I spent my last semester at CalArts taking almost literally every class I possibly could with Tim Feeney, who’s not only a beyond-words percussionist, improviser, and composer but also arguably the nicest human being you will ever meet. During the spring, I saw Tim three times every week: Wednesday mornings for Writing for Percussion, Wednesday afternoons for Free Improv Ensemble, and Friday afternoons for The Experimenting Ear. By mid-March, I could no longer remember which thing we’d talked about in which class, and as such I spent a lot of time connecting very distant dots in front of peers missing one end or the other of the train of thought. While that was super confusing for almost everyone around me, it meant I walked around getting my mind blown for months. It was the best.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Tim—and, arguably, among the most important things I absorbed during my MFA—began in The Experimenting Ear as we were analyzing Jed Speare’s Inside the Cable Car Barn, a beautiful piece that provokes a daunting question: are the things we might find on a field recording already music, or do we make them music based on how we consume them? My analysis of the piece basically summed up as: “wow,” and my grade reflected that lack of attention to detail, but the conversations we had in the wake of the assignment piled questions on questions. Again, it was the best.
At one point, we were discussing a formal shift in the music where formerly prevalent tones give way to more rhythmic sounds. Tim posed a simple question. “What does this mean for the person holding the field recorder?”
It took us a minute, but someone got it. “They’re moving.”
That was the first of hundreds of times Tim must have uttered the words it all boiled down to: “when you are making or consuming this work, you are implicated.” Or, to put it another way, your decisions to make a thing or listen to a thing or frame a thing as music (or make any number of real-life interpersonal decisions) puts your own stamp on it out of necessity. In making/doing/consuming things, we give them perspective they would not otherwise have. In saying, “here’s a piece about a cable car barn,” we intentionally listen to appreciate sounds and nuances and decisions we might not otherwise think twice about.
“You are implicated.”
To a certain extent, the phrase has taken over a great deal of my creative practice (and, by extension, my pedagogy). If you’re looking for a concrete musical example in my work, People Talk is the most obvious—I realized I couldn’t make a chamber orchestra piece about sexual assault without accounting for every person onstage. It wasn’t just the narrator; it was everyone. The questions piled up. What role(s) did my other performers play? How might that be communicated to the audience? Is there greater power in having them continue on as if nothing is strange or allowing them to interact with the subject matter as their own characters? As I pondered these and other questions (though the piece was written before “you are implicated” formally entered my life), I made decision after decision that set in place the parameters for the work. I also found I had a lot more to say than I realized, and in the process, I overshot the ten-minute mark (by a lot) for the first time. And while the rehearsal process for the piece was extra interesting and slightly complicated due to the ways I had my performers interacting with the material, the end result was—and is—a work that sits on my little mental mantle as one of the best and most rewarding things I’ve done to date.
Fast forward, if you will, to the end of 2019. My partner, John, has spent the better part of a week churning out 3000-odd words for a pedagogy paper. The assignment? Crafting a studio syllabus that reflects his teaching philosophies and expectations for students he hopes to teach someday. While I wasn’t initially aware of his task, I came home that Sunday night to the kind of tirade that makes me smile: existential frustration at the inadequacies of sexual harassment and assault policies beyond the mandatory Title-IX-made-me-put-this-in jargon that comes standard.
His first words on the subject were among the most powerful: “No wonder people don’t report!” (To clarify, this was said with knowledgeable frustration, not the awe of first discovery. He’s dating me. Just like I can tell you entirely too much about Thayer valves, John understands more about assault and policy than many of the people I know.) As we sat down to talk about it, his priorities crystallized: isn’t it important, he posited, that our students know without a doubt we will not stand for this kind of mistreatment? Shouldn’t they hear that in our own words and not just through a paragraph they may not understand? His solution was simple: don’t alter the Title IX text, since in most cases that’s against the rules (read: federal law), but spell out a clear studio policy on harassment and assault below (or above) that. Notably, he wanted to make it clear that he will not accept, defend, or welcome people committing acts of harassment, assault, violent misogyny, and discrimination across marginalizations.
