Women in Percussion: Breaking Barriers

The world of percussion has historically been a male-dominated field, that to this day, continues to lack equal gender representation. ProMusica currently has 10 female principal musicians in the orchestra, including leadership in our percussion section. Renee Keller, our Principal Timpani and Percussionist shares about her personal experiences being a female percussionist and how she has navigated the gender dynamics inherent in the industry.

Q: Can you introduce yourself?

Renee: “My name is Renee Keller, I am the Principal Timpani and Percussionist with ProMusica and I currently live in Lima, Ohio. I have been with ProMusica since 2014.”

Q: What initially drew you to percussion as a musical pursuit, and what challenges did you face entering a male-dominated field?

Renee: “I started percussion in fifth grade. I had actually played piano, and had previously played clarinet a little bit. I decided to switch to percussion, and I can’t exactly remember why, but it did kind of have to do with the fact that they [percussionists] seemed like they were having more fun.

This is sort of a general statement, but a lot of female percussionists end up being pigeonholed as the mallet player in a lot of cases. In my case, that was certainly true because I played piano, so I already knew how to read notes. I certainly filled the mallet player role because I was capable, and excelled in that role, but I would also say that it was easy for me then to let the male percussionist do the other things that I was more intimidated by, like drum set. I think in my situation, I was pretty lucky because I had a really influential female teacher early on, throughout high school.

All the teachers I studied with were either female, or in the case of my undergrad and master’s program, feminist men who were very much promoting gender equality. It was really a lot later that I started noticing the discrepancies in the professional percussion world or challenges that female percussionists face.”

Q: Can you share any personal experiences or anecdotes that highlight the gender dynamics you’ve encountered as a female percussionist?

Renee: “I think the experience that a lot of people have, going back to middle school and high schools, is that they get pigeonholed or bullied into playing certain instruments and not playing other instruments. That can happen from fellow section members, but it can also happen from a band director. If you’re looking at middle schools, you’ll see a lot of young girls getting interested in percussion, but as they go up in level, it’s fewer and fewer. So, you find fewer in college, and even fewer in a master’s program.

I would say that to be successful in the percussion industry, you have to try to fit in to a certain extent. I think the most common experience as a woman in percussion is dealing with a lot of the joking. When you are in college studying percussion, you likely will have to hang out with groups of boys and deal with the ‘locker room talk’ and other juvenile jokes.”

Q: How do you navigate and overcome stereotypes or biases that might exist within the percussion community?

Renee: “I think at this point I don’t worry about it too much. I’ve found my place in the professional world and found my niche. The percussion field is so vast that part of your training is really finding out where you fit into that, what you want to focus on—whether it’s timpani or mallets—or are you going to be a soloist, or an ensemble player, and what path you want to pursue.”

Q: Can you share a particularly memorable story from your journey as a female percussionist?

Renee: “The memory that sticks out to me, is sort of an interesting experience, that was shocking to me. When the Me Too movement and discussions started in 2017, I thought it would be interesting to write a magazine article for a percussion periodical magazine. To write the article, I asked my female percussion colleagues about their experiences. The stories I heard ranged from common moments of microaggressions all the way up to more serious types of incidents.

While writing the article, I felt like we were in the middle of this national discussion…I felt like it was really timely. It was nice that we were able to open up to discussing  this, and maybe I was just kind of naive in my expectations, but the percussion organization was, shockingly to me, opposed to publishing the article.

The article finally got published, just last month. The real eye-opening part for me was what I had to go through to get the article published. From the organization asking me to restructure it to rewriting the questions, and then trying to convince the publication that we could publish this. I kept pushing the article and sharing it with others who subsequently helped me to keep it alive and bring it to the table. After leadership changes, the article was considered again and published.

I felt indebted to everybody who shared their experiences with me, so it feels good to finally get it out there.”

Q: What advice would you give to other female percussionists who are just starting out in the industry?

Renee: “I think it is most important to talk to people and create connections, even if it’s not somebody that you’re studying with. Fortunately, now it’s a lot easier because of social media. But just, I would say, find your network. There are plenty of fun, great, awesome, talented, supportive women, and men professionals out there that’ll help you in your journey. Sometimes the industry is unfair and having people that you can talk to through those situations, who can understand and empathize with you, is helpful.”

Thank you to Renee for sharing her experience and advice as a woman percussionist. Hear Renee playing on ProMusica’s new timpani set at our upcoming concerts including The Italian Sun, Jon Batiste x ProMusica: A Musical Residency and Vadim Gluzman Plays Tchaikovsky.