The Men at IWBC

After my first trip to IWBC last year, I wrote a little round-up of my experiences there. I kept it pretty top-level, sticking mostly to safe topics and general stories. The plan was always to dive back into certain things in more depth, but I decided I wanted to wait and make sure I still felt the way I did some time later. The post kept getting delayed, and now it’s been a year. On the upside, I do feel identically now to how I felt last May, so while we’re all still stuck inside, we might as well talk about it.

I love IWBC because it is an opportunity to connect with my sisters (though, now that I’m out as queer, I’ll have to reexamine my place in it all), but the first thing I noticed after arriving was “wow, look at all the men.” Sure, there were a shit ton of women, but the gender binary that first day was balanced shockingly close to 50/50. I recognized a nontrivial amount of them: friends, colleagues, classmates, respected teachers. The night of the opening festivities, I made the rounds, checking in with old friends and making new ones.

By day three of the conference, almost all of those men were gone. Because what happened first? The mock audition.

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Fire in my mouth And Pushing For Ownvoices Rep

[The following is a transcript of a thread I did on Twitter this evening. I’ve kept things as intact as possible, besides some minor punctuation changes to make it make sense when it’s not delivered 280 characters at a time. Additional thoughts added for this version are in brackets.]

So I’m listening to Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth, and first of all, the writing is very good and the recording is very good, but second of all, I have thoughts. Apparently I’m threading these on Twitter again, so buckle up, folks. A couple things: one, this is my first listen, so there is undoubtedly stuff I’m missing. Two, my thoughts on this are shaped especially by what’s going on in publishing right now.

First, the text setting is good. Nothing revolutionary (though I’m not to the end yet), but good. I get that it’s an oratorio and there’s formal guidelines being followed. I’m more of a scary-noises-and-extended-techniques person, but given the sound palette, it all makes sense. The string writing is probably my favorite part of the composing itself. It’s compelling. The percussion choices are good ones, too. Honestly, though, that’s probably all I’ve got to say about the composing part f this, because the circumstances around the work catch me. [I was running out of characters, but what I meant here is that the circumstances are the thing that piques my interest.]

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Young Lions (and things I’ll never be)

Though as a professional musician who’s friends with other professional musicians, I live my life in a deluge of Facebook event invitations, I do try to take the time to read through most of them so I know who’s playing and what’s happening. A recent one caught my eye: “We have chosen Michael Kocour to give voice to some of the ‘young lions’ of the Phoenix jazz scene . . .” The description was apt—the lineup was full of folks who are skilled and particularly roar-inclined—but “young lions” made me pause. First, because it shouldn’t be in quotes if you really want to sell it, and second, because it’s one of those terms I instinctively know would never be ascribed to me as a default.

This morning, I wandered into our office (which, despite its stated purpose, is not where I do most of my work) and mused about this to my partner. “You’d be a young lioness,” he reassured me, but I was having none of it.

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Empathy, leadership, and “I don’t want to hear it”

[tw: suicidality]

My first truly positive experience with therapy was in the summer of 2018. It was long overdue; the summer had been absolutely hellish, and I was beginning to flirt with suicidality. My partner knew. My parents probably suspected. I’d talked about finding a therapist for a long time—years—but the thing that got me through the door into an office was when my fear that I might at some point actively want to die eclipsed my anxiety about making the appointment, being in therapy, and paying for it. (While my parents have always been of the Healthcare Concerns First, Money Concerns Later mindset, it’s still anxiety-inducing to be incurring major expenses even when they’re paid for.)

My first session was in August sometime. I’d just moved in with my partner, cut all ties with an intensely toxic person, and was trying to start approaching normality again before school got started. My therapist was attentive as I broke down the extensive stress that had accumulated over the previous six to eight months, and when I came up for air, she had one observation: “it sounds like you’re a very empathetic person.”

I can still remember my brow furrowing; for as long as I could remember, that descriptor had been flung as far away from me as possible. “My brother was always the one who got called that,” I told her. But she continued on, and I realized she was right—that empathy wasn’t just the surface-level definition of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It was the echoes of others’ emotions that would frequently parade through my body and life.

I spent the next four months with her learning how to control the trait enough that I’d stop self-destructing every time it took the reins.

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Token Hire

I don’t like being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. If you asked my peers about it, they’d probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yeah, that’s Megan. I don’t have to be with other women, though that’s obviously a blessing when it comes along; in LA, there were plenty of occasions when I performed with a section or a group whose members were male-coded but included at least one other person somewhere on the gender spectrum beyond cis man. I’ve fallen in love with working among others whose struggles to be accepted in our professional environments speak to something in my own experience. These moments allow for subtle, important moments of solidarity: little reminders that we’re not alone.

That said, I spend a lot of time being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. (#BrassPlayerProblems #JazzProblems.) It’s difficult to explain why the difference is so stark, especially when I’m trying to make sense of it to folks who have probably never found themselves in such a situation. (And even if my cis male friends have, y’all don’t have centuries of systemic gendered oppression weighing on you and affecting your treatment within that scenario.) But when a well-reasoned fear of the consequences—both professional and personal—of putting even one toe out of line has been bred into you from the moment you chose your career, when you work in an industry that has a tradition of violence of all types against your gender(s), when you’re working around people you know won’t speak up if someone makes you uncomfortable, you spend a lot more time worrying and being quiet instead of working to create the art you want.

