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

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

Shows, Closed Books, and Genre-Bending

Hello, friends, and welcome to another episode of Posts That Will Drive Me Insane While Writing. I am one sentence in, and I can already tell you this one’s going to be a headache of an intentionally-worded piece. Yay! At any rate, this has been on my mind since that Paying Your Dues post (which went up last week, but in my time was written about three weeks before this one). In my writing, blogs frequently spawn from other blogs, and this is no exception—tonight’s installment of Music Is Hard comes from one of the thousand or so questions I posed in that entirely-too-long edition. The question in question? (Yes, I’ve had caffeine.) This one:

“Which organizations are profiting off the free labor of student musicians and then closing their calendars to those same artists looking for a place to launch their own projects?”

And, as I’ll get into later on, why aren’t we getting onto these calendars, who controls who gets onto them, and how should we work within and around these institutions to ensure we’re getting the opportunities we want?

In the initial post, I followed the quoted question with a quip about late-stage capitalism, but that paragraph largely went under-explained out of sheer necessity (read: the weight of 3300 words). I could probably come back to most of them at some point in time, but this one in particular is lighting a fire under my butt currently, so we’re going to dive in.

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Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Since moving back to Phoenix, one phrase (besides “it’s better now”) has begun to permeate my consciousness—and weigh on my mind—more than it ever did while I was in California. I absolutely spoiled any chance at a surprise with my title, so yes, that phrase is “paying your dues.” Despite all the time I’ve spent wandering through various genres and fields of music, it’s never quite rung true to me. This is, I think, partly because of how intentionally nonspecific it is and partly because of the conditions under which I make music and move through the world at large. The depths of this issue are murky, and from here it’s difficult to see the bottom, but if I had to take a stab at a thesis, it’d be this: the gatekeeping, favoritism, and institutional bias that create the foundation of “paying your dues” stifle creativity, discourage participation, alienate newcomers, and serve the white patriarchy.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. So let’s take it a bite at a time, shall we?

Before we get into it, I’m not sure why this didn’t come up a lot while I was in Los Angeles, but the answer is probably partly regional and partly cultural. A wise jazz musician once pointed out to me that the prevalence and outward manifestation of misogyny varies drastically by location. Generally, New York and LA are noticeably different (though not necessarily less misogynist) than most of the rest of the country. And while this “paying your dues” thing can undoubtedly play into that, I think another part of the equation is that mindless playing-for-the-paycheck work isn’t as looked down on in LA as it sometimes is in some pockets of Phoenix—in part because gigs are a step up from the carousel of day jobs, plural, needed to pay Los Angeles rent.

The other part of this, I suppose, is that I wasn’t told to pay my dues in LA; I was told to put in the work. While both phrases carry similar weight, there’s a lot more flexibility to the latter. My friends and teachers saw me making angry assault music and counted that as “doing the work.” They saw me advocating for student life improvements and institutional change and counted that as “doing the work.” They see me blogging about the need for better treatment across the board and count that as “doing the work.” But regardless of the details, I didn’t hear or talk about or think about “paying my dues” much in California, and I do in Arizona, so it’s time to break down some concepts.

Continue reading Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

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.

Continue reading Okay, Phoenix, Let’s Tango

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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Critique Doesn’t Land Without a Lot of Background Reading (so here’s a list)

As I sat down to draft this week’s blog post, I found myself at a bit of a loss. What could I possibly write, I wondered, that could follow what I’ve put out in the last two weeks? See, I never plan for my writing to reach very far beyond my own circle of friends, family, and fellow artists. When it does, that’s exceptional, but I’m always left with the same question: what do I write about now? Because as much as I love drum corps, this isn’t about to turn into an all-DCI blog. I’m still going to write about every genre of music and performance as it intersects with my creative practice and my identity. But what do I write to follow something so big?

The answer, I think, is something small. This week, friends, we’re not challenging major institutions and their power structures. We aren’t talking about Title IX or Phantom Regiment or schools who turn a blind eye to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of students by their private teachers. This week, we’re looking inward at ourselves. And a lot of times, that’s scarier, because we are inherently imperfect humans. We’ve all hurt people to extents we may not fully realize. But we don’t grow as a community unless every single one of us is doing this work, so it’s time to be brave.

