Whistling Hens: Reacting to the Landscape

Whistling Hens, Jennifer Piazza-Pick and Natalie Groom

Soprano Jennifer Piazza-Pick and clarinetist Natalie Groom formed a duo, Whistling Hens, which commissions women composers for their ensemble. Learn more about how they formed, their process, and the rewarding, exciting work of these two women in chamber music.

 

 

In 2018, soprano Jennifer Piazza-Pick and clarinetist Natalie Groom formed a dynamic and original ensemble championing the work of women composers. I caught up with this unique chamber duo shortly after they released their debut album, Reacting to the Landscape. Here the team discusses their journey thus far, future plans, and the value of entrepreneurship in sustaining performance careers.

Meeting in a graduate class at the University of Maryland–College Park, the two musicians discovered a mutual interest in performing music written by women. Groom observes, “Truly, where it started was just that we were friends and we wanted to do something together.” When they began to discuss repertoire possibilities they selected a few pieces already composed for soprano, clarinet, and piano. Preparing and presenting pieces scored for this instrumentation by composers Margaret Garwood and Barbara Harbach (for Piazza-Pick’s DMA lecture recital) led the duo to broaden their intentions from simply performing music by women to actually commissioning women composers to write for their unusual ensemble, soprano and clarinet. 

While poring over the question of naming their new partnership, Piazza-Pick stumbled upon a quotation from a biography about musician Nadia Boulanger. In 1918 a New York Times music critic published a denigrating statement directed toward Boulanger’s sister, Lili: “But women composers are at best whistling hens.” This sexist comment sufficiently fueled the fire already lit under this motivated duo. That the ensemble was formed exactly one hundred years after that criticism was published solidified the team’s decision to adopt “Whistling Hens” as its name.

Whistling Hens began its public concertizing in 2019, starting with Collington Retirement Community in Maryland. The duo was pleasantly surprised when Collington’s Women’s Committee offered a financial gift to support their first commission. Piazza-Pick elaborates, “With commissions in particular we were really keen on making sure the world could hear that music beyond just a performance that we did.” Inspired by the potential for bringing new music into the world, the Hens applied and were accepted to a summer residency at Avaloch Farm Music Institute (New Hampshire) in the summer of 2019.

Piazza-Pick describes the duo’s week at Avaloch as “a wonderful place for ensembles, musicians, and composers. When we were first together, we took this week to work on a transcription and one of our first commissions, but also to prepare for educational concerts and work out what we wanted to focus on. We wanted to perform only [music by] women composers. It was [also] about financial sustainability. We’re not the only ones doing this. How do we champion others as well? We are not just women musicians, but we’re all artists, no matter the discipline. As we created the album a few years later, we stayed true to this mission and tried to make sure every aspect of what we chose involved as many women as possible.” 

Jennifer Piazza-Pick

 The duo faithfully applied for several grants and was fortunate to be awarded some that funded commissions and, eventually, the debut album recording expenses. Groom muses, “It’s been a dream to do something like this. We started finding repertoire through transcriptions…which took a lot of digging and many hours of research…. Our budget was going mainly toward commissions to build the repertoire first. We kept our eyes open for some grants.”

That drive led to Chamber Music America awarding Whistling Hens a Residency Partnership Program Grant in 2020 (made possible with support from CMA through its Residency Endowment Fund) and a 2022 Classical Commissioning Award (made possible by the CMA Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by the Mellon Foundation) in 2022 in partnership with composer Kate Soper, which will yield a new piece in 2023.

Whistling Hens District New Music Coalition

Leaning strongly toward recording pieces commissioned for their ensemble, the duo decided to record nine works for their 2022 album—seven by living American composers. All 13 tracks (one piece spans five movements) resulted in world premiere recordings. 

When considering a title for the album, the duo agreed on Reacting to the Landscape, based on an excerpt from an interview with Marin Alsop, former Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony and the first woman to lead a major American orchestra. Groom expresses, “The status quo has been at the top of our minds, like Roe vs. Wade being overturned [last] summer or the response to war. [Our work is] a reaction to the landscape.”

