage female composers to write pieces for certain instrument types that are not of the Western world. To look at: are there women in refugee camps, for example, or in underprivileged areas who have an awesome gift despite perhaps never having been to a music school, to either engage them as a kind of coach to sit with them in the orchestra among the other musicians, or even such that a concerto is written where that they get to be the soloist. Where they can use their instrument, which is not in the symphonic repertoire, to work with a composer. That is a project we want to set up. But very difficult for us to find those women.

Yes, but then you already set the bar high. Then it already has to be about instruments that are very unique. If you now look at the instruments you play in the orchestra today: you do that in Antwerp, there is a great diversity of inhabitants there, do you reach them? Do you target that?

Yes, beyond those men we don't want anyone to.... Women of all ages, all cultures, all sexual preferences, everyone is welcome. And I always say that. All we ask is that they send a short recording or that they come over - you can do that even if you don't have recording equipment.

Or you can even just record something with your mobile phone.... I'm happy to come over and listen to how you play. I'm open to everything. I also get very regularly in my inbox 'I've discovered your orchestra, can I play with you sometime?'And then that person gets on my long list. Every project we send to our core group first, and then if I see that it doesn't get filled or when we have a big project, we have to look outside our core group. I have a list of by now 150 women, and I send that email to all those women: anyone who can, anyone who wants to, come join. Let's make something beautiful out of this.

The culture within our orchestra is predominantly white, that's absolutely correct. But what I consider... You have the social rates: you don't have that for everything. Last year we collaborated with a Blinken counter, which is all over Antwerp, and these are people in underprivileged circumstances or who are a bit less fortunate who then come to this counter and they get access to, for example, sports activities or concerts or comedy shows or workshops. In which they can participate for free or at a very low rate. For our concert, we worked together - it was a concert in Schouwburg Noord in Merksem - with the Blinken office in Merksem and they could come and see our concert for €3.5, whereas normally tickets cost €17.

Everyone should be welcome in classical music, because it is something very elitist. I went to the opera last week. The cheap ticket there was €30 to sit in a place where you can only listen and see nothing. And then I thought surely something is wrong here. Earlier in history, the parterre was where the plebs sat, the noisy people... who threw the tomatoes at the stage... and the elite sat at the very top because they could then look down on the common people.

Whereas now it's completely reversed, you pay almost €200 to get into that parterre and you pay €30 to see nothing.... Where has it gone wrong?

For me, music is something so universal. Everyone has a connection with music. Everyone. Every person on the planet has a connection with music.

I do have one more question. Because gender roles in our society are also still a bit classic: women are always expected to do more in the sense of looking after the children, more part-time work. Your orchestra is that voluntary or paid?

The very first concert we had in Elisabeth Hall: I was a student so I had no money and I had to pay an Elisabeth Hall so I launched a crowdfunding. But everyone, even the professional musicians back then volunteered. And we had ten rehearsals! They were all always there and that also gave me that sense of 'yes ok, this is necessary and this is really something that people want' also in terms of musicians. After that, it was always my intention and I always paid my musicians. Always some kind of minimum. I try to pay them more. Funding is very difficult in culture, we all know it: subsidies and the like - especially in Antwerp: not so fantastic. That's a very big problem for us. But even if we don't have money, we still try to find money because we always pay our musicians.

And do you adapt your rehearsal regime? Such that there are opportunities for women to participate as much as possible though - while shuffling with all their other roles?

Yes indeed we do. I also teach in the academy myself. When is that? Always in the evening - late afternoon or evening. So when do we usually do our rehearsals? In the morning during the week. Because then the kids are usually dropped off at school and there is no need to teach or nothing. Most musicians are free on, say, Monday mornings. That was a big experiment for us. We decided together with the conductor in the previous three projects to always rehearse in the morning so from 9 to 1. And that was always a very nice time, then most people could always come.

In our orchestra, we have an age range from 18 to 72. So it's not just young people. There's a lot of young people in it, of course, but it's really from all walks of life. And I think that's very cool. Because if you have an older lady sitting next to someone young: they learn so much from each other. You learn a lot from the older generation, but they also learn a lot from the new generation and that is such a learning environment.

And Pascale Van Os, our conductor, she does that so well. She really creates an atmosphere in the orchestra where you really feel at home: I am completely myself.

