“You Play Like a Man!”


I don’t remember when I first became conscious of being a “Tom girl”. When I reflect up on the expression, it strikes me as such a ubiquitous part of the lexicon of my childhood; it was understood that I didn’t quite fit in with the other girls, that there was something I was that made them a little uncomfortable. While another girl would scream at the sight of a spider, I would be fascinated, could spend ages watching it build it’s web, marveling at it’s industry. The same went with all insects, snakes and ground crawlers in general…except rats and dead birds; I still can’t handle living rats and dead birds.

When it came to throwing a ball, I was told I didn’t throw “like a girl”. I had a better arm than many of the boys in our school, threw javelin, discus and pitched for a boy’s baseball team…until I got my first bra. Wearing that ridiculous pink thing that could barely hold up couple of grapes made me wince. I felt restrained and awkward and so for the first few months I had it, I used to take it off on the way to school, hide it in some bushes, and pick it up on the way home.

I had a couple of girlfriends who not only put up with my oddities, but seemed to enjoy the places our collective imaginations would take us, so we became friends. Of course we talked about “boys”. From the time I was about eight years old I remember being fascinated by boys. I had four stepbrothers, much older than me, and a younger brother. I didn’t know about my younger sister at that point, and my mother wasn’t very involved in my life, so as far as I was concerned, at home I was alone on “Male Island”.

Our family built a pub on Vancouver Island, “the Crow and Gate”, the first English pub licensed in Canada. My stepdad or “Dad” as I call(ed) him, was not a big man, but he was tough. He was a strict disciplinarian, but he had a fantastic sense of humour. Together we hoisted 8 x 8 inch beams, over 12 feet long, up the sides of two rickety ladders, one aluminum with a bent leg and one wooden, an antique I think, and put them in place to form the shell of the pub. We built brick walls and plastered others. Dad was a brilliant carpenter. There wasn’t much he couldn’t build, and was proud of “figuring it out” on a paper napkin or just “doing it in his head”. In the workshop in our barn I watched and sometimes helped him fix broken stained glass windows, make wooden “cut-out” lampshades, doors, tables, even the lathed legs. I learned to love carpentry watching him, and was always begging to help with whatever project he was working on. Christmases and birthdays I would ask for power tools, but it wasn’t even a point of consideration. I was a girl. Girls don’t get power tools. Watching enviously as one of my brothers would open up a Black and Decker box with a new skill saw in it, this being a girl thing was really starting to bug me.

One summer day when Dad was nailing the cedar shakes we had cut and trimmed on the roof of the pub, as I watched from on the ground I called up, “Can I help?” “Hand me up some more of the smaller shakes,” came the reply. “Okay…but I want to help put the shakes on!” I said as I climbed up the ladder with my bundle. “Oh no dear! I don’t think this is a job for you!” I knew it was a “girl” thing, and I knew that my brothers had done similar jobs at my age (I was 13 years old then), because these jobs came with stories told over family dinners. These were the stories of the brotherhood, of the men building things, fishing, laughing, and telling jokes. I wanted so badly to be part of that brotherhood!

“Just let me try one!! If I don’t do it right, I won’t ask again!” I pleaded. “Well…the boys were about your age when they did this…maybe you should give it a try,” he said as he held out his hammer to me and I scrambled up the roof slats to where he was working. I propped myself up on a slat and took the hammer and a nail he was handing me and, placing the shake about a quarter of an inch away from it’s neighbor, (to let the roof breathe☺) I hammered that sucker in like a pro!! Course that pro had a few sore thumbs before the roof section was finished, but there are very few times in my life that I remember being so proud of myself. And my Dad was proud of me too; my roofing story became one of the stories at those dinners. “Kirsten came up on that roof, no fear, and hammered those nails in, just as good as you boys did!” He was proud. And he was incredulous.

Dad came from a barely post-Victorian Britain, where girls were “English Roses”, and things were lovely, war stories were fresh enough to make him want to bring his wife and four sons from England to Vancouver Island to settle. But his first wife was killed in a tragic accident that also severely wounded one of his sons…that’s all a long story and not relevant here. When he met my mother, there was 26 years between them. He was more like a grandfather sometimes, and that spilled into his ideas of what women should and shouldn’t be, although he was more progressive in many ways that I don’t see often in men “of a certain age.” He was game for starting a whole new life with my mother, he was game for building the pub at a point when most men would be thinking of retiring. But he had his ideas of how things should be, and I honed much of my debating skill from hours spent trying to prove to him otherwise.

