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Bandleading, Phoenix, and Three-Year-Old Scars

I met with some friends tonight (back when tonight was in September)—mostly folks in the young generation’s old guard, who were around the last time I lived here—and while we mostly got together to play, we inevitably got to talking, too. At one point, I mentioned that I was considering pitching a new project I’d be bandleading, figuring I’d get some useful insight from the group.

What I didn’t expect was the instant pushback.

Frankly, it was startling. It always is, even though it was an interesting hallmark of my last trip around the Phoenix block. The refrain this time was different: multiple folks mentioned concerns that the venues I’m considering pitching to might turn me down or give me subpar billing because they already have a token woman they hire in that capacity (and, theoretically, they aren’t interested in doing anything more than the bare minimum). While this isn’t the vibe I’ve gotten from conversations with Phoenix musicians a decade to two decades older—they’re generally very supportive of my pitching, actually—the fact that my peers (and close friends!) are shooting me down immediately is troubling at best.

Continue reading Bandleading, Phoenix, and Three-Year-Old Scars

We Aren’t Your Selling Point: Thoughts on Tokenism in Publishing

Anyone on Facebook knows and probably despises Facebook’s targeted ads. Sure, on rare occasions they’re selling something you’re actually looking for and genuinely need, but most of the time, they’re either a pain or ridiculous. The algorithm, I’ve found, also likes dredging up brands and companies you’ve maybe had one interaction with and dropping more of their ads in your news feed. When it’s a company you’ve had a positive interaction with, that can be really good. In the case of a negative first impression . . . not so much.

Enter Bandworks Publications.

Continue reading We Aren’t Your Selling Point: Thoughts on Tokenism in Publishing

Empathy, leadership, and “I don’t want to hear it”

[tw: suicidality]

My first truly positive experience with therapy was in the summer of 2018. It was long overdue; the summer had been absolutely hellish, and I was beginning to flirt with suicidality. My partner knew. My parents probably suspected. I’d talked about finding a therapist for a long time—years—but the thing that got me through the door into an office was when my fear that I might at some point actively want to die eclipsed my anxiety about making the appointment, being in therapy, and paying for it. (While my parents have always been of the Healthcare Concerns First, Money Concerns Later mindset, it’s still anxiety-inducing to be incurring major expenses even when they’re paid for.)

My first session was in August sometime. I’d just moved in with my partner, cut all ties with an intensely toxic person, and was trying to start approaching normality again before school got started. My therapist was attentive as I broke down the extensive stress that had accumulated over the previous six to eight months, and when I came up for air, she had one observation: “it sounds like you’re a very empathetic person.”

I can still remember my brow furrowing; for as long as I could remember, that descriptor had been flung as far away from me as possible. “My brother was always the one who got called that,” I told her. But she continued on, and I realized she was right—that empathy wasn’t just the surface-level definition of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It was the echoes of others’ emotions that would frequently parade through my body and life.

I spent the next four months with her learning how to control the trait enough that I’d stop self-destructing every time it took the reins.

Continue reading Empathy, leadership, and “I don’t want to hear it”

the things that get me through

This month, I’ve spent awhile writing about the darker sides of artistic activism and the toll they can take over time. As we leave 2019 behind us and look forward to a new decade, I want to take a minute to acknowledge some of the folks who have shaped not only my career but my life over the past few years. Some of these people are my teachers; some are my friends and family. Some of them inspire my work, and some of them keep me alive. Some aren’t named here but are just as important. These folks are imperfect, but they are my inspirations and among the many I aspire to be more like as I move through the world. This is my (admittedly small) tribute to them.

the things that get me through

Vince Thiefain’s hugs. I could get lost in these. (I don’t feel genuinely short very often.) Not just the hugs, either—the compassion in them, the genuine “I give a shit about your wellbeing” they convey.

Chaz Martineau’s concern. When the world is falling down, he’s the person I want to talk to, because I know how well he listens.

Pat Feher’s camaraderie. Even a semester in, Pat keeps me on my toes, but it never comes from a place of one-upmanship; he challenges me to dig deeper into the whys and hows of both my art and my activism. A cup of coffee goes a long way when the conversation’s this good.

Tim Feeney’s softness. I need more men in my life who just hug me when they’re happy to see me. Tim does. He also inspires everyone around him to push toward excellence, but he encourages us to find that at our own pace and on our own terms. That perspective is one I desperately needed during my masters.

