Nicole Johänntgen is a saxophonist, performer, recording artist and teacher based in Zurich, Switzerland. Two years ago she created the SOFIA program, to support and develop female musicians.
We spoke to Nicole about how SOFIA works and what inspired it.
SOFIA stands for Support of Female Improvising Artists.
The programme develops female musicians as players, but also in areas such as business, self-management, marketing and social media, and health.
SOFIA happens every two years; the next event will be held in Zurich in February 2016.
“This year we have nine musicians from Italy, France, Croatia, Germany and Switzerland. Their instruments are really varied too – we have two saxophones, a double bass, drums, percussion, harp and voice!” says Nicole. Saxophone and voice are the most popular amongst our applicants.
The organisers advertise the programme through music schools. “Actually we found most of our participants through word of mouth,” says Nicole. “We used our networks to find talented women who would benefit from the programme”.
For the first year of the programme in 2014 there was an age limit for participants, but now it is open to anyone, so that musicians who started playing later in life can benefit from the program.
The nine musicians selected will come together for a week of playing, workshops and networking. However, the programme hopes to benefit many more – anyone is welcome to come along and listen to the sessions as part of the audience. There will also be webcasts of the most popular parts of the week to reach musicians worldwide.
The programme has funding from the City of Zurich Cultural Foundation.
“It’s a really intensive week, but we have a great time,” says Nicole. As part of the contract to take part, players have to learn twenty standards for ensemble playing. The programme also includes jam sessions. “I’ve noticed that women don’t often get involved in jam sessions. But they are a great way to practice performing. So I wanted to include that in the program, to get over that fear,” Nicole explains.
The programme is designed to equip female musicians with all the skills they will need as professional players. “Nowadays musicians will often have to do their own promotion, book their own gigs, and deal with the press, so it’s really important to learn these skills. We have specialist tutors who run workshops, on performance, social media, record labels, or health, for example”, says Nicole. Participants also share their knowledge of the music scene in their own countries.
One of the most valuable aspects of the programme is networking. “For that week, we learn together, we play together, we even cook together,” says Nicole. And for many of the participants, the connections they make lead to collaborations on other projects, recordings and performances. “If I’m visiting another country I can call up another female musician and they can help me with local knowledge, and contacts,” says Nicole.
The programme has really helped female musicians to grow in confidence. We all come home feeling really energised!
As a young player, Nicole took part in an American mentoring programme called “Sisters in Jazz”. Though this programme no longer exists, Nicole wanted to do something similar, but to also include the skills that musicians need now.
Nicole acknowledges that some women worry about being labelled as a ‘female player.’ After the programme players can go home and follow whatever path they want to, but hopefully they will have new skills and support to help them along,” she says. “The goal is to come together, and get a package of energy, self-confidence and knowledge of what you need to be a self-managing musician.”
Nicole’s other projects
Nicole is a busy player and recording artist, as well as running the SOFIA programme. In 2015 she released a new live CD called “Duo” with Swiss guitarist and singer Peter Finc.
Nicole’s band “NICOLE JO” released their latest CD “Colours” in November 2014, and she has recently released a new album called “Moncaup” with the NJQ (Nicole Johänntgen Quartet).
Nicole has also been recording with a multi-national female jazz ensemble. Their first CD “Sisters in Jazz” will be out in February 2016 and they are planning to tour in Spring.