From passion to profession: Amy Dunker carves out a musical niche in a male-dominated career

DeLano Cain and Amy Dunker review Cain’s composition. PHOTO CREDIT: Adam Warner

Amy Dunker is a trumpet player, composer and professor of music at Clarke University in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: Jessica Reilly

Although women are considered the minority in professional music careers, Amy Dunker has defied the odds, excelling as not only a trumpet player and professor but as a composer.

“My two career fields of trumpet and composition are extremely male-dominated,” said Dunker, a professor of music at Clarke University in Dubuque, where she teaches music theory, composition, trumpet and aural skills.

Discovering and excelling in music

Dunker found her passion for playing trumpet after making the switch from French horn in eighth grade. Immediately after changing instruments, she thought she “could not imagine herself doing anything else” and pursued a career in music.

In addition to studying trumpet performance, she completed several degrees for music education and for composition.

Dunker received her Bachelor of Music degree from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. After that, she pursued two master’s degrees — one in trumpet performance from the University of South Dakota and the other in composition from Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind. A doctoral degree in composition from University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music followed.

Dunker said that upon her admittance into her graduate programs, she noticed the gender imbalance immediately.

“At one of my graduate schools, I remember that, at first, the male teacher’s assistants were used to going out to play racquetball with the faculty members.” she said. “When I got there, I was basically the first woman in the program, and they made some adjustments in their behaviors. Even though it was seemingly subtle, it was a privilege for those male students because they were able to build personal relationships and develop connections with other faculty while playing racquetball.”

Standing out

In addition to recognizing the gender imbalance throughout her years in graduate school, Dunker said it has crept in to her professional career as well, attending a national conference within the past few years, as well as one she attended nearly a decade ago.

“Ten years ago, out of 700 accredited music schools, there were 12 women representing those schools, and that included myself,” she said. “The most recent one had 36 female professors out of 700 schools. So, you could say that’s progress, but not much.

“Dealing with being passed over for things because I am female has been one of the challenges I have dealt with in my fields.”

According to Dunker, compositions by women are given much less recognition than works written by males.

“Only in the last few years has there been any positive change,” she said. “This was the establishment of the Composers Diversity Project, which gives the push to women’s music. I have been able to perform in a few of those concerts.”

Although gender bias has remained a prevalent issue within her fields, Dunker has managed to stand out as a composer and describes writing music as her “sanctuary.”

Her compositions have been performed by individuals and groups throughout many countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Ukraine, Puerto Rico and India.

“My inspirations for writing music come from a variety of different places,” Dunker said. “I write for commission, friends, Clarke ensembles and varying ability levels. I also write about what is going on in the world, which can be full of many emotions at times.”

Last spring, Dunker traveled to countries to work with different demographics. She even describes how she made “musical postcards” from each place she visited, full of compositions she wrote for the trumpet.

Finding new ground in Dubuque

Dunker moved to Dubuque for a teaching position at Clarke in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

She said that Clarke “is different because there are many women in positions of leadership rather than men.” She also described her teaching career as full of tremendous responsibility and the desire to help students succeed.

“My professors from Butler and University of Missouri-Kansas City helped launch me to where I wanted to go,” Dunker said. “At Clarke, it is my goal to give to my students what those professors gave to me.”

She explained that honest talk with her students is crucial to her because if she can “keep them from stumbling as much as I did and provide that support system for the student, that’s the most important.”

As advice for young students, female or male, Dunker encourages them to be go-getters.

“Do not let things get in the way of your dream, no matter what it is,” she said. “You must do everything you can do to achieve it.

“I love what I do. I am not the richest person in the world or the most famous person, but I am the luckiest person in the world. I mean, look at what I do. I go to work every day, and I hang out with cool people to talk about what I love.”

Emily Boge is a freelance writer from Dubuque.

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