March 16, 2021

The Polar Bear Press Excerpt:
“Beyond the Practice Room: MSM Womxn”

The following is a synopsis of a recent feature article that appeared the student newspaper Polar Bear Press

For Issue No. 5, publication editor Mindy Holthe sat down with the leaders of student group “MSM Womxn” to talk about the purpose of their organization, upcoming projects, and the importance of creating community for womxn in music.

The MSM Womxn Executive Board is:

Chira Bell (BM ’22, Classical Voice, Founder
Lexi Brown (BM ’22, Classical Voice), Communications Chair
Mindy Holthe (BM ’21, French Horn), Finance Chair
Ria Iparraguirre (BM ’22, Classical Voice), Events Chair
Jordan Gilbert (BM ’23, Classical Voice), Volunteer & Outreach Chair
Arthi Nandakumar (BM ’21, Classical Voice), Advocacy Chair

How did this organization come about and what inspired it?

Chira: So what happened from my perspective was that Black Lives Matter had started and a lot of issues pertaining to womxn, gender equality, and sexual assault had started coming up at MSM. I was discussing these issues with my parents and my dad, who went to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) said, “where is your womxn’s group to support these kinds of situations?” and I was like “… I never even thought about that!” He said, “well, all of the HBCU’s in the early 90s had womxn’s groups that supported these kinds of advocacy issues.” So then I just sat back and started to think about how much good it could do on behalf of the community and how every community-orientated organization has the goal of uniting a community of some sort. I feel like the womxn community at MSM is not always the most positive environment just because there are a billion of us and it’s hard because you have to be in constant competition with people that you want to support. But, patterns are patterns and we are here to break said patterns and to work together. I’m really grateful for the group that came together.

MSM Womxn Executive Board (from left to right, top to bottom): Chira Bell, Lexi Brown, Mindy Holthe, Ria Iparraguirre, Jordan Gilbert, and Arthi Nandakumar

What are the goals of this organization and are there any projects you are working on as a group?

Chira: Everything! Anything you could think we are working on or talking about, we are working on and talking about as a goal for us.

Jordan: Going off of what Chira said, specifically we are trying to create an environment that is just full of support for womxn. I mean you go outside and it’s already lacking but then you come into an area like this where it’s just all tense competition all the time and you can feel like you’re drowning. I think it’s really important that we establish a safe space and community where we can advocate for other womxn.

Lexi: We want everyone to be seen and included in our communal space. Part of the reason I’m here is to create that sense of community between everyone on campus and everyone that identifies as feminine so we can all have that safe space.

Chira: I think the overarching purpose of this group is for us, as a community of womxn, to unite. I think we’re recognizing that we all have each other and the privilege of that and working together.

Jordan: As for projects, previously we worked with IrisHouse, a center for womxn in Harlem and we are collaborating with the Women’s Education Project that is helping with womxn’s education for girls in India. We are looking to collaborate with Black Trans Womxn organizations this upcoming semester and with organizations within the school, like QueerPBS and the Black Student Union.

We should be lifting other womxn up rather than seeing them as our competition, because their success is not our failure.

BM '23

Why is it important that MSM allows students the opportunity to create student projects such as this one?

Chira: SO many reasons! There is a goldmine of opportunities at MSM and people just don’t see them because we are so tunnel-visioned in our curriculum. If we weren’t able to or allowed to create these projects, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to explore the passions we have in this way. We don’t have a womxn’s study major and we’re not able to partner with other colleges at the moment, so we can’t take their womxn or queer studies courses. Projects like these give us the opportunity to direct our passions for other things, while also taking advantage of the networking and opportunities that MSM has to offer outside of the classroom or concert hall. There’s so much for us to learn and so many people and leaders to connect with that will contribute to our future as artists. I think MSM, depending on where you come from, is the first place you can see a lot of leaders of diversity in your administration. While we are still far from being truly diverse, we have multiple high level administrators of color, our president is a gay man and his husband is Black. I think there is a lot of diversity in our leadership that a lot of people don’t often get to experience. Allowing these student projects and organizations lets us embrace the diversity of our student body and the diversity of ourselves!

How can classical musicians today bring more light to the musical works of women, from the past and present?

Jordan: Do your research! It’s literally so easy to get on the Googles and look up someone like Clara Schumann, look up womxn composers. You have to be willing to take the time and not just take repertoire from a traditional category and stuff that’s being pushed on you by a teacher, who’s probably set in stone with the traditional male-written repertoire. There was such a stigma against women composers back then and there is still one now, it hasn’t gone away and it’s really frustrating! You really just have to be willing to look for it and put in that extra 5% effort to take time and listen to this person’s music instead of doing what fits in a four-corner box.

Chira: Surround yourself with resources! Follow womxn of color in opera on social media, follow these accounts, follow us on Instagram! There are people out there putting in 70% effort to give you your 5%, to put it in front of your face for you so that you don’t have to do it yourself. We’re in it together, but you’ve got to do it!

Ria: Do the work, like Jordan was saying, it’s not that hard. Women all need to support each other, but I feel like the main place it needs to come from is from men who are brave enough to actually invite womxn into their spaces. I’m currently dating someone that is a jazz major and he’s working towards confronting and unlearning his own internalized misogyny because music is a man’s world and a lot of it stems from the environment that they’re in. He’s trying to come up with a combo and I’m like please invite womxn! You cannot support womxn without also asking men to support womxn just as much as womxn support womxn. When it comes down to it, unfortunately, men are usually the ones with power in these spaces. I’m sorry, it’s 2021, if I’m not seeing womxn included in your recordings and performances, there’s no excuse. Include womxn, include womxn, include womxn.

This article was produced by Mindy Holthe (BM ’21, French Horn) for MSM’s student newspaper, Polar Bear Press. Read the full issue below, or view the pdf version here.