The ensuing conversation revolved around how actionable those policies would be, and over the course of the discussion, I dug up from the deep recesses of my memory a case one of our teachers had told us about involving a trombone professor who, after a series of considerable missteps (this is me putting it mildly), was no longer allowed to teach female students. Women admitted to the program studied with a different teacher (or, perhaps, didn’t have access to lessons? this particular detail is fuzzy in my mind), and for a time, that worked; however, the dangerous faculty member eventually started putting women back in his classes despite the administration’s order not to do so. Though I can’t speak to the outcomes for those students, I can tell you this: the department head did not report the professor to any higher-ups for the violation.
This is just one of the ways institutions protect predators. Just look at Curtis. Cleveland Institute. Juilliard. Berklee. Hell, look at CalArts, where an abusive faculty member was only permanently removed because the affected parties managed to get the information beyond the School of Music and into the hands of the president and higher admin (and there are still abusive faculty members students are forced to take classes from). All of these things, whether the predator is a peer or a teacher, point to one disturbing trend: because of significant delays and derailments as reports move up the chain of command, many students who do report see no justice—or action of any kind—aimed at making their educational experience safer and more positive.
This is where studio policies on harassment become a good idea—and, in my eyes, a necessary one. Though there is perhaps some murky gray area around the idea that a teacher can choose to no longer teach a particular student due to unacceptable behavior, most music schools are audition-only and students can be (and are) asked to leave programs for much more trivial reasons on a regular basis (like not being good enough at their instruments, which does not involve harming others). More broadly, many of these students are dismissed for not meeting the program’s standards. This is where a studio policy turns workable: if the program’s standards include not being a chronic threat or obstacle to your peers, dismissing a student after a reasonable number of chances to self-correct have been given falls into that category of Things That Make Sense. These policies, of course, would be Title IX-adherent and would likely revolve around affected students reporting their mistreatment, but as someone who’s danced with Title IX before, if I went in knowing my teacher truly believed in justice for gendered and marginalized wrongs and would back that up with appropriate action, I’d be much more willing to go through the process and name names.
At the end of all of these thoughts, John turned in his syllabus and adventured off to class to discuss this (and the twenty million other things that go into crafting a decent course). He came home that evening ablaze in the indignation I mostly see on myself. Intrigued and a little concerned, I asked him what was up. In short, he had made the (astute, citizen-artist-informed) argument that if he was forced to choose between protecting a victimized student and keeping his job, he would stand with the student. He would walk. One of his peers (before you ask, I don’t know who) retorted, “You say that now.”
In that instant, John’s indignation became all the more clear. Though the two of us know (and have long understood) that most of the world has different artistic upbringings than we do, we’ve been incredibly lucky to have learned in our time at CalArts that there are absolutely things—really, people—worth sacrificing for. We’ve come to realize that responsible teaching and responsible artistry means not only setting your students up to be technical and artistic powerhouses but ensuring you’re not making them empty promises in regard to their safety and wellbeing. In my case, I have had a teacher literally step between me and potential harm. I can tell you firsthand I’ve never felt safer and more supported with an instructor than I did in that moment. But in the context of all this knowledge and lived experience, I knew we were irate about the same thing: that someone looking to teach students for a living was so quick to dismiss not only John’s devotion to justice and equity but the concept that an instructor might actually put the safety of a marginalized student above job security.
And that, friends, is how I weave a year and a half’s worth of events into the actual argument I’m presenting you with: every teacher, artist, and administrator in a position of power should have a clearly-defined breaking point. Everyone working to educate and elevate those with less power should be able to clearly say to themselves, “If x, or something of equivalent severity, happens, I will resign.”
Before we go any further, I’ll fully admit that’s a big thing. It’s also not a determination that happens overnight. The criteria for that “x” value might vary heavily on countless factors—the marginalizations your students face, the culture among the faculty, institutional support for the kind of progress that is neither easy nor comfortable, the responsiveness of the people around you and their willingness to change. However, these are the kinds of things that are critical to well-informed, twenty-first-century pedagogy. Students (and colleagues!) should be sure of their safety within your educational sphere, and if they’re not, you should use every tool at your disposal to improve that reality.
