Pardon Our Dust (this work is messy)

On this blog, I try to write about the intersections of womanhood, music, misogyny, and my own creative practice. The balance is a tenuous one to strike, especially since world events and major (musical) institutional announcements can necessitate posts that both move beyond my usual material and interrupt the flow of my thoughts. As such, even though I try to tie everything back to music or the work I do specifically, sometimes I think some folks forget that this all ties together for me.

And yes, it can be tempting to ditch the writing about feminism and activism and navigating music’s social scene in a decidedly female body. At times it feels like it would be easier to try to be the Buzzfeed of contemporary classical music. I know full well that I could opt for the familiarities of topics like leading ensembles and earning respect (now there’s a phrase fraught with male undertones) and inclusive programming. I already touch on these things from time to time, but they could become the mainstays of my written work. I could emphasize the traditional (or, at least, expected) career components we’re all familiar with.

Continue reading Pardon Our Dust (this work is messy)

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Music, Weaponized Vulnerability, and the Question of Us

The end of my masters degree was a little nontraditional. This is fitting, I suppose, because most of the rest of my degree was largely nontraditional. But in my last semester, I was fortunate to spend quality time with four teachers (now friends) whose work I admire and who all handle life pretty well. My questions to each of them varied, but the gist was the same: what on earth do I do now?

See, I’m a good student, but I’m a professional very much in the process of figuring out what makes a career and how the wheels keep turning. I know I don’t have all the answers I need, and I understand some things will be lessons learned the hard way. But I’m also an artist working with (and through) an injury that could have ended my playing career, and I’m an artist whose creative output travels to very dark places a lot of the time. If I want to keep making work that truly challenges me (and maybe society), I have to develop habits and boundaries that preserve my personal wellbeing through the creative process. And, for the sake of my mental health, I probably need to grow those in the next five years and adapt them over a lifetime.

My last semester was such a relief because I had access to people who do things that I do and still lead generally happy lives. And when I asked about balance and fulfillment and happiness and all that, I got serious answers. On the surface, they might seem predictable: slow down, stay healthy, keep your body happy, choose projects that move you, remember your basics. But the thing about having so many amazing teachers is that I’ve spent a good chunk of time learning about them. I know why they give me the advice they do, and that increased context helps me adapt the concepts to my own life.

I started searching for these answers because it became fairly evident over the course of the last year that I would need to keep myself alive to continue doing this work. Before anyone panics, let’s be clear: I’m okay. I promise. But as you might expect, art about sexual assault and misogyny is a heavy burden to carry sometimes. And that’s on top of working in fields that don’t always think I should belong, in a country run by an admitted sexual predator, at a time when watching predator after predator walk free is particularly public and eternally painful. Most days, I can handle the load—after all, much of the art I make on those subjects serves as a release valve for the tension and pressure—but it doesn’t always work out that way. I don’t expect it too. Never have, really. But I know it happens, and part of being a responsible artist (and self-caring human) is preparing as much as possible and knowing those days will come.

Because as I told one of my teachers, I tend to take my vulnerability and throw it out in front of me like knives. (His response: “I’ve noticed, yes.”) It’s a storytelling style and artistic decision that can serve me well, but there’s an obvious amount of risk involved. I know there are people in my life who wished I didn’t walk this path. Some days, I agree with them. But here’s the thing: I rip myself open because it’s not my right to borrow anyone else’s story without their willing, enthusiastic consent. But unlike some of my (fantastic) peers, who use the music they create to show us some hidden sliver of them, I use my work to illuminate a dark corner of . . . us. All of us.

I don’t normally dive into this in blog format, but we as a human populace actively suck at looking out for each other. We’re conditioned, especially by society, to prioritize our individual needs over those of demographics beyond (or intersecting with) our own. If something doesn’t directly affect us, we probably won’t be super vocal about it, but if we can find a way to connect others’ experiences to our own, we’re way more likely to advocate for and learn about these issues. And while vulnerability serves as my knives, empathy is the putty with which I mold their handles and control their flight. And that, to me, is important, because if I’m going to make you uncomfortable, I want to be as in control of that as possible.

And the thing is, this may be daunting work, but when I have the moment where it’s all put together, when the stars align for the best and everything clicks, it makes me happy. Aggressively so. (Anyone who’s ever seen me say, a little too gleefully, “I love making people cry!” can confirm.) It makes me happy not because the work is necessary or timely—I really, really wish it wasn’t either of those things—but because the feedback I get from audiences tells me I’m hitting a nerve and connecting to a very visceral emotion that lives in a lot of us. Which one I hone in on depends on the piece; sometimes it’s something in the vulnerability category, but I also try to reach for more destructive emotions. Anger. Hate. The need for revenge versus justice. Self-loathing and self-destruction. I think it’s necessary not just for the women and femmes and assault victims/survivors/casualties who encounter my work—it’s necessary for the men seeking to be better and the men who don’t think they’re part of the problem and the rapists who might not realize they’re rapists (and, of course, the ones who do). And all of that matters. So I reach for the things that make people cry and squirm, but I try to do so with as much control as possible, because I want to make sure I do so with as much respect and consideration for everyone’s individual journeys as possible.

For the record, while I will certainly be talking about target audiences and Who Needs To Hear This Stuff again in the future, I do generally try to keep the focus on non-cis-male perspectives. I will continue to do so. But I think it’s important that I point out that allocishet men are part of my audience, because a significant part of why I have to make all of this as eloquent as possible is because the women and queer folks in my life usually nod their heads in understanding when I’m still scrambling around trying to make a point, while my male peers and colleagues frequently do not take my word as the authority on my own experiences unless I can present them clinically and explain how I got from point A to point B in as many little, obvious steps as possible. And as much as I dislike that gap, that’s why my work is about us—all of us, including our differences in communication and understanding. And if I’m somebody’s first point of contact for this discourse, I want to make sure I don’t leave them feeling like I’m judge, jury, and executioner in one. I want them to feel like they can learn and act and have a positive, productive place in the conversation. I want to inspire them to make this a critical part of their personal politics.

So I use my vulnerability like knives, and I’m still looking for ways to care for myself so I can keep pushing toward the art I love. It’s not a perfect process or a quick one. But as someone who’s going through a really big life transition, it’s nice to have something like that to push toward—something that’ll help me and the people I make music with in the long run. But what on earth do I do now?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. ♦

Okay, Phoenix, Let’s Tango

Sometimes it feels like I, a person with a 408 area code, was always destined for the 480. The universe likes playing tricks, so it’s not a completely unreasonable suspicion. That said, as many of my AZ-native friends understand, I left, and I didn’t really expect to be back. In fact, if you asked me a year ago if I ever thought I’d live and work in Phoenix again, the answer would have been a vehement no.

On the flip side, when your partner gets the opportunity to study with one of the best trombone teachers in the country, you take it. (Dr. E, I don’t think you’re reading this, but if you are, hi!) As a Sun Devil alum, I’m thrilled John and I will both have degrees from ASU (and CalArts . . . but in opposite orders). As someone with a handful of friends I’ve missed desperately, I’m looking forward to reconnecting. But as someone who took some very bad moments and memories with me when I left the desert, as someone who realizes the reasons I was so frequently brushed over and passed by are myriad and gendered, I am . . . less excited.

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Curtis Institute’s Non-Apology and Actionable First Steps

Yes, we’re doing this again.

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a detailed account of powerhouse violinist Lara St. John’s childhood abuse, assault, and rape at the hands of her Curtis instructor, Jascha Brodsky. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do—the article goes into significant detail about St. John’s initial reporting process and multiple attempts to seek accountability from Curtis. The morning the story broke online, Curtis sent a message to its alumni network, asking them not to talk to the press and encouraging everyone to let the school spin the story. This didn’t go over well.

Curtis later backtracked, issuing a pseudo-apology for the gag order and making vague promises to be better. They also announced that they would be creating an anonymous reporting hotline (theoretically for sexual abuse, though they did not specify what the hotline would focus on or whether alumni, staff, and faculty who have been victimized would be able to utilize it). Nowhere has the Institute apologized to Lara St. John—not for facilitating abuse, not for disbelieving her, not for the joke of an “investigation” they rushed through to sweep the crime under the rug. And, if my guess is correct, they aren’t planning to. These continued missteps communicate to the music community at large that Curtis is more concerned with its reputation than actually working to right the wrongs.

This isn’t the first music school to face a story this explosive, nor is Curtis the first to navigate the reality that they willingly enabled a predator who they kept on faculty for decades thereafter. In fact, I wrote a piece roughly a year ago talking about very real ways to ask for consent for necessary touching in lessons and other artistic environments. In short, we’ve heard this song before. This makes it infinitely frustrating that school after school—Curtis among them—reacts like legions of musicians haven’t already communicated quite clearly the things we need to hear from a school truly interested in accountability and improvement.

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Audience Participation vs. Performer Protection: A Snapshot

I am sitting onstage with the Nash Composers Coalition—either at our inaugural concert or second; I can’t remember which—and we are almost through our set. The adrenaline is pumping, and despite the weight of carrying my gender on my back on that stage, I’m smiling. We’ve been riding the performance high all night, and spirits are high. As we round the bend into the last couple tunes, we call a free improvisation, with the title to be determined by the audience.

The first few suggestions are fine, harmless; they prompt thoughtful nods or friendly chuckles from me and my colleagues. They’re what we expect. Then someone—a guy, and by the self-satisfied tone of voice, it was probably a young or young-ish guy, though to my knowledge not one of my peers—shouted out something super sexual. I can’t remember if it was “seductive” or “foreplay” or something else entirely, but I remember the discomfort it brought to me immediately.

Hang on; I have to go look through those recordings now and see if I can find it. I want to get this right, and it’s a story I try not to remember.

Continue reading Audience Participation vs. Performer Protection: A Snapshot

Fuck the Maestro Mentality

Since I started studying music in college, I’ve only rarely had the opportunity to work with a female conductor or ensemble director. (In fact, I think it’s happened . . . twice? Three times? Really rarely.) Before that, though, I was a product entirely of woman-run programs, and while middle and high school band were a long time ago, that education set me up with the expectation that my accomplishments were first and foremost my own, and while my teachers could be proud of me and talk about me, they could only claim so much credit.