When I decided I wanted to be a musician, a professional sax player/singer I think Dad thought it was a passing phase. By this time he was getting used to my challenging boundaries. Of course this was in 1979. There were no serious female sax players to be found, (yet!!) especially in Nanaimo. There was no Internet to be had back then. If you wanted to listen to something, it had to be sold at Ferguson’s, the record/music store in the mall, or playing on CBC or CHUB radio. Luckily we had some worldly music teachers who brought music in “from the outside!” They turned us on to all kinds of jazz, blues and sometimes we would have field trips to Vancouver, on the CPR ferry that went from downtown Nanaimo to downtown Vancouver. A couple of our teachers would take us to see the likes of Count Basie, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton at the Commodore or the Hotel Vancouver. Then we would head home on that late ferry, and my head would be full of all those horns, those big bands and big sounds!!

But I was serious, very serious about playing saxophone. One night as I was watching the R&B Allstars playing at the then named “Sebastian’s” I said to a friend, “I’m going to play in that band one day!” They were so funky! All these guys, wearing white suits, horn section doing steps…I didn’t see why I couldn’t do that!! My friend just laughed. “No way are you ever going to get into a band like that! Look at all those guys! They’re not going to let a girl in the band!!” Ahh, she who laughs last….:)

At that point, my trumpet playing friend and I had become the first female members of the Nanaimo Musician’s Association Stage Band, a really fun big band made up of teachers and the few students who were tapped over the years to join. It was a big deal in Nanaimo, and a really big deal to my friend and I to be asked. But we’d worked hard, we’d earned our places, so it didn’t seem as groundbreaking at the time as it does in retrospect. I felt the same way when I was asked to join the R&B Allstars. I was honoured, but I also knew how hard I had worked to get there, so I didn’t grasp at the time the significance of being the first female “in the band”.

When I say “in the band” I mean that when you are a horn or string player, or in the rhythm section, you are in the band. The singer is the front person or sometimes leader of the band. As a front person you like to think that you are part of the band, but often you really aren’t. It’s a subtle thing that is difficult to understand unless you’ve been in it. And the difference between being a female singer/front person and her male counterpart is huge, especially when it comes to touring.

But I’m a little ahead of myself here. Playing with these big bands at an early age, I became aware of the need for a big tone, both in singing and sax playing. You can’t turn up an acoustic instrument, and so as a singing sax player, I am often at odds with the rhythm section and in awe of a good soundman…oops, sound person. I was also never a strict jazz gal. There’s so much great music out there that while I can name some styles I prefer less than others, I can’t pick a favourite.

So I developed this big sound. I listened to Lenny Pickett and Michael Brecker. I also developed a big shell. As always I kept hearing, “You play like a man!” While I was grateful because these people thought they were giving me the highest of compliments, something in my gut didn’t feel right. So because I’ve done my homework, developed good tone and attack every solo with purpose and give it everything I’ve got I play like a man? In that case, please tell me how a woman would play this solo? Would there be trills and “prancy” bits? Should I be blowing, lute-like romantic passages that waft through the kitchen window while the bread I’ve made finishes baking?

Before joining the Allstars, I toured with a couple of bands across western Canada. My nickname was “the Girl”. I was in my early 20’s and my shell was developing nicely. I had to be tougher than ever. Once again the only girl on tours through the backwoods of Canada, I gritted my teeth as our sets were peppered with the mostly male audience members chanting, “Shower! Shower!”, as they had for the strippers on stage before us. Never had I wished to be a man so much! But when I think about it now, and I’m not intending this as a generalization for all men, (I remember these particular men as lacking in class, empathy and basic hygiene) I can’t believe I thought it better to be standing in their shoes than in my own! My band was a great bunch of guys and musicians, but they certainly pushed the boundaries of taste, decorum and basic civilized behavior that gave a couple of them repetitive reasons to be on a first name basis with the nurses at venereal clinics from Vancouver to Saskatoon. And yet I wanted to belong to their club! I felt there was more for me in constantly trying to fit in as one of the guys, than by pushing for their respect for me as what I was: a young woman trying to make a living doing what I loved…in a man’s world. So I compromised myself constantly, I sabotaged myself. On one hand I was belligerent, demanding a place a the man-table, and on the other I was constantly having my heart broken, because at the bottom of it all, the throwing balls like a man, the having ideas like a man, hammering shakes, lifting timbers and bales of hay, the playing sax like a man and the years of feeling that to have any relevance was to be like a man…women who thought they were liberating themselves were burning bras to be like men, wearing pants to be like men, smoking, drinking to be like men…at the bottom of it all was a girl who wanted to be who she was, not what society or ANYONE told her she should be in order to matter in this world, in order to feel like they belong, in order to play a saxophone well.

