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.
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.
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.
My brothers and sisters and siblings and I, we have been violated. We have been attacked and groped and touched intentionally and carelessly and recklessly. Our attackers may know what they did to us; all the same, they may have forgotten entirely, relegated us and our pain to the insignificant past. We have been hurt beyond all telling. And we don’t report.
I have carried the weight of my own existence for a long time. Some days it’s light and life is easy. I laugh and love, I take the risks I’ve dreamed of, I pursue my best self relentlessly. I am my own best comforter.
On these days, my mind is sharp. I engage with my peers, my friends, my colleagues. I am brash and loud and bold. I am the woman fourth-grade me would be so excited about. And on those days, very little can touch me—I’m up in the clouds, soaring to my heart’s content. On these days, I am free of my past. (This feels good.)
I have carried the shame of my own existence for a long time. Some days it’s so overpowering I can’t breathe very well. I fall silent. I pull away. I can’t bring myself to confide in the people I love; they don’t need to watch me suffer. I shrink into myself, asking what I was wearing or why I was alone or why I didn’t report or whatever other vitriol someone in power chose to sling at a survivor today. (This does not feel good.) I reduce myself to a casualty of this war to normalize violent behavior. I find a thousand things to write but none to say aloud, lest I find myself the target of that powerful person’s vitriol someday. I let my music speak for me because there are still so many things I can’t bring myself to say. And I bleed. (This does not feel good.)
It’s been a couple years since I’ve been okay with how the jazz world is run. Sure, the music’s great and it’s fun to go to shows, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t desperately miss those aspects (and others, like playing with the Nash Composers’ Coalition out in Phoenix), but if you’ve been with me for awhile you know that all the jazz scene manages to do is break my heart and piss me off. I spend almost all my time in male-dominated fields, but for whatever reason, traditional jazz is the one intersection of maleness and music that seems to just keep kicking when I’m down.
Before I go any further, let’s be clear: I’ve spent the most time in jazz circles that glorify swing and bebop, that don’t advocate for experimentalism, whose primary interest seems to be preserving tradition. The jazz people I’m around now aren’t like that; indeed, lots of the creative jazz scene in LA seems to intrinsically value the blending of genres, including jazz and non-jazz. I like that a lot more, but I’m still hesitant to dip my toes back into a world that has repeatedly told me I have no place in it. I thought about trying to explain why, but then I found some old writing I did on the subject and never sent out into the world. It still rings true, so I’ll let it speak for me:
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten since I went to college came from Brianne Borden, and it was a simple one: set goals, no matter how far away they may seem, and keep track of them by time period. One of the first things I did my senior year of undergrad was break down a bunch of goals for the semester, the year, the next five years, and the next decade—and it really helped me maintain my focus during a hectic fall semester of grad school applications and recital planning.
This time around, I’m entering the second year of my master’s and what I somewhat hope is my final year of being a student (in academia, anyway). As I started making my goals lists, I decided I’d try to hold myself a little more accountable than otherwise and share some of them with all of you.