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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.

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Here’s Your List: Recommended Resources for Folks Starting Out

Hello! If you’ve been directed to this page, you’ve probably spoken to me recently (or somewhat-recently) about looking for resources on gender marginalization, misogyny, sexual assault, trauma, or some combination of the bunch. You’ve also done so in a way that is respectful and makes it clear your self-education on these topics is a consistent priority. First of all, thank you for being cool about it. Taking the time not only to further your own understanding of the world around you but to ask appropriately and kindly for resources to assist your endeavors is a big deal.

Below is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of resources I hold in high regard. I recommend digging into them at a pace and in an order that makes the most sense for you. Be sure to take care of yourself as you go. Happy reading!

Last update: December 14, 2019

Continue reading Here’s Your List: Recommended Resources for Folks Starting Out

Here’s Your Damn List.

I am not a fan of the question “can you give me reading material on that?” (in any incarnation). It puts the onus on oppressed demographics to educate their oppressors on longstanding, pervasive harm that is being engaged in to this day. I particularly hate it being directed at me in any context besides a serious, direct (in-person) conversation between two people or perhaps in a small group of friendly faces. If anyone asks me in public, the answer is almost always “no, you can do your own research.” Because, frankly, that’s always true. To borrow from an internet friend, your education is not my calling. It is your responsibility.

However, I know I’m going to be asked this question for a long time, so below is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of over one hundred resources I highly recommend to improve your own education about gendered violence (both in a physical-violence sense and a general-trauma sense). This took me weeks to assemble. Your work does not stop here. If it has an asterisk (*) next to it, that means I found it on the first page of a Google search. You could do that, too. Do better!

Last update: December 14, 2019

Continue reading Here’s Your Damn List.

“Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research

Once upon a time, as an undergrad, I accidentally opened up a Title IX investigation. (Yes, that is absolutely a ridiculous sentence, but it’s true.) I didn’t mean to, but no one had ever told me that “I can’t tell if they’re being sexist assholes or just assholes” was enough to accelerate an issue. So the contents of that conversation went up to Title IX, but the office never followed up. The effort I’d made to highlight the issues at hand completely evaporated, caught between higher admin who evidently decided it wasn’t a priority and faculty who never checked back to hear if anything came of it.

In the aftermath of those moments, though, I remember a comment from a faculty member that’s continually drilled itself into my brain: “You could lead the change.” It was said in earnest, with the feeling like this marked a door opening, a path forward through all the bullshit. And twenty-year-old me probably wanted to believe it was. Lord knows I spend entirely too much time contemplating where, or if, I fit within the greater Phoenix musical community. The thing is, even though I know all the way down to the bottom of my heart the idea was presented with wholly good intentions, it’s become a bit of an unwanted pest.

Continue reading “Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research

lightning rod/harbinger (lucky/too much)

I have always been jealous of my male friends in the jazz world.

Not because of their skill or their musicality—though I admire that also—but because of their freedom to focus on the music first and foremost. It’s a tricky concept and often difficult to explain, but today, I’m going to try.

Before we begin, though, it’s important to note that I’m keeping this jazz-focused specifically because the prevalence of jam sessions and more consistent shows (at least in Phoenix) means we’re doing a lot more running around and getting together as a community than some aspects of the classical scene. More things are casual, but there’s more happening overall. When my CalArts friends asked me why on earth I would go back to Phoenix jazz in any capacity, the answer was convoluted, but part of it was that’s where the people are, and I need people.

Continue reading lightning rod/harbinger (lucky/too much)

Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences

At the beginning of the school year, despite not being in school, I raided the back-to-college section at Target with one of my best friends and brought home things I’d never intended to buy. (You know, as a casual Target run usually goes.) Among the knickknacks and forty-eight-cent tape dispensers was one of those small, interchangeable sign boards. It was magnetized; it was green and purple; it was under $5. I caved to my inner white girl (not to be confused with my outer white girl) and took it home. The next day, I carefully sifted through the letters and spelled out a declaration: “LEAD WITH LOVE.”

The sign has since evolved to include more text, but that original phrase remains, staring me in the face every time I open my fridge. It’s probably time for something new, but I can’t quite bring myself to start fresh again, because it’s a simple thought I take very seriously and an action I’m prioritizing as part of my return to the desert. It feels a little squirmy to say I’m leading intentionally; I feel like it’s always been considered cooler/more humble/more subversive to sort of imply that any authority any of us has just fell onto our shoulders by chance. It’s the easy way out, in part because it gives us wiggle room to duck out of things we don’t want to be responsible for or bad decisions we’ve made—if we weren’t doing it on purpose, if we didn’t know our actions were setting an example, it’s not our fault, right?

That said, as I continue working toward a more inclusive musical community and holding the people and institutions around me accountable for misdeeds that need correcting, it’s disingenuous at best to pretend I’m doing this accidentally. Maybe when I was just starting to post about gender and misogyny and music it was true. At the time, it was more a byproduct of my reality than a conscious choice. But it’s not now. I may not work at the forefront of the Phoenix community, I may not be gigging and rehearsing nonstop like some of my friends, but I’m sticking around. Checking up on people. Listening. Taking it all in and allowing myself the time and space to think about what the interactions and decisions around us mean to the people who don’t always get a fair say. I’m aiming to be not only a voice but an example—where and when possible. That might not be every day, but hopefully it’s whenever someone feels left behind.

Continue reading Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences