A Male Perspective On Women Navigating A Lesser-Known Male Dominated Industry

By Tony Rinna

In the summer of 2011 I had an arrangement with a very kind young woman who managed one of the many boutique shops on the local pedestrian mall in my hometown where she allowed me stand in front of her shop and play my saxophone. That particular summer I was raising money for an organization dedicated to helping women who’d been victims of human trafficking. One day, however, another woman who also played the saxophone wanted to play in the same spot as me – it really was the perfect place.

We tried to coordinate our music, but our different styles just didn’t coalesce. We decided that one of us would have to go. Instead of locking horns (no pun intended), I decided to yield to this young woman and let her play there. She wasn’t cocky, but rather just gently assertive that she really wanted the spot. Since then we used to occasionally cross paths, and we were always courteous to each other. No harm done.

Aside from not wanting to cause a scene, I wanted to give her a moment to shine. My host, Stephanie, commented that this woman just took over my spot, but I told her it was OK. Stephanie has since moved on, and I now play my saxophone outside two different boutiques down the street. I admired the uninhibited manner in which the young lady approached me for an equal opportunity to play in that coveted spot. It was an assertiveness that I genuinely admired.


Today it seems one of the biggest metrics for measuring women’s success in the movement for greater empowerment is how women fare in the corporate world. We see this in Sheryl Sandberg‘s ‘Lean In’, in which she proposes the corporate world is more of a jungle gym than a ladder, and in Sonya Rhodes’ ‘Alpha Woman Meets Her Match‘, in which she details greater marital equality for the sake of a woman’s career.

I feel compelled, however, to write about the progress women have made over the years from the perspective of a somewhat unknown but venerable institution- female saxophone players.

I specifically say female saxophone players partly from my own background, but mostly because, while there have long been successful female musicians such as singers, female sax players are not quite as mainstream, and are a more recent addition to the music scene.

I personally owe everything as a saxophone player to women. It was my mom who allowed me to pick up the sax and paid for lessons. It has always been female small business owners who have generously allowed me to stand outside their small shops and boutiques and play my sax in my hometown, whether for festivals or just summer entertainment.


There’s an idea that the saxophone is somehow a more “masculine” instrument. Dr. Sharon Lamb and Dr. Lyn Mickel Brown both show in their research that the idea of the saxophone being a “masculine” instrument solidifies in children’s minds around the fourth grade, when students start to enter band (I picked up the sax in 5th grade).

There are many stories of young women who wanted to play the saxophone in school and either didn’t do it because they were made to believe they couldn’t, or tried it and gave up because other male sax players in the band were discouraging of them. Still others stuck with it and proved the boys wrong.

Today, there are many, many successful female sax players from all over the world: Mindi Abair, Jessy J, Lauren Sevian, and some less famous ones like Alisha Pattillo. Even women who may be technically under a bigger name (like Katja Rieckermann, who plays for Rod Stewart) and Candy Dulfer (who has played with Prince) are amazing in their own right. Of course there are dozens of other amazing female sax players not mentioned here!


I think there’s something to be admired about, and learned from these women who play the saxophone professionally. It takes a lot to make it in an already heavily male-dominated field with an instrument that is already highly regarded as being “masculine”.

I’m not entirely sure why the sax is regarded as masculine. Perhaps it’s because the instrument embodies several qualities society traditionally attributes to males. The saxophone is brassy, shiny, loud, an attention getter. The act of playing the sax requires a sort of subtle yet assertive confidence as you stand upright and rock your body around gently.

This is all the more reason, however, for women to be inspired by this instrument and the women who play it. They should not shy away from these qualities, but rather bring their own unique qualities to it, in order to make it an activity not defined by gender attributes.

Am I saying you should all drop what you’re doing and pick up the saxophone? No. But I do want to draw your attention to this often overlooked group of amazing musicians.I have learned a lot from these pro musicians and how they managed to have success in a male-dominated field using an instrument regarded as “masculine”.

The qualities these women had to have to make it in that field certainly makes me admire them a great deal.



Tony Rinna is a writer and a freelance saxophone player. He is the creator of ‘Saxaphone for Women’, a one-man movement using his saxaphone to promote respect for women and their rights. He has used his sax to raise money for various women’s organizations, including Girls on the Run and Women at Risk, International. He currently resides in South Korea. You can contact him on Twitter @FeministSax.

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