This idea extended from my academic classes into my creative work in large part due to the guidance of the female and nonbinary professors and TAs I’ve had lessons and influential classes with over the past six years. These folks are supportive to no end, so eternally giving of their time and resources, but their support and praise is far less performative than some of their male colleagues’. It’s genuine, frequently private, and usually keeps an eye toward the future and what else I might accomplish. A good chunk of my male teachers, mentors, and colleagues also follow this model, but we’ve always got the handful of teachers who wait in the background, either refraining from genuine praise or being quietly unsupportive unless we jump through a little-communicated, preordained set of hoops (of which they are frequently gatekeepers).

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the performance of affection in male spaces

I’m really bad at hiding my close relationships. Not necessarily in a PDA sense (though, when I was younger, that was a thing too)—no, I get attached to people and I want them to know it. This isn’t just romantic or sexual; most of the time, it manifests most loudly in my platonic relationships (which, for y’all who could use a refresher, covers the friends-and-family category, plus any acquaintance you’re not interested in dating). However, when most of my friendships spend most of their time in a scene high in toxic masculinity and a little messy in terms of affection of any kind, I feel the effects of my Othering pretty acutely.

Now, the Othering (read: I am female (and queer, though allocishet-passing)) doesn’t seem to be inherently connected to the affection problem if you look at it on the surface—at least, if it is, we choose to ignore it or lump it under sexism generally. But here’s the truth I’ve been able to articulate for five years and known even longer: if you are a female-presenting person and you hug the same male-presenting person a whole bunch, people assume you’re an item. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if you’re just sleeping together or something more, though in certain circumstances, being someone’s girlfriend or partner can afford you a great deal of protection. (That’s a whole other post waiting to happen.) In fact, it doesn’t matter that usually, you’re not sleeping together or dating; the rumor mill gets going, and it doesn’t favor you. No amount of “we’re just friends” will convince anyone who doesn’t know you well.

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The International Women’s Brass Conference and the Price of Sisterhood

Have you ever gone to something expecting to have a reasonably good time and come out of it with your life forever changed? I’m not talking about I-went-and-got-another-degree; no, I mean the kind of thing where you come out with unexpected new inspirations, role models, and routes of exploration, the kind of thing that makes you get out of bed at a reasonable (or maybe even unreasonably early) time because you can’t just stay still when there’s so much to do, the kind of thing that stays with you in ways you don’t expect.

It’s been awhile since I had one of those experiences (I think the last thing that even comes close was when I premiered He Probably Just Likes You with the Nash Composers Coalition), but I spent this past week at the International Women’s Brass Conference, where I presented two of my own works and a solo set. After just six days, I’m a different person. Like, my hair is still (blissfully) purple and I still need to practice for approximately forever, but I’ve got new paths dangling in front of me that I desperately want to explore. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about what it took to get here.

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I’m Launching a Patreon!

Hello, friends!

I’ve been sitting on these plans for months now, and I’m so excited to finally share them with you. Over the past year, I’ve been floored by the willingness of friends, family, peers, colleagues, and near-strangers to support my art in all its different forms. That support, whether emotional, financial, or professional, has enabled me to reach new heights and produce work I couldn’t even have conceptualized not so long ago. In just two years, I’ve put out a significant amount of work about sexual assault and rape culture. My understanding and use of extended techniques has grown, but I still enjoy mixing them in with more “normal” sounds for a new blend of timbres. I’m braver and more authentic as a performer and artist. I’m so proud of how far I’ve come during my MFA, and even though I know this is just the beginning, it’s a little crazy to believe it’s even real.

As I leave academia (at least, the student side of things) and start bringing my artmaking practices fully into the professional sphere, I’m looking for ways to not only ensure I keep creating new work but get it into the hands and headphones of people who might not always be able to see it performed live. I’ll be rolling these out as they wink into existence, and the first platform I’m adding to my creative portfolio is my Patreon page.

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Stay Informed, Help Your Friends: A Survivor’s (Super-Abridged) Guide to Things You Should Know

I’ve spent much of the week wondering what to write to close out this spree of blogs for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I thought about writing about how doxxing and internet threats can endanger women’s lives. I thought about writing about the fight/flight/freeze mechanism (which will definitely come up later, I promise). I thought about making a list of ways in which my assault consistently changes my life and worldview. All of these would make great posts, but as we round out the month, I think it’s important to talk about things going on in the greater public consciousness that we should all be aware of. Some of these things involve policies that directly affect survivors’ wellbeing, and others are high-profile events that have produced significant negative side effects. In putting them all in one place (though there are undoubtedly too many others to name in a reasonable amount of column space), I hope you can start to see how policy and society at large work to limit women in ways that can have permanent, potentially fatal consequences for women.

Continue reading Stay Informed, Help Your Friends: A Survivor’s (Super-Abridged) Guide to Things You Should Know