Notes from the Margins: Impossible Asks

A lot of the lessons I’ve learned in music school were designed for my male peers.

There are a lot of directions I could go from here; I could talk about the homogenization of the classical canon into the Straight White Men’s Club or the devaluation and exclusion of women and queer people in the jazz tradition or the gendered (and racist, and classist) expectations for concert dress. And while I’m sure I’ll spend time with each of those individually, none of them are quite hitting home for me at the moment.

One such lesson, though, that disproportionally benefits the men I’ve been educated alongside is one of the most important ones a composer learns: how to run a rehearsal of your own music. While a lot of the components of this come down to “don’t be an ass, and make sure you respect your performers,” a large part of why we run our own rehearsals is so we can address questions promptly and ensure the music sounds how we want it to. The core tenets of running a good rehearsal, besides regular community maintenance, are these: “don’t be afraid to ask for what you want” and “be picky.”

To be clear, it’s not that these strategies for running an efficient rehearsal are inherently dehumanizing toward gender-marginalized people. It’s that most of them are only acceptable when leaving the mouths of men. And this is where we get into Pushback City, so I need y’all to stay with me and read everything before you go off and grouse internally. See, I’ve been at this awhile now, and I can tell you what it’s like to be in a rehearsal room where you’re the only gender-marginalized person—and you’re supposed to be the one running the show.

Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s not.

Continue reading Notes from the Margins: Impossible Asks

on discomfort and triggers

[CW: discussion of triggers, sexual assault, suicidality]

There’s a tumblr excerpt that goes around every once in awhile about respect. Though I’m sure I can’t quote it verbatim, the gist of it is that there are two types of respect: “you treat me like a human” and “you treat me like an authority.” The post goes on to point out that some people, usually those benefiting from immense privilege, leverage that discrepancy to make “if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you” into “if you don’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a human.”

I think about that post a lot, both because of its direct relatability to my life and the broader applicability it has to other words commonly used in two different ways. One in particular has stuck in my mind as of late: uncomfortable.

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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

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

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)

To Mark Swed re: Plácido Domingo

Dear Mark,

Is it okay if I call you Mark? I’ve heard you’ve made appearances at my alma mater, CalArts, and everyone there is on a first-name basis, so I’m going to call you Mark. I read your article this morning about Plácido Domingo stepping down from the LA Opera, and even though I’ve got plenty to do today, I couldn’t help but write you about it first. As I mentioned, I’m a CalArts alum; my artistic practice has been molded and refined by that school and the experiences I had there that changed my life.

Your writing reminds me of the dark spots in my education.

I’m not going to link to your article here—even if they’re hate clicks, I don’t want to give you more exposure—but let me take you through and align some things you’ve written with things already enshrined into my memory as a twenty-three-year-old with a newly-minted MFA. See, Mark, I’ve been very fortunate to have learned from many teachers I hold in high regard, but I’ve also already been disadvantaged not only by my gender but the things my male peers are expected to get away with doing to me.

Continue reading To Mark Swed re: Plácido Domingo

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)

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)

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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A CalArts Degree in Review: Part Two (The… Troubling Things)

Last week on the blog, I gave you guys a runthrough of some of my favorite parts of CalArts. In short, the high points are the students, the faculty, and the general willingness to try new things and push back against tradition in ways that are useful and necessary. That said, as much as I’m proud of the work I’ve done during my degree, as glad as I am that I’ve gotten to collaborate with folks who are like me, I can’t pretend this is a perfect collegiate experience, even for a grad student. Am I glad I went to CalArts? Yes. It was the creative reach I needed at a time when I didn’t have many similar options. Would the decision to attend be a significantly harder one to make today? Absolutely. Though the reasons behind this are at times nuanced and difficult to articulate, I’m going to do my best to break down the most significant among them here.

Wish me luck.

Continue reading A CalArts Degree in Review: Part Two (The… Troubling Things)