The notes came out fast and furious. I was angry, I was proud. I drank beer with the boys, and partied and laughed with the boys. There were flings with the boys…office romances I guess you could call them? I was also boycotted by one musician “friend” for not sleeping with him, not hired for bands because I wasn’t a boy, and it took some convincing at first to get to play at Vancouver jam sessions for the same reason and there were more than a couple of record executives that didn’t take my calls anymore after they found out I had a boyfriend. And all along when I played, people would say, “Wow! You’re really good for a girl!” or “Wow! I closed my eyes and I thought it was a man playing!” Of course there was one guy who said, “Wow! That’s really great the way you’re playing that tuba there!!”

As I moved up the musical ladder however, I was convinced I was absolutely second-rate, that I would never be a great player. I took to wearing short skirts and big hair to give myself “an edge”. I just didn’t have a role model, or something I could hang my hat on and say, “Yeah, I want to be like her when I grow up!” Even as someone would say those “compliments”, I would hear in the back of my head, “But you’re not a man. You’re not quite as good as that, because even if you play as well as a man, at the end of the day, you’re still a girl, and if that was a good thing to be then people would be saying I played like a girl!!

I won the 1988 CARAS award for reed player of the year…first woman ever…still not good enough. Went on tour with Long John Baldry…still trying too hard. Then a string of career disappointments followed by the start of a family…a saxophone laid to rest. I was a woman after all, and now was needed by my family. Of all the things my Dad had seen me do, he was most proud when I met my husband and we had our first son. Dad passed away soon after that, but I know he felt a great relief before passing that I was no longer on the road with those crazy bands, playing saxophone, that I was finally safely ensconced in my own family. I was finally a success in his eyes.

Then one night at a friend’s for dinner my ears tuned into a sax solo playing on the stereo at the time. “Who’s that?” I asked. “It sounds like Brecker, but there’s all that Pickett stuff going on…” I mused. My friend looked at me like he thought I was putting him on, but I was serious. I had no idea of who it was. “Are you kidding me?” he laughed, “That’s you!”

I was stunned. Turns out it was taped live years before at the Queen’s pub in Nanaimo where we were playing with the R&B Allstars and my ears had picked up on one of my sax solos. I listened to the rest of the solo and I remember it actually physically hurting me. It was beautiful! It was young and vibrant and full of belief. The notes soared and I heard a passionate young woman riding those suckers for all they were worth, for her self, for those girls and boys who would follow and come to understand what it was to play like a girl, that it was not only okay, that it was great to play like a girl!

And as I listened I heard the differences in my playing and the playing of the many men I’ve listened to over the years. There’s a fire-like temperament, an emotional reckless abandon to my playing; I like long vibrant slashes and outbursts, followed by whispers and seductions and howls at the moon. But at the heart of my playing, I think, is the feeling that you never quite know what to expect. Which is understandable, because I never quite know either. That intuitive sense of trusting the process but being prepared to shift courses in a second is very female, comes with the maternal instinct to react quickly if need be to save their babies. Same concept works with sax solos☺

In the past few years I’ve come back to my saxophones, and music in all its’ pain and glory. It’s been a long haul to get my tone back, to get my fingers even remotely fluid, but these days I’m feeling pretty good about my playing. Then a little while ago at a rehearsal a dear friend said very innocently, “Wow! Listen to that tone! Great solo! You sound like a man!” Now I know he loves me, would never intentionally do anything to make me feel lesser than fabulous, but I was a little taken aback, and then said, with a small smile, “No…I’m playing like a woman.”

