Bechdel Tested's last panel talk, on women in comedy. Photo credit: Akemi Liyanage.When it comes to how we treat women in the music industry, we can do better.

The classical music scene is no exception—in fact, in many cases it lags further behind than most. In a world where the Met programming an opera by a female-identifying composer makes international headlines, and where audiences still start scandals around the kinds of dresses Yuja Wang wears to her concerts, there is a long way to go before women in music have the platform, and the community, they need to succeed.

Erica Shiner certainly thinks so. She comes from a communications background but has long been an advocate for women in the music scene—and at the upcoming event in her film series Bechdel Tested, she’s using cinema as a springboard for starting feminist discussion within our music community. The concept for the series is simple: based on the Bechdel Test—a test named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel that requires a work of fiction to feature at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man—each edition of Bechdel Tested screens a women-centric film, alongside a panel discussion about the larger structural issues referenced in that film.

Hosted on Sunday, April 23 at the Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles (where Shiner is a member of the board) and co-presented with Toronto Women in Music, “Bechdel Tested: Women in Music” is the series’ sixth installment. This month’s event will feature panelists Robyn Phillips of Vallens, rapper Michie Mee, and Tao-Ming Lao of Billions Corporation, moderated by Aliya Pabani of arts and culture podcast The Imposter, and will screen 1954 film Carmen Jones.

“I wanted to use cinema as a vehicle to foster and support feminist community and networking for women in different industries,” says Shiner, who started the series one year ago. “I love the concept of the Bechdel Test, and I thought the brilliance of that concept would translate well into a series that does more than just screen movies that pass the test.”

“A lot of film programming is catered toward cinephiles, and that's fine, but I wanted to create an experience where cinema is a platform for women in all sorts of different fields,” she adds. “Each event brings together a different type of audience, whether it's those who work in the particular industry, people interested in the film we're screening, or just those interested in building feminist community.”

Shiner points out that in the music industry, where many women work in the public eye, toxic gendered frameworks can be especially ubiquitous, and especially insidious. “Music is an industry that's much less insular than others, in the sense that nearly everyone actively consumes music of some sort,” she says. “So the ways that women are both represented and repressed within the industry are very visible to everyone. You look at Kesha's legal issues after being assaulted by her manager, the Ike and Tina Turner story, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Nannerl Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn—these women were either ignored or devoured by the music world. You have a lot of really prominent women in the spotlight, but an absolute dearth of women behind the scenes. It's inevitable that this dynamic will create a culture of gendered exploitation. At every Bechdel Tested panel we want to look at these structural issues and brainstorm solutions.”

Still from the film Carmen Jones.The film, Carmen Jones, is a 1954 movie version of Oscar Hammerstein II’s Broadway musical of the same name, and is an adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen set in the 1940s American south. Dorothy Dandridge, who plays the role of Carmen, was nominated for an Oscar—the first African-American woman to receive a nomination—for her performance in the film.

“Representation, not just of women but of POC and the LGBTQ community, is paramount to what we are doing with this series,” says Shiner. “I always prioritize WOC when we are selecting panelists but we weren't paying enough attention to this in terms of our film selections. Our last four films all had white women leads, and so it was a necessity that we found a film that featured a WOC, and when I discovered Carmen Jones I was shocked that I'd never heard of it before. [...] There's really no reason other than so many decades of racism that this film isn't a well-known classic. I'm so glad that I found it and we have the opportunity to screen it.”

The screening this month is one in a string of Bechdel Tested events, each of which highlights the work of women in a different profession. And for Shiner, it’s proven a powerful way of using her connection with the Revue to reach out to women from an array of communities across Toronto.

“As with all of our events, more than anything I want to provide our audience with a sense of belonging and empowerment,” she says. “Women are frustrated and alienated by the sexism that pervades nearly every profession out there. We want to bring women together to inspire them to carry on and to strengthen their resolve to push for the changes we all need to grow and thrive in our respective fields.”

It’s a worthy goal—and a film worth watching in the process.

“Bechdel Tested: Women in Music” takes place at the Revue Cinema on April 23 at 7pm. For details and ticket information, visit the event’s Facebook page at

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at


Update, April 17, 11am EST: This article previously contained errors regarding the nature of Shiner's connection to film and to the Revue, and has been updated to correct this. 

2205 Feat Hughs 1After months of difficult discussions, music venue Hugh’s Room is back in business.

Hugh’s Room was one of several Toronto music venues slotted to close so far this year, after former owner Richard Carson announced a state of insolvency this January. Now, headed by a new committee of volunteers and rebranded as “Hugh’s Room Live,” the venue has relaunched as a community-based not-for-profit, and will be opening its doors again later this month on April 22.

In some ways, this new incarnation of Hugh’s Room is the story of a successful community rallying cry. Hugh’s Room was a much-loved space for Roncesvalles residents and for the music community at large. After Carson’s January announcement, a working group quickly came together to discuss the possibility of turning the space into a not-for-profit arts organization, several members of which plan on becoming eventual board members of Hugh’s Room Live. And the GoFundMe page for Hughs Room Live already boasts over $114,000 in contributions from community members who want to see the company back on its feet.