Whistling Hens and Ying-Shan Su

The duo has expanded its mission to include women from a wider palette of professions, partnering with other artists and initiatives to collaboratively seek gender equity in the arts, business, and education. Says Piazza-Pick, “We really strove in the [album] launch to include as many women as we could. Our album cover and design were done by women. Our private launch event was done at a woman-owned venue. We commissioned a coloring book by a woman.” When asked to share how that coloring book came about, Piazza-Pick replies, “The artist had a pack of women composer buttons.” When Piazza-Pick wore one, Groom expressed that it might be fun if they commissioned the artist to make a coloring book starring Whistling Hens composers. “So, we have a coloring book!”

Some of Whistling Hens’ concert highlights include the Mississippi Music by Women Festival, Women Composers Festival of Hartford, Boulanger Initiative’s WoCo Fest, National Women’s Theatre Festival, Embassy of Austria, Sam Houston State University Art Song Festival, and the International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFest. Whistling Hens was also selected to be the ensemble in residence for the 2021 Darkwater Womxn in Music Festival. The call for scores was for soprano and clarinet, and the duo recorded each composition that made the finals, working virtually with each composer.

Natalie Groom

When asked what’s next, the duo excitedly shares news of commissions, residencies, and concerts. Composer Jennifer Stevenson, who won the Darkwater Womxn in Music composition competition with her “Letter from Beirut,” was commissioned to write another piece for Whistling Hens, which they premiered at their album launch weekend events. This new commission, “Musical Invective,” represents an engaging multi-movement work based on critiques of major composers’ works, written in a style mimicking each composer. March 2023 brings a commission from composer Kimberly Osberg, a Melissa Dunphy composition is expected in July 2023, and performances in North Carolina and Georgia will continue their fruitful calendar. They are already beginning to plan concerts for the spring of 2024 as well as their second album.

The momentum created by this unorthodox ensemble’s drive, talent, grant-writing diligence, shared mission, and value to the chamber performance field has propelled them toward more and more recording, commissioning, performing, and advocacy opportunities for years to come. Groom explains, “The residencies that we have been doing have an educational and cross-collaboration component. We’ll do a recital, and the composers will have their students write for clarinet and soprano, so we can workshop with them and share best practices, in addition to workshopping the commissioned composers’ pieces. [We also] teach about music entrepreneurship and the commissioning process.”

When speaking about the niche they have carved, Groom comments, “It just happened to be that we had a niche instrumentation even within the classical music world. [We] narrowed the focus further to repertoire specifically by women. When there’s value alignment, it’s easy to take something and run with it. There’s not a lot of historical precedent for this. We talk about the women on our programs, why they’re interesting, and what they did with their lives. By the end of the day, we are hoping everybody can at least name one woman composer!”

Groom describes her partnership with Piazza-Pick as “a really happy marriage of some of our best skills. We happened to converge on our interest in women composers (which is sad that it’s a niche, to be honest). I like to tell students, if you can find somebody that you can make music with, do business with, and be friends with, that is the holy trinity of chamber music. That’s really where the special stuff happens.”

Regarding financial support, Piazza-Pick offers, “Having a focus about what is important to us has helped the funding. We know what we’re about, we know what we care about…. The funding sources that we have are really excited about helping us promote the work we’re doing. I find that’s really helpful, and it feels like the fit is great. We’ve been clear on the mission since the beginning, and that’s made a big difference in funding and branding. 

“Part of being entrepreneurial is thinking about who you are as an artist, what you want to say in the world, and how you want to do that. I think when we have to face who we are as artists and what we believe in, it starts to inform the way we move through our career. For example, once we decided that we were not only going to play music by women, but we also wanted to help women gain financial equity in music, the decisions for our work became really clear. We knew these are the things that we want.”

Whistling Hens has firmly established itself as an outstanding ensemble in an artistic niche while granting many creative women valuable opportunities to be paid to compose, and have their works performed, recorded, and celebrated on a national scale. They have partnered with women in a variety of professions to advance financial sustainability and equity in their fields. They have raised awareness among educators, music aficionados, and fellow musicians about the outstanding work of women in the arts and have joined others in leading the way toward championing work by women. 

Learn more about the duo at www.whistlinghens.com.

Tish Oney

Tish Oney has taught vocal music at eight universities plus several more as a visiting artist. Specializing in multi-genre singing, she maintains an international performance career as a symphony pops soloist, jazz singer, lyric soprano, composer, arranger, musicologist, and voice pedagogue. She is writing Jazz Voice: A Guide to Singing Pedagogy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and teaches professional and preprofessional singers in her virtual studio. To learn more, visit tishoney.com.