As I’ve mentioned before, I have TMJ. I’ve spent longer than I’ve cared to admit trying to sleep and eat and talk and go about my day without pain or tightness, and despite my best efforts, a lot of days are tough days professionally. More often than not, playing a horn is a struggle between wanting to work toward being a better performer and wanting to keep the tension out of my body, keep myself safe, and avoid making things worse. Navigating life with my jaw is a dance between doctors and stretches and food choices and sleeping positions, and while some days are absolute crap and others are amazing, the vast majority of them are somewhere in the middle—not terrible, but not great, either.
Hi! This isn’t an interview, and you’re not really here (though where you’re reading this, technically you’re here and I’m not), so I can’t ask you to sit down or offer you a glass of water. You won’t be getting a job today, but you do care about this outcome. Maybe you paid money to be here, to put your work in front of me, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe I offered to look at it and consider it for free. Either way, you’ve left me alone with your work to decide if I’m going to use it or not.
Hey, folks. Sorry it’s been a bit.
I really wish I’d gotten to post last weekend. I had a draft going, I was on schedule to meet my deadline, and it should have been fine, but sometimes life gets in the way. And after the absolutely nuts month I’ve had, I just needed a few days to put my head down, get a few projects off my plate (or headed in that direction), and try not to freak out.
I was mostly successful.
I grew up playing classical music and longing to be in jazz band.
Granted, it didn’t take long for that to come to fruition—by eighth grade I was taking solos and groaning at lead parts like I’d done it all my life—but with jazz comes an often-stifling series of mistreatments. I don’t have to tell you that; I haven’t touched the art form in over a year, and while I still miss the music, I’m waiting for the opportunity to get back into it on my own terms with people who won’t shut me down at every turn. The thing I loved most about jazz, though, was simultaneously what I hated: the improvisation.
Honestly, performers can have a really hard time choosing grad schools.
I say that as a composer and composer-performer who’s always had way too many things to think about when it came to school choices. During my undergrad auditions, I managed to piss off an interviewer at a school that will remain unnamed because I insisted on continuing to play my instrument as I continued my composing. (They didn’t accept me. This was not a surprise.) Yet as I’m starting to look toward the final semester of my MFA, it stymies me that so many teachers request or insist that their students focus on one thing and one thing only. I was incredibly lucky at Arizona State to have not one but four composition teachers who supported my performative endeavors, and that streak has continued at CalArts. But as my performance-major friends look at grad schools and doctoral programs, often they’re only focused on one thing: the teacher.
I’ve debated writing this post for a long time. Not because it’s particularly controversial, but because I didn’t always know where to start. Musicians don’t like talking about injuries—so often we keep them under wraps, not wanting to get bumped down a part or looked down on by our peers and mentors, that the only time we really hear about big physical roadblocks are in whispers months after the fact. And that takes its own toll, leaving those struggling feeling like they’re in it by themselves. I’d really prefer people not feel like that, so I’m sharing a little about what I’ve spent the last couple years navigating.
Three Octobers ago, my jaw locked up. I was in the middle of a normal evening, and all of a sudden I couldn’t get it more than about a third of the way open. For twenty minutes. After some frantic Googling, a bunch of massaging, and some fervent prayer to the brass gods, it finally relaxed, but I didn’t know what to do from there. One drop-in visit to the health center later, I came back with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJD, but literally everyone shortens it to TMJ). If you want to get really colloquial, it’s lockjaw, but without the tetanus associations. While the locking up and the fatigue was new, since then I’ve realized that tension in my jaw has likely followed me since childhood, which makes it so much more fun to get rid of. [Insert eye-roll here.]
I hate artist statements. I hate them with a fiery, burning passion. I’m not good at writing them and I often feel like I’m leaving out something significant in an effort to fit my creative practice into an approachable, understandable box. The fact that I’m still in school and still learning about aesthetics and sound worlds and crafting environments doesn’t help—I’ve known since undergrad that unless a project started with me, I’m very comfortable molding my sound world to fit around an instructor I’m learning from or a period of music I’m learning about at any given time. These days, that’s not exactly something I consider a skill.