Continue reading Critique Doesn’t Land Without a Lot of Background Reading (so here’s a list)

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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A Counterintuitive Guide to Mandated Title IX Reporting

This is a very difficult post. (And this is only the first week of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so buckle up, because in all likelihood it’s all downhill from here.)

I’ve been working within the confines of the collegiate system for six years. My future career path probably includes teaching, likely at community colleges and/or four-year universities. My creative work intersects nearly constantly with sexual assault. I hear a lot of stories. And in the near-ish future, I’ll probably be a mandated reporter.

Let’s get something straight here: I know some stories need to stay quiet. I’m well aware of the toll an assault or rape or even just gendered harassment can take on folks. I know that for a lot of people, the idea of reporting to Title IX goes hand in hand with expected retaliation. I’m one of those people. And whenever I can, I’ll be committed to making sure my friends and fellow victims/survivors/casualties can communicate freely with me about their own experiences, questions, and uncertainties. I’ll make sure you know in advance when I’m unable to keep stories brought to me by certain groups, especially any college students I may teach in the future, confidential. I’ll find workarounds so I’m still available to give advice and support to folks who need it.

On the one hand, Title IX is (for the most part) a great idea. We should absolutely be combatting gender inequality, whether it’s discrimination or harassment or violence of any nature, in colleges and universities. However, I’ve found that the links between mandated reporters and the folks who field Title IX complaints can be stretched too thin. When lower-intensity solutions might be more apt—for instance, when mouthy, young, subtly-sexist undergraduate men in male-dominated programs could perhaps be told by their faculty that their behavior needs to change before they seriously hurt someone—complaints get lost, washed away, and never followed up on.

The crux of all these issues? I think mandated reporters don’t feel like they have power to change their institutional/studio culture for the better without the guidance of Title IX, and I know students aren’t informed about what the system will do for (and to) them if they report.

Continue reading A Counterintuitive Guide to Mandated Title IX Reporting

Schrödinger’s Rapist and His Presence in Male Spaces

I spent much of the holiday season catching up on sleep and composing projects, and I’m happy to have some new things off the ground and some long-awaited scores nearing their premiere performances. This semester alone, I’ll have works performed in four to five states (which, for an early-career composer, is a Big Deal), and Letters will reach more audiences than ever before thanks to a couple large ensemble performances, a student recital (away from CalArts, even), and my own graduation project, face the mirror, which will have its own page soon but for now lives in my Projects catch-all. I’m super excited for each of these milestones and will devote more column space to each of them over the course of this semester, but I wanted to take a moment this week to talk a little about a piece I’ve just completed and how the concepts at play within it affect my own life on a day-to-day basis.

The work is called walking/I’m sorry, Mom and it was commissioned by my dear friend and fellow musical troublemaker Tanner Pfeiffer for the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble at CalArts. For CVE’s spring concert this year, Tanner is assembling a collection of works that explore, in some way or another, movement, theater, and/or dance within a musical performance context. Much of the art I currently enjoy making incorporates theatrical or dance elements, so I was excited to hop on board to contribute something new. Originally, I’d been aiming for a work that established strong connections between physical aftereffects of assault and their mental repercussions, but as dark works tend to do, the music pulled me in a different direction.

I wrote walking about what is [unfortunately] a quintessential part of the stereotypical female experience—a strange man, with unclear intentions, following a woman home late at night. “Don’t walk alone in the dark” was one of the sentiments that shaped my own coming-of-age experiences; ASU’s campus is lovely at night, and frequently the only reasonable time to walk around and enjoy the area is after the sun goes down, so eighteen-year-old me admittedly didn’t follow my mom’s advice to the letter. I’m fortunate that I started walking with friends before I could run into cause for concern, but I have friends (both from my time at ASU and other moments) who have dealt with these issues repeatedly.

More than that, though, walking isn’t just about being alone at night. It’s about being approached by a man—in any situation—and having to make that snap judgment of how to react. It’s about Schrödinger’s rapist.

Continue reading Schrödinger’s Rapist and His Presence in Male Spaces