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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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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Music, Partnership, and (Potential) Motherhood: What Aren’t We Talking About?

Panel discussions, at music festivals or elsewhere, are a great way to ask a variety of questions that might not fall under normal “how do I play this” or “what do I need to work on” categories. During my time at the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute this summer, I had the pleasure of attending several such panels. My partner, John, was along for the ride with me, and we both enjoyed getting each other’s take on the day’s discussion. The first day’s panel was about building a sustainable practice schedule, but as it progressed it expanded into performing and personal wellbeing, too. Toward the end the panel, one of our colleagues raised his hand and asked if the panelists had any tips about balancing work and life.

Before I go on, let’s be clear—that’s a great question and one that plagues many musicians at various stages of their careers. It’s one I’ve contemplated asking on various occasions. However, the direction the panel took the question caught me a little off guard. They talked at length about how it’s an extensive process to get your partner to accept your musicality and all the commitments that come with it (especially the practice schedules). They shared anecdotes about taking their horns on their honeymoons. They treated musicianship like something your partner has to accept about you, and that’s true—except when your partner is also a musician.

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A Manifesto? (otherwise known as An Intro to My Creative Practice)

Hello, friends! I hope this finds you well.

I’ve spent much of the past week reflecting on my experiences at the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute and getting back into the daily grind. I had such a great time getting to know everyone at RMBI, but it’s dawned on me that as someone who actively identifies as both a composer and a performer, I don’t talk as coherently about my creative practice as many of my new friends do. To be completely honest, I’m a little envious—from the outside looking in, it seems nice to be able to start by saying “I do this” and then getting more specific instead of explaining that you do two or three or five different things and having to elaborate on each one. I’ve also realized that I haven’t at any point sat down and written out how I describe and view my own work. (Grad school application essays don’t count.)

Generally, I dismiss myself pretty quickly. I tell people that I try to marry traditional technique and tonality with experimental idioms, and that’s true. Making weird things accessible to audiences regardless of their musical background is and always will be a priority. Even still, there’s so much more to my writing and performing than “it sounds a little weird but also sort of normal.” There are facets of my creativity I haven’t talked about very much. So this post has two objectives: to introduce myself a little more thoroughly to my friends (new and old, musicians and non-musicians) and help define for myself how I frame my creative practice.

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Summer Festival Breakdown: the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute

A week has come and gone, and one cancelled flight and many phone calls later, I’m in the air headed home from the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute. RMBI brings together a veritable army of instructors, students, auditionees, performers, and a couple amazing collaborative pianists for a week of brass-related shenanigans. I didn’t want to post too much about my expectations going into the festival, so for the most part I’ve kept quiet online. However, now that I’ve made it out the other side, I thought I’d compile a list of the festival’s greatest hits (and misses) for anyone who’s considering attending next year. As always, these opinions are my own, and I’m always cognizant of the fact that as a musician whose focus is largely on contemporary performance, my experience differs from my peers’. But here are my biggest pros and cons of RMBI 2018:

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Choosing Music (and/or Money)

I distinctly remember when I started telling people I planned to go into music.

It wasn’t some grand announcement—I mean, I was a junior in high school—but the way people reacted, you would’ve thought I’d just proclaimed I was going to major in winning the presidency.

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April Performances (and other adventures)

Friends,

What a month it’s turned into! April is shaping up to be action-packed in more ways than one. Because I’m about to plunge into a bunch of different performances, I thought I’d take a moment to highlight a few of them here:

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March Favorites are here!

Like every YouTuber ever, I’ve decided to start a monthly favorites segment. Ultimately, my goal is to highlight music, creatives, and moments I enjoy. If anything catches your attention, don’t keep quiet!

March has been an absolutely insane month. I had the privilege of playing on three recitals (including my own), joining ensembles on various other concerts, clearing a couple commissions off my plate, and preparing for premieres of new works. That said, this is what’s caught my eye and ear:

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Ensemble Talk: On Working with Composers (Successfully)

Beginning in undergrad (and sometimes earlier), composers are taught how to approach performers—what to say, what not to say, how to phrase critiques, ask questions, and ensure a successful performance. But because traditional performance institutions, particularly those following the conservatory model, value dead composers above all else (except for that one large ensemble concert a year that’s reserved for new works), it’s not uncommon to encounter performers who haven’t thought all that much about how working closely with a composer can require something beyond basic professionalism. Young performers, particularly those who play works by a composer friend, seem particularly susceptible to this, but everyone can stand to benefit from some organized consideration every once in awhile. So what do composers wish their performers knew?

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An Open Letter to the High School Girl Who’s Passed Her Auditions

Dear friend,

Congratulations on making it through your auditions! I hope you traveled to as many schools as you were able and met as many professors and students as you could. Audition season is an incredibly stressful time, and I’m sure you felt the pressure, but you did it! The worst of the application process is behind you.

In the coming weeks, you’ll start receiving your decision letters, if you haven’t already. You might have your heart set on one school, or you might be choosing from a field of many. You may have musician parents, or you could be trying to figure out for yourself which program is the right fit for you. If you’re in need of an extra perspective, consider the following:

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