The slogan “empowered women empower women’ is one we say a lot here at The Women’s Organisation. They are words we strive to remember every day – we can all be inspired by women who are doing great things.
That’s why we want to shine a light on the women who are leading the way in their industries in our new series, ‘STAND OUT’.
We’ll be hearing from women who are at the top of their business game, from top business execs, to women working in arts and culture and even an archaeologist!
First up is Hilary Browning, a cellist for Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
|Hilary Browning, cellist in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Hilary Browning has been at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for 27 years. Growing up in a musical family in Kent, Hilary and her sisters were directed towards the cello and violin from a young age by her parents: “I think the idea was that they wanted to have a string quartet, but after they got to three children they decided that that was enough kids, so they didn’t quite make it to the full quartet!”
Through lessons at school, attending the local quartet centre, and playing in the youth orchestra, Hilary began to realise that music was her calling. At 14, she had her ‘eureka’ moment in the youth orchestra: “Being in a big group of people all playing their own instrument individually – the sound that comes out – had a big emotional impact on me. I got that emotional buzz from it and said to myself ‘this is exactly what I want to do’.”
Getting serious about her career, Hilary started to travel to London from Kent every week for lessons at Guildhall, eventually attending the college full-time for five years, rather than going to University. The symphony orchestra is notoriously difficult to get into, but for Hilary, the hard work was worth it. “You don’t get to follow and achieve your dreams without putting something in. I don’t think some people realise just how hard you have to work, but it’s the same with everything.”
After college, she began playing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, but her ambitions were set higher. She saw a job advertised for a number two role at Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – a big step up from any role she’d held before. Having nothing to lose, Hilary auditioned, and she got it. She’s been at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic ever since, where she met her husband, fellow cellist Ian Bracken, with whom she has two children. Her son William is continuing the musical legacy; an aspiring concert pianist, he’s now in his third year at Guildhall, and has been greatly inspired by his piano-playing grandmother (Hilary’s mum), who has taken great pleasure in encouraging and nurturing her grandson’s development.
Speaking about the Philharmonic, Hilary commented on how it was one of the most important institutions of Liverpool. “Artistically, it’s a flagship for the city. The audience that come are so fantastic… This loyal fanbase that comes to China, to Japan. I think to have it on Liverpool’s portfolio of things to offer is really important.”
However, after a few years, Hilary began to notice something lacking: contemporary music. “Everybody talks about playing music made by dead, white, male composers, so this was the first step (getting people playing living composers!)”.
She approached the chief executive, and they began a series called 10/10; so-called as every Saturday night, after the main concert, they would put on a set at 10:10pm. “We got people to come and play for free and the CEO allowed us to have the main hall, so it was a free concert for the audience. After about a year of doing this we got some funding from the North West Arts board – they approached us, which was brilliant.” The series was a big hit, and had a huge part to play when the Philharmonic applied for stabilisation funding from the arts council a few years later. 10/10 is still going strong today, bringing in a diverse range of composers and cutting-edge music from around the world.
|Hilary playing at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Orchestras worldwide have received criticism at their lack of diversity. Even as recently as 2018, women are massively underrepresented in some of the world’s greatest ensembles: in a study of 22 orchestras, men accounted for 69%, with some instruments suffering an even larger gender imbalance. For example, the trumpet had only one female player, and the trombone and tuba had none at all. This disparity has been attributed to historical gender bias – until the 20th century, women were discouraged from playing any instruments that may distort their facial features, were too heavy and powerful, or required ‘unladylike’ postures. Amy Phelps, a cello instructor who wrote her PhD thesis on gender discrimination in orchestras, said: ‘The instruments they identified as male are the louder, bigger instruments… Our society does not want women to be loud’.
Women didn’t start playing in orchestras until the 1960s, and while there were a few female conductors in the 1980s, they eventually disappeared, Hilary says. “Around that time there was a conversation around, ‘we’ve got to get women into board rooms, we’ve got to get women into top jobs’, but it didn’t really happen.” Berlin Philharmonic didn’t have any women in their orchestra until the 1980s, and when they eventually did, the conductor walked out in protest. Vienna Philharmonic didn’t include any women until the 21st century. “It’s so behind and set in traditional ways”, says Hilary, “we’re way ahead of that in this country.”
Women make up 40% of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and Hilary has her own theories on why that number isn’t increasing. The hours can be antisocial, with many evening concerts, so arranging childcare can be difficult and can lead to many women leaving their posts. “We had to have a nanny looking after our kids. People muddle through all sorts of childcare arrangements. You might have them in day care then someone else will pick them up and bring them home.”
Nevertheless, Hilary is optimistic for the future. She is involved in a diversity group, which aims to promote women into conducting roles, a traditionally male-dominated sphere. There are more and more women becoming conductors, but Hilary says there’s still some apprehension surrounding it:
“People, even other women, are nervous about [having female conductors]. One girl in the orchestra said, ‘If we’re going to have female conductors, they have to be good’, and I said, ‘Well, why do they have to be good?’ Of course, we’re all striving for excellence, but we have to give all conductors a chance before their reputation is completely solid.
“I do think quite strongly that we have to be pro-active, we can’t just let it happen. It would take too long to filter through. We need to have more ideas and more energy putting into how we can get more women conductors, more women composers.”
|‘Equilibrium’ will be introducing work from female composers
Speaking of those who inspire her, Hilary looked to women who have the courage to challenge the norm and say, ‘Why not? Why shouldn’t I?’; women such as Madeline Allbright, Condoleezza Rice, both former US secretaries of state, and Elim Chan, conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra. “She just completely surpassed all the barriers in her way”, says Hilary, ‘she told me that the only ones she encountered were from other women looking at her with their eyes narrowed, thinking ‘how are you going to do this?’”
Finally, to those wanting to achieve their dreams, Hilary has some parting advice:
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you want to do it, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you. Find the best teacher you can, surround yourself with people who will give you positive encouragement, because on the path there’s lots of ups and downs. Knock-backs are part of it. For each success, there’ll probably be three more knock-backs. If you don’t get in the first time, try a different place. Don’t be put off by people saying you can’t: just keep at it and keep working hard.”
Hilary Browning is now part of ‘Equilibrium’, a new group at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with a mission to introduce works by hitherto neglected women composers and exciting new works by women of today, in partnership with the Women’s Organisation.
For their first perfromance, Equilibrium have invited Sheila Hayman, descendant of the composer Fanny Mendelssohn, to speak about Fanny and the challenges she faced as a female composer of her time.