Gendering the middle classes: the construction of conductors' authority in youth classical music groups

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While many accounts of gendered embodiment focus on transformation, this article examines how normative gendered identifications are reinforced among middle-class young people playing classical music. Drawing on an ethnographic study of young people in youth orchestras and a youth choir in the south of England, it examines how the authority of the male conductor is constructed and experienced. It explores the construction of the charisma on which this gendered authority is based, through embodied craft, sexualisation, and humour, showing how conductors cultivated this mode of authority, which relied on the embodied intimacy of classical musical practice. As a consequence of these gendered power dynamics, young women talked about their conductors differently from the young men. Despite the discomfort or resistance that some of the young women voiced in private, they approached rehearsals with a willing trust which gave the public appearance of their consent to his authority. Against the ways in which participants emphasised agency and choice in interviews, observations of rehearsals revealed young people's conformity to this gendered authority. This paper therefore contributes to theorising gender among the middle classes by demonstrating how the affective power of the conductor in youth classical music ensembles produces conformity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)855-871
Number of pages17
JournalSociological review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2016


  • middle classes
  • gender
  • authority
  • embodiment
  • classical music
  • youth

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