WHEN Margaret Hillis founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957, there were no other women conductors in the United States who ranked among performing professionals; she was a pioneer. ``There was no path you could go. I had to hoe my own row,'' Miss Hillis says. ``I had no role models; so I stumbled an awful lot.''
Thirty-one years later, Hillis sits on a panel before students of the Juilliard School here, testifying to her years of struggle as a woman conductor - but also to the great opportunities available today for women who want to pursue conducting careers.
``The door is open for a woman who makes herself ready,'' she declared. Her optimism was echoed by 11 other musical professionals at a recent symposium entitled ``Women in Music: Choices and Chances.''
Like Hillis, many of the conference participants enjoy occupations that 25 years ago would have been unthinkable for women to pursue: composition, concert management, record production. Opera singers, teachers, and scholars - representing fields traditionally open to women - added their depth of experience to the dialogue.
Altogether, these women are the first generation of role models for today's aspiring female musicians who are hoping to ``make good'' in their chosen fields. The speakers had come to encourage the students, but also to report on challenges that remain.
```Women as mentors' is a relatively new concept,'' said Elizabeth Ostrow, record producer and vice-president of artists and repertoire at New World Records. It's going to take more ``women helping women'' for further progress to be made, she said.
But the key to future success, panelists said, is the recognition of women as talented professionals, not merely as women.
``We have to reach the point where we don't address ourselves as women in a certain field, but as composers, conductors, and performers,'' said Lee Lamont, president of ICM Artists Ltd., a concert management firm.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, a composer who won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1983, said she wanted to be judged on her musical merits alone. ``Once you get in front of an orchestra, you're all professionals. What your gender is doesn't really enter in.''
Even a veteran conductor like Hillis admitted that she felt extremely self-conscious when she first stood on the conductor's podium years ago.
``I had the feeling the audience came just to see what this two-headed calf was about!'' Because of stereotyped perceptions, Hillis said, she had to give ``110 percent'' to do her best.
Such efforts included the time 10 years ago when she filled in at the last minute for Sir Georg Solti at Carnegie Hall and led the Chicago Symphony and Chorus in a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony.
``If a male conductor gets up on the podium and makes a mistake, the perception is `he's no good.' If a woman gets up and makes a mistake, it's because `she's a woman.'''
But attitudes have improved much, she added. She finds that what matters most to orchestra members today is: ``Do you know your score? Can you conduct? Are you a decent human being?'' Once you've established that level of trust, said Hillis, the rough part is over.
DESPITE increased opportunities for training and experience, not one of the nation's 30 largest orchestras (those with budgets above $3.6 million) has a woman conductor, reports the American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington, D.C.
What will it take for a woman to be appointed?
``Man or woman, it's a difficult field,'' said Hillis, unequivocally. ``Generally, conductors do not mature until they're about 40 or 45.'' They have to master a huge amount of repertoire and strive not to get ``bogged down'' in orchestral politics. Right now, ``we don't have any woman who's been in it that long.''
But Hillis felt that, within the next five years, someone like Catherine Comet of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Symphony could move into a brighter spotlight.
On the record industry front, Ms. Ostrow expressed hope, but outlined a need for more progress. Within the six or so top record companies today, ``there are very few, if any, women producers,'' those in charge of technical quality of recordings, she said.
But on the business end of things, Ostrow said women have attained titles as high as vice-president. In this respect, the record industry is progressing at a pace similar to that of United States law firms and top corporations, she noted: They're giving women more responsibility but not the highest.
Ostrow added a note of caution, because few major record companies are American-owned anymore, which ``I don't think is going to make things easier'' for women, she said. Because of cultural differences, a Japanese company such as Sony (owner of CBS Records) may be less likely to promote women to high posts than US managements, she said.
CRACKING the barrier that had excluded women from playing in orchestras has been one of the hardest doors for women to open, said Marylou Speaker Churchill, principal second-violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, interviewed separately in Boston.
Mrs. Churchill recounts her own experience, showing how times have changed. In the '60s, she says, the Boston Symphony's personnel manager gave a symposium for students in which he said, ``If a woman and a man were equally matched during an audition, the job would definitely go to the man, because the man had a family to support and the woman didn't.''
When Mrs. Churchill made the audition finals for the orchestra in 1967, ``it was a bit shocking to everybody, and the audition committee acknowledged that I had made the best audition.''
At the time, there were no women violinists, and she did not get the job. She believes the reasons were partly because she was too young, but mostly because she was a woman. But in 1970, she was admitted to the Boston Symphony and became the second woman violinist and the eighth woman hired by the orchestra.
Today, the orchestra has 18 women among its 104 members, and the addition of women substitutes often increases the number.
The national median, however, is 27 for the nation's 30 largest orchestras, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League.
What's needed now, says Churchill, is for women to continue to perfect their musical skills, so as to keep winning auditions.
``Music schools are heavily women now. It's inevitable. Women have more patience, and in a way, they're even more grateful than the men'' to get into an orchestra, she said.
A first at Juilliard
An experienced violinist, composer Zwilich entered Juilliard in 1970 to study composition with the eminent Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, a move that, in itself, shook time-honored taboos. In 1975, she became the first woman awarded a doctoral degree in composition from the school.
But in an interview, Zwilich was quick to declassify herself as a ``rare breed.'' She cited Libby Larson and Joan Tower among other composers who have achieved recognition.
Zwilich said she and her colleagues, both male and female, would agree that ``it's very hard to be a composer'' - regardless of gender. She is among the small number of composers who are able to make a living with their work.
Thousands not making a living
Mary Jane Ayers, president of American Women Composers (Washington), says that ``there are thousands and thousands of women composers who are doing serious work - but not supporting themselves.'' Most of them - and this applies to male composers as well - combine composing with college teaching positions.
Some of Zwilich's works are being recorded by the New York Philharmonic. But despite such successes, Zwilich said, ``That's not saying you can be complacent.''
She says it pays to be alert to the attitude that causes conductors to remark, ```Gee, this piece is so powerful, I can't believe a woman wrote it.'
``Then I feel like saying, `You must not know women very well.''' Obviously, a sense of humor is crucial, she said, since people often make such comments unintentionally.
``But I think the doors are open now - I really do,'' she said. ``It's not very wide open for any composer, but there's no sign hanging out saying, `No women need apply.'''