And while folks new to an activism-informed artistic practice might balk at resigning (the all-too-common “then I can’t do anything to change them!” springs to mind), it’s important to remember three things. First, institutional change of any sort isn’t the kind of thing that usually happens in clear-cut steps. It’s lots of small shuffles forward and subtle additions like comprehensive studio policies promising that harassment and assault will come with severe consequences that set the foundations for larger, more sweeping adjustments. Second, with certain institutions, the abusive or negligent or self-serving people at the top of the food chain can make “change from the inside” an impossible model to follow, and you should not pretend otherwise to the students in your care. Third, you as a teacher may worry about what pushing back against an institution means for your career, but if your student realizes you’ll do nothing, you’ll both lose their trust instantly and out yourself as someone who finds professional restructuring more inconvenient than harassment, assault, stalking, or rape.
Yes, walking away from a job you know you have the choice of keeping sucks. I will never dispute that. However, if you are a person in a position of power—particularly a straight, cis, white man in a position of power—you need to realize that this may be the only variant of “what if I lose my job?” you’ll encounter in your lifetime that doesn’t revolve around budget cuts, institutional restructuring, or poor personal decisions. Chances are, there is no part of who you are that makes you legally fireable. You’ll never have to work to prove that you were dismissed from a position because of your gender or sexuality. You enjoy more job security on the basis of federal law alone than any other demographic in America, and as a result, you amass more power. You better have a plan—not ideas, a plan—for how to use it. And that includes when you exercise your power by removing yourself and your contributions from an institution.
As teachers, we must extend that protection first and foremost to our vulnerable and marginalized students.
Because when we don’t, when we pass off responsibility for the people within our direct purview to someone else, we wash our hands of our students’ wellbeing. We are implicated. In many cases, we’re saying, “what’s one student’s welfare compared to all the others’ continuity of the quotidian?” And when we’re knowingly operating within a system (both the industry at large and the institution on a smaller scale) that continues to disadvantage and dismiss students who are marginalized by race, gender, sexuality, disability, and nationality, among others, to fail to act on an opportunity to protect these vulnerable students is to remain tacitly complicit in these discriminatory practices.
When we let a student leave the program and let the men who forced her out stay, we are implicated.
When we opt out of being direct agents of change to our students—the individuals we can make the most positive impacts on—we are implicated.
When our words and actions (or lack thereof) tell a marginalized member of our studios that they aren’t important enough to protect, we are implicated.
But the same holds true for the reverse. When we support a victimized student through the reporting process and make things as clear and straightforward as possible, we are implicated.
When we decide not to endlessly excuse and ignore harassment, either explicitly targeted or a byproduct of the studio’s culture, we are implicated.
When we—especially men wielding more privilege than some of their students could ever hope to have—have to choose between standing with a student (or colleague, or audience member, or . . .) or keeping our cushy tenure-track job, and we choose our student and a new search for an institution that gives a shit about the marginalized and the victimized, we are implicated.
For those of us in the teaching sphere, our pedagogy is among our best chances to directly impact generations to come. It’s our opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world. In many of my classes, sometimes overtly and sometimes without naming the idea, CalArts emphasized the concept of the citizen-artist: someone whose art is a reflection of their world and is used as a tool in pursuit of better realities. It shouldn’t be a strange concept, really; art has been used for centuries to critique and protest and to highlight the need for continuing moral and ethical evolution. In the hands of the marginalized, it has often been a fiery manifesto, an act of defiance in itself—a statement of you told me I can’t do this, but I’m doing it anyway. It is, inherently, uncompliant, and as citizen-artists and citizen-teachers, we have a responsibility to ensure it stays that way.
And yes—sometimes that means realizing the most useful thing we can do with our power is loudly and vehemently renounce it (and, by the same token, the rigged system that allowed us to accrue it while disadvantaging others who could do just as well or better with the same opportunities).
Sometimes, for the wellbeing of our students and mentees and the people we hope to elevate, it is best to declare, “No. I will not accept this.” Even if it costs us our jobs.
Just like a field recorder roving around a cable car barn in San Francisco, we. are. implicated.
And if you’re looking for evidence, let me be Exhibit A. I didn’t matter to Phoenix jazz until I left—and yelled the whole way out.
I’m back now. And, for the first time, they’re beginning to listen. ♦
Thank you so much for reading! If you like what you see, tune in every Saturday night at 8pm MST for more blogs on the intersection of gender, music, misogyny, assault, and power structures. If miniaturized breakdowns of feminist topics are more your thing, I run #MisogynyMonday on my Instagram Stories every Monday night (or you can catch them in transcript form on my Patreon). Regardless, I’m glad you’re here!