For my artistic self, high school set a lot of things in motion. I dove headfirst into band music; I started arranging and making things up at the piano; I spent time learning about my peers’ instruments and what worked well (and badly) for each of them. I don’t talk a lot about my life before then—not publicly and not a whole bunch to my friends and family. When I do, a lot of it centers around my assault and subsequent events that put me where I am today as a casualty of that event. And it’s true that for better or for worse, my assault sent me down a lot of paths I might not have wandered onto otherwise. But tonight I want to sit down with you, listen to the rain that’s blessing Santa Clarita for the first time in months, and remember how a bright spot in my early life got me ready to fight like I do now.
When I was five or six, my parents decided to sign me up for a couple seasons of youth soccer. It was probably the least competitive setup you’ll find anywhere, but for a very tiny, very rambunctious me, it was a little slice of heaven. I got to run around, enjoy the world moving under my feet, and indulge my competitive side. I can’t remember what spurred it, but after two or three seasons of this, we stopped going back. My brother was getting into baseball and I was dancing more than I had previously, so other things rose to fill the gap, but I missed it. So in fourth grade, when large, impromptu games of kickback and kickball (two entirely different games, thankyouverymuch) started turning into structured soccer matches, I paid attention.
I want to stop for a minute to describe this environment for you, because it’s really a defining moment in my youth and a big part of how I define my childhood. I’d spent third grade dealing with an excessive amount of bullying explained away by “he probably just likes you,” and I was struggling to readjust to reasonable expectations of my peers when I started joining these games. Every recess (and we got three per day), we’d scramble out onto the absolutely massive field we had free rein over. At the beginning of the day, we’d pick teams. Our best two players were never allowed to play on the same side—a few of the guys were playing on club teams, and even at that age, there was a big difference in the skills they brought to the table compared to everyone else’s.
A year ago today, I lost my funny, smart, amazing, kind grandmother. She’s the first close relative I’ve lost, and we weren’t expecting her to go quite so soon. I’d planned on going to see her that evening, in fact—I’d made the drive from Valencia to Palm Desert two weekends in a row and was going on a third. I was all set to tell her about how I’d led my counterpoint class for the first time that morning. I’d packed the stuffed animal she gave me when I started college. I was wearing some jewelry I’d picked up at the mall earlier that week so I could show her what I was finding lately. And I still ended up going out to Palm Desert that night, but it wasn’t so I could show Gram everything I’d brought for her.
In the weeks that followed, I spent a lot of time out in the desert, going through Gram’s belongings at my grandfather’s request and taking whatever I thought I would use. I grabbed a bunch of her two-tone earrings (a pair of which I’m wearing today), a whole bunch of bracelets I’ve since fallen in love with, and a closetful of basics and pants I’d never buy for myself. (And an awesome jumpsuit with pockets that my grandfather picked out for her—props to you for thinking fashion-forward, Grandad.) All these things were split between me, my aunt, and my mother. But one thing was for me and me alone (strictly by virtue of sizing): Gram’s shoes.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of reading a post from my friend and colleague, Nico Bejarano, on cultivating acceptance of new music in a professional world that can at times seem dead set on only playing the repertoire already elevated to the echelon of “the classics.” (A comment my mentor Jody Rockmaker once made on my counterpoint homework, here taken wildly out of context, comes to mind: “Get your ears out of the nineteenth century!”) I concur with many of Nico’s sentiments, and I encourage you to check out his post here. I also wanted to take a few moments to address many of those same ideas from the perspective of someone who’s spent a long time being a composer first and a performer second.
Nico talks at length in his article about how the availability and mass consumption of recorded music has diluted audiences’ tastes down to an aural experience that prizes the familiar over all else. It’s an apt correlation; however, I argue that the demographic most affected by this oversaturation of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler isn’t our concertgoing audience—it’s the armies of performers rising through the ranks of schools and orchestras that treat new music as an afterthought. These folks are used to cross-referencing recordings of the symphonies they’re performing that semester. They endlessly study their favorite soloists’ versions of their solo rep. And they lose the ability (or maybe the imagination) to look at a piece of unfamiliar music and bring it to life in their mind.