However, it’s 2019. Professionals the world over are realizing all-male ensembles can’t continue to be their default. Overall, that’s a really good thing; doors are beginning to open for gender-marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had many options a few decades ago. There’s a dark side to the change, though: musicians are beginning to reach for women and other gender-marginalized performers to incorporate into their ensembles so they can say they have one. It’s a performative, superficial kind of inclusivity that draws in folks facing this kind of oppression without considering the systemic structural changes that might be needed to make us feel welcome. It’s hastily scribbling down the answers to your math homework in the ten minutes before class without bothering to show your work (because you’re copying someone else’s), and the results are usually the same: if you don’t have a plan for getting from point A to point B, you’ll only ever get partial credit.

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Here’s Your Damn List.

I am not a fan of the question “can you give me reading material on that?” (in any incarnation). It puts the onus on oppressed demographics to educate their oppressors on longstanding, pervasive harm that is being engaged in to this day. I particularly hate it being directed at me in any context besides a serious, direct (in-person) conversation between two people or perhaps in a small group of friendly faces. If anyone asks me in public, the answer is almost always “no, you can do your own research.” Because, frankly, that’s always true. To borrow from an internet friend, your education is not my calling. It is your responsibility.

However, I know I’m going to be asked this question for a long time, so below is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of over one hundred resources I highly recommend to improve your own education about gendered violence (both in a physical-violence sense and a general-trauma sense). This took me weeks to assemble. Your work does not stop here. If it has an asterisk (*) next to it, that means I found it on the first page of a Google search. You could do that, too. Do better!

Last update: September 29, 2020

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Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences

At the beginning of the school year, despite not being in school, I raided the back-to-college section at Target with one of my best friends and brought home things I’d never intended to buy. (You know, as a casual Target run usually goes.) Among the knickknacks and forty-eight-cent tape dispensers was one of those small, interchangeable sign boards. It was magnetized; it was green and purple; it was under $5. I caved to my inner white girl (not to be confused with my outer white girl) and took it home. The next day, I carefully sifted through the letters and spelled out a declaration: “LEAD WITH LOVE.”

The sign has since evolved to include more text, but that original phrase remains, staring me in the face every time I open my fridge. It’s probably time for something new, but I can’t quite bring myself to start fresh again, because it’s a simple thought I take very seriously and an action I’m prioritizing as part of my return to the desert. It feels a little squirmy to say I’m leading intentionally; I feel like it’s always been considered cooler/more humble/more subversive to sort of imply that any authority any of us has just fell onto our shoulders by chance. It’s the easy way out, in part because it gives us wiggle room to duck out of things we don’t want to be responsible for or bad decisions we’ve made—if we weren’t doing it on purpose, if we didn’t know our actions were setting an example, it’s not our fault, right?

That said, as I continue working toward a more inclusive musical community and holding the people and institutions around me accountable for misdeeds that need correcting, it’s disingenuous at best to pretend I’m doing this accidentally. Maybe when I was just starting to post about gender and misogyny and music it was true. At the time, it was more a byproduct of my reality than a conscious choice. But it’s not now. I may not work at the forefront of the Phoenix community, I may not be gigging and rehearsing nonstop like some of my friends, but I’m sticking around. Checking up on people. Listening. Taking it all in and allowing myself the time and space to think about what the interactions and decisions around us mean to the people who don’t always get a fair say. I’m aiming to be not only a voice but an example—where and when possible. That might not be every day, but hopefully it’s whenever someone feels left behind.

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Performing, selling out, and toxic masculinity

As many of you know, I grew up dancing. My mom half-jokes she first enrolled me because I was a clumsy kid (fact check: this is entirely true), and when my first progress reports came in, my teacher’s primary remark was “she’s so graceful!” To this day, if you put me on marley or wood floors in dance shoes or bare feet, I’m far more coordinated than anywhere else in the world, where I frequently trip over my own shoes. But coordination aside, dance class was the first time I was able to fall in love with being on a stage. And I fell hard—even now, my relationship with the stage remains far deeper than my connection with any human. It was a defining moment very early in my life, one I wouldn’t change for anything.

Along with my quickly-developing stage presence came a broader, less easily defined love: an undying passion for performing. While I know most musicians also list that among their great loves, mine was introduced far differently. Mine was ushered in with the abject excitement of the day we were fitted for costumes, a dozen tiny girls anxiously glancing from our barre exercises to the side of the room where an eternally patient dance mom sat, cloth tape measure in hand, moving alphabetically down the roster. It was heralded by the visceral, almost tangible joy of the day costumes arrived. That tended to cement things every year—the recital was real, we were going to be presented in looks that matched the choreography and the music, oh my goodness the costumes are here it’s time to work. We were given reason after reason—dress rehearsals with the whole studio! dancing in the finale! flowers after the performance!—to be unapologetically, aggressively excited about what we were doing. And even though I was a slow learner, even though I took two or three classes a week and not the five to fifteen others did, I was allowed to be exactly as in love with the art and the stage as my friends who spent their lives en pointe or dashing from hip-hop to tap to modern to jazz to ballet.

So I grew up craving a full and complete product, a show, an experience, a stage presence intentionally and carefully curated to enhance the performance. Maybe as an eight-year-old I didn’t have the words to talk about what heartbreak should look like, but I knew what a bowed head and slumped shoulders and wobbly knees meant. I learned the movement languages of emotions, knew when to use them and why. I understood how to use vulnerability and strength as tools. I learned how to smile so big you could see it from the back of the second balcony.

Continue reading Performing, selling out, and toxic masculinity