It's nice that you refer to the fact that they learn so much from each other, the different generations. That ties in nicely with a project we are execyting ourselves to form buddy pairs of older employees in organisations where the question is often how to ensure that people can stay in work as long as possible. To have them walk in buddy pairs with younger workers and achieve the same, what you are just now saying.

Eline, what is t next project? When can we come and listen?

I am working on something completely different from anything we have ever done before. It will go on at different dates, the dates are still to be determined, which will be sometime November - December. It is a project called 'La Vie d'une Femme' and we are collaborating with a folk singer Aurelie Dorzee, she is reworking her music for strings to turn her folk music into something more symphonic and tell a story about the different stages in a woman's life - from birth to death and everything in between.

That's our next project. So that's very exciting.

And next year, 24 February in the blue hall of the Singel will be a Night at The Opera, for which we are collaborating with the Soroptimist organisation. It's going to be a bit of a benefit concert and they always do a benefit for an organisation that supports women and children. They have invited us to host the concert. And it's going to be a Night at the Opera where we put a twist on the concert that everybody loves to go to, with those famous arias. But, of course, we're all going to perform arias and duets by women composers and their operas.

And we are going to do a competition for young female singers and male singers to come and sing on stage with these works. As a chance to really be able to sing a different repertoire with a symphony orchestra in the Blue Hall which is a wonderful hall to do it.

Artemis, what is your concluding question?

Just now Eline you told me something about there being competitions for assistant conductors for example. And then you have that job for a year. So the employment regime in the music world... I would almost say that everyone who is professionally involved with music is actually a kind of entrepreneur, has a kind of portfolio of jobs. You're never just a musician in an orchestra. You always do something in an ensemble as well, you teach.... Is that true?

Yes, tremendously. I know very few people who only do one thing as musicians. That applies even to people who are really very popular. Of course, you have a Yo Yo Ma who is always a soloist but most - I would say 95 per cent of musicians - have their own string quartet, for instance, and they're doing really well, but they're also going to join the first violins or second violins that orchestra. And they might then go on to teach violin there or at a conservatory or in an academy or something. For example, I teach solfège and double bass and then I'm doing my own orchestra. I also have another ensemble that that I'm involved with and then I also play freelance. If they are looking for someone and they ask me and I am available, I will play with them. So one does a lot.

So when you see a musician's CV against someone else's, they always have lots of pages of masterclasses and concerts.

Yes, you are very project-based all the time.


And so indeed, those are all creative entrepreneurs.

And in your solfège and double bass classes, are there a lot of girls there?

Yes, actually there are. In my solfège classes, I think we even have more girls than boys at the moment.

And in the double bass lessons?

I have four students in double bass - I started up the double bass class in that academy because it was not there yet - and so I have four students, which is a lot for an instrument that is not piano or guitar. And my pupils are four girls/ladies.

Yes wow. The boys were not allowed to participate?

But yes It's very absurd. For my teacher before - who was a very big man - I once did his instrument performance. After I played, 30 children came to try the instrument, three of them boys and 27 girls.

Role model, voila.

Eline, when there are candidacies for a position in an orchestra, are those auditions blind? Is that behind a curtain?


So there, the stereotypes - if there are any - and the unconscious biases against female instrumentalists should not exist.

So to speak. Because I've also heard many stories where a woman was eventually chosen and then that comes to the conductor. And then he says 'we already have enough women, take someone else'. Because at the end you do get to see the name and so on, so the whole process is for nothing. And that's not the case with everyone, but unfortunately there are still those incidents where women win in the end, especially brass players, and conductors saying 'I don't want a woman in that position'. And these are usually conductors who come from not so women-friendly countries, which is where you see this most.

What do you dream of?

For myself or my orchestra?

For yourself.

What I'm working on is so important to me, inclusion. I dream of a time when musicians and everyone can just be themselves. And that there is no bias no more. And that you can just stand without having to perform blindly, that you can just express yourself in all your glory, and that they just make a choice purely on your talent and not on your gender or your origin or your preferences.

That's my dream.


>>> You have been listening to Let's Talk, the podcast where we feed the dialogue on inclusion in the labour market, highlight impactful initiatives and let lesser heard voices have their say. Were you captivated, did this conversation make you think, would you like to be one of our next guests yourself? Let us know, follow us on social media and be sure to subscribe to this podcast series!