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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Audience Participation vs. Performer Protection: A Snapshot

I am sitting onstage with the Nash Composers Coalition—either at our inaugural concert or second; I can’t remember which—and we are almost through our set. The adrenaline is pumping, and despite the weight of carrying my gender on my back on that stage, I’m smiling. We’ve been riding the performance high all night, and spirits are high. As we round the bend into the last couple tunes, we call a free improvisation, with the title to be determined by the audience.

The first few suggestions are fine, harmless; they prompt thoughtful nods or friendly chuckles from me and my colleagues. They’re what we expect. Then someone—a guy, and by the self-satisfied tone of voice, it was probably a young or young-ish guy, though to my knowledge not one of my peers—shouted out something super sexual. I can’t remember if it was “seductive” or “foreplay” or something else entirely, but I remember the discomfort it brought to me immediately.

Hang on; I have to go look through those recordings now and see if I can find it. I want to get this right, and it’s a story I try not to remember.

Continue reading Audience Participation vs. Performer Protection: A Snapshot

Clinging to my Femininity

I spent a lot of my early life wanting to be a tomboy. Though I didn’t always understand what exactly that meant from a presentation standpoint, I associated it with the results it got in the books I read—being sporty, popular, and seemingly effortlessly gorgeous. For awhile, the label really didn’t stick, but I spent fourth through sixth grade playing soccer with a bunch of boys, and by the time I hit middle school, I felt like I belonged more with them than with my own gender.

I navigated this in-between fairly well in middle and high school—I did largely male-dominant things, but I had enough female friends to keep me going. It worked out. But college arrived, and with it came an entirely new set of problems. I didn’t just happen to be around women anymore. Most of my friends were guys. Most of my teachers were guys. And in a matter of months, I went from a well-adjusted girl who liked everything from basketball shorts to ballgowns to a young woman who didn’t understand why her image suddenly conflicted with how the world around her expected her to act.

Continue reading Clinging to my Femininity