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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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.

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Curtis Institute’s Non-Apology and Actionable First Steps

Yes, we’re doing this again.

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a detailed account of powerhouse violinist Lara St. John’s childhood abuse, assault, and rape at the hands of her Curtis instructor, Jascha Brodsky. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do—the article goes into significant detail about St. John’s initial reporting process and multiple attempts to seek accountability from Curtis. The morning the story broke online, Curtis sent a message to its alumni network, asking them not to talk to the press and encouraging everyone to let the school spin the story. This didn’t go over well.

Curtis later backtracked, issuing a pseudo-apology for the gag order and making vague promises to be better. They also announced that they would be creating an anonymous reporting hotline (theoretically for sexual abuse, though they did not specify what the hotline would focus on or whether alumni, staff, and faculty who have been victimized would be able to utilize it). Nowhere has the Institute apologized to Lara St. John—not for facilitating abuse, not for disbelieving her, not for the joke of an “investigation” they rushed through to sweep the crime under the rug. And, if my guess is correct, they aren’t planning to. These continued missteps communicate to the music community at large that Curtis is more concerned with its reputation than actually working to right the wrongs.

This isn’t the first music school to face a story this explosive, nor is Curtis the first to navigate the reality that they willingly enabled a predator who they kept on faculty for decades thereafter. In fact, I wrote a piece roughly a year ago talking about very real ways to ask for consent for necessary touching in lessons and other artistic environments. In short, we’ve heard this song before. This makes it infinitely frustrating that school after school—Curtis among them—reacts like legions of musicians haven’t already communicated quite clearly the things we need to hear from a school truly interested in accountability and improvement.

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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.

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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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I’m Launching a Patreon!

Hello, friends!

I’ve been sitting on these plans for months now, and I’m so excited to finally share them with you. Over the past year, I’ve been floored by the willingness of friends, family, peers, colleagues, and near-strangers to support my art in all its different forms. That support, whether emotional, financial, or professional, has enabled me to reach new heights and produce work I couldn’t even have conceptualized not so long ago. In just two years, I’ve put out a significant amount of work about sexual assault and rape culture. My understanding and use of extended techniques has grown, but I still enjoy mixing them in with more “normal” sounds for a new blend of timbres. I’m braver and more authentic as a performer and artist. I’m so proud of how far I’ve come during my MFA, and even though I know this is just the beginning, it’s a little crazy to believe it’s even real.

As I leave academia (at least, the student side of things) and start bringing my artmaking practices fully into the professional sphere, I’m looking for ways to not only ensure I keep creating new work but get it into the hands and headphones of people who might not always be able to see it performed live. I’ll be rolling these out as they wink into existence, and the first platform I’m adding to my creative portfolio is my Patreon page.

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Stay Informed, Help Your Friends: A Survivor’s (Super-Abridged) Guide to Things You Should Know

I’ve spent much of the week wondering what to write to close out this spree of blogs for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I thought about writing about how doxxing and internet threats can endanger women’s lives. I thought about writing about the fight/flight/freeze mechanism (which will definitely come up later, I promise). I thought about making a list of ways in which my assault consistently changes my life and worldview. All of these would make great posts, but as we round out the month, I think it’s important to talk about things going on in the greater public consciousness that we should all be aware of. Some of these things involve policies that directly affect survivors’ wellbeing, and others are high-profile events that have produced significant negative side effects. In putting them all in one place (though there are undoubtedly too many others to name in a reasonable amount of column space), I hope you can start to see how policy and society at large work to limit women in ways that can have permanent, potentially fatal consequences for women.

Continue reading Stay Informed, Help Your Friends: A Survivor’s (Super-Abridged) Guide to Things You Should Know

The Men in the Gray Area

For this second weekend of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight some of the behaviors that women are exposed to that can create a slippery slope down to assault and rape. They’re the things people do to us that make us feel unsafe, even though there’s very little we can do about them (if we even realize what’s happening at the time). Societal standards have told us that it’s important to give people what they want, sometimes at the expense of our own wellbeing. I considered writing more clinically about this, like last week’s piece about mandated reporting, but in the end, I decided it might make more sense just to show you.

So, below are four examples of things that happened to me that made me more wary of the people walking through my world. (If I were going to rewrite He Probably Just Likes You, I might consider drawing from some of these stories. However, that piece is perfect the way it is.) I’ve done my best to highlight why they made me deeply uncomfortable or afraid or slightly traumatized or whatever the case may be, but talking about grooming and other insidious behaviors can be very difficult for me, especially with these memories I don’t spend as much time rooting around in normally. If you have questions, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to clarify anything.

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Making the Most of Good Days

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.

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