Wendy Richman’s candor. How many badass women in your life are equally open about struggles and successes? Wendy reminds me I can be one of those people—just like her.

Continue reading the things that get me through

Commissions 2020: Expanding My Horizons (and maybe yours, too)

My dear readers, friends, colleagues, and peers,

I’ve had the time of my life in 2019 working with a series of commissioners on new works and bringing many of my 2018 pieces to the stage for the first time. By my best count, I’ve written almost an hour of music this year, and I’ve begun to explore new artistic directions that really excite and challenge me. As we move toward 2020 (and onward!), I’m looking forward to continuing to build on my current practice and dive deeper into my own voice.

Over the last several years, it’s become increasingly clear that the work I love creating the most doesn’t fall under standard “contemporary classical” boundaries. Realistically, most of it falls somewhere under the New Music umbrella, which does save space for classical- and jazz-adjacent things but allows me to pick and choose which pieces of tradition or time-traveling sonic nonsense I want to include alongside the modern developments that make my heart sing 24/7. For people who know me well, this isn’t a huge surprise, but the wonderful folks who commission me aren’t even always people I’ve met. (Which, for the record, is amazing.) I love working with new collaborators just as much as I enjoy reconnecting with folks from years past, and my catalog is starting to reflect that in some really exciting ways.

That said, my compositional voice today doesn’t sound like it did two or three or five years ago, and as I continue trying to move toward the artist I want to be, I need to point that out. Those of you who knew me (and my writing) in undergrad might not know how I sound now (unless you’ve been keeping up with me online, in which case, you’re awesome). While there are still pieces in my back catalog I love dearly and plenty more I’m still proud of, it’s worth pointing out that I’m not necessarily writing that way all the time anymore. I’m playing with noises and soundscapes and text instructions and concert-theater-aligned ideas, and while some of that does still involve regular notes and rhythms, it isn’t always in the way you’d think. (Exhibit A: People Talk.)

And as my commission calendars start to organize themselves for 2020 and 2021, I’m making an effort to continually work toward making the art at the top of my wish list whenever possible (or, at least, art that’s consistent with my current voice). And while some of that is work for me or John or some of the long-term collaborators I work with, I’m hoping some of that will be for all of you, too. These might not be pieces you can turn around in a month and a half for a recital (or they might be, but not for the reasons you think). These might be pieces that require you to search as deeply within yourself and your own practice as I’m searching in mine. They might not be instantly-consumable, you-can-throw-this-together-in-a-couple-rehearsals bites of music and sound—and if they are, they’ll probably be utilizing different skill sets and making different requests of your musicianship.

Continue reading Commissions 2020: Expanding My Horizons (and maybe yours, too)

Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the Importance of Teaching Identity

It’s December 1, 2019, and I’m propped against the comfiest pillows in my apartment, poring over the second edition of Robert Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History in preparation for a forthcoming guest lecture. I’ve got tons of time—until sometime next semester—but because I’m trying to highlight the connections between my musical work as a whole and the jazz tradition, I’m looking for sources that will back up my arguments. I don’t expect to spend much time in the legitimacy flames this time around, but ideally, I’ll use this lecture again in the future. So I’m reading Keeping Time in full, re-engaging with my favorite parts and digging deeper into things I might have missed or flat-out did not read when I first brought the book home as a junior in college.

While I’m trying to find useful words by men to prepare for the inevitable (hopefully distant) day one decides to argue I’m a poser who doesn’t conform because I don’t understand complex harmony or virtuosic playing or some shit like that, I’m also giving myself full permission to luxuriate in the (few) moments of words penned by women. So I dipped my toes into Hazel V. Carby’s “The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues” like it was the hot tub of my dreams. I wasn’t disappointed—in fact, in the span of a single essay, my world rearranged itself.

Continue reading Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the Importance of Teaching Identity

In Another Universe, I’m Already Dead: Costs of Trauma-Informed Activism

[I wrote this post over the course of October and November and genuinely did not mean to put it up the night before my twenty-fourth birthday. Somewhere, the universe is laughing at me.]

Last night (not actually last night), I lay in bed at 1am, clinging to my partner as I tried to get my heart rate down. Normally, I’d say panic attacks aren’t particularly common for me—usually, I have one or two a year—but over the past few months, my body has truly become the biggest testament to how difficult this transition back into Phoenix has been for me. Very few people besides those I’m close to have an understanding of how fear-based my interactions with this region and community can be. It’s difficult to return to a situation that previously was very, very bad for me, especially since I know I’m going to do far too much to try to fix problems that aren’t my responsibility to address. And my body holds that knowledge. It tells me—quite loudly—when it knows I’m about to do something scary, and it hits me with the consequences of dealing in this much tension and stress on a regular basis.

