Heather Gunn, music student on girl bands, equality and seminars

Passionate, insightful and ambitious, Heather Gunn has carved a place for herself at UBC which is entirely her own. In her fourth year of study, Gunn is the only student majoring in the School of Music’s music scholarship program. She strives towards a more inclusive environment for musicians on both a representative and a scholarly level.

Although she hails from Nova Scotia, Gunn holds three citizenships and lived in India and South Africa while growing up. This exposure to different worldviews helped spark her interest in ethnomusicology, or the cultural anthropology of music. 

Gunn is also principal trumpet of the UBC Symphonic Wind Ensemble. She has been playing trumpet for a decade and has been a part of Canada’s National Youth Band. 

“I really love ensemble performance because it’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s very athletic, especially being a trumpet player, and it’s also very meditative,” she said. “You’re so focused on music making, the physicality of you and your instrument, the bodies around you and looking at your conductor and thinking, ‘How can I give everything to the music we’re making right now?’" 

Gunn is also UBC’s first music student to run a student directed seminar. Her class, “Women and Femininity in Alternative Music,” uses ethnomusicology — which traditionally focuses on non-Western music — to analyze contemporary artists. She chose the format of a seminar to bring together other students from different disciplines, such as gender studies and sociology.

“I was really excited to create a space where I had peers to discuss these ideas with and learn from,” she said. “That’s what directed seminars are all about — democratic learning.”

In the student directed seminar, students facilitate individual classes where they use an intersectional feminist perspective to analyze the music industry and present on particular artists or records. Artists such as tUnE-yArDs, FKA twigs, and Regina Spektor have been studied so far.

“The whole centre of the class is thinking about identity and the remainder of the class is figuring out how identity factors into music-making,” said Gunn.

Gunn describes how white, male, heterosexual and middle-to-upper-class identities are perceived as the norm in our society. Whenever musical performers differ from this artificial standard, it is always mentioned and focused. This focus on identity can distract critics and scholars from a performer’s musical merit. 

“If you have a band full of women, it’s not just a band — it’s a girl band. And that’s a selling point. When are we going to get to the point where it’ll just be a band?”

Heather Gunn and her fellow students also examine the social factors which have led to a lack of diversity in music-makers. 

“Is it just that there aren’t women making music? Or is it that people are deciding not to talk about women making music? It’s a combination of both those things.”

She hopes others will actively incorporate diverse performers into their musical tastes. 

“I want more people to try and change their listening habits and seek out more music by different people because it’s not going to be handed to you,” she said.

Gunn also wishes to see more efforts ensuring gender equality in music schools and to share the stage with more female performers in the future. “For most of my life, I’ve been the only woman in the back row [of an ensemble]. I feel that being a female trumpet player is kind of an act of rebellion sometimes and that’s part of why I want to stick with it.”