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.

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A Budget-Conscious Californian’s Guide to a First Earthquake Kit

Okay, okay, the ground is moving again. And that’s putting it mildly—the 7.1 earthquake on July 5th was more powerful than the Northridge Earthquake (1994) and Loma Prieta (1989). Thankfully, injuries remain minor across the state, but I’ve realized a lot of folks in my social circles aren’t native Californians and/or didn’t grow up around this stuff, and as such, some of y’all are kind of freaking out.

First: being afraid of earthquakes is totally understandable, and even kind of (read: quite) sensible. I, and most of my childhood friends, grew up with parents who survived Loma Prieta and the knowledge that California is overdue for a major earthquake on basically every fault line. (Looking at you, Hayward and San Andreas.) We are perhaps a little too desensitized to the dangers of living here, but we also grew up doing earthquake drills at school and learning about earthquake kits, so we’re (theoretically) somewhat prepared. For the rest of y’all, though, I know this is new, and that’s okay.

Still, if you’re going to live in California, I highly recommend making an earthquake kit. This is basically a collection of necessities you might need if a Big One hits and you can’t stay in your house with comforts in easy reach. Beyond that, though, it’s an array of supplies to get you through a few days with no access to electricity, water, or a functioning grocery store.

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that girl onstage isn’t me

Tomorrow night, I take the stage to bare a piece of my soul.

Mine, and a thousand others’.

Tomorrow night, I take the stage with a little fire in my feet and a spark in my eyes and I bring the world into a story I might’ve told a hundred times by now. I bring the world in, and I shut myself out.

You see, that girl onstage isn’t me.

Sure, she wears my face and laughs and cries like I do. She carries with her the same sense of wonder, the same reactions to old wounds made new again. She lives a story that is rich and complex and devoid of the words I’d choose to write for myself. Her experiences shape her, ever so subtly, in different ways than mine shape me. Sometimes they look the same, outwardly—she falls to the floor at all the same times that I probably would—but her motivations, her qualms, her relationship with herself is dramatically different.

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Shop’s Open: I’m Accepting Commissions for 2019 and 2020

As 2018 comes to a close, I’m spending time reflecting on some of my professional endeavors from the past year. Among the greatest joys in my musical year has been getting so many opportunities to create new works for performers and ensembles who want to add something new to their repertoire. Just this past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a slew of folks in three different time zones. Each collaboration has been incredibly rewarding for me, and I’m pleased to announce I’m now accepting commissions for 2019 and 2020.

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We Now Return to our Regularly Scheduled Posting

Hey, folks. Sorry it’s been a bit.

I really wish I’d gotten to post last weekend. I had a draft going, I was on schedule to meet my deadline, and it should have been fine, but sometimes life gets in the way. And after the absolutely nuts month I’ve had, I just needed a few days to put my head down, get a few projects off my plate (or headed in that direction), and try not to freak out.

I was mostly successful.

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CalArts Brass and the Pursuit of What’s Missing

Honestly, performers can have a really hard time choosing grad schools.

I say that as a composer and composer-performer who’s always had way too many things to think about when it came to school choices. During my undergrad auditions, I managed to piss off an interviewer at a school that will remain unnamed because I insisted on continuing to play my instrument as I continued my composing. (They didn’t accept me. This was not a surprise.) Yet as I’m starting to look toward the final semester of my MFA, it stymies me that so many teachers request or insist that their students focus on one thing and one thing only. I was incredibly lucky at Arizona State to have not one but four composition teachers who supported my performative endeavors, and that streak has continued at CalArts. But as my performance-major friends look at grad schools and doctoral programs, often they’re only focused on one thing: the teacher.

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A Concert, A Recital, A Show

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.

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Recess Got Me Ready for Life (I Promise)

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.

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We Don’t Report

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.

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Looking Forward: My Last(ish) Year of College

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.

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