As Lauren Pelley from the CBC notes, making that happen will be an “uphill climb.” The organizing committee has their work cut out for them if they want Hugh’s Room Live to stay open in a sustainable way; there are several looming problems ahead. For one, while the announcement of upcoming concerts at the space is a refreshing change, the venue is still far from fully booked. There are also issues to sort out involving the shift of ownership from Carson, who will serve only in an advisory role with Hugh’s Room Live, to a new council. And the building that Hugh’s Room Live belongs to is also now under new ownership—something that the working group wasn’t aware of until after the site changed hands. It means that, at the end of Hugh’s Room Live’s current three-year lease, it’s highly possible that the organization might have to find a new home.

In the meantime, though—for the first time since January—there are concerts. The new Hugh’s Room Live reopens on April 22 with a show by folk singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor, a show by the Paul Deslauriers Band on April 26, and a gala concert and fundraiser on April 29, plus seven different shows slotted so far for the month of May. It’ll be a long and difficult road ahead before Hugh’s Room Live can lay claim to a financially stable future—but it’s a start.

Hugh’s Room Live reopens to the public on April 22, 2017. For details on their upcoming shows or on how to support the organization, visit their website at

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

Hello, Hugh’s:

One Toronto music venue makes a comeback 

Toronto Mass Choir BannerToronto Mass Choir - Photo Credit Mike HwangHumility is a beautiful Christian tradition. It’s also an important one in choral music. Gospel music provides an unparallelled media for the connection of soloists, ensemble and audience. It is a balance of humility and important parts that come into equilibrium to make exciting, transformative, and healing music. Toronto has a robust gospel community and it is coalescing for one of the signature gospel music events of the year – Power Up!

Karen Burke is the director of the Juno award-winning Toronto Mass Choir, lead choral teacher for Power Up, and professor of music at York University. In a previous column last spring I featured Karen and the Toronto Mass Choir. She’s all set for this year, “excited and hopeful” (her middle name).

The Toronto Mass Choir leads the workshop at York University, the gospel hub of post-secondary music programming in the GTA (largely due to Burke’s dedication). Now in its 13th year, Power Up brings together 24 top musicians in the city in a variety of workshops. These include, “Conducting: The Art of Gesture” with Karen Burke; “Gospel Keys – Boot Camp” with Corey Butler; “Steelpan: the FUN-damentals” with Josette Leader; and “Vocal Troubleshooting: Targeting vocal issues and working to resolve them” with Dr. Melissa Davis, just to name a few.

Participants join a massed choir that performs on the final day. Younger participants can join in the Youth Choir. Burke helms the choirs which was over 200 singers in size last year. The Toronto Mass Choir doesn’t deny its religious messaging, it’s the core of their work – “To create and perform Gospel music that will draw all people into the awesome presence of God.” Humility also means placing oneself in faith before something greater and more eternal than even we can comprehend.

A choir of soloists does not make for a good ensemble. A choir of humble singers joining together makes a good ensemble. To be a lead singer is not to sing over all the other voices, but to be uplifted by the group to do something different. It is acknowledging that each part is equally as important as yours. The melding of ensemble and soloist is so prevalent in gospel music. It is empowering and supportive for both the soloist and ensemble in a way that helps support and enhance their work. Gospel manages to find a unique balance of the soloist and ensemble.

Gospel music is accessible, unlike many classical choral genres. There are melodies of hope and majesty wrapped in messages of the bible and Christian teachings. Gospel music repeats frequently in text and melody, it includes contemporary instrumentation, it is commonplace on the radio, it blurs genres and disciplines, and it is always high ntensity and exciting. Gospel music is also not just about the performers, its high energy is meant to involve audiences, to inspire faith in others, and to have them holler, sing, chant, scream and make sounds of joy in reaction.

Moreover, gospel music has always been an act of resistance and of forging relationships. “Gospel music is all about making music in community,” says Burke. “If we ever needed unique and dynamic ways to be intentional about ‘making community,’ you can’t find a better medium than gospel music. Think about it. Spirituals, which are the root of today’s contemporary gospel music/choirs, were the survival tool created by slaves who found themselves in a strange land thrown together with people from various tribes.” The relevance in a city as diverse as ours, with its own history of slavery, is especially powerful. She continues: “They shared no common language and individually felt disenfranchised, anonymous and frustrated (to say the least). They worked long hours in a hostile environment and even though they were with people everyday, they felt alone. This is also a general description of what many people, even in our enlightened society, experience everyday.”

There are four other things Karen Burke wants us to know about gospel music in Toronto.

  1. Gospel music has a long heritage not just in the U.S. but in Canada and like our neighbours to the south, the influence of gospel music is heard every day in the music we enjoy on the radio.
  2. Gospel music is very popular around the world including hot spots such as Korea (Heritage Gospel Choir) and Poland (Gospel Joy) and various other countries.
  3. The gospel music community is alive and well in Toronto and, like jazz music, holds within it many award-winning recording artists, a loyal fan base and an active concert scene.
  4. Gospel music is fun to learn and sing together and the fastest way that she know to make a room full of people into a family!

Burke says, “Ask anyone who has ever had the experience of singing in a gospel choir how they feel at the end of the day.  It is a transformative experience.”

The 13th annual Power Up Gospel Music Workshop at York University runs February 23 to 25 with a finale concert on February 26 at Global Kingdom Ministries, Scarborough. 

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