Normally, I average two panic attacks a year. Since moving back to Phoenix, it’s closer to one a month. So far, I’ve realized that while I do a pretty good job processing my trauma at my own pace, aspects of the way I’m treated by colleagues who either are angry with me or want to talk in-depth about the things that drove me away in the first place, things I haven’t fully been able to articulate to myself even after two years, tend to kick my trauma in ways I’m not prepared to deal with yet.

Continue reading In Another Universe, I’m Already Dead: Costs of Trauma-Informed Activism

On “he’s from another time”

Let me drop you into a situation that’s happened so many times in my admittedly-still-rather-short twenty-three years of life that I don’t even have to point you at a particular instance of it. Picture, if you will, a rehearsal space. Maybe an ensemble is rehearsing; maybe a master class is happening. In either event, an at-least-somewhat-esteemed guest artist is working with people who are ostensibly there to learn and improve, even if they’re not still in school. That artist has commanded the attention of the room and established a power differential, often simply because they are a soloist or lecturer in that context. Still, regardless of why, they are the authority in the room.

Now imagine this artist begins a piece or introduces a topic by going on a brief, sexually-charged tangent. Perhaps the ladies in the room are told to cover their ears while the artist makes a lewd joke that’s apparently supposed to be okay for men; maybe someone gets hit on during a song. Or maybe it’s comments that belittle young musicians, or a wet-blanket persona that keeps everyone’s guard up. Context aside, though, this guest artist is saying or doing something that makes you deeply uncomfortable, but due to the power dynamics at play, a callout during that moment isn’t a smart move.

So you tough it out, and when you make it to the end—of rehearsal, of the clinic, whatever—you talk to your director about it. In this hypothetical, I’m going to designate this director or teacher as a person you trust and can speak freely and honestly to. So you express your concerns, you talk through your options, and then, toward the tail end of the conversation, the inevitable pops out: “he’s from another time.”

And in every case, without exception, this is where your heart sinks a little.

Continue reading On “he’s from another time”

You Are Implicated: Pedagogy Ethics and Why Everyone Should Have a Point Where They Quit Their Job

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.”

Continue reading You Are Implicated: Pedagogy Ethics and Why Everyone Should Have a Point Where They Quit Their Job

Token Hire

I don’t like being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. If you asked my peers about it, they’d probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yeah, that’s Megan. I don’t have to be with other women, though that’s obviously a blessing when it comes along; in LA, there were plenty of occasions when I performed with a section or a group whose members were male-coded but included at least one other person somewhere on the gender spectrum beyond cis man. I’ve fallen in love with working among others whose struggles to be accepted in our professional environments speak to something in my own experience. These moments allow for subtle, important moments of solidarity: little reminders that we’re not alone.

That said, I spend a lot of time being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. (#BrassPlayerProblems #JazzProblems.) It’s difficult to explain why the difference is so stark, especially when I’m trying to make sense of it to folks who have probably never found themselves in such a situation. (And even if my cis male friends have, y’all don’t have centuries of systemic gendered oppression weighing on you and affecting your treatment within that scenario.) But when a well-reasoned fear of the consequences—both professional and personal—of putting even one toe out of line has been bred into you from the moment you chose your career, when you work in an industry that has a tradition of violence of all types against your gender(s), when you’re working around people you know won’t speak up if someone makes you uncomfortable, you spend a lot more time worrying and being quiet instead of working to create the art you want.

However, it’s 2019. Professionals the world over are realizing all-male ensembles can’t continue to be their default. Overall, that’s a really good thing; doors are beginning to open for gender-marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had many options a few decades ago. There’s a dark side to the change, though: musicians are beginning to reach for women and other gender-marginalized performers to incorporate into their ensembles so they can say they have one. It’s a performative, superficial kind of inclusivity that draws in folks facing this kind of oppression without considering the systemic structural changes that might be needed to make us feel welcome. It’s hastily scribbling down the answers to your math homework in the ten minutes before class without bothering to show your work (because you’re copying someone else’s), and the results are usually the same: if you don’t have a plan for getting from point A to point B, you’ll only ever get partial credit.

Continue reading Token Hire