Recently, with all the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner stories flooding the social media waves, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it is to be a woman these days, and not wish deep down that I were a man. I’m not talking about wishing I was a man like a transgender person might, but I am talking about wishing for equality. Things have changed big time since I was a little girl. Girls today aren’t subject to the same societal chains as I was, or the centuries of women were before me. Being a girl sax player isn’t such a big deal anymore, although the male to female ratio in most pop/rock bands is still tilted big time towards the arrow. And that ratio expands into much of what constitutes the art and entertainment industry, indeed business in general these days still sees very few women in the CEO chairs comparatively.

Somewhere along the way in the fight for equality, there was a backlash. It became “the way” that it was okay to be strong women, to work, to dream and achieve, as long as we stayed “sexy”. I certainly felt better received by men in the business in those days when I was wearing high heels and a mini skirt, and even now, on a social media site like Facebook, if I post a sexy or “hot” picture of myself, I get way more “likes” than for anything else I might share, including my art, music and writings. If women’s brains were considered as sexy as other parts of their bodies, Gloria Steinem would be preaching to a sold out audience of men cheering her on and trying to shove 5 dollar bills in her suit pockets. The concept of “beauty, brains AND talent!” has been nudged aside to make way for overt hyper sexualizing of the female (and now male) body as what our society now deems desirable…in order to sell happiness. There are many industries that rely on our unhappiness within ourselves to sell a lot of stuff to the outer us, like miracle pills, potions and new shoes to make us taller, skinnier, blonder, sexier and thus happier with ourselves. As a woman in her 50’s, I enjoy feeling fit, appreciate beauty and am not without my vanities, but when I look back at the quilt of my life, and the time spent trying in some way or another trying to please the opposite sex, either by trying to be one of them or appealing to one, I can’t help but feel frustrated that as a species we have not moved beyond our skins to spend more time on the development of our souls, of our acceptance and empathy.

I’ve noticed that time and experience as a female has changed all aspects of my art, including my saxophone playing. The girl I was is well into her womanhood, with all the understanding and respect for life that entails. There are new emotions, new depths to my playing. I’ve had two children and raised them to be empathetic and reasoned, loving young men. A gal lives through a lot of stories to get to this point. All that ebbing and flowing, those roller coasters of emotions that make up a life start forming landscapes, that when seen in hindsight can make you laugh or cry, or both, or just reflect, depending on your perspective.

Recently I was part of a conversation with a person who had their own personal cause they felt they needed to fight for. I was very interested in their perspective, wanted to support them and learn from them…until they turned bitter with their debate. They just couldn’t move on, wouldn’t accept anything less than complete capitulation from all sides. It didn’t end well, and I felt sad for that person, because it seemed they were shooting themselves in the foot if they were pushing away people who were prepared to listen, even if they couldn’t be converted to the cause.

Then I had one of those moments where I realize, full stop, what a dumb ass I can be! All those years trying to kick down walls, and all I had to do was play on my mouthpiece instead of being a mouthpiece and people would have opened doors, saving my boots a lot of wear and tear! Just hammer in the damn nails in without splitting the shakes! It’s easy! Not. Sometimes your thumb gets banged; I learned that on a roof once.

As women we still have a long way to go before phrases like “You play like a man” or “You don’t throw like a girl” become moot. I am thrilled when I see the incredible women musicians flooding into the business! And the women making big roads into sciences, literary arts, education, sports, medicine, construction…you name it, we’re there now. So now it’s time to play, play well, and play it the way we hear, see or think it. Whatever you play or do as a girl or a woman, own it and share it! But don’t get stuck in it. Men are our friends, our lovers, our husbands, brothers, uncles and sons, not our enemies. They are learning, we are learning. We are all, together, still learning the steps to this eternal dance, and we now understand that we have the right to dance with whoever we want to, men, women or somewhere in between. We are evolving together, always evolving…in some parts of the world the evolution isn’t happening fast enough, but it is happening.

What I do know is that, at this stage of my life, I am very happy to say I no longer try to play or think or throw or want to be treated like a man…or a girl for that matter. I finally have learned to love, feel, play saxophone, guitar, paint, sing, write and live my life in every way like the woman I have become and I’m quite proud of that…and her. We’ve come a long way, baby! Play on☺